Trail Running in Yellowstone National Park

Destination Dirt logoEntering into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a 20-million acre complex of wildlands located in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, is akin to stepping back a few hundred years in time. In most parts of our world today, the natural world has been battered into submission by humanity and our development. Not so there, as an almost-intact food chain ranks you several links from the top. Thus, a wilderness wander will leave you outnumbered by creatures that can eat you.

Typical Yellowstone

Typical Yellowstone landscape at 8,000 feet. (Photo taken near the Tower developed area.)

Yellowstone National Park is parked smack-dab in the middle of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and trail running there should be undertaken with deep care. The primary safety concern is grizzly bears, so here are some tips on how to safely trail run in grizzly country:

Pelican Valley Trail

An elk skull and horns along the Pelican Valley Trail.

  • Don’t run alone, as grizzly bears will make an effort to avoid close encounters with groups of humans.
  • Make lots of noise as you travel, especially in places where the view is obscured. Do this so that bears know you’re there. When surprised at close range, a grizzly bear’s natural instinct is to fight until the threat has abated.
  • Carry bear spray in a fast-access location; understand how to use it; and, visualize yourself in an encounter that would mandate it. Bear spray is an awesome deterrent if a bear charges you, but its success is entirely dependent upon you having the ability and wherewithal to dispense it.

Now, take a deep breath and don’t worry too much. Thousands of people execute trail runs without death or maiming in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem every year. Use these tips to be smart, though, when you get out in the wildest place in the lower 48 states.

We should mention that it gets wicked cold and snowy here in the winter and, as a result, much of the park shuts tight. If you’re interested, the author and iRunFar Editor-in-Chief, Bryon, took a winter snowshoe trip across Yellowstone in January of 2009, and you can recount the trip’s details here. Thus, the information contained in this article pertains to a late spring, summer, and/or early fall visit.

Below we’ll provide you with examples of easy, moderate, and advanced trail runs in Yellowstone. After giving you some example runs, we’ll let you know where to hunt down last-minute gear and local grub. We’ll leave you with a list of extra resources, places to gain deeper knowledge of what you’ll experience out there.

As always, don’t hesitate to comment if you’ve run in Yellowstone and you’ve got a good story to dish. Got an idea we’ve missed or a question we haven’t answered? If so, let us know.

Easy Trail Run – Lone Star Geyser
Yellowstone contains half of the world’s geothermal features, places where water and/or gasses that have been superheated by our planet’s internal heat contact the earth’s surface. They are wacky and beautiful altogether, and a must-see for any Yellowstone adventure. Why not combine an easy run to see geology in action?

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin, another one of Yellowstone's famous geothermal features.

Make your way to the Lone Star Trail parking area, a few miles east of the Old Faithful developed area. From there, it’s a 4.8-mile round trip gallivant to the Lone Star Geyser along a formerly paved service road. The relatively level running surface may still leave you sucking wind, though, in the thin air 7,500 feet above sea level. The Lone Star Geyser, at the end of the trail, produces a plume of water and steam 45 feet tall every three hours. Before you go, stop in at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to find out its eruption schedule and time your run for the show.

Insider’s Scoop: In the heat of the tourist summer, the Lone Star Trail can crowd up with other visitors midday. So, run in the morning or late afternoon for the most solace.

Moderate Trail Run – Pelican Valley

Do you want to go deep into grizzly territory with the hope of safely viewing North America’s great land predator? Or, at the very least, get a fair glimpse of one of the last wild places unfouled by humans? If so, look nowhere else than this 16-mile, moderate lollipop route through Pelican Valley.

Stop by the Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center before heading out, because strict use regulations exist for this trail. At the time of writing, trail use was allowed from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. only, after July 1st each year. These rules perform a singular purpose: to give grizzlies ample access to their home turf.

Pelican Valley Yellowstone National Park

Pelican Valley is the swath of green in the back of the photo.

Drive 3.5 miles east from Yellowstone’s Fishing Bridge developed area to the trailhead parking for Pelican Valley. From here, walk the access road to the trail, a strange-shaped lollipop. Once on singletrack, travel 2.8 miles along the lollipop’s stick. Then, bear right on the Mist Creek Trail to begin the candy-loop portion of the lollipop. After 3.8 miles, take the left-hand cut-off trail toward the Pelican Cone Trail. Once you make the left turn onto the Pelican Cone Trail, follow it through multiple trail intersections back to your lollipop’s handle and back to the trailhead.

Far-off, snow-capped mountains form the horizon, but the nearby landscape is the meandering Pelican Creek and its floodplain. The singletrack rolls gently the whole way, so 16 miles can be ticked off at a rapid rate. If your idea of a moderate run is a bit more moderate than this, turn it into an out-and-back by turning around anytime.

Insider’s Scoop: Don’t leave home without binoculars, just a small pair will do. If you happen to see grizzlies, they’ll provide a deep look into how they spend their days.

Advanced Trail Run – Electric Peak

Explorer Henry Gannet gave this northern Yellowstone peak its name when he summitted it during a thunderstorm in 1872, the year Yellowstone became our nation’s first national park. He said, “About fifty feet below the summit, the electric current began to pass through my body.” Still today, on those Rocky Mountain summer days, Electric Peak collects thunderstorms like pocket change.

10,969-foot Electric Peak has a few access points, but my preferred route is an out-and-back via the Sportsman Lake Trail, from its Swan Lake Flats trailhead, located 4.7 miles south of the Mammoth Hot Springs developed area. This route rings in at roughly 20 miles with almost 3,700 feet of elevation gain.

