Avalanche Peak Hike Summary
If the 2,100 ft gain over 2.5 miles isn't enough to make your legs tremble, then the climb to 10,500 ft will have you wondering when the oxygen masks will drop from the absent overhead bins. Fear not! The destination is worth EVERY air sucking step.
Avalanche Peak Trailhead
Like so many other trailheads in Yellowstone National Park, the scarce parking at the west end of Eleanor Lake can be a bit of a challenge. Our strategy was to break camp early, eat breakfast on the trail, and be back to the Avalanche Peak trailhead in time for a late lunch (our typical plan - read about Beehive Trail in Acadia National Park). Plan on 4-5 hours to complete this strenuous round-trip trek. In any event, be sure to time your descent to bring you off the trail well before dusk. A challenge in broad daylight, it would be hazardous once the sun sets and temperatures start to drop. Be aware of lightning risks above treeline since summer months bring frequent thunderstorms.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
A chilly morning start, but within a few hundred yards, the steep gain will have you plenty warm. Leave extra room in your backpacks for shedded layers – you’ll need them again when you get above the Absaroka Range treeline, where the wind picks up and the air loses its ability to hold the heat from the sun. While the upper part of the hike is (thankfully) mosquito free, the lower two-thirds is replete with these annoying insects. Bring plenty of repellant.
Avalanche Peak: The Ascent
When the opportunities present themselves, keep a sharp eye out for wildlife–which includes mule deer and elk– on the edges of the lodgepole pine and spruce forested lower elevations. But don't forget to look up and enjoy taking a path less travelled. With everywhere in Yellowstone National Park, be bear aware and carry bear spray.
The middle part of the hike finds you in rolling alpine basins dotted with wildflower-filled meadows and much shorter sub-alpine forests of bristlecone and limber pine. Frequent switchbacks help with the climb through the steepest elevation changes, but there are stretches of intense straightaways which feel a little more like climbing a ladder than trekking.
On the upper third of the Avalanche Peak trail, prepare for unequaled panoramic views into Yellowstone National Park and beyond. You can even see as far as the Grand Tetons on the clearest of days. Look also for evidence of wildfires that charred parts of the area. White and yellow columbine peek out from the craggy landscape, reminding us that even at this elevation, life somehow finds a way. The elusive, well-camouflaged pikas can be seen with a sharp eye – listen for their high-pitched chirp.
Avalanche Peak: The Summit
Clearing the tree line, you'll start getting a full view of the expansive and wind-swept Absaroka Range. Snowpack covers portions of the scree-covered landscape even in mid-July and a near constant wind persists. Take frequent breaks to refuel, hydrate, reapply sunscreen, and have a snowball fight before making the final ascent. The elevation gain is not quite as intense, but the thin air will take its toll. Several man-made scree wind screens serve as rest points on the way to the Avalanche Peak summit and great photo ops abound.
The summit is nothing short of amazing and puts the 'wonder' back in wonderful. The footing is sketchy on the entire ridgeline and that, coupled with the wind and tired legs, could lead to a turned ankle so mind your step. You'll have to pull yourself away from the experience. Yellowstone Lake and most of the central and southern Yellowstone National Park are visible to the southwest and looking southeast from the broad summit of Avalanche Peak provides amazing views of Hoyt Peak and the expansive Absaroka Range.
Avalanche Peak: The Descent
The descent is a toe-pounding blister-producing experience, and we can’t honestly say that it was much easier than the climb. But with the aid of gravity, the afterglow of the summit, and the promise of lunch by the cool stream at the parking lot, you’ll not fuss too much about it.
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