Bunsen Peak Hike - YNP

Bunsen Peak (8,564 feet) was on our agenda for our trip to Yellowstone in May of this year.  That weekend though the peak was so socked in with clouds and fog we decided that the views wouldn't be very good and so changed plans.  We finally managed to get to the top this past weekend though.

The whole weekend had been pretty overcast, really, but since it was October we were just happy it wasn't super cold.  We thought we might have to skip Bunsen again because of the low-hanging clouds.  Sunday proved to have patches of blue sky breaking through the solid wall of clouds we'd hiked under the previous two days though and so off we went.

The hike to Bunsen Peak is an out and back with an easy round-trip mileage of only four miles total.  The rise in elevation was really gradual and mild, too.  It wasn't until the last half mile or so that it even felt like we were going uphill.

The trailhead and parking area are along the Mammoth-Norris Road, about five miles south of Mammoth.  In fact, you can see the brilliantly white geyser terraces and red roofed park buildings at Mammoth at many points along the trail up to the summit.

From the trailhead the ever-so-gradual ascent begins and all of the sudden we were surprisingly high over the Golden Gate Canyon with the highway running through it down below us, cars whizzing by.  It was such an easy stroll with good views of the canyon.
The opposite wall of the canyon from where we were, across the highway, is part of the Snow Pass/Hoodoos hike we enjoyed in April of this year.  We could seek other hikers over there and waved to them.  They waved back.  It was neat.  We were all clearly happy to be out of the car, high above the highway, and taking it all in.  The trees on their side of the canyon, on the ridgeline above the hoodoos, were frosted white.
As we continued, Matt spotted a solitary Mountain Goat on the upper slopes of Bunsen.  The bright white coat stood out starkly against the rocks.  The goat was clearly aware of us--we had a minute long staring contest.  We'd never seen them in the park before (and as it turns out they not native and were introduced to the area  in the 1940's and 50's).  It was a pleasant surprise.
The trail, really flattening out and making for nice, easy strolling, continues on into some lodgepole pines and fir trees.  The area was part of the fires of 1988.  Partly as a result of this the forest contains a real mix of tree generations.  There are towering adults and minuscule babies.  The ground is scattered with deadfall, though the trail is kept very clear.  There were American Red Squirrels using all the downfall as a network of superhighways.  It was impressive to watch them navigate from one tree to the next, never touching the ground.
Leaving the trees the trail opens up into a grassy field which permits nice, unobstructed views of the Swan Lake Flat and the surrounding valley.  The blue sky panorama, absent for the majority of the weekend, was a very welcome sight.  It also meant we could actually see the mountains rising up as the beautiful backdrop to the autumn-changing valley.
Its probably around here that the elevation gain becomes noticeable.  Its still easily manageable, but its no longer so gentle I couldn't even tell aside from our increasing distance from the roadway.  There are switchbacks to make the climb agreeable, though some of them are rather long switchbacks, in my opinion.  The longest one does have a reward at the end though.  When we stopped to have a sip of water and take in the view the unusual, orange-tinted Cathedral Rock was jutting out of the side of Bunsen Peak right there before us.  I'd noticed the lovely hued rocks perched high above the highway when coming and going through the north entrance.  I'd never realized they were carved into such impressive columns from that vantage point though.  The Mammoth terraces were visible in the valley behind it.
It was really interesting to us to see Terrace Mountain and the hoodoos area from such a different vantage point as well.  We've seen it countless times as we drive by on our way in and out of the park.  We hiked around Terrace Mountain and through the tumbled, grey travertine rocks that lay around it.  Terrace Mountain was once a geothermal feature, much like Mammoth, really, a massive hot spring terrace.  Now its inactive, but a very fascinating relic of the always-changing nature of the geothermal areas.
Continuing up the mountain we got warmer as we went up, up, up, and the air got cooler.  The trees grew increasingly frosted. It was just a scant coating at first and then at increasing elevations grew thicker and thicker.  At points it was half an inch thick, clinging to the individual pine needles.  Many of the trees were solidly white, but there was not a speck of snow or frost on the ground.  It was pretty special, pretty strange.  We took in mouthfuls of frost right off the bough melting it delightfully in our warm, thirsty mouths.  It was another unexpected treat.
After a couple more, much shorter, switch backs we could see the telecommunication equipment that the Park Service has up on Bunsen Peak and knew that the top was very, very close.  Passing the rather cute little log cabin that houses radio technology we continued on to the summit, soaking in the views in every direction.  We were so happy the thick, white fog and clouds that had been clinging to the peaks the previous couple days broke up just enough to allow us this opportunity to see the distant peaks.
We found some comfy rocks to lean against at the summit and sat and enjoyed the lay of the land, scouting animals in the spotting scope, and generally just basking in the calm, quiet, intermittent sunshine.
Knowing we still wanted time to have lunch, soak at the Boiling River, and make it home to Billings before the middle of the night we, reluctantly, headed back down the mountain.  We'd seen no one on our ascent, but passed two groups and a solo hiker on the way back down.  The frost was completely gone.  We'd have never guessed at that winter wonderland we hiked through if we hadn't seen it ourselves.  Its amazing what a fraction of sunlight can do.  We scanned the slopes for the Mountain Goat and spotted him once again.  He was resting under a tree this time, looking very comfy himself.  It was a very good hike and an easy summit to attain--our second of the weekend.  We'll have to come back with a picnic lunch on some crystal clear day.


  1. Frosted trees! They're pretty, too. (comfy rocks, huh?) :D

    1. The rocks were placed just so as to be surprisingly recliner like. :) The frosted trees were dazzling in a magical winterwonderland sort of way.


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