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Hike Mount Washburn in Yellowstone

One of Yellowstone’s most iconic hikes, Mount Washburn offers great views and a chance to go inside a fire lookout at the summit.

If you’re looking for a spectacular, moderate-to-difficult peak hike (depending on your fitness level) with 360-degree views, head to Mount Washburn in the northwestern part of Yellowstone National Park. It’s between Tower Fall and Canyon Village. What makes Mount Washburn so spectacular is the trail tops off at 10,219 feet, is lined with incredible wildflowers, especially in July, and offers breathtaking views from its summit.

How Long Does It Take to Climb Mount Washburn?

While the park staff says it’s 6 miles round-trip, Gaia GPS clocks it in at 7 miles round-trip from the parking lot to the top and back. Depending on your fitness level and how often you stop, this hike could take you anywhere from three to six hours. You’ll start at the Dunraven Pass trailhead that’s 4.5 miles north of Canyon Junction. Get here early in the morning to get a parking spot since this is a very popular hike and the parking lot does get full.

The trail is nice and wide, as it gradually winds up the mountain. This allows you to have some space as you hike along this smooth trail. Mount Washburn is actually a remnant of an extinct ancient volcano. If you’re hiking early in the summer or if Yellowstone had an exceptionally snowy spring, you may find snow along the entire trail or at the top. Be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots, so that your feet are well-dressed if you encounter snowy conditions. You can check with a ranger ahead of time at the Canyon Visitor Education Center in Canyon Village to find out what the trail conditions are ahead of time. Traction devices like MICROspikes or YakTrax, or trekking poles will be helpful if the trail is still snowy or icy.

If you don’t find snow, you’ll discover fields of wildflowers, especially in July, as you hike toward the summit. Keep your eyes out for bighorn sheep as well, since they are known to frequent the area and can even cause delays if they decide to stop and linger in the middle of the trail. Be sure to keep 25 yards between you and bighorn sheep and 100 yards between you and bears and wolves.

Hikers on Mount Washburn Trail near the summit with a view of the fire lookout
Hikers on Mount Washburn Trail near the summit with a view of the fire lookout (Photo: Grant Ordelheide)

Mount Washburn’s Fire Lookout

When you reach the top, you’ll find a fire lookout tower that has interpretive exhibits and restrooms inside. The park has two other fire lookout stations that are staffed from mid-June until fire season ends every year. Firefighters stationed at the Mount Washburn lookout, along with the park’s other two, monitor fire activity all summer.

The fire lookout is a great place to take shelter from the wind, if it’s gusty while you’re there. Beyond, you’ll see Yellowstone Lake, the Absaroka mountain range and more. On a clear day, you can see between 20 to 50 miles.

When to Hike Mount Washburn

The best time to hike Mount Washburn is during the summer months. Because its summit is more than 10,000 feet high, you can be hiking in deep snow in late spring, early summer and even into early July. Check with a ranger to find out what the trail conditions are like before you hit the trail.

Park officials strongly discourage people from hiking this trail in the fall months of September and October. Grizzly bears are known to frequent this area in the fall as they are trying to stock up on calories to get them through hibernation in the winter. For your safety and for the safety of the bears, avoid this trail in autumn.

Furthermore, do this hike in the morning, so you’re off the summit before early afternoon. In the West, clear blue-sky mornings often give way to afternoon thunderstorms. Because this hike brings you above tree line, you can put yourself in danger of getting struck by lightning during summer afternoon storms.

What to Bring on Your Mount Washburn Hike

As with everywhere in Yellowstone, bring your bear spray and have it easily accessible. If you run into a grizzly bear, you’re not going to have time to search for your bear spray in the bottom of your backpack. Be sure it is on your hip belt or in a pocket that you can access within a couple of seconds. While this hike is popular, grizzly bears can frequent popular hikes, parking lots and remote areas.

This hike reaches a high point of 10,219 feet, so you will want to bring a lot of water to fight headaches, altitude sickness and dehydration. Plus, the air in the West is much drier than more humid spots in the country like the East Coast and Midwest. Because there is no water along the trail or at the summit, you’ll need to pack enough water to get you up and down the mountain. Don’t forget to pack snacks, too, to keep you fueled along the trail.

You’ll also want to pack layers of clothing since the wind can start to whip around at the summit. That means you should pack a warm hat, a wind layer and a warm layer like a fleece or heavy sweatshirt. These items may sound like an overkill for summertime, but the higher you hike in altitude, the colder it gets, so what could be a 75-degree day at the parking lot could feel like 55 degrees at the summit. Sturdy hiking shoes are a must, too.

Lastly, there is no shade on this hike, so wear sunscreen and a hat to protect your face from the sun.