The principal feature of this hike is the 3.5-mile section from Shelf Lake to just past Big Horn Peak (9930'). This covers most of the eastern half of the spectacular Sky Rim Trail
. This 17.6 mile shuttle hike follows the Specimen Creek Trail
up 2400 feet in 8.3 miles to the Sky Rim. Then it follows the Black Butte Trail
down 3000 feet in 6 miles back to the highway. You'll need to spot a car at the Black Butte Trail
or have someone pick you up there.
NOTE: You might also consider the Sky Rim - West
hike. It is a bit longer (19.3 miles) and gains 1100 feet more elevation, but has six spectacular miles on the Sky Rim. No mater how you do the Sky Rim, you’re going to LOVE it!
This 18-mile shuttle hike begins on the Specimen Creek Trail
on US 191, north of West Yellowstone. It is very strenuous, with elevation gains over 3000 feet. You'll need to leave a car at the Black Butte trailhead or arrange to be picked up there.
Lightening is a serious concern on the Sky Rim from Shelf Lake to past Big Horn Peak. The trail is highly exposed, with few opportunities to safely hike down from the ridge. You should try to be past this section and coming down the mountain by early afternoon. If you are day hiking, start before sunup. Backpackers should try to reserve one of the two campsites at Shelf Lake, and get an early start up the ridge.
Exposure to wind, rain and/or cold temperatures can result in hypothermia. Bring warm clothing, stay dry and protect yourself from strong winds.
There is no reliable water (only patches of snow that often melt by late July) for the 7-mile stretch from Shelf Lake to Black Butte Creek. Make sure you fill up at the lake.
The hike begins on the Specimen Creek Trail
which heads northeast along Specimen Creek through heavily burned forests for 2.1 miles before reaching a junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail
. Turn left and continue up the North Fork of Specimen Creek which passes between Meldrum Mountain and Bighorn Peak. About 1/2 mile past the junction, in the open dirt bluffs above the trail to the left, are excellent examples of petrified trees for which Specimen Creek is named. A sharp eye should be able to spot their brown shapes. Remember, specimen collecting is illegal.
At the 6.1-mile mark, the trail again branches to the left. In the next 2 miles the trail climbs 1400 feet to the banks of beautiful Shelf Lake. The well-named, 7 acre, 40 foot deep, lake sits in a narrow shelf on the side of the mountain. At 9200 feet, Shelf Lake is one of the highest lakes in the park. There are two excellent campsites on the lake; they both have some of the best campsite views in Yellowstone. From the lake, the Specimen Creek Trail
continues to the left, gaining another 140 feet over .2 miles and ends at its junction with the Sky Rim Trail
at the 10.7-mile mark.
Before turning left and following the Sky Rim Trail
to the southwest, consider turning right and taking a 2-mile side trip up Sheep Mountain (10095') and back. That trail climbs another 780 feet to the top of the highest mountain in this area which is conspicuously topped by a huge metal screen called a “microflector.”
From the junction with the Sky Rim Trail
just above Shelf Lake, our trail tightly follows the narrow ridge, that makes up Yellowstone’s northern boundary, for 3 miles to the top of Big Horn Peak. At one time, this ridge lay outside the park. In the early 1920s plans were made to dramatically expand Yellowstone by annexing among others: Jackson Hole to the south; the Wapiti Valley to the east; and even the snowy Beartooth Mountains. Of course, these high hopes never completely materialized, but out of them came Grand Teton National Park and several Yellowstone boundary changes. In 1927 this northwest corner of the park was expanded to include the Gallatin Petrified Forest and a winter grazing grounds for a large elk herd.
The wonderful 360-degree views along the ridge to Big Horn Peak are amazing, and you think they couldn’t get better. But they do! Just beyond Big Horn Peak, our last .3 miles on the Sky Rim are the real crux of this hike. Here the trail winds through a rocky section with precipitous drop-offs and awesome views. There is no more spectacular scenery anywhere in Yellowstone!
As you come out of the rocky section, the trail enters a beautiful open meadow (at 11.5 miles) that slopes downward to the southwest. This is where we leave the Sky Rim (which continues straight along the ridge) and follow the Black Butte Trail
. The trail may be difficult to follow in the meadow. Just turn left and follow the meadow along the cliffs on your left to the base of the meadow. Soon you’ll pick up the trail and follow it as it drops 2400 feet in 4 miles. As you descend, keep an eye out to the north on King Butte's gray, gnarly face for brown, petrified trees. At 14.6 miles, the trail crosses Black Butte Creek (the first water source since Shelf Lake) and follows the creek as it drops 1100 feet in the final 3 miles to the highway.
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone
Great chance to see bighorn sheep, especially around well-named Big Horn Peak. Although related to domestic sheep, the bighorn has a coat of hair, not wool. Both the males (rams) and females (ewes) have horns that are never shed. The sheep's age can be learned by counting the growth rings on the horns. Only the ram will develop the full 360-degree curl. Their famous headbutt is the culmination of their struggle for dominance. Biologists believe that very few rams are seriously injured by these impressive battles. However, the horns of big rams often show signs of battle. Although these battles may occur year-round, they play a particularly important role during mating (or rutting) season by assuring that only healthy genes are passed on.
You may also see mountain goats. Though not native to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, these fascinating animals were introduced in southwest Montana in the 1940s and have migrated into the park.