Yellowstone Forever

Featured Hike: Specimen Creek Trail

Specimen Creek Trail hikersSome places are too special to keep secret. The Specimen Creek Trail, popular among locals but lesser known among those visiting Yellowstone from out of state, offers easy but spectacular day hikes.

Area residents use the versatile trail year-round for hiking, horseback riding, fly fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Backpackers connect from it to other trails to reach a series of backcountry lakes.

Adding to the trail's popularity among day hikers is its location in the far northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. Just six miles south of the Park's northern boundary, outside of entrance gates, it is very accessible from West Yellowstone, Big Sky, and Bozeman. Overnighters will need to have a backcountry permit.

But the real draw is the remarkable scenery. From the moment you take off from the trailhead, you will be rewarded with majestic natural beauty, unlike other trails where the wow-factor may come many miles into a hike.

The out-and-back trail is four miles in length, for an eight mile round-trip hike. Those short on time or motivation can turn around at the fork in the creek (see "If You Go," below) for a four-mile round-trip hike. The streamside trail will please hikers of varying experience levels; with merely 240 feet of elevation gain, it is mostly flat.

What You Will See

Specimen Creek Trail traverses alpine meadows with a few gentle, rolling hills, and awe-inspiring views of the Gallatin Range. Wildflowers abound in the summer, and fall serves up countless shades of golden vegetation.

View from Specimen Creek Trail (Photo: HikeNC9)The wide-open vistas present ample opportunities to spot wildlife from a safe distance. Visitors are likely to see elk, deer, and moose in the meadows, and raptors flying overhead.  Black or grizzly bears are occasionally seen in the area.

In spots, huge rocks tower over both sides of Specimen Creek. If you're on the lookout, petrified trees—wood turned into rock by volcanic ash deposits—can be seen in the rock walls that border the creek. In fact, the creek was named in homage to these "specimens," which are more plentiful in the adjacent Gallatin Petrified Forest.

Recent Improvements

Specimen Creek TrailIn the summers of 2012 and 2013, the Specimen Creek Trail was restored through the Yellowstone Park Foundation's Trails Fund Initiative (see article in this issue). National Park Service and Montana Conservation Corps trail crews constructed a half-mile of new trail to reroute a section damaged by recurring overflows of the North Fork of Specimen Creek. Several additional and heavily eroded sections were reconstructed, and/or elevated and filled, smoothing the way for a safer and more enjoyable hike.

If You Go:

  • Specimen Creek Trail is accessible from a small parking lot on the east side of U.S. 191, roughly 15 miles south of Big Sky, MT and 25 miles north of West Yellowstone.
  • Bears have been spotted in the area, so be sure to bring your bear spray, and hike in groups of three or more.
  • About two miles in from the trailhead you will reach a fork in the trail. If you travel straight ahead you will continue on your Specimen Creek adventure. For an enticing picnic spot, take a right turn and walk 100 feet along the Sportsman Lake Trail.  There you will find a 30-foot stock bridge crossing Specimen Creek, next to a scenic rest stop and swimming hole.
  • Those desiring a shorter hike of 4 miles round trip should turn around at the fork in the trail mentioned above, where Sportsman Lake Trail begins.

Meadow with creek photo, above left, courtesy of Paul Bright. Other photographs by Matt Ludin/Yellowstone Park Foundation.


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