Thorofare (5K5) & South Boundary (8K7) Trail Descriptions - Light to Moderate Traffic
The Thorofare is one of Yellowstone's best kept secrets. The hiking is relatively easy, the views are spectacular and if you visit the Thorofare Ranger Station you will have hiked to the farthest dwelling from any road in the contiguous United States.
The backcountry campsites in this region are located a very comfortable distance from one another so you can spend as much, or as little time, on the trail depending on your schedule and fitness level. There are numerous stream crossings along this route so we highly recommend you begin your trip in mid-July in order to make these fords more manageable. There are special restrictions for backcountry travel in the Thorofare Region—designed to minimize human and bear encounters. Please read bear management information below. This hike was completed in early September 2012 and covers both the Thorofare and South Boundary Trails over an 8-day period. Note: We did not calculate the mileage to the campsites that are located more than 0.1 mile away from the main trail. Please view the Google Earth maps (popup links) at the top of the page for detailed trail information.
Day 1 - Thorofare Trail
Nine Mile Trailhead to Campsite 5E8 - 6.1 miles - Easy hiking
From the trailhead the hike moves through an area burned by a forest fire in September of 2011. The terrain along the entire length of Yellowstone Lake is relatively flat with minimal elevation gain which makes for very easy hiking. There are two streams to negotiate along the first 6 miles of the trail but both, Cub Creek and Clear Creek, are easy to cross. In many places along the first 20 miles of the Thorofare Trail, Yellowstone Lake is often hidden from view by the thick forests that surround the eastern edge of the park.
There are three backcountry campsites clustered together at mile 6.3, two of which are located on Yellowstone Lake (5E8 & 5E9 ★★★★★). Campsite 5E7 ★★★★ is still a wonderful place to spend the night but it has a completely different feel because it is located at the edge of a large meadow a short distance away from the lake. We stayed at campsite 5E8 and noted that this was one of the nicest backcountry campsites we've stayed at in the park. The sunsets from these two campsites are spectacular.
Day 2 - Thorofare Trail
Campsite 5E8 to 5E1 - 10.4 miles - Easy hiking
On day 2 we continued heading south along the eastern edge of Yellowstone Lake. Within the first mile the trail opens up and there were sweeping views that extended across the lake to the north, south and west. The next campsite along the trail is 5E6 ★★★★★, and like the three remaining campsites along the lake (5E4, 5E3 & 5E2 ★★★★★), it is accessible on foot, or by boat, either motorized or hand-propelled. Most of the backcountry campsites on the eastern shores of Yellowstone Lake share similar characteristics and all of them provide great opportunities for fishing (see photos).
After passing campsite 5E6 the trail moves further south along what now becomes the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake. A large peninsula know as 'The Promontory' is easily visible to the west and this landmass is dotted with several campsites that can only be reached by boat. Click the following link for their locations: 5L3, 5L4, 5L5, 5L6, 5L7, 5L8, 5L9 & 6A1.
Over the next 8.0 miles the trail works its way through dense woodlands with an occasional view toward the lake and the scenery that extends deep into the Thorofare. There are two campsites near the end of Yellowstone Lake, 6B4 and 5E1 ★★★★★. 5E1 is by far the nicer of the two, sitting on a bluff just above Beaverdam Creek with unobstructed views to the south. Campsite 6B4 ★★★ is located just past Beaverdam Creek and is set well back from the main trail. This is a very secluded site with limited views. NOTE: On the topo maps we used for this region, access to campsite site 5E1 is shown in a different location. The trail has been rerouted but the campsite is still easy to find. Site 5E1 was our campsite for the evening and this took us to the very southern end of Yellowstone Lake. Please view the Google Earth maps (popup links) at the top of the page for detailed trail information.
Day 3 - Thorofare Trail
Campsite 5E1 to 6D2 - 7.9 miles - Easy hiking
The next stretch of the trail was the most exciting. The Yellowstone River becomes a common feature as it snakes its way north, and the dramatic peaks that dominate the eastern edge of the park are easily visible from the trail. Eagle Peak is the highest mountain in Yellowstone at 11,367 ft., but unfortunately it remains hidden from view. The distinct formations of both Table and Turret Mountains are easily visible along the eastern skyline. Campsite 6D2 ★★★★★ was our next stop on day 3 and was situated along the banks of Mountain Creek. Campsite 6D3 ★★★★ is a "stock only" site that sits just across the large meadow to the east of 6D2. The meadow between these two campsites is a great place to set up tents for the evening. At some point during the night we could hear a pack of wolves howling a short distance from camp and in the morning fresh grizzly tracks could be seen along the trail.
