Tucked away on the east side of Mount Sheridan in southern Yellowstone, just
over the continental divide from Yellowstone Lake is one of the most pristine
areas of Yellowstone National Park, the Heart Lake drainage. In this region
only a network of trails, primitive campgrounds and a picturesque log cabin
ranger station are the only sign left by man, a remarkable fete in this day
and age when you consider that the Heart Lake is one of more popular hikes
for day hikers and backpackers; 40% of all of Yellowstones backcountry overnight trips are to Heart Lake.
The Heart Lake Geyser Basin, is one of the highlights of this trip, a small
one by Yellowstone standards, it located along Witch Creek at the base of
Mount Sheridan and the western shore of Heart Lake. The Langford Survey Expedition
named the lake and geyser basin in 1870.
It is an eight-mile trip to Heart Lake, it starts high at about 7800-feet above
sea level, the first 4-plus miles are relatively flat as you climb very gradually
through intermittent burnt forest, meadows and groves of conifer and aspen.
Human impulse triggers a Ówhat a shameÓ reaction when we see a burnt forest but this hike is a good fire ecology lesson if you look for it. Most areas are well on their way to re-growth since the fire opened the lodgepole pine cones enabling reforestation. Lush grasses thrive on forest floor that previously were to shady to produce food for Yellowstones ungulates, and the opening of the forest by fire has opened up views that on this flat forested trail were previously unavailable.
About four and a half miles from the Heart Lake trailhead you reach 8,000-foot
Paycheck Pass revealing great views of Heart Lake Basin. Here at the head
of Witch Creek is the first thermal features you will encounter, Witch Creek
drains its many hot springs into Heart Lake. Also to the south the steep
north side of Factory Hill shows a burn that was so hot that that it has
yet to show signs of re-growth, I surmise that the fire on this steep hillside
burned so hot it cooked the soil and burned up the normally fire resistant
pine cones. For those opting for a shorter hike this is a good destination
for a turn around spot.
Continuing from Paycheck Pass you start your decent to Heart Lake, the decent
of Paycheck Pass also reveals a vast area of the 1988 fire extending far
to the east as it winds down the hill to Heart Lake along Witch Creek. The
next few miles are largely open burned areas that open of the views in every
Along Witch Creek are numerous sulfur vents, these small vents, are called
fumaroles, fumaroles do not possess enough water in their craters to become
hot springs or geysers, but below the surface, water boils. The vents shoot
steam and they sizzle and hiss. As the steam condenses in the cold air, steam
deposits minerals on the outer edges of the vents. Resulting in bright yellow
deposits of sulfur that dot the basin. There are a few small hot pools along
the way as well.
About a mile before you get to the lake the trail flattens out and you enter
an area of un-burnt trees and a large, lush beautiful meadow that goes up
to the base of Mt. Sheridan.
Just short of the lake is the ranger patrol cabin (elevation 7,500-feet) the
volunteers we found at the cabin were wonderful to visit with and were very
helpful to all hikers who came along. Just up from the cabin you come to
the lake and the trail forks, the left fork is Trail Creek Trail it takes
you to the campgrounds ton the east side of the lake. The Heart Lake Trail
heads southwest at this junction and will cross another bridge over Witch
Creek as it follows the shoreline of Heart Lake. In another few hundred yards
you will cross the run-off channels of Rustic Geyser and other thermal features
located on the hillside to the west.
Rustic Geyser and Columbia Pool are the two primary features here, and like
most Heart Lake Basin thermal features, they are in almost pristine condition.
Logs around the vent of Rustic Geyser are believed to have been placed by
Indians or early explorers, are still there to be seen under a layer of sinter.
Columbia Pool has wide, elaborate sinter edges or shelves. Always keep a
safe distance from the thermal features, as they are delicate and dangerous,
the water is very hot and can kill you!
In about a half mile south of Rustic Geyser Basin, the trail will meet the
junction with the Mt. Sheridan Summit Trail which is another 8 mile round
The fishing of the Heart Lake drainage is legendary and is the attraction for many visitors to the basin. Lake trout are the biggest fish in Yellowstone National Park, and in depths of Heart Lake they reach their largest many ten to thirty pounders are taken and the lake record is 42 pounds but to get the big ones you will most likely need a float tube. Native cutthroat are abundant in the lake as well as the surrounding creeks and river and can reach eight pounds, Fishing is good for cutthroat trout that run 8 to 14 inches in the Heart River where it leaves the lake at its southern end for its 4-mile trip down to the Snake River. The fishing in Beaver Creek a good-sized tributary to Heart Lake run big, averaging about 16 inches, to get there follow Trail Creek Trail for 2 miles east of the Heart Lake Trail Creek Junction.
Heart Lake opens to fishing on July 1, due to bear activity. As of the summer of 2001, all native sport fish species in Yellowstone National Park became subject to catch-and-release-only fishing rules. The native species affected by this change are the cutthroat trout and its several subspecies, Montana grayling, and mountain whitefish. No size or possession limit on lake trout caught on Heart Lake. Catch and release regulations on cutthroat trout helps guarantee great cutthroat fishing for future generations.
For those wishing to continue past the Heart Lake area, the Heart Lake Trail
continues south of Heart Lake, passing Sheridan Lake and crosses Basin Creek
then continues to the Snake River which you have to cross. The Snake River
should not be crossed before July; even then it can be quite dangerous. Once
across the river, the Heart Lake Trail will join with the South Boundary
Trail. From here its a 5-plus miles to the highway at the south entrance to Yellowstone and another crossing of the Snake River. The water is deeper in this area and can be up over the waist, even up to and after mid to late July. You can however avoid this crossing by hiking south 3 miles and climb up a 200-foot ridge and slowly make your way across it carefully as it parallels the Snake River leading you back to the highway bridge over the Snake River which is just south of Flagg Ranch.
Trail Creek Trail that splits to the east at the Heart Lake junction will continue
eastward to join the Thoroughfare Trail running north and south along the
east shore of Yellowstone Lake.