Sky Rim - East
ElevationAscent: 3,261' 994 m
Descent: -3,338' -1,017 m
High: 9,907' 3,020 m
Low: 6,837' 2,084 m
GradeAvg Grade: 7% (4°)
Max Grade: 64% (33°)
Popular runs nearby
4.3 mi 7.0 km • Out and Back • 1,285 ft Ascent 391.59 m Ascent
Coffin Lakes Hike
12.4 mi 20.0 km • Out and Back • 2,087 ft Ascent 636.2 m Ascent
Lava Creek Trail
4.7 mi 7.6 km • Point to Point • 218 ft Ascent 66.47 m Ascent
12.5 mi 20.1 km • Out and Back • 4,164 ft Ascent 1269.08 m Ascent
1.6 mi 2.5 km • Out and Back • 260 ft Ascent 79.21 m Ascent
Lava Lake Trail
5.7 mi 9.1 km • Out and Back • 1,581 ft Ascent 481.85 m Ascent
“The Sky Rim (east 1/2) - perhaps Yellowstone’s best mountain trail - is like running across the sky!”— Tom Carter
Features Birding · Lake · River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife
NOTE: You might also consider the Sky Rim - West run. It is a bit longer (19.3 miles) and gains 1100 feet more elevation, but has six spectacular miles on the Sky Rim. No mater how you do the Sky Rim, you’re going to LOVE it!
Need to Know
Lightening is a serious concern on the Sky Rim from Shelf Lake to past Big Horn Peak. The trail is highly exposed, with few opportunities to safely run down from the ridge. You should try to be past this section and coming down the mountain by early afternoon. If you are day running, start before sunup. Backpackers should try to reserve one of the two campsites at Shelf Lake, and get an early start up the ridge.
Exposure to wind, rain and/or cold temperatures can result in hypothermia. Bring warm clothing, stay dry and protect yourself from strong winds.
There is no reliable water (only patches of snow that often melt by late July) for the 7-mile stretch from Shelf Lake to Black Butte Creek. Make sure you fill up at the lake.
At the 6.1-mile mark, the trail again branches to the left. In the next 2 miles the trail climbs 1400 feet to the banks of beautiful Shelf Lake. The well-named, 7 acre, 40 foot deep, lake sits in a narrow shelf on the side of the mountain. At 9200 feet, Shelf Lake is one of the highest lakes in the park. There are two excellent campsites on the lake; they both have some of the best campsite views in Yellowstone. From the lake, the Specimen Creek Trail continues to the left, gaining another 140 feet over .2 miles and ends at its junction with the Sky Rim Trail at the 10.7-mile mark.
Before turning left and following the Sky Rim Trail to the southwest, consider turning right and taking a 2-mile side trip up Sheep Mountain (10095') and back. That trail climbs another 780 feet to the top of the highest mountain in this area which is conspicuously topped by a huge metal screen called a “microflector.”
From the junction with the Sky Rim Trail just above Shelf Lake, our trail tightly follows the narrow ridge, that makes up Yellowstone’s northern boundary, for 3 miles to the top of Big Horn Peak. At one time, this ridge lay outside the park. In the early 1920s plans were made to dramatically expand Yellowstone by annexing among others: Jackson Hole to the south; the Wapiti Valley to the east; and even the snowy Beartooth Mountains. Of course, these high hopes never completely materialized, but out of them came Grand Teton National Park and several Yellowstone boundary changes. In 1927 this northwest corner of the park was expanded to include the Gallatin Petrified Forest and a winter grazing grounds for a large elk herd.
The wonderful 360-degree views along the ridge to Big Horn Peak are amazing, and you think they couldn’t get better. But they do! Just beyond Big Horn Peak, our last .3 miles on the Sky Rim are the real crux of this run. Here the trail winds through a rocky section with precipitous drop-offs and awesome views. There is no more spectacular scenery anywhere in Yellowstone!
As you come out of the rocky section, the trail enters a beautiful open meadow (at 11.5 miles) that slopes downward to the southwest. This is where we leave the Sky Rim (which continues straight along the ridge) and follow the Black Butte Trail. The trail may be difficult to follow in the meadow. Just turn left and follow the meadow along the cliffs on your left to the base of the meadow. Soon you’ll pick up the trail and follow it as it drops 2400 feet in 4 miles. As you descend, keep an eye out to the north on King Butte's gray, gnarly face for brown, petrified trees. At 14.6 miles, the trail crosses Black Butte Creek (the first water source since Shelf Lake) and follows the creek as it drops 1100 feet in the final 3 miles to the highway.
Thanks to guidebook author, Tom Carter, for sharing this trail description. To learn more about visiting Yellowstone, check out his book, Day Hiking Yellowstone.
Flora & Fauna
You may also see mountain goats. Though not native to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, these fascinating animals were introduced in southwest Montana in the 1940s and have migrated into the park.
Land Manager: National Park Service - Yellowstone National Park