When some people hear that a hike is very popular or a “can’t miss hike” they automatically avoid it. I understand the logic. A lot of people prefer a more secluded hike. Sure, I get it; I’m the same way most of the time. I like to hike lonely trails to stunning waterfalls and alpine lakes in silence. However, most hikes that are extremely popular are that way for a reason. Short, easy hikes are often frequented for those exact reasons. But those very popular trails that are several miles long, in my experience, are the ones that truly can’t be skipped. If there’s one hike that meets those criteria in Yellowstone it’s the Mount Washburn trail. If you only have time for one hike in the park and are in halfway decent shape do yourself a favor and make this the one.
The trail up Mount Washburn is six miles round-trip. There is an elevation gain of 1,400 feet ending at the peak’s 10,243 foot summit. Atop the mountain is a lookout tower that houses a park ranger for the summer. The ranger watches over the surrounding valleys in search of fire and smoke. We were excited to climb such a tall mountain, one several thousand feet taller than any we had tackled back east.
We decided to tackle the Mount Washburn Trail two days after we arrived in Yellowstone. We had a very busy first day in the park between all the driving and hiking the South Rim and Hellroaring Creek Trails so we decided to slow down and have more of a rest day. Most of the day was spent at Mammoth Hot Springs, in the northwest corner of the park.
The best part was when we headed just north of Mammoth to the Boiling River. Near the Wyoming/ Montana border is a sign for the 45th parallel. That is the line of latitude that marks the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole. And just south of that sign is a parking lot for the Boiling River.
A half-mile long path leads to the edge of the Gardiner River. This is a very popular spot in the park to enjoy a little relaxation. Most of the river is cold, but here a hot spring spills into it. The boiling water mixes with the cold river in several small pools making for a very comfortable soak. It’s essentially a natural hot tub. It’s also a wide area with room for plenty of visitors. The river is warmest near the waterfall of boiling spring water, but if you move farther away you can still feel streaks of warm water.
Many children were swimming and playing in the water when we were there. For me the soak was both relaxing and rejuvenating, a welcome experience after completing Uncle Tom’s Trail and Hellroaring Creek the previous day. We spent at least thirty minutes in the warm water, which greatly soothed my sore muscles. It was like having a spa day in the wilderness, and I highly recommend it as one of the best things to experience within Yellowstone. We were ok with having a nice laid-back day, because we were planning on doing some serious hiking over our next three days in Yellowstone.
As I was saying, the day after soaking in the Boiling River, we headed to Mount Washburn. Once we arrived at the trailhead we charged up the path, like a pair of wolves chasing an elk. We were full of adrenaline and had a serious spring in our step after our rest day.
This was the most crowded of any Yellowstone trail I’ve hiked that wasn’t part of a half-mile meander around bubbling hot springs. We passed dozens of people along our climb to the top. The trail overflowed with different types of hikers. There were families with young children, middle-aged couples, athletic young people, and serious seasoned hikers decked out in expensive gear.
The path is actually a 100-year-old wagon road. It was first used by wagons and stagecoaches, and then in the 20’s it was used by Model T Fords. They had to drive up the mountain in reverse, because that was the only way to get fuel to the engine. Nowadays, I’m guessing golf carts that ferry supplies up the mountain to the lookout tower are the only vehicles that use the trail. We were thankful for the wide, nicely graded path because it made it easy to pass slower hikers along the way.
Early on, the trail ran through beautiful mountain meadows. They were covered by a multicolored carpet of wildflowers. The green grass was ablaze with a rainbow of color. Flowers ranged from bright orange and yellow, to muted purples and fluffy whites.
It wasn’t all roses and smiles on the trail, though. Those beautiful flowers attracted a plethora of bothersome bugs that plagued our hike to the summit. Horseflies, bees, mosquitoes, flies, you name it they clung to us. We came equipped with bug spray, but it didn’t seem to help. The bugs followed us like a shadow until we neared treeline. At that point, the wind and cooler temperature kept them at bay.
The hike wasn’t extremely difficult because the path continually climbed the mountainside at a steady rate. It was never too steep; however, it was also very seldom a straightaway with no slope. We took some breaks along the way, but we limited the length of those stops due to the swarming bugs. We also wanted to stay ahead of the masses and make it to the top in stride. We planned on spending a lot of time at the summit once we arrived.
Due to the open nature of the path we had sprawling views of the surrounding landscape almost the entire way up the trail. That was one of the best things about the hike. Astounding views of an immense tan and green valley opened up with broad, rugged mountains far off in the distance. By now, the road was far below us cutting a path through the pines. At times we caught a glimpse of the lookout tower high up on Mount Washburn’s summit. Each time it would pop into view it appeared a little bit bigger than the last. It was comforting to see, because it was a way to gauge the distance remaining.
