Pelican Valley (5K3) to the Lamar River/Soda Butte Trailhead (3K1) - Trail Descriptions
Light to Moderate Traffic
Hike through the magnificent Pelican Valley and you'll have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the mighty grizzly bear, the American bison and the elusive gray wolf. Camp beside the pristine waters of the Lamar River and you'll understand the true meaning of solitude.
Important Note: The Pelican Valley is a very unique place within the Yellowstone ecosystem and if you plan on hiking in this area you should be aware of the special guidelines that are in place for backcountry travel in this region. The Pelican Valley Trail does not open to hiking until July 4th, and visitors are only allowed to travel in this area between the hours of 9am and 7pm. These restrictions are in place to minimize human and animal interactions, especially with grizzly bears that frequent this area. It is always a good idea to check with park rangers at any of the visitor centers throughout the park for the latest trail conditions and trail closures for those areas you plan to visit. Always have an alternate plan in place when hiking or backpacking in Yellowstone just in case your first choice is unavailable.
Pelican Valley Trailhead to Campsite 3T2 - 11.6 Miles - Easy to Moderate Hiking
From the Pelican Creek Trailhead you'll enter a large meadow, crossing a series of wooden footbridges before reaching a forested area to the northeast. Here the trail begins climbing a short hill, gaining just over 100 ft. as you pass through an area significantly effected by fire. At 1.6 miles you leave the forest behind and enter the massive Pelican Valley which stretches to the northeast for nearly 5 miles. The slow moving waters of Pelican Creek twist and loop through this large valley in a series of sharp bends that add countless miles to its journey toward Yellowstone Lake. Before long the trail heads briefly to the south where you'll pass the junction for the Turbid Lake Trail (2.2 miles) which enters from the right. Here the trail turns to the northeast and remains a well defined path as it rises and falls over the gently rolling hillsides that descend from the east.
At 3.2 miles the trail passes the remnants of an old bridge that had at one time spanned the shallow waters of Pelican Creek. Another trail crosses the creek and heads north through the open expanse of the valley. This route will take you to the following destinations; Astringent Creek Trail in 1.6 miles, Upper Pelican Creek Trail in 3.4 miles and the Pelican Cone Trail in 3.8 miles. This trail description follows the Mist Creek Trail which continues along the eastern edge of Pelican Valley, making its way toward the Pelican Springs Patrol Cabin at 7 miles. When we did this hike in late August it felt very much like autumn. The wildflowers were all but gone, the thick, dark clouds that raced overhead were threatening rain, and the grass along the trail had turned a beautiful gold. Winter never seems far off in Yellowstone.
At mile 7.0 you'll reach the Pelican Springs Patrol Cabin which is an ideal place to stop and have lunch before the 1.8 mile climb up and over Mist Creek Pass. The Pelican Springs Patrol Cabin is located at the northern end of the valley and like most backcountry cabins in Yellowstone this small outpost is completely dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. The Pelican Springs Patrol Cabin was first built in 1917 and was then rebuilt in 1935.
After leaving the cabin the trail skirts a small meadow before entering an area of new growth that continues as you ascend toward Mist Creek Pass. The hike to the top of the pass is a very gradual grade that climbs around 800 ft. in 1.8 miles. As the climb gains elevation you'll have an occasional view across the entire length of the Pelican Valley, a panorama that extends all the way to Yellowstone Lake and beyond. As you near the top of the pass the landscape is dotted with a significant number of dead snags and small clumps of trees that were left unburned by the Clover Mist fire that swept through this area in 1988. Mist Creek Pass reaches an elevation of 8,790 ft. From this point the Lamar River Trailhead is still another 2 days and 25.2 miles away.
On the descent from Mist Creek Pass the landscape remains very much the same and there are views that stretch to the northeast toward a large meadow where the first of two campsites (3T3 & 3T2) are located. As you enter this meadow the spur trail to campsite 3T3 ★★★★★ enters from the right. A small cluster of tall pine trees surround the cooking area just behind the campsite a long ridgeline shows the scars of the Clover Mist fire. This is a common sight throughout much of Yellowstone.