Day 4 - Thorofare Trail
Campsite 6D2 to 6T2 - 8.9 miles - Easy hiking to the Thorofare Ranger Station
This was another easy day of hiking that took us to the very southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park and past the famed Thorofare Ranger Station. The long finger-like ridges of the Trident Plateau descend from the east as you make your way to what is considered the farthest dwelling from any road in the continental U.S. The Thorofare Ranger Station is located approximately 32.5 miles from the Nine Mile Trailhead just south of Escarpment Creek. This area is comprised of intermittent forests, willows and large open meadows. A short distance south of the Thorofare Ranger Station lies the Bridger-Teton National Forest which comprises another 3.4 million acres of wilderness, making it the second largest National Forest outside of Alaska.
When we arrived at the Thorofare Ranger Station we were greeted by the two rangers stationed there. They graciously gave us a tour of their small outpost that was first constructed in 1914. We spent about an hour at the cabin discussing the remainder of our trip that would eventually take us another 35 miles across the park's southern boundary. We took a few minutes to write in the guest book and snapped a handful of pictures of the ranger station before finally heading off to our next campsite for the evening. It was an incredibly moving experience to visit a place surrounded by so much wilderness.
Campsite 6T2 ★★★★ was our next stop for the day and is located about 1.4 miles west of the Thorofare Ranger Station. This is a beautiful site located along the banks of Thorofare Creek. The campsite itself faces south and has views toward the Bridger-Teton Wilderness and a prominent peak known as the Hawks Rest. According to the rangers the fishing along Thorofare Creek is not very productive but they did indicate it was steadily improving. The next day as we hiked toward the South Boundary Trail we did notice a large fish cruising the waters of Thorofare Creek but our attempts at catching fish near the campsite came up empty.
Day 5 - South Boundary Trail
Campsite 6T2 to 6M3 - 9.0 miles - Moderate hiking with approximately 1,000 ft. of elevation gain
On day five we left the Thorofare and began the second leg of our journey which would now take us in a westerly direction along the South Boundary Trail for the final 35 miles of this trip. This section of the trail traverses the very southern edge of Yellowstone, as it makes its way west toward the South Entrance of the park. From here there are two significant climbs that are spaced a day apart. The first climb took us to the southern end of the Two Ocean Plateau where we camped next to Mariposa Lake at an elevation of 9,000 ft. This spot was also the coldest night of the entire trip with temperatures dipping into the low 20's.
After breaking camp we headed in a northerly direction, connecting with a trail that crosses in an east/west direction behind the campsite. This route eliminated the need for a second stream crossing within the first 2.5 miles. The trail in this area is surrounded by chest-high willow trees and the views extend far to the north. Just before reaching the Yellowstone River the trail connects with Thorofare Creek once again before passing campsite 6Y4 ★★★. This site is completely surrounded by trees but if you walk a short distance in any direction you'll have views of the surrounding landscape. A short distance past campsite 6Y4 is the Yellowstone River ford, which in September was only about knee deep. The water was still moving rather quickly at this particular location but in general the river was easy to cross.
After fording the Yellowstone the trail crosses very flat and open ground as it heads toward a deep notch in the ridge to the west. Before long you'll reach Lynx Creek, another small stream that requires an additional ford. From here the trail begins a moderate but steady climb of about 1,200 ft. to the southern end of the Two Ocean Plateau in just over 3 miles. At the start of the climb there are amazing panoramas to the east overlooking the Thorofare region and the Trident Plateau. Before long the trail becomes increasingly wooded as it follows Lynx Creek upward toward the Two Ocean Plateau.
Over the next 6.2 miles the South Boundary Trail gradually makes its way to Mariposa Lake which was our stop for the night. Campsite 6M3 ★★★★★ is located next to Mariposa Lake which is ringed by tall pines and rolling meadows. The campsite has been relocated to the northwestern edge of this 14 acre lake which has a healthy population of both cutthroat and rainbow trout. As dusk settled around our camp we could see bull elk as they approached the fields to the south of the lake looking for females. This was another beautiful location in the heart of an incredibly unique ecosystem.