The trail eventually began to switchback its way up the mountain. Whitebark pines and subalpine fir escort the high elevation trail up towards treeline. Farther up, trees began to bend and twist under the constant thrashing they get from the extreme weather near the summit. Powerful winds spearhead the attack on the defenseless trees with an assist from pounding rain and heavy snowfall. The trees are forced to grow shorter and become deformed.
When we reached timberline the trees dropped off and so did the bugs. We were in a land of subalpine tundra. Only the toughest, most implacable flora can survive. There were small patches of moss and a few alpine flowers, but that’s about all that could endure the inhospitable environment. Nothing was more than a few inches tall.
The views surrounding us were awesome. The fire tower above us was constantly in view. And we had our first brush with true wildlife on the trail (non-insects). We encountered over a dozen big horned sheep right beside the trail. They were along a wide gravelly turn just below the summit. They were light brown in color and most looked very thin. Only a few of them actually had horns. They appeared to be relaxing and enjoying the glorious views. Most were lying down, some were standing and looking over the cliff, a few others watched us cautiously. Sharing the trail with such a big group of large wild animals was incredible.
They looked like a peaceful enough group to me, so I simply took to the opposite side of the wide trail and calmly walked past them. A minute or two later I noticed Joe was nowhere in sight. I walked back and saw he was still standing before the big horned sheep. He looked stressed and I asked what he was waiting for. He finally walked over to me, as slowly and quietly as possible. He then explained that he got spooked by the biggest of the sheep and he was afraid to proceed. He claimed the sheep “eyeballed him” and snuffed in his direction. I must’ve missed that exchange. Like me, Joe passed them without incident.
From there the rocky path led us in a half circle around the mountain before arriving at the summit. There was a large flat area atop the mountain. A couple dozen people were up there walking around and taking pictures. A wooden sign proclaimed “Mt Washburn elev. 10,243 ft.”
Smack dab in the middle of the large area at the summit was the lookout tower. The first level of the building was a small observation room for tourists to escape the elements and look out the many windows at the awe-inspiring views in peace. I believe the second floor was where the ranger’s living quarters were and the top level was fully encased in glass with an exposed balcony around it to serve as the ranger’s chief lookout area. I spent a little time inside the tower and spoke with the ranger who lived and worked there. He said he loved his job.
The wildflowers and being face-to-face with some sizable wildlife were great, but what put this hike above the rest in Yellowstone were the amazing summit views. Visibility stretched out for miles in every direction. To the east was the Mirror Plateau and to the north the Lamar Valley. The Absaroka Mountains were far off in the distance. To the west were more mountains, the Gallatin Range. The view south was the best yet. In the foreground, far below us, was a huge green forest with several clear patches of light green grass dispersed throughout. It looked like fairways on a golf course. Beyond that, the earth opened up abruptly at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Lush dark green forest bordered the canyon on both sides. The blanket of green stretched far to the south until it reached Hayden Valley. Farther still was the enormous Yellowstone Lake. The pale blue waters touched the horizon. It required my telephoto lens, but I could even make out the northern reaches of the Teton Range. The jagged Tetons reside more than sixty miles away in Yellowstone’s little brother to the south, Grand Teton National Park (but we’ll get to that later).
Standing upon the 10,000 foot mountain, I felt on top of the world. Not only because of how high above the surrounding valleys I was, but also due to how triumphant I felt. Sure it feels good to climb a large mountain, but it was more than that. The hike wasn’t too difficult, so that wasn’t it either.
The scenery that enveloped me had a special effect on me. I think a big part of it was being able to see so much of Yellowstone’s wonderland at once from such an impressive vantage point. I loved that I had already seen so much of the park, which allowed me to recognize different places in the landscape from where I stood. Seeing things like the canyon and Hayden Valley was crazy, because up close they looked so huge, but from up there they appeared miniscule. It made me feel like the smallest living thing in the universe.
I walked the perimeter of the mountaintop firing away with my camera. I couldn’t help but have a huge smile across my face. It was as if the place put a spell on us. We did not want to leave. The constantly blowing wind drowned out most of the other noise. It made it more peaceful and quiet, despite the presence of a crowd. Thankfully the space up there was big enough to accommodate everyone. It was chilly, too, from the wind and the cool thin air. I wish I could do a better job of explaining the feeling and the view, but some things words can’t easily describe.
After about an hour at the summit we reluctantly began our descent. Lucky for Joe, the big horned sheep let us pass without a problem. Once we made it back below treeline the temperature rose and the bugs resumed harassing us at every step. All we could do was quicken our pace and march on down. Because the path declines steadily, the hike down was pretty easy, without too much of a pounding on our knees.
Finishing the hike felt almost as good as standing atop the summit. I climbed a tall mountain, walked with wildlife, and saw the majority of the park from a most amazing vista. This is one hike I won’t forget. And if I make it back to Yellowstone I’m planning on making it back to that summit, too.