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Hike of the Week: Sky Rim Loop

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Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week we hope to motivate you to get out there and experience some of the most scenic and challenging trails the world has to offer. A good trail description and pictures are inspiring, but getting out there and seeing it firsthand makes memories for a lifetime.

This week we are highlighting the Sky Rim Loop in the world-renowned Yellowstone National Park.

Featured Photo: Gallatin Range (Photo by Troy Smith)

Why This Trail?

For many, visiting Yellowstone is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Its extreme remoteness lends to this, but is also part of its beauty. If you're looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the geyser sightseers, the Sky Rim Loop in the far northwest corner of Yellowstone is one of your best bets. Not only will you find more solitude, but some amazing mountaintop views that are hard to find elsewhere in the park.

  • A total length of approximately 20 miles
  • Elevation gain of over 4,600 feet
  • The trail is rated as difficult 
  • This trail can be accomplished as a day trip if you really want, but most hikers take it as an overnight, at the very least. We have outlined a 3-day, 2-night trip to make the most of your experience.
  • Best time to visit is during the summer
  • The Sky Rim Loop follows a ridgeline for 7 miles along the Gallatin Range, affording wonderful views of the surrounding mountain ranges, including the Absarokas and Madisons. 
  • The trail passes close to Big Horn Peak (9,888 feet) with a short side trail to the summit.
  • This trail offers a nice mixture of laid-back hiking through meadows and forests and challenging, rocky ridgeline.

Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:

  • The amazing panoramic views along this trail have a downside. The drawback of the lengthy hike along the exposed ridgelines leaves you just that: Exposed to the elements. Be diligent in monitoring the weather and head for cover before it's too late, if needed. Afternoon pop-up storms, and especially lightning, are very real threats.
  • Water sources are sparse. Plan accordingly.
  • There are plenty of precipitous drop-offs along the ridgeline section and the half-mile climb to Big Horn Peak is full of loose rocks.

How Do I Get There?

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport is the closest major airport to the Dailey Creek Trailhead, where you will begin your journey. After following the signs to stay on Airway Blvd for about 1 mile, continue onto Alaska Rd S for another mile. Turn right onto E Cameron Bridge Rd, traveling another mile, before turning left onto MT-85S. Continue 5 miles before the road turns into US-191 S. Stay on this for 51.5 miles. You will find a relatively large parking area on your left, known as the Gallatin Gateway on Google Maps. The drive from the airport to the trailhead is 60 miles and should take about 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach.

Map

The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo. 

  • Day 1 - Dailey Creek Trailhead to Upper Dailey Creek (3.6 miles)
  • Day 2 - Upper Dailey Creek to Black Butte Creek (10.6 miles)
  • Day 3 - Black Butte Creek to Dailey Creek Trailhead (4.2 miles)

Trail Description

With such a short distance covered the first day, there's no worry about hitting the trail early. Head north up Dailey Creek Trail. Coming up on two miles into the hike, you'll come across the junction with the Black Butte-Dailey Creek Cutoff Trail. Continue straight on your northerly path for another 1.7 miles before reaching the side trail leading to your campsite for the night, where the evergreens begin. The path is easy to follow today as you wander through open meadows as you easily make your way up the valley with Dailey Creek running next to you for much of the way. Again, be sure to fill up on water while you can.

Less than two miles into your second day's trek you will reach Daly Pass. This is actually a surprisingly easy pass to climb. You'll also find the junction with the Skyline Trail here where the real fun starts. Turning right onto the trail, you'll continue up and down the ridgeline, though the elevation gains aren't too terrible. It won't be long before you are no longer fighting to see the views through the trees. You'll cross an open field before reaching the short spur trail to summit Big Horn Peak. Loose rock and sharp dropoffs line this 0.3-mile ridgeline to the top, but the views of the surrounding Gallatin Range and Sheep Mountain provide the best panoramic views in the park. After backtracking, head south on the Cutoff Trail you previously passed on your first day, continuing about 4 miles before reaching your campsite on another spur trail near Black Butte Creek.

Your last day is a relatively easy 4-mile hike back to the trailhead. Continue west for a short bit on the Cutoff Trail before turning sharply north. You'll pass through more open meadows on the way back to your vehicle, hopefully being lucky enough to find flowers in bloom when you visit. King Butte looms in the northeast and Lava Butte to the southwest. Make a left once you reach the Dailey Creek Trail once again and head south towards the parking area.

What Will I Need?

For May through September, average highs range between 60 and 80°F and lows between 30 and 42°F. Keep in mind these are averages and nighttime lows can definitely be much lower. A warm down sleeping bag paired with a sleeping pad with a high R-value will suit you well on this trail.

Between the difficult terrain and unpredictable elements, you'll want a lightweight, but sturdy tent. You may want to consider some trekking poles for the steep inclines as well.

Paria Outdoor Products Zion Backpacking Tent

The Zion 2P Backpacking Tent makes a great 2-person shelter for the Sky Rim Loop's cooler weather.

It goes without saying that you will want to make sure you have a dependable water filter to stock up on plenty of water before and after climbing along the ridgeline to Big Horn Peak. A lightweight titanium cooking pot will serve you well for preparing trail meals as well as a nice warm cup of cocoa or coffee on cool mornings.

For a comprehensive list of items to consider for your trip, head over to our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List and print your own copy!

Do I Need a Permit?

Yes, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit, which you can find more information on in the Resources section below. You will also need to pay an entrance fee to get into the park, which currently runs $35 for a 7-day pass. 

Resources

Yellowstone Backcountry Permits
Trip Reports

Conclusion

Though challenging, the Sky Rim Loop is well-worth the ridgetop views you can't find elsewhere in the park. Have you had the chance to experience this remote area of the park? What are some of your favorite trails in the area? We'd love to hear about them in the comments section below!

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