Campsite 3T2 ★★★★★ is another 0.9 miles further north along the Mist Creek Trail and was our destination for the evening. This site is located across a shallow gully that cradles Mist Creek as it flows north toward Cold Creek and the Lamar River. The cooking area is nicely shaded, and a short walk south of the camping area reveals the entire length of this secluded valley as it spreads out toward Mist Creek Pass.
Campsite 3T2 to Campsite 3L7 - 10.3 Miles - Easy to Moderate Hiking - 2 Stream Crossings
On day two the trail leaves this peaceful valley and descends at a gentle grade for about 5.7 miles as it heads toward the Lamar River. The high peaks that line the eastern edge of the park are often visible through the numerous stands of dead snags that fill this drainage. At 14 miles a small break in the ridge to the left ascends to what is known as Lovely Pass, providing access to the vast Mirror Plateau.
As you descend further toward the Lamar River the views widen and at around mile 15 the broad peaks of Little Saddle, Hague and Saddle Mountains dominate the scenery to the northeast. A few miles south of the Lamar River, Cold Creek joins Mist Creek and this small stream grows a little wider. At 17.1 miles you reach Cold Creek which is the first of a handful of stream crossings you'll encounter over the next two days. Moving past Cold Creek you'll pass the Frost Lake Trail which connects from the right and shortly after this trail junction you'll ford the Lamar River (easy). In late August all of the streams along the Lamar River Trail are very easy to negotiate.
After fording the Lamar River (easy) there are two campsites to the left and right of the trail located just a short distance from each other. Campsite 3U4 ★★★★★ is a beautiful "stock only" site. To the right is campsite number 3F1 ★★★★★. This area sits at the very southern end of the Lamar River Trail which now begins its 16 mile journey north along one of Yellowstone's most iconic rivers.
From this location the Lamar River Trail follows the ribbon-like course of this remote waterway, rising and falling with the rolling topography along its eastern banks. There are plenty of beautiful campsites to choose from and most are located right next to the Lamar River. Two out of the thirteen sites are reserved for "stock parties" only (3U4 & 3L6), with the remainder available for backpackers (3F1, 3U1, 3U2, 3U3, 3L1, 3L2, 3L3, 3L4, 3L7, 3L8 & 3L9). Click the campsite numbers for more information. Many of the campsites along the Lamar River Trail are also found near the edge of large meadows which provide spectacular scenery, and if you're a fly fisherman, the campsites beside the Lamar River Trail offer plenty of chances to wet a line.
Our destination on day two was backcountry campsite 3L7 ★★★★ which is located 23.5 miles north of the Pelican Creek Trailhead and 1.3 miles south of the Miller Creek Trail. The area around the campsite is heavily wooded and the site itself is situated between a small meadow to the east and the bubbling waters of the Lamar River.
Campsite 3L7 to the Lamar River Trailhead - 10.4 Miles - Easy to Moderate Hiking - 3 Stream Crossings
On day three the trail continues to follow the Lamar River north over very similar terrain, climbing small hillsides and then descending to the level of the river. This type of terrain will certainly give your quads and calves a good workout. There are three small streams to ford between campsite 3L7 and the Lamar River Trailhead The first is Miller Creek at 24.4 miles, followed by Calfee Creek at mile 25.6, and finally Cache Creek at mile 30. Cache Creek is the widest of the three and in the spring it can be a difficult stream to navigate. If you plan to hike this trail in the spring please check with rangers regarding the conditions of these streams. Spring runoff can remain heavy through the month of July, making it difficult to access this area. If you are planning to fly fish the Lamar River it's obviously best to wait until the river clears, and it is often one of the last rivers in the park to become fishable. On this particular backpacking trip it rained on our very first night and by the time we reached the Lamar River the following day it was the color of Yoo-Hoo, making it impossible for us to do any fishing.