Day 6 - South Boundary Trail
Campsite 6M3 to a National Forest Campsite - 11.6 miles - Difficult hiking with elevation gain
From Mariposa Lake the trail now begins a gradual descent toward Plateau Creek. After 1.4 miles you'll reach the junction with the Two Ocean Plateau Trail and campsite 6M4 ★★★★. Before long Plateau Creek crosses the trail requiring another easy ford. Over the next 2.5 miles the trail continues descending at an easy grade through open meadows and pine forests until reaching campsite 6M7 and the Fox Creek Patrol Cabin. Campsite 6M7 ★★★★ is located at the north end of a large meadow shortly before the patrol cabin. Across from the cabin is the Fox Creek Trailhead (6K3) which heads south out of the park into the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Continuing on past the Fox Creek Cabin for another 0.8 miles the Snake River crosses the South Boundary Trail and once again it's time for another easy ford. This is also a great place to refill water bottles, and refuel before for the long climb up and over Big Game Ridge (elevation 10,000 ft.). While there are a few small streams as you begin climbing the ridge, water becomes scarce the higher you go. It's also important to keep an eye on the weather as you start up the ridge because there is very little protection from wind, rain or potential thunderstorms.
NOTE: On this trip we chose to camp along a section of the South Boundary Trail that was just outside of the national park on the western slopes of Big Game Ridge. With information we gathered from the rangers at the Thorofare cabin we were able to find a comfortable spot near Harebell Creek to pitch our camp so we were near a reliable water source. This section of the trip will require proper planning because when you are camping in the national park it is mandatory that you stay in designated backcountry campsites. The distance between campsite 6M7 near Fox Creek on the east side of Big Game Ridge, and campsite 8C2 on the western side is approximately 17 miles. While this is not an impossible hike, with a full backpack it will make for a very very long day. Please review the Google Earth map for this section at the top of this page for trail information.
As we hiked up the top of Big Game Ridge a forest fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest kept the views to a minimum even though this is highest point along the South Boundary Trail. On a clear day you will have spectacular views of both Yellowstone National Park to the north and the Grand Tetons to the south.
Our campsite on day 6 was located just outside the park alongside Harebell Creek. The western side of Big Game Ridge was heavily burned by fire but our campsite contained a handful of evergreens that were somehow untouched as this fire swept through the area. The site was located just outside of the park, and while it was not the most attractive campsite it served its purpose, and after a long day it was a welcome place to stay.
Day 7 - South Boundary Trail
National Forest Campsite to 8C2 - 5.5 miles - Easy hiking
On day 7 we were left with a very short hike to campsite 8C2 and with flatter terrain ahead it made for a relaxing day. For the next few miles the trail climbs up and over a series of small drainages as it continues its slow descent toward the Harebell Creek Patrol Cabin. Eventually we left this burned landscape behind and moved back into the shade of the tall lodgepole pines. Just before reaching the Harebell Creek Patrol Cabin the Harebell Cutoff Trail enters from the right and continues north toward the Snake River Trail. After passing the cabin the trail climbs a small hillside before descending once again to Harebell Creek. As you approach the creek another trail heads south to the Coulter/Wolverine Trailhead (8K8). The South Boundary Trail continues in a westerly direction. After fording Harebell Creek (easy) the trail continues along flat ground to campsite 8C2.
Campsite 8C2 ★★★★★ is located along the Snake River where there are plenty of opportunities to fish without having to walk very far. This is another beautiful camping area situated between the Snake River and a large meadow that extends to the southwest of the campsite.
Day 8 - South Boundary Trail
Campsite 8C2 to South Boundary West Trailhead - 8.8 miles - Easy hiking
On our last day the trail followed the same course as the Snake River, first heading in a northwest direction before it eventually curves to the southwest toward our final destination—the South Boundary West Trailhead (8K7). This was an easy day of hiking with a few short climbs over the first mile. The trail become very flat near the Heart Lake Trail Junction which enters from the right. Just past this trail junction is the first of three backcountry campsites located in this area. Campsite 8C7 ★★★★★, a "stock only" site, is surrounded by trees just in front of the river. There are lots of open meadows that border the trail and you'll pass the Snake Hot Springs (no bathing) as you make your way to the next campsite. After hiking past a series of hot springs you'll walk right into the second campsite 8C1 ★★★★, which is located next to the main trail. Campsite 8C6 is located across the Snake River about 0.5 miles to the north along the Heart Lake Trail. You would need to ford the Snake River to reach this site from the South Boundary Trail.
