Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park is a grueling journey across the very top of the most legendary park in the world. Tucked in the northwest corner this trail traverses the border with the Gallatin National Forest and literally hugs the very top of the 9,000′ Gallatin Mountain Range for eight miles. It is a beautiful journey full of challenges that are not for beginner backpackers. While some people do an abbreviated version of this hike in a single day, we took on the full Sky Rim Trail as a 2.5-day backpack. This is the only way I would recommend doing the hike as the distance and elevation gain is a bit much for a single day.
This post is all about our personal experience of hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park. We backpacked the alpine trail in reverse because that was the reservation we won in the annual lottery. We have written a complete guide to the Sky Rim Trail to help you plan your own journey.
Stats for Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park
- Trailhead: Dailey Creek (WK1) to Specimen Creek (WK3)
- Type: Thru-Hike
- Rating: Very Strenuous
- Distance: 23.5 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 4,488′
- Highest Elevation: 9,930′ (Big Horn Peak)
- Time: 2.5 days, 2 nights
- Season: Mid-July
- Camping Permits: Required. Reservations won in the lottery.
Day 1 – Dailey Creek Trail
- From Dailey Creek Trailhead (6745′) to the Upper Dailey Creek (WF2) Campsite (7,520′)
- Distance: 3.75-miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 825′
The first day of our journey started on a smokey Friday afternoon in mid-July. Fires were burning in Oregon and clouding the Yellowstone sky. It was less than ideal circumstances but at least no thunderstorms were in the forecast which can be a deal-breaker for hiking the exploded Sky Rim Trail.
Specimen Creek Trailhead
After spending the entire first half of our day driving through the massive Yellowstone Park. We rolled into the small Specimen Creek Trailhead parking lot and were surprised to find it half empty. Half of the lot is reserved for horse trailers and there were none there. We parked and gathered our gear. Just as we headed for the road to start thumbing for a ride a fisherman pulled into the parking lot. We waved at him and asked tentatively if he would give us a lift to the Dailey Creek Trailhead 4-miles up the road. He agreed and we pilled into the back of his truck and speed down the road.
Once at the Dailey Creek Trailhead (6745′), we hopped out, thanked the driver, and went about stretching for our relatively short hike. Immediately, we were warned by a fellow group of hikers that there was a lone wolf roaming around the meadow about a half-mile up the trail. Bear spray in hand we excitedly sat off in hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive creature. Unfortunately, we never saw a wolf or even a coyote which is what it was more likely to be.
The trail leaves the parking area heading directly away from the road and into the wilderness. Quickly the sound of cars zooming by faded away. From the parking area, the trail crosses over Daily Creek and begins a moderate but consistent climb through a large sub-alpine meadow. Half of the 3.75-mile journey to the Upper Dailey Creek Campsite is spent adjacent to the towering 8,035′ Crown Butte. Early the next morning we would look down on this lofty peak from the ridge of the Sky Rim Trail.
Black Butte Cutoff
After just under 2-miles of moderately easy ascent we came to the Black Butte Cutoff Trail which is used by those doing a shorter loop in and out of the Dailey Creek Trailhead. There is a small tributary to the Dailey Creek flowing down along the cutoff trail. We hoped over the creek and followed the Dailey Creek higher up the valley.
Climbing Towards the Gallatin Ridgeline
As we ascended the grassy wildflower-covered meadow the Gallatin Mountain ridgeline that contains the Sky Rim Trail loomed far above. It stretched out from the left, and far to the right like a menacing impassable wall.
Arriving at Camp
After a moderate 825′ feet of elevation gain and 3.75-miles of the trail down, we arrived at the short spur trail to Upper Dailey Creek Campsite (WF2). It took us less than an hour and a half to make the traverse. The creek at this point was less than a foot wide with just enough flow to easily fill our Kathadyn Water Filter bag. Further up the mountainside, the creek disappears from the trail altogether.
Upper Dailey Creek Campsite (WF2)
The campsite is nicely tucked into the trees with a cooking area complete with a bear bag hang. The camp pad or at least the most beaten-down area for a tent is located about 150′ back to the south between a few tall trees. There are also some areas in the woods to the northeast that might work for a tent site but I tend to think this is more commonly used as the toilet.
