Summer Special: Breathtaking, Bighorns, and Blossoms: Hiking Yellowstone’s Mount Washburn
Editor's note: Wildlife and wildflowers are on display throughout the National Park System. You can find them together while exploring Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, the landscape along the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park, or while hiking in Yellowstone National Park just to name four parks. Contributing writer Beth Pratt found ample numbers of both along the Mount Washburn Trail in Yellowstone.
“If I could only choose one sight, in the wonderland, it would be, by all means, that view from the top of Mt. Washburn for you see there the entire park spread out before you in a single picture.” -- Park Visitor, 1878
Living in Yellowstone, I have many rites of spring that help me celebrate the end of the long northern winter: searching for the annual influx of mountain bluebirds, awaiting the arrival of the adorable newborn orange bison calves, and watching as the snow slowly disappears from Electric Peak—which I can view from my kitchen window.
But my favorite spring tradition is my annual trek up Mount Washburn, a hike that offers an abundance of rewards, from a vibrant rainbow of wildflowers, to remarkable encounters with bighorn sheep, to a spectacular 360-degree vantage point of the entire park.
Even the drive to the trailhead provides breathtaking views when approaching from the northern part of the park. After passing through the rolling green hills of Blacktail Basin, and then by the imposing basalt column cliffs of the Narrows in Yellowstone Canyon, Dunraven Pass, usually awash with yellow flowers, lifts you into the sky and introduces you to Mt. Washburn as you meander up the pass.
Dunraven Pass, 8,859 feet in elevation, bears the namesake of the Fourth Earl of Dunraven, an Oxford-educated man who was once guided in his explorations of the west by Buffalo Bill. Mount Washburn’s original name might have been Elephant’s Back, but in 1870 the Washburn Expedition named it for General Henry Dan Washburn, leader of “one of the most important early explorations of Yellowstone,” according to Lee Whittlesey’s Yellowstone Place Names.
Wildflowers greet you immediately at the trailhead -- in July and August the bloom is at its peak and the area provides the best wildflower show in Yellowstone, not an empty boast for a park with a high standard.
As the naturalist Enos Mills described in 1917: “The Yellowstone is a wild-flower garden. Wander where you will, you have the ever-new charm, the finishing touch, the ever-refreshing radiance of the wild flowers.”
In the grassy hillsides, you can find the reddish-orange fire of Indian paintbrush, the dainty ethereal shooting stars, and the vibrant purple clusters of the lupine. Further up the peak in the alpine tundra, my favorite wildflower—the sky pilot—miraculously blossoms from rocky outcroppings, its blue-violet hues appearing like pieces of the sky that have fallen to the ground.
Mount Washburn also has an interesting geologic story. As you ascend, your feet will be walking on the remnants of a volcano that erupted more than 50 million years ago. The southern two-thirds of the peak was destroyed 640,000 years ago in the last major volcanic event in the park. And during the last glaciation, icecaps covered Mt. Washburn, leaving striations—scratches left from ice moving across the surface—on the polished volcanic rock on Washburn’s summit, which geologist Kenneth Pierce used to chart the direction of the ice flow.
On the rocky cliffs as you approach the summit and on the alpine meadows surrounding the peak, herds of bighorn sheep can be found wandering the area. Although it’s rare to see bighorn rams, watching the playful antics of the young lambs on the hillsides is a treat. During one of my excursions up Mt. Washburn a large herd of ewes and young lambs gathered near the summit and grazed for hours to the delight of visitors.
At the summit, however, is the ultimate reward. As author Elbert Hubbard described in 1914, “From the tip top of Mount Washburn you can see the world in much of its glory. It is an entrancing view. You are in love with living. You want to do more of it. You plan to do big things when you get down into the work again.”
Mount Washburn provides the ultimate viewing platform for all of Yellowstone. Hayden Valley, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons off to the south, and even on occasion the steam from Old Faithful can all be seen from the 10,243-foot peak.
When people ask me that common question, “If I only had one day in.., ” I usually recommend a hike up Mount Washburn as a splendid way to introduce oneself to the Yellowstone landscape.