The trail follows an old road used by stagecoaches and early automobiles to reach the top of Mount Washburn. Along the way delicate wildflowers mantle the slopes, and bighorn sheep are occasionally seen. Because of its central location, Mount Washburn affords one of the most sweeping views of the park. For these reasons, this is one of the most popular routes in Yellowstone!
The trail travels east from Dunraven Pass on the old road to the top of Mount Washburn (10,243'), named for Henry Washburn, Surveyor-General of the Montana Territory and leader of the 1870 Washburn Expedition. That year, General Washburn climbed this mountain to locate the best route to Yellowstone Lake. "The country before us was a vast basin. Far away in the distance, but plainly seen, was the Yellowstone Lake," wrote Washburn.
The old road bed that you are following was originally constructed in 1905 by Captain Hiram Chittenden of the Army Corps of Engineers. It was used by stagecoaches, and later automobiles, to reach the summit. Imagine it's 1920, and model-T Fords are zooming by at a hellacious speed of 4 mph! If your imagination is good enough you'll see that they are backing up the mountain -- that's right, in reverse! In those early days, automobiles had no fuel pump; it was gravity feed. The gas tank was under the seat and if the road was steep enough the gas could not flow up to the engine. The only solution was to back up instead!
As you gradually climb higher, the lodgepole pines (two-needled) and subalpine fir (single-needle) trees give way to distinctive five-needled whitebark pines. The bark of its seedlings is covered with a fine white coating and mature trees often display a whitish cast. At higher elevations, near timberline, the whitebark pines become dwarfed and gnarled by harsh weather conditions.
The old road twists and turns its way to the mountain top, providing dramatic views to the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the huge open meadows of Hayden Valley
, Yellowstone Lake, and on a clear day the Tetons 50 miles to the south. It's also fun to track your progress as the Washburn fire lookout station grows closer and closer. As you near the top, the trail encircles the lookout and reaches the summit from the north, 3.7 miles from the trailhead.
The first fire lookout station on the summit of Mount Washburn was constructed in 1921. The current station was built in 1940. In 1979, a small Visitor Center was added. Because of its central location, Mount Washburn affords the best possible overall view of the park. General Sherman of Civil War prominence summed it up well when he stated, "Any man standing on Mount Washburn feels as though the whole world were below him."
On a cold day it is even possible to make out the steam from an eruption of Old Faithful!
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone
Throughout this trail are many excellent opportunities for viewing dozens of species of wildflowers. You should spot low mats of 5-petalled white to lavender flowers known as phlox, striking rocket-shaped pink and yellow flowers called shooting star, and the long spines of blue to purple pealike flowers named lupine. The conspicuous fiery red tops of the Indian paintbrush (Wyoming's state flower) are due to the color of the bracts rather than the flower itself. The paintbrush is a semi-parasitic flower. Its roots tap the roots of other plants for nourishment. Near the summit, small bands of bighorn sheep are occasionally seen.