Camping at WF2
We sat about setting up camp, filtering water, and cooking an early dinner. The biting flies were atrocious and luckily we had packed long sleeve shirts and pants along with our bug nets. Jennifer took a bit of sadistic pleasure in killing the hoards of flies and watching as ants drag their lifeless corpses back to their queen.
Hiding from the Bugs
Dinner finished, we called it an early night and climbed into our tent to watch the sunset through the tent’s mesh wall and the dense smoke. Upon entering the tent we immediately sat about killing about 20 flies who came in with us. Still, calling it a night early was a smart decision as we also got to watch the hoards of mosquitoes emerge in the twilight and press themselves against the tent’s mesh. I’m really glad we didn’t have to endure them during dinner. This wasn’t the best of backcountry camping experiences and overall the first day of hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone was a bit of a letdown. However, that would all change and this would quickly become one of our favorite journeys in Yellowstone.
Day 2 – Hiking the Sky Rim Trail
- From WF2 Campsite (7,520′) to WE7 Campsite (9,165′)
- Distance: 11-miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 3610′
Our second day on the Sky Rim Trail started with the first rays of the sun. It was cold as we emerged from the tent. Luckily, it was cold enough to keep the bugs at bay and we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and coffee without the previous night’s insect bombardment.
Last Call for Water
Fueled up and packed up with about 6.5-liters of water we set off on the trail climbing swiftly through the upper basin and away from the creek. The creek is the last water source for 11 strenuous miles. It wasn’t long before we were venturing up the mountainside towards the ridgeline.
On the Ridgeline
Nearing 1.75-miles on the day and having already climbed more than a thousand feet we ventured onto the small ridgeline where there was a four-way split in the trail. On the back of the trail marker was another sign indicating the boundary for Yellowstone National Park. These signs became almost commonplace as we hugged the boundary for the remainder of the day.
Up the Narrow Ridge
The sign also informed us that this was not yet considered the Sky Rim and that the junction was still 0.8-miles away. We took a right and began our ascent along the narrow ridgeline. Despite this section not yet being an official part of the Sky Rim Trail, it follows a remarkably narrow high ridge for the first quarter of a mile. The ground is loose with steep drops on either side. It is a somewhat nerve-racking ascent before reaching the relative safety of a tree-covered mountainside. The trail continues its relentless climb through tight switchbacks through the trees below an especially rocky 9,047′ peak.
Sky Rim Junction
After 2.5-miles on the day and more than 1,500′ of elevation gain, we climbed out of the trees and onto the Sky Rim Trail. To my surprise, the sign here indicates that the Sky Rim Trail goes both directions, east, and west from this point. I had not realized that you can start the Sky Rim Trail somewhere deep in the Gallatin Forest.
Before starting our long push east we took a moment to take off our backpacks, rest, and have a snack. We also took the opportunity to stroll a few hundred feet west to the 9,047′ high rocky outcropping we had been summiting all morning. It is a beautiful view back west over the terrain far below the Sky Rim with commanding views of Ramshorn Peak (10,296′) and Twin Peaks (10,181′) which would be visible throughout much of the day’s journey.
The Sky Rim Trail
Packs back on we sat out west across the long ridgeline. For the next 8-miles, the trail hugs the very top of the ridge and peaks in a remarkable way. We’ve hiked many alpine trails but none have ever hugged the very pinnacle of the mountain tops as well as the Sky Rim Trail. Looking at all the elevation graphs ahead of time it looked as if the Sky Rim basically dips and climbs up four mountainous high points. While this is sort of true, it misses an exorbitant amount of smaller elevation changes of 20 – 50′ that really racks up over the day.
