This is perhaps the best overnight route in Yellowstone. It has it all -- a spectacularly beautiful lake, interesting backcountry geysers and hot springs, and one of the best mountain summits in the park.
This route is best done as a 2 or 3-day backpack. Head to Heart Lake on day 1; then make a day run of Mt. Sheridan and head out in the afternoon or stay another night and make your exit on the 3rd day. In any event you should summit before noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms that are common in the mountains.
Those wishing to run just to the lake & geyser basin and back can make the 17-mile trip in a long day, but it will not leave enough time to fully enjoy this remarkable area.
The trail begins gently rising through lodgepole forests and occasional meadows. This area was partially burned in 1988. Lodgepoles have an unusual way of coping with fire. Besides their annual seed cones, they produce a special "serotinous cone," which only opens at 113 F, allowing the forest to reseed following fire. Keep an eye out for the young lodgepole pines sprouting along the trail.
At the 4.5-mile mark, the trail breaks open suddenly, and affords one of the most memorable vistas in all of Yellowstone. Hydrothermal activity is evident beneath you. As you peer down Witch Creek drainage, Heart Lake appears deceivingly close. In the next mile, the trail descends 500 feet through forests heavily burned by the 1988 fires.
At the 8-mile mark, the trail passes Heart Lake Ranger Station and reaches a junction with the Trail Creek Trail
on the shores of Heart Lake. The Heart Lake Trail
continues right (south) and follows the western shore. There are excellent campsites in the area, one of which was recently named the 4th best National Park backcountry campsite in America by Backpacker Magazine (so get your reservation in early).
Heart Lake covers 2150 acres and has a depth of 180 feet. It has a healthy population of native cutthroat trout and large lake trout. Less than 0.5 miles past the trail junction a large thermal area is spotted across a small meadow. To avoid marshy areas, continue south on the trail until you pass the springs and reach the trees. Then follow the tree line out.
There are several geysers and a beautiful spring (Columbia Spring) in this group. Rustic Geyser, dormant since 1984, is the largest (25-to-30-foot) and most famous in Heart Lake Geyser Basin. Since 1984, the new star of the basin is Composite Geyser. Its 20-foot eruptions occur at intervals of 1 to 3 hours. Kickback and wait awhile. It's quite a thrill to have a geyser play just for you! A short distance beyond the geyser basin, the trail passes the Mount Sheridan Trail
, then parallels the lake's western shore for several miles.
Mount Sheridan (10,308') looms over Heart Lake. From the lake, its only 3.5 miles to the top, but it towers 2,800 feet above the lake and provides a challenge to even the hardiest runner. The trailhead is located 200 yards south of the Rustic Geyser area. As you begin the ascent, scan the skyline to locate the fire lookout station which marks the top of the mountain. This impressive mountain was named for General Philip H. Sheridan, a civil war veteran who later commanded U.S. military forces in the West during the Indian wars. General Sheridan was one of the first conservationists to call for significant southern and eastern expansions of Yellowstone and strongly influenced the decision to send military troops to protect the park in the 1880s.
The Mount Sheridan Trail
winds its way up a ridge and assaults the mountain from the north. As you near the top, the trail breaks out of the trees and the views truly become spectacular. Heart Lake spreads out at your feet. The Tetons seem close enough to touch. Shoshone and Lewis lakes, as well as much of Yellowstone Lake, unfold before you.
The fire lookout station on top of the mountain is one of four such stations in Yellowstone. Some bizarre things have happened to rangers who occasionally occupy these stations. In 1973, Barry Nateman, stationed here on Mount Sheridan, was struck by lightning. His hair turned white and he was thrown a short distance, but somehow he survived. Not to be outdone, the lookout ranger on Mount Holmes was relaxing in the "outhouse" when a big wind came up and blew him and it down the side of the mountain! Once you have enjoyed your stay, retrace your steps to the trailhead. Enjoy your afternoon, but remember, it's a good climb from Heart Lake 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