Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park Guide

Yellowstone Mountains
The Sky Rim Trail hugs the jagged terrain of the rugged Gallatin mountain range in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park is a massive wilderness landscape with geysers, hot springs, thermal pools, waterfalls, massive wild creatures, and even mountains. While it isn’t known for being a backpacking mecca it has over 900 miles of backcountry trails. The most challenging of which is a nearly 23.5-mile journey backpacking the Sky Rim Trail. We’ve hiked on many alpine trails where the path ventures across mountain landscapes on high ridgelines but never one that hugs the very pinnacle of the mountain peaks so tightly for so long. This journey follows the very top of the Gallatin Range up and down mountain peaks for nearly eight miles with no access to water and very little shade. This is an amazing alpine trail for experienced mountain backpackers.

Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park

Location

Sky Rim Trail Elevation Profile

When you look at the Yellowstone Map the south, north, and western sides are straight lines until you get to the northwest corner where the park boundary looks like an odd-shaped growth growing out of the lines. This is where the park boundary butts up to the Gallatin National Forest and the crooked boundary line follows the Gallatin Mountain Range’s ridgeline. This crooked boundary line is the Sky Rim Trail and it literally follows the ridgeline across the mountain peaks.

Yellowstone National Park Boundary Marker
These Yellowstone boundary signs are a constant companion on the Sky Rim Trail even when the beaten path disappears.

Stats for Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone

  • Trailhead: Specimen Creek (WK3) to Dailey Creek (WK1)
  • Type: Thru-Hike (With 4-mile Shuttle)
  • Rating: Very Strenuous
  • Distance: 23.5 miles
  • Total Elevation Gain: 4,321’ (4,488′ if in Reverse)
  • Highest Elevation: 9,930′ (Big Horn Peak)
  • Recommended Time: 2.5 days, 2 nights
  • Backpacking Season: Late-June to Mid-September (Caution – See Details Below)
  • Camping Permits: Required. Reservations are by lottery.

Hike or Backpack?

Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in a single day would be a challenge. The full 23.5-mile journey is made all the more difficult by the 4,321′ of elevation gain. While a few trail runners do take on the challenge it is best to savor the experience on a 2.5-day backpack. Either way, this trail is lightly trafficked and you should make sure you are prepared for all possible circumstances.

Summiting Bighorn Peak
Jennifer stands atop an rocky outcropping while summiting Bighorn Peak on the Sky Rim Trail.

Hiking Direction

Dailey Creek
The trail on the west side of the Sky Rim follows the small flow of Dailey Creek.

There are several ways of backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park. This guide will focus on a full traverse of the Sky Rim Trail from theSpecimen Creek Trailhead to the Dailey Creek Trailhead. Dailey is often spelled as Daly. Our official park permit had both spellings on it which makes it as confusing as possible. This is a 23.5-mile traverse. While we recommend hiking from Specimen to Daily there are benefits to going the opposite direction as well. That being said this is a lottery so you can list the trip in reverse as your second or third option and increase your chances of getting a reservation.

We hiked it in reverse which is why our elevation profile is laid out that way.

Alternative Directions

Another common way of hiking the Sky Rim Trail is a 20-mile loop via the Daily Creek Trailhead. This is typically hiked in a counterclockwise loop up the Black Butte Trail and returning via the Daily Creek Trail. We do not recommend this route as it not only trims off over 2.5-miles of the actual Sky Rim traverse it bypasses the gorgeous Shelf Lake. The benefit of this route is that it is a true loop beginning and ending in the same parking lot.

A Longer Option

For those who are really looking to spend an ample amount of time in Yellowstone’s high country, you can add on another 14-miles and do a side loop to High Lake (WD4 or WD5 campsites). This loop connects to the Specimen Creek Trail. If you choose to add this on we recommend taking on the Sky Rim Trail first as it is the more strenuous of the two trails.

First Descent Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park
Jennifer descends the first peak on her way east across the Sky Rim Trail.

Season

Finding the perfect time for Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone can be challenging. We list the hiking season from Mid-June to Mid-September but these are the extremes as winter snowpack on cold years can linger into August. On dry years the Dailey Creek water sources can become a trickle by August making the traverse nearly impossible. The parks service recommends August as a good time to make the journey. However, in typically years early July to late August should be clear of snow and still have water in Dailey Creek.

Wildflowers on the Sky Rim Trail
Wildflowers are abundant during the summer season on Yellowstone’s Sky Rim Trail.