First Descent and aPetrified Log
The trail and ridge start off by dropping 200′ before immediately starting back up a 700′ climb. During this ascent, there is a relatively flat section that passes through a tree-covered area. It was here that we found a seemingly benign spot with a tiny trail that punches through the trees to an overlook of the Upper Dailey Creek Basin. The igneous jagged rocks that line the Sky Rim falls sharply away and the entire beautiful basin we had traversed stretched out before us. However, the highlight of this overlook is one of the most remarkable petrified tree stumps we’ve ever seen and we’ve seen a lot. It rises vertically out of the igneous rock defiant of the steep descent before it. An incredibly beautiful and memorable scene.
Second Major Descent
At the top of the 700′ climb, we spent the next half-mile undulating up and down over the ridgeline as it traveled southeast. At 5-miles on the day we started another sharp 200′ descent across very loose terrain into a saddle and passed by a group of six fellow backpackers traveling the opposite direction. These were the first people we had seen since the trailhead the day before and the last we would see until we reached Shelf Lake. This was on a Saturday in the height of summer. I wasn’t expecting massive crowds but this trail gets very little use. The six backpackers were traveling with packs nearly twice as large as ours and at least a few were longing for the end of the trail. We broke the bad news that they still had 5-miles yet to go before reaching the campsite.
Lunch and a Grassy Mountain Top
As we neared the far side of the saddle we decided to stop for lunch. We sat down right in the middle of the trail in the shade of a few trees. The trail having very few people traversing it does have its benefits. After lunch, we once again started ascending the ridgeline towards the third high point on the trail. This time we climbed steeply 250′ in less than half a mile before hiking across a long rolling summit nearly 3/4 of a mile long that was covered in grass. It feels like something out of the sound of music.
The Third High Point
On the other side of the alpine grasslands, the trail returns to a rocky ascent before reaching the very top of the third high point on the Sky Rim Trail. This 9,660′ point overlooks the menacing western cliff face of Big Horn Peak. At 9,930′ Big Horn is the highest point on the Sky Rim Trail and its western flank is a sheer rock wall. Luckily there is an adjacent mountainside that is covered in grass that serves as the access for Big Horn Peak. A deep saddle loomed in front of us but the trail seemingly disappearing as it reached the base of the adjacent mountainside. I told Jennifer it had to be there and we pushed ahead… I was wrong.
The Third Major Descent
The trail ahead drops quickly nearly 400′ in less than half a mile before reaching the narrow saddle covered in wildflowers. We crossed over and began the steep climb back up the opposite side. The trail switchbacks quickly through the trees just above the saddle and then as the trees fall away, the steep grassy terrain takes over, and the trail disappears completely.
I looked around and checked our GPS to make sure we had not missed a turn. Looking straight up the mountainside we saw signs posted in the distance. They were the ever-present Yellowstone boundary signs. We sat off up the trailless terrain creating our own on switchbacks climbing from one sign to the next. The mountainside reminded me of a black diamond ski slope and I was glad that there was no snow on the steep ascent.
Overlooking the Knifes Edge
Once we had switchbacked our way just over a quarter of a mile up more than 600′ we reached the top of the rolling grassy ridgeline and looked across the rocky narrow knifes edge that linked this mountain with Big Horn Peak. For those unaware knifes edge is a common term for a very narrow ridgeline with steep cliffs on both sides. A few signs are located at the top of this grassy null indicating the direction of the Sky Rim Trail and serving as the intersection for the Black Butte Trail. We stood for a moment contemplating the narrow ledge perched 50′ below us. From this vantage point, it looks very narrow.
Crossing the Knifes Edge
We gathered our courage and set off in the direction the sign indicated. The trail wraps around the rocky mountain top with steep drops into the Specimen Creek Valley to the east. We carefully made our way down the rocky terrain and onto the knifes edge. In reality, the knifes edge is probably about 4′ feet wide and only 10′ or so long. While it looks intimidating, it is easily crossed so long as you watch your footing and keep your wits about you. On the other side, the trail maintains a narrow 3-4′ path as it wraps around the cliff face of the mountainside with steep drop-offs on the east side. It is a stunningly beautiful area and a highlight of hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone.
