Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
ElevationAscent: 1,545' 471 m
Descent: -2,036' -621 m
High: 6,731' 2,051 m
Low: 5,335' 1,626 m
GradeAvg Grade: 5% (3°)
Max Grade: 44% (24°)
Current trail conditions
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“See Knowles Falls and hike through the heart of the awesome Black Canyon of the Yellowstone!”— Tom Carter
For this shuttle hike, you'll need to spot a car at the campgrounds or arrange to be picked up there. Because of its lower elevation, this is one of the best early season routes in Yellowstone.
The trail passes Blacktail Ponds Spur Trail at .4 miles, then climbs a gentle rise. Look around for "elk exclosures." Park biologists use these fenced-in areas to study effects of Yellowstone's browsing animals on native vegetation. Although the fenced-in vegetation is clearly taller, biologists found a surprising thing. In some cases it decreased plant diversity, as the taller plants shaded-out shorter species.
The next 1.5 miles take you over beautiful open meadows (excellent for wildflowers), along the way passing Rescue Creek Trail. Soon our trail joins Blacktail Deer Creek and plunges 800 feet to the Yellowstone River. Shortly after beginning the descent, listen for a falls just a few yards to the right of the trail. This small, 20-foot falls is known as "Hidden Falls." Just downstream, notice the rock wall above the creek that looks like a row of fence posts! This geological formation is called "columnar basalt." Cooling of an ancient lava flow caused the rock to contract and crack into many-sided columns.
At 4 miles, the trail crosses the mighty Yellowstone on a steel suspension bridge completed in 1936. It was here, near the mouth of Blacktail Deer Creek, that President Teddy Roosevelt camped with naturalist John Burroughs in 1903. In Roosevelt's words, "It was a very pleasant camp. . . Where our tents were pitched the bottom of the valley was narrow, the mountains rising steep and cliff-broken on either side." The wild Yellowstone begins south of the park and travels 670 miles before joining the Missouri River near the MT-ND border. It's the longest un-dammed river in the lower 48.
Once across the river the trail scrambles up 100 feet and joins the Yellowstone River Trail at 4.2 miles. Take a left and follow it down river. The trail soon passes Crevice Lake at 4.5 miles, crosses Crevice Creek at 5.5, and reaches impressive Knowles Falls at 6 miles. Though only 15 feet high, the falls makes quite a roar and the scenery is excellent. In the 1870s & 80s John Knowles lived and prospected illegally in the park. When his cabin near the mouth of Crevice Creek was finally discovered, the government ran him out.
From the falls, the trail continues along the river. At 7.2 miles the water turns white and the most dramatic portion of the hike is reached as the trail winds through a massive rock slide with excellent views at every turn. Members of the 1870 Washburn Expedition described the canyon as "grand, gloomy, and terrible . . . an empire of shadows and of turmoil."
At 10.6 miles, the trail crosses Bear Creek on a footbridge. Thereafter, you'll notice the remains of hot spring activity in the area. Limestone deposits like these have been commercially mined north of Gardiner. At 10.8 miles a junction is reached. The former Yellowstone River Trail continued straight following the river all the way into Gardiner, MT. However, private land owners in Gardiner, just north of the park are blocking hiker access to the trail. As a temporary (hopefully) fix it is possible to turn right and follow a Gallatin National Forest trail up 750 feet over the final 2 miles to Eagle Creek Campground. The good news is the trail is in great shape and it affords nice views back into the Black Canyon and of hard-charging Bear Creek. There’s even some interesting abandoned mining equipment to investigate along the creek.
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone.
There are also chances to see buffalo, elk, and coyote on the Blacktail Deer Plateau. Further down, in the Black Canyon, in late spring and early fall, you may spot bighorn sheep among the rocks.
Local Club: Yellowstone Association
May 17, 2019: 30% off classes in Yellowstone
May 16, 2019: Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center
Land Manager: National Park Service - Yellowstone National Park