As I was making my way around the boardwalk that weaves through the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, I encountered two women from Connecticut who were on their first winter trip to the park. After snapping some shots of coyotes on the prowl, the two asked what other sights -- beyond the boardwalk and its many viewpoints of geysers, hot springs and fumaroles -- they might take in.
Observation Point, I replied, a suggestion that quickly piqued their interest, more so when I told them it was nearby and a short hike.
Often over-looked, perhaps because of its short distance or the many other opportunities to be found in the Upper Geyser Basin, the Observation Point Trail offers a quick, relatively low-effort hike -- one perfect with youngsters still developing their hiking legs -- that rewards you with a grand view of the Old Faithful Geyser. The trailhead lies just beyond the apron surrounding the Old Faithful Geyser. If you walk past the geyser and into the woods towards the boardwalk that winds through the geyser basin, you'll quickly cross a footbridge over the Firehole River. Just beyond that, on your right, is the trailhead to Observation Point. Only about a mile, roundtrip, in length, the trail slowly zigs and zags back and forth to climb the 200-foot elevation to the overlook.
It's an easy grade, unless you're coming from sea level; then the 7,355-foot elevation at the trailhead might slow you down a bit. But that's OK, as the lodgepole forest is beautiful for a stroll, winter or summer, and you never know what you might see along the way. Bison are in the area, and in winter the cold gives away thermal features otherwise hidden in the forest by enhancing the steam they normally give off.
The grade was just enough on the 22-degree-below zero morning that I headed up to the overlook to keep me plenty warm. By the time I reached the top I was opening the pit-zips in my jacket, unzipping the turtleneck that reached to my chin, and even taking off my fleece hat, if just for a few minutes.
From the overlook, which is identified by a short log railing, the view was directly down to Old Faithful and the Snow Lodge behind it. However, on this bitterly cold morning the dense layer of cold air served like a lid on the steam from Old Faithful and the other thermal features in the basin. It was as if the basin held a cottony lake, one that on occasion the winds would poke holes into so you could see the features beneath the surface.
While I had worn snowshoes to reach the point, they weren't really necessary. Foot traffic, and the lack of fresh snow in the preceding day or two, had left a well-traveled, well-compacted path to the overlook. However, the crampons in the bottom of the snowshoes helped with the footing, something not to under-appreciate. Some folks also had cross-country skied to Observation Point, though the switchback nature of the trail, the lack of set tracks, and the compacted surface might make that more difficult than an approach on snowshoes.
If you decide to check this trail off your list during your next visit to Yellowstone, check with the Old Faithful Visitor Center for the next eruption of Old Faithful. That way you can plan to either take a photo of the eruption from the overlook, or time your hike to be back on the apron in time for the eruption.
This trail gains about 200 ft. in elevation to a prominent overlook providing a great view of the Upper Geyser Basin.
Trailhead: Firehole River footbridge behind Old Faithful Geyser
Distance: 1.1 mile (1.8 km) loop
Level of Difficulty: Moderate
You can rent snowshoes at the Bear Den Gift Shop in the Snow Lodge for $10 a half-day, $15 for all day. The shop carries MSR snowshoes, which are lightweight, perhaps too lightweight under heavy snow conditions. Cross-country ski packages, which include skis, poles, boots and gaiters, run $12 half-day and $18.50 all day.