Big Horn Peak Summit
Finally, after more than 8-miles of hiking on the day, we reached the pinnacle of the Sky Rim Trail, the 9,930′ Big Horn Peak. The peak is small but a beautiful place to take off the backpack, sit on a rock and take in the 360º mountain views. In the distance, nearly the entire ridgeline we had thus far hiked unfolded to the west. To the northeast, the trail stretched out towards the 9,855′ Sheep Mountain with a large square “microflector” on top of it which looks like a outdoor movie screen. A backpacking theater would be cool. However, the best view is of the rocky jagged cliffs to the east with a deep gulch sloping into the Specimen Creek Valley.
The Northeast Side of the Sky Rim Trail
After spending some time taking it all in we set back out on the trail. Again the path head looks like a long 3-mile descent on the graph but there are three ascents along the way that feel mountainous on weary legs. The path descends quickly from the heights of the peak dropping over 300′ in a quarter of a mile. We then slogged up a moderate 50′ hill before dropping another 100′ on an easy slant. It was here that the path ahead once again disappeared completely into the grass-covered ridgeline. It was short-lived and we easily regained the beaten path on the other side.
More Elevation Change
Approaching 9.5-miles on the trail the path once again goes into a steep rocky descent of 300′ as it clings to a cliffside. As we descended the hillside into the saddle we could see the path on the other side taunting us as it rose back above the terrain and disappeared into the trees. Luckily it was a moderate climb of about 20′ and it is immediately followed by a surprisingly flat 3/4 of a mile traverse through the trees.
Leaving the Sky Rim Trail
As the trail approached the 10.5-mile point it drops another 75′ and crosses over a barren grassy null before climbing 15′ steeply back into the trees. At 11-miles on the trail, we finally came across the top of the last small high point and looked down from the ridgeline on the beautiful Shelf Lake nestled below Sheep Mountain. We took the path ahead leaving the legendary Sky Rim Trail and venturing onto the Specimen Creek Trail. The path drops steeply 120′ down to the lake’s edge in the last quarter of a mile on the day’s traverse.
It should be noted that the Sky Rim Trail actually continues past the intersection for Shelf Lake to the summit of Sheep Mountain. It is about 1.25-miles each way with an estimated 550′ of elevation gain. We were running low on water and choose not to add the 2.5-mile return trip to the summit.
Shelf Lake is stunningly beautiful, especially in the late afternoon light. We turned onto the spur trail for our WE7 campsite (WE5 is located on the opposite side of the lake and was occupied by two fellow backpackers) and took in the lay of the land. The cooking area is perched on a shelf in a small cluster of trees about 20′ above the lake. The tent area is located about 8′ above the water and about 100′ beyond the cooking area on the west side of the lake. It is easily one of the top 20 backcountry campsites we’ve stayed at and lightyears nicer than the WF2 site we stayed at the night before.
Upon arriving at the lake we immediately began to filter water. I had run out of water in my pack on the last stretch of the crossing and Jennifer had less than half a liter left. We had started the day with about 6.5 liters in our reservoirs and a vapor bottle. Lack of water is without a doubt the most prevalent danger of hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone and should not be overlooked when planning your own journey.
No Bugs for Us
Next, we set up camp and began cooking dinner as it was now late in the day and we fully expected the mosquitos to return in full force. To our delight, the flies and mosquitos were nearly non-existent at Shelf Lake. We were utterly shocked and enjoyed the mountain lake immensely as the twilight set in. It was the perfect way to end an amazing day crossing the very top of Yellowstone National Park.
Day 3 – Specimen Creek Trail
- From WE7 Campsite (9,165′) to Specimen Creek Trailhead (6912’)
- Distance: 8.75-miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 63′
The third and final day of our journey hiking the Sky Rim Trail would be spent traversing the nearly 9-mile Specimen Creek Trail almost entirely on a downhill slant. We slept in a little but the night was surprisingly warm and the sun returned to the sky early with unrelenting heat. Before setting off down the trail we spent a little bit of the morning exploring the lakeshore and enjoying its beauty. We weren’t the only ones as a lone duck was also enjoying a morning swim across the small lake.