After passing campsite 8C1 a small footbridge crosses the waters of a narrow stream that is fed by the nearby hot springs. Soon after crossing this bridge the trail enter the forest where it stays for the remainder of the hike. The Snake River parallels the trail but it remains well out of sight to the north. The trail here is heavily wooded and doesn't offer much in the way of scenery until you're very near the trailhead where there is one final river to ford.
The Snake River crosses the trail just before the South Boundary West Trailhead and it is the widest river crossing along the entire length of this trip. It took us nearly three minutes to ford the river at this location which was a little bit more than ankle deep in September. Three minutes may not seem like a long time but the cold water will make your feet numb before you reach the halfway point of this ford. After crossing the river there is a short climb up a sandy bank to the large parking lot and picnic area near the South Entrance Station to Yellowstone.
Bear Management Area (BMA) Travel Restrictions
The following regions along the eastern edge of Yellowstone Lake and into the Thorofare Region have special backcountry travel restrictions. If you plan to hike into the Thorofare Region of Yellowstone it is best to plan your trip after July 15th. After this date, all trails and campsites in the region are open to hiking and backpacking. There are also a number of stream crossings in this area and they become more manageable in late summer and early fall. See map for specific BMA locations.
Clear Creek 1 - North Unit: From April 1st until August 10th, travel is only allowed on the east shore from the Nine Mile Trailhead to Park Point. All other trails are closed and off-trail travel is prohibited. Campsite 5H1 is open (no travel from site). On August 11th, all other campsites are open and off-trail travel is permitted. See map for specific BMA locations.
Clear Creek 2 - South Unit: From April 1st until July 14th, travel is only allowed on the east shore trail from Park Point to Beaverdam Creek. All other trails are closed and off-trail travel is prohibited. Open campsites are 5E2, 5E3, 5E4, and 5E6 (no travel away from campsite). All other campsites are closed. On July 15th, all campsites open and off-trail travel is permitted. See map for specific BMA locations.
Lake Spawn Unit: From May 15th until July 14th, no off-trail travel allowed and the trail between Cabin Creek and Outlet Creek is closed. Open Campsites are 7L5, 7L6, 7L7, 7L8, 7M3, 7M4, 7M5, 6A3, 6A4, and 6B1 (no travel away from campsite). On July 15th all campsites open and off-trail travel is permitted. See map for specific BMA locations.
Two Ocean Unit: From March 10th until July 14th and August 22nd through November 10th, travel is allowed only on designated trails (off-trail travel is prohibited). From July 15th until August 21st, a permit is required for persons wishing to travel away from designated trails. Contact the South Entrance Ranger Station for permit information. See map for specific BMA locations.
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
Avalanche Peak Trailhead
Pelican Valley Trailhead
Storm Point/Indian Pond Trailhead
Pelican Creek Nature Trail
Fishing Bridge RV Campground - Hardsided Campers Only - May 9th - Sept. 21st - Fishing Bridge RV Campground is located approximately 8 miles west of the Nine Mile Trailhead and has 325 RV sites and full amenities. RV sites are $46.50 per night. Reservations are accepted. Click here to make online reservations or call: 1-866-439-7375. Generators are permitted from 8am - 8pm. A gas station, lodging, general store, restaurants, laundry, dump station, and visitor center are located nearby. Get directions from the Nine Mile Trailhead to the Fishing Bridge Campground.
Bridge Bay Campground - May 23rd - Sept. 1st - Bridge Bay Campground is located approximately 12 miles west of the Nine Mile Trailhead and has 432 sites. Campsites are $21.00 per night. Reservations are accepted. Click here to make online reservations or call: 1-866-439-7375. Generators are permitted from 8am - 8pm. A gas station, lodging, general store, restaurants, laundry, dump station, and visitor center are located at Fishing Bridge - Get directions from the Nine Mile Trailhead to the Bridge Bay Campground.