Electric Peak Yosemite National Park

Winter view of Electric Peak's south side. The route climbs the ridge pointing towards the viewer.

From the trailhead, follow the Sportsman Lake Trail for about 6 miles at it rolls gently upward through green grass meadows, past creeks, and under a thick conifer tree canopy. You’ll pass several trail intersections, but follow the Sportsman Lake Trail through each of them. Take a right on the signed Electric Peak Spur Trail. Follow it up, first at a run-able, then hike-able, then crawling grade.

Along the way, you’ll break through tree line into a barren, top-of-the-world landscape on the southeast ridge of Electric Peak. Let your jaw fall open at the world-class views. The last half-mile to the summit is cairned and Class 3. This is the summit scramble’s crux: a hundred or so vertical feet from the summit, bypass an impassable fin by following the cairns through a notch that drops you below the fin’s left side.

Take note, this summit push is not designed for those who’ve never scrambled or who are afraid of heights, as the exposure is exquisite. Even if you don’t make it through the last bit of rock to the summit, the running route and ridgeline views are worth the trip. And, the plunge you’ll take off the mountain on the way down is fine reward for your hard climbing work.

Insider’s Scoop: From the Sportsman Lake Trail, note the Cache Lake Spur Trail. If you’ve got remaining energy inbound, consider this 4-mile out-and-back that climbs through thick boreal forest to the margin of Cache Lake, which sits at Electric Peak’s base. This is a camera-mandatory add-on!

Get Your Gear:
There are two outpost towns adjacent to Yellowstone, Gardiner, beyond the north entrance of the park, and West Yellowstone, just outside the park’s west entrance. These towns are small, wild, western towns where you can still amply supply and re-supply yourself.

In Gardiner, capture last-minute needs at the Flying Pig Adventure Company’s store. Their name is delightfully goofy and so are they, so stop in for trail food, bear spray, and some good conversation.

West Yellowstone’s slightly larger stature affords you a bit more choice. Visit Free Heel and Wheel or Madison River Outfitters for that last-minute stuff that you somehow left home without. Free Heel and Wheel is lady-owned, and these gals get their sport on. Thus, they can also give you lots of last-minute trail tips.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

Get Your Grub On:
Gardiner is a mini-tourist town, so you’ve got just a few dining choices. The Sawtooth Deli is big on organic fixins’, and they’ve got great soups and sandwiches that hit the spot after a trail day.

Outlaw’s Pizza is not the world’s best pizza, but it’ll get the job done out there in the wild west. Try a calzone, as that’s what the author liked best.

West Yellowstone's Running Bear Pancake House

West Yellowstone's Running Bear Pancake House

Eating at Helen’s Corral Drive-In is a cultural experience like no other. It’s not a true drive-in anymore, but it still looks like one. You can indulge in huge hamburgers, bison burgers, and malts prepared by sweet, quirky, elderly Helen and her family.

Since West Yellowstone is a bit bigger, it has abundant eating choices. Quintessential tourist-town pizza may be eaten at the Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon.

For brekkie, you’ve got to eat at the best-named restaurant, the Running Bear Pancake House. Their pancake stacks are yummy and voluminous, perfect for stoking the internal fire before a long trail day.

Quality soups and sandwiches can be gobbled up at Ernie’s Bakery and Deli. This place is sometimes a zoo, but they do fast, quality work. Consider pre-planning and get yourself an Ernie’s boxed lunch to take with you into the park.

Additional Resources/Need to Know:
Don’t count on the free National Park Service map to show you Yellowstone’s trail system. The park is just too big. Instead, pick up some National Geographic maps to find your way around.

Anytime you’re playing in Yellowstone, you could see one of the park’s elusive wolves, once totally extirpated by humans. Read more about their successful reintroduction and presence here.

Curious about those strange geothermal features broiling around Yellowstone? Learn more!

If you click on just one resource link, visit Yellowstone’s grizzly bear page to learn about these top-of-the-food-chain creatures and plan your safe exploration of their world.

And, one more awesome Yellowstone resource, is its bison. They were almost hunted out of Yellowstone, but now they are back, too. Learn about them here. The short version: They are grass-eating ungulates with a small brain and a short temper. Stay away from them, because they have the ability to rip you to shreds. Have a look here to see what happens when tourists are dumber than bison.

Radical walker Andrew Shurka hung out for a week in Yellowstone in 2006, and he documented his journey.

The author lived, ran, and blogged in Yellowstone for almost four years, from 2005 to 2008. Check out her blog for some fun stories.

Get yer’ free trip-planning information, courtesy of the National Park Service here. There’s a separate link for weather that’s all-important for backcountry planning.

Curious about what it’s really link in Yellowstone in the winter? Check out this link for the park’s recent Winter Daily Reports to get a handle on climate and park activities then. And, if you plan a shoulder-season visit, check out Yellowstone’s annual opening and closing plans for spring and summer to make sure you can get in and out.

Madison River Yellowstone National Park

Sunset along Yellowstone's Madison River in winter.

Call for Comments
Please leave a comment letting us know of other valuable trail running resources in and around Yosemite National Park!

[Disclosure: Bryon Powell, iRunFar’s Editor-in-Chief and the editor of this post, is a National Geographic Athlete. However, the maps were independently included by the author.]

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 4 comments

  1. Will T.

    A beautiful place that I have only experienced on horse back (pre trail running days). With family living in the area, I need to make sure to add this to my growing to-do list.

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