Specimen Creek to High Lake Loop
Yellowstone National Park, Montana
Length: 22.5mi (36.2km)
Difficulty: Moderate (well maintained, no facilities, moderate elevation gains, wildlife)
Completed: June 2021
In summary: A pleasant two-day lollipop tucked away near the northwest boundary of Yellowstone National Park, the Specimen Creek to High Lake Loop offers an abbreviated alternative to popular nearby treks like the Sky Rim Trail. The route takes hikers over rivers, meadows, and alpine ridges with great views of the expansive Yellowstone valley. It also showcases a pair of remote alpine lakes, complete with primitive campsites along their shores. While not one of Yellowstone’s crown jewels, this loop is a very accessible and enjoyable option for those looking to get in some fast mileage on a less populated trail.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Book a campsite in advance: This can be said of all trips within Yellowstone National Park and neighboring Grand Teton, but if you have your heart set on a night under the stars, you need to plan ahead. Park visitation is at an all-time high, and the supply of wilderness campsites has not increased as rapidly. Our signature last minute, go-with-the-flow approach to trip planning left us scrambling to pin down logistics and secure permits for an open backcountry site. To make a backcountry reservation, call: 307-344-2860
Be bear aware: Yellowstone Park is a wonderful place for viewing wildlife, but all trekkers in this region should come prepared given the increased odds of an animal encounter. Campsites in Yellowstone do not offer bear bins, but rather rely on hanging food from tall structures provided in camp, so be sure to bring rope and a sack to store odors in. Bear spray is also strongly recommended. Our campsite on the bank of High Lake showed clear signs of grizzly activity, so this is not advice that should be taken lightly.
Bring bug spray: While we had little issues with bugs during our early September visit, hikers in other months have found them to be quite bothersome in this region.
Day One: Specimen Creek Trailhead to High Lake Camp (12.3mi)
An abrupt right turn into a discrete gravel parking lot just off US Hwy 191 served as the beginning of Yellowstone backpacking adventure. The nature of this maneuver required a quick assessment of our tired rental car, but after the Kia passed inspection, we located the nearby Specimen Creek Trailhead and began an eastward journey into the Montana’s slim slice of Yellowstone National Park. It seemed the perfect day for backpacking; the sun was high and the clouds were thin, which was to be expected given that it was no earlier than 11:00am. We had planned to get an early start, but these ambitions faded upon realization that we would have to source some rope from a local outdoors store beforehand.
The initial out-and-back section of the lollipop-shaped trail ran alongside the small, but mighty, Specimen Creek. The impact of this winding little waterway on the environment was quite apparent in our surroundings, and it seemed fitting as the titular feature of the hike. Not only did the creek paint a vibrant green vein through the dry, late-summer landscape, but it had also determined the fate of large swaths of forest that were either burned or spared by a 2007 fire. As we walked on the greener side of the river, we admired the patchwork of colors on the opposite hills and enjoyed the sound of rushing water. Hiking only a handful of miles away from the Gallatin Bear Management Area, we were admittedly a bit jumpy at the prospect of a wildlife encounter. My heart skipped a beat when startled by a harmless pair of ruffed grouse moving in the brush nearby, so the ambient noise of the creek proved to be quite soothing.
About 2 miles in, we reached the Specimen’s fork, which happened to correspond with where the trail became a loop. Opting to knock the climb out on day one, we made a left turn and continued our journey clockwise. Shortly after the junction, a gradual change in scenery was compounded by a portentous darkening of the sky. Our beloved flat path turned upward and the forest around us thickened. We were starting to work our way out of the valley and up towards the trail’s secluded alpine lakes. Over the next hour or so, the elevation increased and our steady climb turned into a undesirable, but perfectly manageable, set of switchbacks. Eventually, we reached a small ridge and found ourselves standing near the shore of Crescent Lake at backcountry site WE6. This constituted a beautiful spot for a late lunch. However, some damp winds and a glimpse at fast moving clouds in distance cautioned us not to stay too long.
In spite of the encroaching weather system, the last half of our first half on the Specimen Creek Trail turned out to be quite enjoyable. We had approached our cruising altitude around Crescent Lake, and after a brief push to a scenic ridge that straddled the border of Yellowstone Park, the remainder of our day was characterized by a gentle traverse across the tops of various hills. The exposure atop many of these hills had left the hardy forests at the mercy of harsh winter weather, and as we worked our way around downed limbs we were treated to fantastic views of rolling forests and the expansive Gallatin Mountains in the distance.
