Hiking Specimen Creek to Shelf Lake
Specimen Creek, Yellowstone National Park
Hike #3, Specimen Creek Trail to Shelf Lake & Bighorn Peak
Specimen Creek Trailhead WK3
Northwest Section - Moderate to Heavy Traffic
Yellowstone National Park

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Location: Northwest Section (See map to the right)
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult - Out-and-back, or overnighter with possible loops
Distance: 16.4 mi/26.4 km round-trip
Elevation Gain: 2,325 ft.
Best time to visit: Mid-July-October

Backcountry Camping: Yes. 5 sites - WE1, WE4, WE5, WE6 & WE7
Click here to view a list of backcountry campsites for this area.

Full Description: Read the full description or view photos of this hike.
Topo Maps: Beartooth Publishing - Yellowstone National Park

Finding the Trailhead - Specimen Creek (WK3)
From Bozeman:
Drive 61.6 miles south on route 191. After you enter Yellowstone National Park you'll pass the Daly Creek and Black Butte trailheads. The Specimen Creek parking lot will be on the left just before the bridge.
Get Directions from Bozeman

From West Yellowstone: From the center of town drive north on U.S. 191 towards the town of Bozeman for approximately 26.6 miles. The trailhead will be on the right just past the bridge that crosses Specimen Creek.
Get Directions from West Yellowstone

NOTE - Backcountry permits can be obtained in West Yellowstone at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center - (307) 344-2876.

Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.





Specimen Creek Trailhead Location

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Specimen Creek Overview Map
Specimen Creek Trail Stats


Trail Details
Trail Condition: Excellent - Well marked
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Total Mileage: 16.4 mi /26.4 km as an out-and-back
Type of Hike: Out-and-back, overnighter with possible loops
Wow Factor: Rugged mountain scenery
Elevation Gain: 2,325 ft.

Nearest Towns: Big Sky, Bozeman & West Yellowstone
24.4 miles south of Big Sky, MT - Get Directions
61.6 miles south of Bozeman, MT - Get Directions
26.6 miles north of West Yellowstone, MT - Get Directions

Trailhead Coordinates
Latitude: 45.012310
Longitude: -111.081653

Shelf Lake Coordinates
Latitude: 45.091338
Longitude: -111.013455

Approx. Elevations
Trailhead Elevation = 6,915 ft.
Shelf Lake Elevation = 9,240 ft.
Elevation Gain = 2,325 ft.
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Yellowstone Backcountry Info


Specimen Creek Photo Gallery
Specimen Creek to Shelf Lake Trail Description

Specimen Creek Trail to Shelf Lake with an Optional Hike to Bighorn Peak (WK3) - Moderate to Heavy Traffic

Spend a few days hiking to this remote alpine lake and you'll be rewarded with dramatic mountain scenery that is surely responsible for one of Montana's most captivating nicknames...Big Sky Country!

The Specimen Creek Trailhead is located on US HWY 191 along the northwestern edge of Yellowstone between the towns of Bozeman, Big Sky and West Yellowstone, Montana. This area of Yellowstone is located within the state of Montana and is bordered by the Gallatin National Forest and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness which comprise another 259,000 acres to the park's north and west. This is a steep and rugged wilderness that takes you deep into the high peaks of the Gallatin Range of southwest Montana.

From the parking lot the trail follows Specimen Creek, gaining very little elevation as you make your way toward the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail at 2.0 miles. The terrain over the first few miles is mostly wooded and the creek often skirts the southern edge of the trail as you hike through magnificent forests of lodgepole pine. As you near the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail you'll enter an area that was significantly burned in 2007 by the Owl Fire, and for a short time the landscape is completely transformed by these standing dead trees. In June and July the wildflowers that grow in this soil provide a brilliant contrast to the blackened tree trunks lining the trail.

Just after the junction with the Sportsman Lake Trail is campsite WE1 (★★), the first backcountry site along the trail. WE1 is not a very attractive site because fire has damaged the trees surrounding the cooking area, but it does offer a short hike in from the trailhead you get a late start on a multi-day trip.

After passing campsite WE1 the trail continues in a northeasterly direction as you follow the North Fork of Specimen Creek through unburned lodgepole forests that are occasionally broken by small meadows bordering the creek. If you look to the right (east) along this section of the trail you can see the devastating effects of the 2007 Owl Fire which has completely decimated the trees on the northern slopes of Meldrum Mountain, many of which are still standing.

At 4.1 miles the trail enters a large meadow where you'll need to ford a narrow and braided section of Specimen Creek. During the summer you may find a few low spots in the creek where you can hop across but I would go prepared to ford the stream in a pair of sandals or in bare feet. After crossing the creek the trail enters the forest once again and meanders through thick timber for the next mile until you reach campsite WE4 (★★★). This is a nice site that sits at the edge of a long sloping meadow surrounded by thick pine forests climbing the steep mountain slopes directly in front and behind the camp.

The next mile to the junction with the Crescent and High Lake Trail remains heavily wooded with an occasional view toward the northeast and the craggy outcrops that rise along the flanks of Bighorn Peak and the Sky Rim Trail. At the junction for High and Crescent Lakes (an optional hike) you would need to cross Specimen Creek to reach those alpine lakes. It's not terribly wide here and you may find a narrow spot upstream where you can jump safely across. You do not need to cross the stream if you are hiking to Shelf Lake.

From the Crescent and High Lake junction the trail starts to gain elevation and the grade becomes much steeper over the next 2.0 miles as you climb 1,400 ft. to reach Shelf Lake. At 7.0 miles the trail turns left, heading north and continues the steep climb to the lake. At 7.7 miles the terrain begins to open with sporadic views of the high peaks surrounding the lake. The trees at this elevation are often twisted into strange and grotesque shapes by the powerful winds that race across this high mountain range. Their presence is a sure sign that you are nearing Shelf Lake.

