GPS: 44°46'N 110°14'W
Over half of Yellowstone's three million annual visitors crowd the park during July and August, and 99 percent never venture beyond checklist sites like Old Faithful and the Technicolor hot springs. So plan an off-season trip within the untrodden backcountry to have the blooping mud pots and projectile geysers virtually to yourself. But not totally, with grizzlies and black bears, mountain lions, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and‚since 1995‚wolves, it’s the most complete ecosystem in the continental U.S.
All across Yellowstone, you can see the crenulated line of the Absaroka Mountains on the horizon, but a 12-mile (19-kilometer) jaunt on the Pebble Creek Trail allows you to see the snowy ledges up close. Near the northeast entrance of the park, you’ll cross a footbridge from the Pebble Creek Campground to a mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) switchback at the base of 10,400-foot (3,170-meter) Barronette Peak. Next pass through a series of meadows, irrigated by Pebble Creek and carpeted with wild flowers. Keep lookout for mountain goats, elk, and peregrine falcons.
Three Days or More
To see Yellowstone in its unique grandeur‚ picture pillars of sulfuric steam with bison grazing in the backdrop‚ this 26-mile (42-kilometer) loop is a kicker. Head nine miles (14 kilometers) from Old Faithful south along the Howard Eaton Trail into the Shoshone Geyser Basin. Bed down at the west edge of Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48, then skirt nine miles (14 kilometers) east along the Shoshone Lake Trail. Loop seven miles (11 kilometers) around the crumbly beaches of Shoshone Lake along the De Lacy Creek Trail.
For those who crave creature country, Pelican Valley presents a wildlife bonanza. From the northeast edge of Yellowstone Lake, the seldom-plied lodgepole pine slopes cut through several wolf packs’ territories and open onto broad grasslands trafficked by elk, bison, coyotes, and foxes. You’ll likely only see traces of bears, but ask park rangers for advice on dealing with potential encounters. For the next two days you’ll ascend the 22-mile (35-kilometer) Lamar River Trail along the Mirror Plateau, a warmer, dryer winter hangout for migrating wildlife.
Vitals: The view from Headwaters of the Yellowstone Bed and Breakfast’s wraparound porch marries the sandy banks of the Yellowstone River with 10,969-foot (3,343-meter) Electric Peak ($145). For park info, visit www.nps.gov/yell.
Originally published in the June/July 2006 edition of National Geographic Adventure