As if the gnarled trees and great views had not provided us with enough excitement, we soon came across a huge pile of grizzly bear scat right in the middle of our trail. Ten minutes later we came across a second deposit, again right in the middle of the narrow dirt path as if marking the territory. Auspiciously, both were quite dry and made up almost entirely of pinecone flakes, so we confidently assured each other that equally hungry backpackers were probably not on the menu. From there on out, our quiet hike would be marred by a cacophony of whooping and intermittent shouts of ‘Hey Bear’.
With dusk and a rainstorm fast approaching, we finally made it to our destination of High Lake Camp. It was a great site, steps away from the glassy lake and protected by a stand of massive, old growth trees. We would have loved to dip our feet in and soak up the view, but the near certainty of rain infused a sense of brevity into our evening. Fortunately our luck from the day held, mother nature was courteous enough to let us pitch our tent and fire up the stove before treating us to a storm. Launching our sack of smelly supplies over the 25ft. tall crossbeam to protect it from bears turned out to be more effort than expected, but on the fourth try our site was secured and we were ready for bed. A reminder of our fecal findings from earlier in the day proved to be more than enough motivation for me to dig deep and perfect the throw.
Day Two: High Lake Camp to Specimen Creek Trailhead (12.2mi)
Following a peaceful night of listening to rain splash off our tent fly, we woke refreshed and ready for a downhill day. The first order of business of course was coffee and breakfast, which required us to lower the food bag from its rig on the bear pole. This was much easier than getting the bag up, but as I untied the rope I made an unsettling observation that I hadn’t the evening before. Each of the two tree trunks that served as support for the pole were covered in deep claw marks that stretched from the base of the tree to about 12ft. up. It appeared the primitive structure had thwarted a grizzly’s best efforts, though I couldn’t have imagined the fear that the nearby campers must have endured listening to a hungry bear trying to raid their food stash.
Once back on the trail, we reveled in a steady downhill grade that essentially carried us all the way back to the parking lot. The walking got even more enjoyable as the thing morning fog that had enveloped our lakeside camp started to burn off. Scenery-wise, most of the mileage alternated between thicker alpine forests and beautiful golden meadows. As it was late summer, most of the foliage outside of the pine trees had taken on brown hues that reflected a golden tone in the mid-morning sun. As pleasant as it was, we grew envious of those who must have experienced the trail during the colorful wildflower season.
The highlight of our homeward trek came about halfway through the day when we encountered a pair of massive Great Gray Owls, watching us inquisitively from their perch at the threshold of a large clearing. Had one not turned its head quickly to track our movements, we would have never noticed their presence. Unfortunately, the regal birds were quite camera-shy, gliding off into the forest as I crept in closer for a photo.
With roughly a mile to go until we reached the junction and the end of the lollipop loop, the forest canopy opened up and we found ourselves in the middle of the vast fire zone that we had been looking up at the day prior. It was quite a sight. Many of the resilient trees that had been around before the fire remained standing, like thousands of sentinels looking out over the valley below. They had been stripped of all their bark and limbs, then bleached from over a decade exposure to the sun. The myriad that hadn’t been so lucky and were felled by the fire lay shattered and stacked in piles below. Some remained charred, but a majority of the soot that you would expect to see after a wildfire had already been blanketed by an army of saplings and shrubs that had begun a race to replace the old forest.
Upon reaching the junction and turning back onto the trail we had trekked the day prior, we continued our record pace to the parking lot. Much remained the same, aside from the fact that we encountered two groups of eager backpackers heading out on the same adventure, doubling our total from the day before. It did give us some satisfaction to know however, that we had managed to get an faster start than some others on the first leg of our trip despite the delays. Fittingly, a cold beer and a quick soak in the frigid Specimen Creek concluded our short vacation in Yellowstone, though we made sure to stop by Old Faithful one last time on our way out.
- Map of Yellowstone NP backcountry sites
- Availability of YNP backcountry sites
- Backcountry permit office: 307-344-2860
- Yellowstone Backcountry Trip Planner
- Backpacker.com blog