Shelf Lake is located at just over 9,000 ft., and the two campsites (WE5 & WE7) are both 5-star sites nestled beside this emerald colored alpine lake. This is a great place to spend a few days exploring the Sky Rim Trail that runs north along the spine of the Gallatin Range. This is one of the few locations in Yellowstone where you can climb high above the surrounding landscape, enjoying the views usually reserved for mountain goats.

OPTIONAL HIKE 1: From Shelf Lake it's 3.0 miles one-way along the Sky Rim Trail to the summit of Bighorn Peak. This is a strenuous but very rewarding hike over the high ridgeline at the southern end of the Gallatin Range. Along the way there are plenty of spectacular views in all directions, and after reaching the 9,930 ft. summit of Bighorn Peak you'll have sweeping 360º panoramas of the surrounding wilderness areas that border Yellowstone. NOTE: Snow can remain on the northern slopes of the Sky Rim Trail well into July so be prepared if you visit here early in the summer.

OPTIONAL HIKE 2: If a trek over to Bighorn Peak seems a bit daunting, you can take a much shorter hike from Shelf Lake along the Sky Rim Trail to Sheep Mountain. The summit of this broad peak is located at the southern terminus of the Sky Rim Trail and tops out at just over 10,000 ft. Sheep Mountain is 1.2 miles one-way from Shelf Lake and climbs another 850 ft. above the lake. From the summit there are breathtaking views of the Tom Miner Basin to the north, the Absaroka Beartooth Mountains to the northeast and the jagged summit of Electric Peak to the southwest.

NOTE: If you're planning a backcountry trip into this area of the park and you're driving south from Bozeman or Big Sky you'll need to drive to West Yellowstone to obtain your backcountry permit. Permits are available at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center.





Click here to download your FREE Yellowstone Backcountry Trip Planner - Contains backcountry campsite information, backcountry permit information, park service phone numbers, bear management information and hiking/backpacking checklists.

WARNING: YOU MUST BE WELL PREPARED and carry the necessary equipment to make your hike a safe one. You are responsible for your own well-being while trekking in these remote wilderness locations. Help or rescue can be hours or even days away.

Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.







Nearby Hiking Trails
Daly Creek (Trailhead WK1) - Provides access to the north end of the beautiful and rugged Sky Rim Trail.
Black Butte (Trailhead WK2) - Climbs to the jagged summit of Bighorn Peak and connects with the Sky Rim Trail.
Bacon Rind (Trailhead WK4) - This trail exits the park to the west and climbs to the Skyline Trail in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Fan Creek (Trailhead WK5) - A secluded valley that connects with the Sportsman Lake Trail.
Fawn Pass (Trailhead WK5) - A long but rewarding day hike into the heart of the Gallatin Bear Management Area (BMA).
Bighorn Pass (Trailhead WK6) - Another beautiful mountain pass located high in the Gallatin Mountains.
Gneiss Creek (Trailhead WK7) - A quiet stretch of trail that is as flat as it is long.



Nearby Campgrounds
Bakers Hole - May to Sept. - Bakers Hole Campground is located 3 miles north of West Yellowstone and has 73 sites and vault toilets. Electrical hookups are available for 33 sites. Campsites are $16.00 + per night. Reservations are not accepted - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to the Bakers Hole Campground.

Taylor Fork Road - Open All Year - Taylor Fork Road is approximately 7.2 miles north of the Specimen Creek Trailhead on route 191. Campsites are free. The first few sites are located about a mile from US 191. Forest service road (FSR 134) follows Taylor Creek west and extends deep into the Madison Range/Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, and provides access to numerous hiking and mountain biking opportunities within the Gallatin National Forest - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to the Taylor Fork Primitive Area Campsites.

Red Cliff Campground - May to Sept. - Red Cliff Campground is approximately 15 miles north of the Specimen Creek Trailhead on route 191 and has 67 sites and vault toilets. Electric hookups are available for 26 sites. Campsites are $15.00 per night. Located along the Gallatin River between Big Sky and the northern boundary of the National Park. Bozeman Ranger District/Gallatin National Forest - (406) 587-9054 - Get Directions from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to Red Cliff Campground.



Yellowstone National Park Backcountry Permits
All overnight backcountry permits for the northwest section of Yellowstone National Park can be obtained at the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center on the corner of Yellowstone Ave. and S. Canyon St./route 191 in West Yellowstone. - (307) 344-2876. Read more about obtaining Yellowstone Backcountry Permits.

Post Hike Meals
After a long day in the mountains refuel at one of the following restaurants on your way back to Bozeman.

The Corral located on route 191 - Burgers & Beers - Get Directions
The Wrap Shack in Big Sky - Fresh, healthy and affordable food. Get Directions
Choppers Grub & Pub in the Big Sky Town Center - Get Directions

If you're heading back to West Yellowstone try one of these local restaurants.
Wolf Pack Brewing Co located at 139 North Canyon Street in West Yellowstone - Get Directions
Wild West Pizzeria at 14 Madison Avenue in West Yellowstone - Get Directions

Maps for Hiking Specimen Creek
Beartooth Publishing Outdoor Recreational Maps
These maps from Beartooth Publishing will cover all of Yellowstone National Park as well as Bozeman/Big Sky/Gallatin Range/Madison Range and West Yellowstone.
For more information regarding these maps click here.






Directions to the Specimen Creek Trailhead

Click the map to launch Directions
from West Yellowstone to the
Specimen Creek Trailhead.



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