The Down River Ski Loop is longer but less challenging than the Up River Ski Loop
. From the trailhead in West Yellowstone, the full loop is 6.2 miles (including both ways on the 1.2-mile connector trail used to reach the starting point). If you take the Down River Loop Cutoff you’ll reduce the distance by 1.4 miles, making it a 4.8-mile loop.
After cruising through the flat, straight, rather boring 1.2-mile Connector to Riverside Ski Trails
you arrive at a junction. To the left is the Down River Ski Loop (to the right is the Up River Ski Loop
). Turn left and begin your adventure.
In .1 miles take the right fork and head down the hill toward the river. The trail is mostly flat and gradually down hill on the way out. Soon you are along the Madison River. The river forms at the joining of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers about 12 miles up stream. The river ends near Three Forks, Montana where it joins the Jefferson and Gallatin rivers to form the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark named these rivers in 1805 to honor three individuals who were important to the expedition – President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison (who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase), and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin (who paid for the trip).
About 1.3 miles from the Down River Loop trailhead you'll pass the Down River Loop Cutoff. If you want to reduce the trip by 1.4 miles, then take a left here, otherwise continue straight. As the trail continues along the Madison, look for waterfowl including trumpeter swans and Canada geese. You might also spot an osprey or bald eagle circling above searching for a meal of brown, rainbow, or cutthroat trout or large whitefish that populate the river.
At the 2.1-mile mark the trail loops back to the left and enters the trees for the return trip. Many like the river so much they just turn around and follow their ski tracks back. If you continue the loop it's just 1.7 miles through the trees back to the junction.
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone
Watch for trumpeter swans on the Madison River. The river never freezes because of the hot spring runoff up stream. This allows these rare birds to winter here. These graceful birds grow to thirty pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet. Watch for their long neck to pop up like a periscope. If you see one, there is a good chance you will see another. They often mate for life and are usually seen in pairs. If you see some with a brown tone, these are their cygnets.