Dangers

Almost everyone who visits Yellowstone National Park is warned to fear the grizzly. While bears are a concern and food should be handled appropriately, the weather is the real danger. Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer.You do not want to be on the Sky Rim Trail with lightning in the area. There are massive stretches of treeless terrain on the long nearly 9-mile ridgeline. Keep an eye on the forecast and if thunderstorms are possible for the second day of your journey I would recommend canceling your trip.

No Water on the Sky Rim Trail
A warning about the complete lack of water on the Sky Rim Trail. This sign is actually located over a mile and a half past the last reliable water source.

Lack of Water

The ever-present danger on the Sky Rim Trail is a lack of water. There are 11-miles of trail between Dailey Creek and Shelf Lake with NO access to water. This waterless section has more than 3,600′ of total elevation change and very little tree cover. While the elevated trail is typically cooler than the surrounding areas of Yellowstone, the shadeless terrain can make it brutal on a hot summer’s day. Make sure you carry at a minimum 3 liters of water per person across the ridge of the Sky Rim Trail. On really hot days you will most likely need more. Starting your hike as soon as the sun rises is also advisable to help keep cool and reserve water during the initial climb.

Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone towards Shelf Lake
Jennifer descends a rare shaded area of the Sky Rim Trail.

Parking & Shuttle

Backpacking the entirety of the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone requires shuttling, hitchhiking, or adding 4-miles of road hiking to complete the loop. Both the Specimen Creek (WK3) and Dailey Creek (WK1) trailheads have small parking lots located directly off of Highway 191 in the upper northwest corner of the park. These trails are lightly used and even in the height of summer, we found the parking lots only half full. The Specimen Creek Trailhead is a popular horse trail and as such half of the parking area is dedicated to horse trailers so be mindful of this when choosing a spot.

Hitchhiking

Jennifer and I do not have the ability to shuttle a secondary vehicle so we choose to hitchhike. We literally caught the first vehicle passing by. While I do not think it is always that easy the road is well-traveled and it is typically fairly easy to hitchhike in National Parks.

Commercial Shuttle

There are also several outfitters that do commercial shuttle services for backpackers in Yellowstone National Park. However, they can be very expensive. Yellowstone Road Runner company is the most cost-effective that we contacted but it would still be an expensive 4-mile lift.

Ride Shares

There is no cell service along this section of Highway 191 making a rideshare like Uber and Lyft nearly impossible. We attempted to arrange a ride ahead of time for our trip through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone without success.

Sky Rim Loop Route

The Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park
The Sky Rim Trail snakes across the top of Yellowstone National Park.

We are doing a dedicated trail report post about our experience and what to expect when backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park. As an overview however the thru-hike starts at the Specimen Creek Trailhead and follows the creek flow for about 7-miles rising only about 1,100 feet. The following 2.5-miles climbs steeply nearly 1,500′ up to Shelf Lake.

Sky Rim

Leaving the lake the path continues to climb for a quarter of a mile where it reaches the U-shaped ridgeline known as the Sky Rim Trail. From here the trail ahead is much narrower and less defined as it undulates over the high ridgeline. After 11.75-miles the trail tops out on the 9,930′ high Big Horn Peak. The ridge narrows to only a few feet wide on the backside of the peak, making this journey less than ideal for those with issues of vertigo.

Route Finding

Once over Big Horn Peak the trail meanders across a large rounded mountain top. Here the signage and a GPS (or GPS app like maps.me) really help to discover the route ahead. The path or lack thereof leads west down the backside of the steep mountainside. There are Yellowstone boundary signs along the way but no discernable path. You are left to create your own switchbacking descent down the steep terrain. Once in the saddle 600′ bellow the top the trail once again appears as it continues to hug the ridgeline.

Sky Rim Trail Climb
Jennifer begins the climb up the fourth summit. The trail quickly disappears past this point.

West of Bighorn

Ahead there are no less than three steep climbs between saddles that drop upwards of 400 feet as the trail continues across the waterless terrain. Keep your eyes peeled as there are shards of petrified wood to be discovered. We even found a massive log the size of which challenges those found in the vaunted Petrified Forest National Park.

Descent from the Sky Rim

Jagged Sky Rim Trail
Looking down on the ridge line trail that leads to Dailey Creek.

After 17.25-miles of hiking the trail ventures to the top of its last peak. Here you will find the Dailey Creek Trail junction. However, the Sky Rim Trail continues ahead into the Gallatin National Forest. We recommend continuing ahead a few hundred feet for a gorgeous overlook of the valley beyond. Once ready head down the steep Dailey Creek Trail. Initially the trail switchbacks down the mountainside and then takes a lower ridgeline further to the west before dropping into the Upper Dailey Creek Basin where the WF2 campsite is hidden in the trees. This 2.5-mile section drops 1,500 feet so make sure you bring your hiking sticks.