At mile 24.4 you'll cross Miller Creek (easy) which descends from the high peaks of the Absaroka Mountains on the park's eastern borders. Shortly after, the Miller Creek Trail Junction enters from the right, heading in the same direction as the creek that bears its name. Within the next mile the trail reaches a high-point where you'll have a view north toward the Calfee Creek Patrol Cabin, its rust-colored roof easily visible among the green pine trees that surround it. After passing the spur trail for the patrol cabin the trail reaches the edge of Calfee Creek at mile 25.6.
Over the next 5 miles the trail climbs and descends the smaller hillsides flanking the river to the east. There are four campsites remaining between Miller Creek and Cache Creek (3L1, 3L2, 3L3 & 3L4) and all are top notch campsites with 3L4 being our favorite. After passing campsite 3L3 the trail moves away from the Lamar River as it nears Cache Creek. At around 30 miles there is a panoramic view looking northwest directly into the legendary Lamar Valley.
The last two campsites (3L1 & 3L2 ★★★★★) are located on opposite sides of Cache Creek. Site 3L1 is on the north side and 3L2 lies to the south side of this Lamar River tributary. Campsite 3L1 is an easy site to reach from the Lamar River/Soda Butte Trailhead if you're looking for a manageable overnighter (3.6 miles one-way).
After crossing Cache Creek the trail climbs a steep hillside that is obviously used by bison and other animals that frequent the area. There are a number of game trails crisscrossing the main path but the orange trail markers will guide you through this network of false pathways. About halfway up the hillside you'll see the signpost for the Cache Creek Trail that connects from the east. After climbing about 250 ft. the trail levels off and the landscape begins to open, with the Lamar Valley now in plain sight. As you hike these last few miles to the Lamar River/Soda Butte Trailhead savor the incredible panoramas that make the Lamar Valley so popular, and as you descend into this wide valley be on the lookout for bison, grizzly bears, wolves, elk and pronghorn antelope. These animals are present in large numbers in and around the Lamar Valley, especially bison, and can often be seen grazing across this enormous open landscape.
At mile 32.0 the Specimen Creek Trail splits off to the left just as you reach the valley floor. Here the topography is now completely flat with sagebrush growing in profusion across much of the valley. In another 0.2 miles the trail forks once again, with the left path heading to the trailhead for stock parties. The right trail leads to the parking lot for day hikers and backpackers.
The last 1.2 miles of this hike are absolutely breathtaking, with the jagged peaks along the parks northeastern border rising steeply toward the Wyoming skyline. For the first time in three days you'll begin seeing and hearing the telltale signs of civilization as motor vehicles pass along the park's Northeast Entrance Road, signifying the end of another incredible Yellowstone wilderness adventure.
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WARNING: YOU MUST BE WELL PREPARED and carry the necessary equipment to make your hike a safe one. You are responsible for your own well-being while trekking in these remote wilderness locations. Help or rescue can be hours or even days away.
Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.
Nearby Hiking Trails
Avalanche Peak Trailhead
Nine Mile (Trailhead 5K5)
Storm Point/Indian Pond Trailhead
Pelican Creek Nature Trail
Fishing Bridge RV Campground - Hardsided Campers Only - May 8 - Sept. 20 - Fishing Bridge RV Campground is located approximately 2.5 miles west of the Pelican Valley Trailhead and has 325 RV sites and full amenities. RV sites are $46.75 per night. Reservations are accepted. Click here to make online reservations or call: 1-866-439-7375. Generators are permitted from 8am - 8pm. A gas station, lodging, general store, restaurants, laundry, dump station, and visitor center are located nearby. Get directions from the Pelican Valley Trailhead to the Fishing Bridge Campground.
Bridge Bay Campground - May 22 - Sept. 7 - Bridge Bay Campground is located approximately 7 miles west of the Pelican Valley Trailhead and has 432 sites. Campsites are $21.50 per night. Reservations are accepted. Click here to make online reservations or call: 1-866-439-7375. Generators are permitted from 8am - 8pm. A gas station, lodging, general store, restaurants, laundry, dump station, and visitor center are located at Fishing Bridge - Get directions from the Pelican Valley Trailhead to the Bridge Bay Campground.