The Mountain Goat Gallery

Mt. Washburn

Posted by Jim Steele on July 28th, 2008 filed in Yellowstone National Park

One of my favorite hikes in Yellowstone is Mt. Washburn. It’s fairly short – the top is only three miles away – but you still enjoy panoramic views of much of the north end of Yellowstone National Park. As a bonus, a visitor area has been added to the fire lookout area at the top, with a room to enjoy the view sheltered from the wind, have a picnic, view the area through a telescope, and even call home on a payphone.

The summit of Mt. Washburn and the fire lookout, photographed July 19, 2008.

You’ll gain almost 1,400 feet over three miles en route to the 10,243-foot summit, but the elevation gain is spread evenly throughout the trip. The trail is an old road that has long been closed to traffic, so you’ll enjoy a wide route that is easy to follow.

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There are two old roads to the top. The Chittenden Road begins roughly 10 miles north of Canyon Village along the highway to the Tower-Roosevelt area. You’ll turn off the main highway onto a dirt road and follow it to a parking lot. From here, you hike 2.5 miles to the top – the rest of the Chittenden Road is closed to non-official vehicles. This trail involves about 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

A unique late-season view of Mt. Washburn and the Old Chittenden Road from the Old Chittenden Road. Photographed August 15, 2005.

This article, however, will describe the trail from the Dunraven Pass trailhead. The hike is slightly longer – roughly three miles, and the elevation gain is just under 1,400 feet. To get to the trailhead, drive north about five from the Canyon Village along the highway to the Tower-Roosevelt area. The trailhead is at the top of Dunraven Pass and is easy to find, with a parking area and an outhouse.

From the trailhead, you’ll start by heading west along the base of a small mountain. The trail passes in and out of pine and fir forests. The wildflower show in this section can be spectacular – you could easily see a dozen varieties. You could also see a bear most anywhere along this trail – I’ve seen them in the area a couple of times. This region of the park is prime bear habitat, and Mt. Washburn is no exception. Check with the Canyon Village visitor center because this trail sometimes closes due to bear activity.

Wildflowers along the Mt. Washburn trail, photographed July 16, 2008.

After a few minutes, the trail jogs to the southeast before quickly turning to the north, continuing a half circle along the base of the unnamed peak. Sweet views to the east will open up and you’ll see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You’ll also see a few thermal areas poking out through the forest and a large meadow. If you decide to continue on to the Washburn Hot Springs thermal area from the top, you’ll pass through this meadow. This section of trail also offers your first glimpse of Mt. Washburn, which is easy to identify because of the fire lookout at the summit.

About halfway through the trip, you’ll begin a series of a few switchbacks, continuing to pass in and out of the trees. This section offers an interesting perspective on the trip because you’re able to see where you’re going and where you’ve been. You’ll also enjoy more cool views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Next you’ll cross a ridge where you’ll enjoy unobstructed views to the east and west and a clear view of Mt. Washburn straight ahead. At the end of the ridge, you’ll come to a junction just below the summit. One of the trails is the old Chittenden Road. The other leads to a backcountry campsite, Washburn Hot Springs (about five miles) and the enormous glacial boulder near Canyon Village.

If luck is on your side, you could see bighorn sheep on this hike. This area is one of your best bets. You also might see them along the first mile of the trail to Washburn Hot Springs.

A baby bighorn sheep, near the summit of Mt. Washburn. Photographed July 16, 2006.

A bighorn sheep hangs out at the summit of Mt. Washburn on July 16, 2006.

Two bighorn sheep near the summit of Mt. Washburn on July 16, 2006.

After the junction, the trail encircles the summit of Mount Washburn over the final 0.2 miles to the top. Panoramic views start to open up and you’ll enjoy a who’s who of all the mountains in the northern area of the park. You’ll see the Absarokas, the Gallatins and – on a very clear day – the Tetons. I’ve read that you can make out the steam from Old Faithful on a clear, chilly day. And you’ll be able to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake.

The view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake from Mt. Washburn. Photographed June 14, 2005.

Washburn offers a unique perspective on Yellowstone, as it sits right at the edge of the Yellowstone Caldera.

The summit is a treat, because a visitor area has been added to the fire lookout. A telescope is available to check out the area. Signs help identify the mountains in the area, bathrooms (without running water) are available, and Qwest operates a pay phone. Picture windows in the viewing area offer views in three directions. There is also access to an outdoor platform one story higher and you’ll be able to see the exterior of the fire lookout’s residence, although the Park Service asks you not to climb the stairs to the entrance. This fire lookout is one of three in Yellowstone that is staffed for several months each summer. This one is the only one that has electricity and hard-line phone service – the only comfort of home that’s missing up here is plumbing. It’s also interesting to note that Verizon and Alltel operate a cell site out of the lookout. Yellowstone’s other two fire lookouts are located on Mt. Sheridan and Mt. Holmes.

Most hikers return to their car from here, but you can continue on to Washburn Hot Springs. Washburn Hot Springs is an interesting little thermal area. Like the Shoshone Geyser Basin, it is well into the backcountry, so there are no boardwalks or crowds. Watch your step! We saw the skeleton of a buffalo that had taken wrong step and ended up scalded to death many months before. Washburn Hot Springs is roughly four to five miles from Mt. Washburn. You hike down into the terrain above the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, pass a backcountry campsite after 2.5 miles, and then continue for roughly two miles. Unfortunately, from the hot springs area, you’re only two to three miles from your car, but there isn’t a trail. Retrace your steps, have a car parked at the glacial boulder trailhead (roughly four miles from the Hot Springs), or – if you’re really brave and have a good sense of direction and a GPS – bushwhack through the dense forest.

Washburn Hot Springs, photographed July 19, 2008.

A few notes: it can be windy at the summit, so throw a windbreaker in your backpack. The presence of bears in this area makes a can of pepper spray a must. And it is possible for you to encounter snow on this trail well into July.

If you want to get to the top of a mountain but don’t have all day and don’t want to venture deep into the backcountry, Mt. Washburn is a great choice. This is a busy trail, so expect some company – especially at the top of the mountain. But the views are superb and the chance of seeing wildlife, including bighorn sheep and bears, is a bonus. I’ve done this hike at least a dozen times and it’s one of my favorites in Yellowstone.

3 Responses to “Mt. Washburn”

  1. The Mountain Goat » Summit Lake Says:

    […] In about the same distance, you could hike to Heart Lake. In much less time, you could stand atop Mt. Washburn. Don’t go to Summit Lake on your first trip to […]

  2. maureenwalsh Says:

    Thank you for this great article. I am hiking this trail tomorrow with my son and grandson and this is so helpful. I appreciate how much time you put into this!

  3. Jim Steele Says:

    Thanks Maureen. Hope you had a great time!