Hike of the Week: Garnet Hill Loop, Yellowstone National Park
Garnet Hill Loop in a nutshell: Easy to moderate. About 8 miles, mostly flat but with a few hills that will get your heart pumping. Elevation ranges between 5,950 and 6,350 feet above sea level.
Since I started working in Yellowstone in 2006, I have found that some day hikes compel me to repeat them year after year. Garnet Hill is not one of those hikes. Hot and dusty, it’s a great trail to avoid in the summer months, when most visitors come to Yellowstone. But if you’re visiting the park in the spring or fall, the Garnet Hill Loop becomes a real winner. When I hiked the Garnet Hill Trail on Saturday, I was fortunate to enjoy a great day of wildlife watching, observing animal tracks, and appreciating the natural quiet of Yellowstone in late autumn.
To hike the loop clockwise, you begin by heading north on a stagecoach road toward Yancey’s, the site of a hotel in the early days of the park. Today, summertime visitors can take a guided horseback ride or hop onto a stagecoach to come here for Old West cookouts. The route is well-trafficked between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but at this time of year, there are no other humans around.
The route to Yancey’s is a flat mile and a half or so through Pleasant Valley, a sagebrush-studded open space that’s great for wildlife watching. I had been on the trail for all of five minutes before I spotted a coyote and a raven squabbling over some leftover scrap of food. Twenty minutes later, two bull bison came into view on my left. Luckily, they were some ways from the trail, and were lazing about chewing their cud. Keep an eye out for the big, shaggy beasts along this trail, and be sure that you stay at least twenty-five yards away.
After Yancey’s, the trail heads into the trees and descends almost imperceptibly over the next two miles. The route follows Elk Creek north along the steep talus slopes of Garnet Hill. In November, the creek is icy, completely frozen over in many places but with liquid water audibly rushing along beneath. Where the drainage is more broad and open, alders and willows grow, their tender twigs heavily browsed by deer, elk, and moose. In the narrower sections of the canyon, evergreens like Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, and Rocky Mountain juniper cast patches of shade.
At the 3.5 mile mark, the trail reaches a junction, and you catch your first glimpse of the blue-green waters of the Yellowstone ahead of you. You could turn left for the Hellroaring Trail and the Yellowstone River Trail. If you have extra time, it’s a fun side trip to go as far as the narrow suspension bridge over the gorge of the Yellowstone. This will add less than a mile to your hike.
From the junction, the Garnet Hill Trail turns to the northeast and ascends a short but steep hill. For the next mile and a half, as the trail swings around to start bringing you back toward the southeast, there are lovely views of the Yellowstone River. Bison dot the distant slopes of Buffalo Plateau to the north. Stay alert for bighorn sheep scrambling on the rocks above the river.
The trail moves away from the river and begins to climb through conifers. Once you reach the top of the hill, you’ll hike through rolling sagebrush scrub for the next couple of miles as you work your way back south. This portion of the trail is the highest and has some lovely, panoramic views. Herds of bison and elk are visible at a distance.
Along the entire eight-mile trail, I saw only two other sets of human bootprints crossing through the patchy snow. Both looked as though they’d been there for at least several days. More prominent were scores of animal tracks: bison hooves had trod the trail from start to finish, while elk prints were locally common.
Within the first quarter-mile, I spotted the first wolf prints of the day. As big as my palm, these tracks recurred throughout the hike, showing where hundred-pound canids had padded along the trail for a mile or two at a time.
Smaller coyote prints veered in and out, and I found it interesting to note that these other members of the dog family never seemed to stay with the trail for as long as the wolves had.
Though I sat for over half an hour watching the bighorn browse across the river, the highlight of the hike was spotting a single, beautiful mountain lion print in the snow at the base of a talus slope.
The section of the trail that lies along Elk Creek takes you through some prime mountain lion habitat. As always when I’m in that kind of country, I found myself wondering if a mountain lion lay unseen on the slopes above me, watching me pick my way along the rocky trail.
Have you hiked the Garnet Hill Loop in Yellowstone? I’d love to hear what you thought of the trail!