Hike to Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is an amazing place, thermal features pop, gush and steam, bison and elk are just outside the car window, wolves and coyotes yip and howl into the night. But, Yellowstone can also be bison jam, after bear jam, after deer jam (that’s what we call it when traffic gets held up looking at animals). The boardwalks sag under the weight of so many tourists and the line at the comfort station stretches halfway across the parking lot (causing a people jam).

Of course you need to see Old Faithful and all the other wonders of the Park, no matter how popular they are, but I encourage you to get out of your vehicle, off the boardwalk and into the backcountry. There are countless wonderful hikes for every ability. Today I’d like to explore the route to Heart Lake.

Hot Spring in Heart Lake Geyser Basin

Hot Spring in Heart Lake Geyser Basin

Heart Lake lies in the southwest section of the Park; the trailhead is about 5 miles south of the Grant Village road. It’s a long day hike, but a pretty mellow trail. I hiked it recently with my husband, five month-old baby and a friend (Heather) from Jackson. We chose this trail because I needed to meet up with some researchers working in the Heart Lake Geyser Basin for a story I am working on for Big Sky Journal.

First, the precautions. The area is closed until July 1st to protect grizzly bear habitat. We went in soon after it opened and just two days before a grizzly had eaten through a tent and chomped on the sleeping bag and sleeping pad of someone camped at the lake. Luckily, no one was in the tent at the time, but the Park Service closed the campsites immediately. That said, we each carried a can of bear spray holstered to our backpacks.

An even bigger danger—in my opinion—is the mosquitoes. They were vicious and we all came home with lots of new bites, even after dousing ourselves in bug spray. Fortunately we had a mosquito net to go over the backpack carrying the baby.

The third thing to be aware of is that hot springs and geysers are often surrounded by a thin crust. In the front country it’s no problem because boardwalks and paved trails keep you in safe places. In the Heart Lake Geyser Basin, there is no way to know where you might break through the crust. Walk only where there is grass or something else green growing—it’s probably not too hot underneath, But, be careful even then.

We stayed the night prior to, and after, the hike at the Grant Village Campground, but this would make a great backpacking trip as well. The hike in ascends gently for the first 5.5 miles through a mosaic of trees burned in the 1988 fires, unburned groves and “new” trees (now about 18 years old). The mosquitoes are the worst in this section of the trail. Wildflowers and grass spring up everywhere.

At about 5.5 miles we reached a ridge and a couple small hot springs. This is a great place to take a break and the first spot to view Heart Lake. The lake looks like it is about a stone’s throw away, but it is really another 2 miles. From here the trail heads downhill and switchbacks across Witch Creek. This creek flows from the various geothermal features, and is pretty warm. (A good place for soaking in cool weather.)

As you head down the hill keep an eye out to the right for a dome-shaped geyser. The orange and white streaked rock looks like orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream (not that my mind was on cold, fatty food…). This is one of the most spectacular springs in the basin.

The Dome at Heart Lake Geyser Basin

The Dome at Heart Lake Geyser Basin

About .06 miles from the lake I headed off into the geyser basin with some researchers from the Thermal Biology Institute at Montana State University who are studying microbes in alkaline pools. Apparently there has been a ton of research on the acidic creatures in Yellowstone, but very little on the high pH pools.

Henry, Heather and Anders went to the lake and enjoyed sticking their feet in the cool water. None of them were willing to swim, though, because of the reports of leeches. Just check yourself periodically and if a leach really gets a hold, you can burn it out with a hot match head.

You gain more elevation on the way out than the way in, and it is hot by afternoon, but well worth the hike to such a beautiful place. And seeing hot springs and geysers in the backcountry is so much more fun than from the boardwalk.

Just the Facts
Directions: Heart Lake trailhead is 5.2 miles south of Grant Village junction.

Cost: $25/vehicle to enter the Park (or a $50 annual pass, $80 interagency pass)
$18/night for a tent sight at the Grant Village Campground (307-344-7311 or 1-866-GEYSERLAND (439-7375), or by writing: Yellowstone National Park Lodges, PO Box 165, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190) or online.

Permits: No permit needed to day hike, but an overnight permit is required and can be
obtained from the Backcountry office. 307-344-2160, online.

Best Time of Year: Late August or early September to avoid mosquitoes

Activity Level: High—it’s a long day hike

What you’ll see: Evidence of the 1988 fires, wildflowers, hot springs, geysers, alpine lake, high peaks

What you’ll do: Hike, explore a geyser basin, swim

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