A Large Descent
Once we did set off, the trail immediately plunged from the shelf dropping 1200′ in the first mile and a half to the top of the long Specimen Creek Valley. While steep and rough on the knees the path throughout the descent is well defined as it passes through long switchbacks buried in the tree-covered mountainside. the alpine views of the Sky Rim Trail are gone but this section has its own lush beauty covered in dense forest with lots of summer wildflowers.
Once on the valley floor, the rushing Specimen Creek became our constant companion for the remainder of the day. It crashes steeply through the dense forest and the path follows relatively closely continuing a relatively steep and straight descent that slowly moderates over the next mile and a half. At 2.25-miles on the day we came to the Crescent Lake Intersection located at 7,755′ in elevation. This is an option for a second loop that could be taken for those wishing to spend more time in the backcountry. We were having so much fun I wish we had planned for this loop.
The WE4 Campsite
At just over 3-miles on the trail, we came to the WE4 campsite which is nestled in the trees lining the creek. While this campsite is too far below the Sky Rim Trail to be a useful site for the crossing it is a great spot for lunch. We had already descended 1,700′ and our knees enjoyed having the break for an early lunch. The campsite is located in a beautiful meadow inside the valley with steep mountain walls towering overhead. The creek has slowed to a crawl and is lined with trees. This would be a good campsite for those who are new to backcountry camping and want a relatively easy out and back from the Specimen Creek Trailhead or as a first night on the eastern loop to High Lake (WD4 or WD5).
Traversing the Specimen Creek Valley
After lunch, we restretched a little to loosen back up and set back out on the trail. The remainder of the path is a very easy descent dropping the remaining 600′ consistently and evenly. If it weren’t for the creek flowing down the valley it would be hard to discern any elevation loss at all. Big Horn Peak towers over the valley floor like a rugged sentinel to the west and the valley is covered in wildflowers during the summer hiking season.
Crossing the Wide Creek
As we approached 4.5-miles on the day we found ourselves at the biggest challenge of the day. The path ahead crosses over the now wide creek. In mid-July, it was relatively shallow but still a challenge to keep our feet dry. I can only imagine that earlier in the season this would be a spot where backpackers are forced to wade across.
Sportsman Lake Trail Intersection
Nearing 6.75-miles on the day we arrived at a wide area in the valley. Here the east fork of the Specimen Creek adds its volume to the flow along with a smaller creek from the west canyon flowing from the south end of Big Horn Peak. This is also where the trail from High Lake (known as the Sportsman Lake Trail) finishes its loop through the terrain to the east. We came across our third and fourth group of backpackers in this section. The first was headed for Crescent Lake and doing the eastern loop. The second was taking our spot at Shelf Lake and doing the shorter version of the Sky Rim Trail bailing out on the Black Butte Trail. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they would miss so much of the gorgeous trail.
Specimen Creek and a Small Boulder Field
The last section of the trail enters a narrower area of the valley where it loses sight of the Big Horn Peak and the Sky Rim ridgeline. It is still a peaceful section of the trail as the path hugs the now abundant flow of the creek with a boulder field on the other side. We spotted a furry marmot waddeling down the trail and dashing into the safety of the boulders. This was the only wildlife beyond birds, chipmunks, and insects that we spotted on the entire journey hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone.
Back at the Specimen Creek Trailhead
Finally at 8.75-miles on the day and having dropped 2,300′ we strolled into the parking lot we had left 3 days earlier. It was well past mid-day on a hot summer’s day so after dropping our bags we immediately pulled a few popsicles out of our Dometic fridge and cooled off in the shade of the truck.
Hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park
The nearly 23.5-mile adventure hiking the Sky Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park isn’t an easy one. It has an exorbitant amount of elevation gain and loss at a high altitude with no sources of water for nearly 11-miles. This combined with vertigo-inducing drop-offs and extremely low use makes this an adventure best had by experienced backpackers. However, the alpine terrain found along the trail is amazing and surprising in a park that is best known for its geothermal wonders. Those who are up to the challenge will find an amazing journey worth every ounce of effort. If you are up to the challenge, check out our guide to backpacking the Sky Rim Trail to get all the details for a successful journey.