Hiking Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone

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Hiking Mount Washburn in Yellowstone was a memorable experience – one of the most fun hikes I’ve ever taken.

Mt. Washburn is one of the highest points in Yellowstone National Park, with an elevation of around 10,200 feet. The peak was named after Henry Washburn, one of the expedition members from the 1870s who used to wash their clothes in Old Faithful.

You can climb Washburn in one of two ways: From Dunraven Pass or from Chittenden Road. I did both. Here’s the scoop.

Hiking Mt. Washburn on the Dunraven Pass side

On my first day in Yellowstone, I hiked up the Dunraven Pass side of the mountain. The weather was pleasant and people were wearing shorts, but as I moved higher (it’s a 1,393-foot elevation gain), it got chilly.

This route goes through forested areas, and it’s one of the last places in the park where the snow melts every year. For most of the trail, the snow was gone, but in some spots, it was a couple inches deep, even as temperatures were mild everywhere else in Yellowstone:

hiking mt washburn in yellowstone trail

As I reached a lengthy series of switchbacks, I was hit with a blast of some sort of hail/rain/snow combination – a wintry mix, as they say. I thought it was really cool to experience snow during the summer. (And all this time I thought Vanessa Williams was full of shit when she sang, “Sometimes the snow comes down in June.”)

Fortunately, I was dressed for the weather with a long-sleeve hoodie. If you’re going to hike Washburn, taking some heavier clothes with you is a must, no matter what time of year.

I started feeling a little dizzy and thought I might be starting to feel altitude sickness. I’m not sure if that happens at 10,000 feet, but considering that only a few hours earlier I was at a much lower elevation in Wyoming, it seemed plausible. Not wanting to risk passing out up there, I stopped and turned around.

It was still an enjoyable hike, with great views, even though I didn’t reach the summit.

yellowstone forest

Hiking Mt. Washburn on the Chittenden Road side

Two days later, on my final afternoon in Yellowstone, I noticed that Chittenden Road was open. It had been closed the two previous days. Since I was still eager to see bears and bighorn sheep, I had to take the hike again.

If Chittenden Road is open, you can drive to a point partially up the hill, which leaves a 2.2-mile hike with a 1491-foot elevation gain. If the road isn’t open, you can still hike that side, but you’re looking at an additional 1.2-mile hike to reach the trailhead.

The Chittenden side has a couple of forested areas, but it’s mostly wide open, leaving lots of great views (which can lead to a lot of great Yellowstone pictures) and a better shot at seeing wildlife.

As I began the hike, I spotted bighorn sheep tracks. This was a great sign!

bighorn sheep tracks yellowstone

Then came the scary signs. Like bear tracks right on the dirt trail. And trees whose trunks had been slashed by grizzlies marking their territory.

slashed tree yellowstone

Having never seen a bear in the wild, I was pretty frightened, but I embraced the fear and continued onward. Shortly after reaching a nice open area, I spotted a group of people standing together and pointing.

Then, I saw the grizzly!

grizzly bear washburn yellowstone

It was maybe 100 yards away, about the length of a football field. I snapped a couple of pictures and slowly began backing away, since it was heading in my direction. Before long, it turned around and went back over the hill.

Here’s a diagram of where I saw the bear.

Sadly, I did not reach the summit on the Chittenden side, either. Even after the grizzly disappeared, I didn’t want to keep walking in his direction. Plus, it was getting late in the day and I was alone – two no-nos when it comes to hiking near bears.

Those who make it to the summit of Mt. Washburn will find a fire lookout tower with a visitor center and restrooms.

Hiking Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone: Summary

Washburn is one of the more popular hikes in the park, so be prepared. If you’re not interested in heading into the backcountry on your own, the Washburn hike is one of the better walks you can take through the park, full of panoramic views and opportunities to see wildlife.

Have you hiked in grizzly bear country?

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

10 comments on “Hiking Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone

  1. We hiked – well, hiked and ran if you can believe it – Mt. Washburn last year. It was a lung buster to be sure. Perhaps if we had run into a grizzly, our adrenaline would have made the running part easier.

    Also, the view from the top was amazing but the wind was so hardcore that you could barely keep your eyes open to enjoy it.

    we ar enow getting ready to head to Glacier for our annual camping adventure and will be taing bear spray with us this time. We had too many close encounters last year.

    TOP TIP: It ain’t no fun if you think you may be mauled to death.
    Caanan @ No Vacation Required recently posted..On Joshua Tree National Park and Change

  2. I have never hiked in bear territory before, but I’m sure I would be pretty nervous in the beginning. I know theres a small change something happens, but I think I would just have to get used to the idea having them around. Would be an awesome experience though to see them in the wild.
    Tijmen recently posted..Covoitur(voy)age

    • I just returned from Yellowstone, and I learned that grizzle scat smell like bear spray. I would not want to depend on it for protection. Common sense is the best deterrent. We saw two grizzlies and from a distance.

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