Finishing the Trail

The remainder of the trail follows Dailey Creek as it flows through the valley and to the trailhead. It is a 3.75-mile journey with a moderate 825′ of elevation loss. The path is fairly well-defined although often overgrown. Like much of the Sky Rim Loop wildflowers flourish along the creek and the adjacent valley.

Camping Permits

Yellowstone requires a camping permit when backpacking anywhere inside the National Park. The actual permits are only issued within 3-days of the start of your trip. However, reservations for camping permits are issued ahead of time in a lottery system. Applications for the lottery can be submitted throughout March and the drawing takes place on April 1st. The applications must be received by the park’s service prior to April 1st to be entered into the drawing and as if this is 1995 they must be either mailed or faxed to the backcountry office. However, the parks service will email you your reservation if you win the lottery. If you win you should receive an email within a few weeks of the drawing.

Cost

Each backcountry reservation currently costs $25 and is charged if you win the lottery. When you collect your permit within 3-days of your start date you will be charged an additional $3 per person per night. Yellowstone offers a backcountry annual pass for $25 for those planning to spend an ample amount of time in the backcountry. However, the pass is only good for the camping permit costs and the reservation fees will still apply for each trip.

Check out the backcountry section of the park’s website for more details or to get the lottery application form.

Campsites

Yellowstone has 293 established backcountry campsites but only three are situated to be able to successfully cross the entirety of the Sky Rim Trail. These are three individual campsites, not clustered backcountry campgrounds. In most cases, your backpacking party is the only one in the vicinity so you need to be prepared for every possible circumstance.

Shelf Lake Campsite
The campsites at Shelf Lake are some of the best backcountry sites in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowston Campsite Codes

Yellowstone uses a three-digit code system for their campsites and trailheads rather than using names. This helps reduce the size of the signage and standardizes the system for the massive park. The Sky Rim Trail falls into the northwestern section of the park where the first digit is a W and the second digit narrows the location from the southeast (of the northwestern section) to the northwest with an A-F. The third digit is always a number indicating the individual campsite.

WE7 & WE5 – Shelf Lake

Shelf Lake is a beautiful area in Yellowstone National Park. Located at 9,155′ the lake is one of the highest in the park and it is beautifully perched on a shelf below the 10,095′ Sheep Mountain. It is also fairly nice because there are two campsites located on opposite sides of the small lake. This is one of the few places in the Yellowstone backcountry where your neighbor is within earshot. However, the lake still offers a lot of seclusions. WE7 is a better campsite for sunsets and WE5 for sunrises. The WE5 campsite is bigger allowing ample space for a slightly larger group.

WF2 – Upper Dailey Creek Campsite

The Upper Daily Creek Campsite sits in the trees just below the Sky Rim ridgeline at 7,520′. The creek in this area is very small and it is the last water source available on the west side of the trail. The single campsite is located in a very isolated area of the park where the nearest source of help if needed would be found at the trailhead 3.75-miles away. It looks like prime bear country but when we camped there the biting flies and mosquitos were the relentless predators. The campsite is functional but not overly beautiful or enjoyable.

Backpacking Gear & Logistics

The Sky Rim Trail is an exposed alpine trail and as such, you should pack for cooler weather than that in the heart of the park. There is also a lot of sun exposure across this 9,000′ ridgeline and the bugs are relentless at times. We recommend wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants, and a sun hat of some kind. You should also bring your bug net. Beyond that pack as lite as possible but make sure you carry at least 3-litters of water across the top. If you are new to backpacking you should pick a different trail (Try the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone) but you can also check out our backpacking gear guide which is optimized for summer alpine backpacking.

Trailless Section Hiking the Sky Rim Trail
Jennifer drops into the saddle on the backside of Bighorn Peak (on the left).

Cooking, Food Storage, and Tent Pad

The Shelf Lake campsites do not allow wood fires. Upper Dailey Creek does but fire bands are common during the hot summers so it is best to plan on using a backpacking stove. All three campsites come with a cooking area with bear hangs for food storage that is located at least 100′ from the tent area. There are no signs indicating the tent area and no established pads but there are areas that are obviously used for tents where the grass is dead and the ground relatively flat.

Weather Forecast

Yellowstone National Park is larger than the states of Deleware and Rhode Island combined and yet it only has one weather forecast. This lack of information can make preparing for a journey into the backcountry difficult. The park service recommends packing for every kind of weather which isn’t a bad idea but when it comes to the Sky Rim, forecasted thunderstorms should keep you off the trail. Rather than relying solely on the park’s inefficient forecast look up the weather for Gardiner, West Yellowstone, and Big Sky, Montana. These are the three closest areas to the Sky Rim Trail. The temperature on the trail will be a few degrees cooler than all three forecasts but these forecasts should help you determine whether inclement weather will visit the area.

Fourth High Point View
We had great weather during our traverse but it was very smokey. This is the view north from the high point adjacent to Bighorn Peak (pictured on the far right).

Water

Both camping areas typically have water available throughout the summer and it is easily accessed on both access trails but there isn’t a single drop to be found on the 11-mile crossing between the two camping areas. You should carry at least 3-liters of water on the crossing and filter or treat the water you collect in the creeks and the lake.

Toilets

Yellowstone National Park doesn’t have any privies (toilets) at any backcountry campsites. Bring your trowel and toilet paper with you. Make sure you bury your waste at least 6 inches deep and that you are 100′ from any water sources.

Recommended Itinerary

The ideal itinerary for backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone is 2.5 days traveling counterclockwise. However, water access is the major factor for determining which way to hike the trail and why we list a reverse itinerary for later in the season. The parks service can give you a report of the Dailey Creek flow when you pick up your permit. If the creek is dry you can more easily pack on an extra day’s supply of water for the first half-day than if you had to pack on extra water at Shelf Lake. Again, this is a lottery trip so being flexible increases your chances of getting a permit and that includes being available for different days and traveling in reverse.

Fireweed in Yellowstone
Fireweed often blankets the terrain of the Sky Rim Trail.

Late June to Mid-August

  • 1st Day: Hike 9-miles from the Specimen Creek Trailhead (WK3) to Shelf Lake Campsite (WE7 or WE5). Almost 2/3rds of the nearly 2,300′ of elevation gain comes in the last 2.5-miles.
  • 2nd Day: Backpack 11-miles from Shelf Lake to the Upper Dailey Creek Campsite (WF2) with 1,951′ of gain and 3,610′ of loss.
  • 3rd Day (Half-day): Finish the trail by hiking 3.75-miles with 70′ of gain and 825′ of loss to the Dailey Creek Trailhead (WK1).

Late-August to Mid-September

  • 1st Day (Half Day): Hike 3.75-miles from the Dailey Creek Trailhead to the Upper Dailey Creek Campsite (WF2) with 825′ of elevation gain.
  • 2nd Day: Traverse 11-miles across the Sky Rim Trail from the Upper Dailey Creek Campsite to the Shelf Lake Campsite (WE7 or WE5) with 3,610′ of elevation gain and 1,951′ of loss.
  • 3rd Day: Finish the trail by hiking 9-miles downhill to the Specimen Creek Trailhead with nearly 2300′ of elevation loss.

After Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park

After backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone you will most likely be craving a shower, a delicious meal, and a soft bed. The nearest towns are West Yellowstone to the south and Big Sky to the north. Both are tourist towns and you can get a better deal and more choices in the city of Bozeman, Montana an hour’s drive to the north through a beautiful canyon.

Jagged Rocks on Bighorn Peak
A look at the ingenious rock formations on the east side of Bighorn Peak.

Hotels

Campgrounds

There is no shortage of affordable (or free) forestry service campgrounds in and around this area of Montana. However, most will not have cell phone access or amenities that exceed pit toilets. If you are interested in those places check out Campendium as they are too numerous to mention. These three campgrounds listed below are a selection of the few in the area that have the best amenities on site.

Public Showers

Obviously, if you are staying in a hotel you can easily get a shower but many campgrounds in the area do not have showers available. Here is a shortlist of where to grab a shower after backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone.

  • West Yellowstone: Canyon Street Laundromat & Showers – 312 N Canyon St, West Yellowstone, MT 59758
  • Big Sky: None
  • Bozeman: Swim Center

Food

Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park Guide

Backpacking the Sky Rim Trail Guide
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With limited access to water and a lot of exposure, backpacking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone is no walk in the park. Well, you do walk in the park… actually, in and out of the park… you know what I mean, it’s not easy. It is at times a grueling challenge and not for those who easily suffer from vertigo. However, for those who venture across this alpine wilderness a unique Yellowstone experience awaits. One full of beauty, sprawling mountain views, and wonderful isolation, a rare quality for visitors to the massive national park.

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