Clear Lake Trail offers one of my favorite day hikes in Yellowstone National Park. There are several options for short extensions, making it from 3 to 6 miles roundtrip. Noelle here, by the way. We discovered this trail in the “Day Hike Sampler” flyer from a ranger at our campground (Mammoth). This little pamphlet outlines twenty-one hikes. Of course, there are many, many more trails throughout the Park, but this gives an overview into a few of them. You can also check out some different day-hikes on Yellowstone’s National Park Service website. Here’s a great list in the canyon area, which includes Clear Lake Trail (Ribbon Lake).
Uncle Tom’s Point parking & trailhead
We parked at Uncle Tom’s Point parking lot off of South Rim Drive. Think of Yellowstone’s roads as a large figure 8. Uncle Tom’s is on the upper East side of the bottom portion of the eight. This is a popular parking area for viewing the upper falls of the Crystal Falls, in Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. So, I can imagine it gets quite crowded during the peak of summer. However, it was only about half full of cars in late October.
The trailhead itself is in the southeast portion of the parking lot. It’s on the other side from the more popular South Rim Trail, which we came back on. A little grumbling and perhaps a bit of arguing ensued, as we tried to find the trailhead. I was a bit pleased to be RIGHT! And the trailhead was exactly where the map showed that it should be! haha. Yes, I’m a little immature sometimes.
So you’re not confused, this trail also goes to Ribbon Lake, which is about a mile add-on. I probably should have included that in the title, but didn’t since we didn’t go there. 🙂 We met another couple hiking and they were going out to Ribbon Lake. Our hands stayed fairly cold however, even with gloves, so we opted to continue around towards Lily Pad Lake.
Clear Lake Trail
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself…Clear Lake Trail starts in the parking lot, crosses the street and then meanders through a meadow. For us, it was full of straw like grasses and a little mud. I bet in the Spring, there are lots of wildflowers though. We wandered along, coming into a wooded area and then arriving at Clear Lake. It looks like a normal woodland lake, surrounded by trees, complete with swimming ducks. You aren’t supposed to leave the trail, because it’s a hydrothermal area, but I bet people dip into these waters in the summer. It looks simply inviting.
Shortly after the lake, the hike enters Mars. It’s so crazy! A couple of steaming fumaroles and boiling pots of mud told us we weren’t in Kansas anymore! The landscape changed drastically from woods to moonscape. No one else was around, which gave us a surreal feeling of being on another planet. The ground was rocky/sandy with almost no vegetation. We could clearly see that wildlife do not read signs to remain on trail, as there were hoofprints everywhere. It looks like they go right up to the hot springs to sleep, because the ground was so torn up from their prints.
Geography along the Clear Lake Trail
Fumeroles vent steam from underground systems of hot rock masses. They don’t contain much water, but do steam a lot. The cold air and snow from the day before added to the steam. What a sight to see! It’s literally like fog coming up all around us.
If I understand correctly, mudpots are basically full of hydrogen sulfide that’s rising from deep within the earth. Microorganisms use it as an energy source to convert the smelly gas to sulfuric acid. That in turn, breaks down rock into clay. The gases escape through the clay, causing it to bubble and pop. The fumeroles are actually hotter than the mudpots, even though it seems like they’re just boiling liquid holes in the ground.
Anyway, we passed through the awesomely smoking gates of hell, then took a left at the fork towards Lily Pad Lake. It’s a pretty short hop to a lake literally covered in lily pads. Again, it’s probably pretty beautiful covered in flowers in the Spring, but wasn’t quite as full for our visit. Still lovely though, as we could see the green of the plants, just taking a little hiatus from their glory days.
At the next fork, we turned left towards Artist Point. There’s about another mile long out and back from this junction to Point Sublime, which is a beautiful lookout over Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. We skipped the side trip to continue our loop along the canyon though. We were back in a forest, that reminded us of home in the Pacific Northwest. Hiking along the canyon brought us back in contact with quite a few people, compared to being alone on the first half of the hike. This short piece of the Clear Lake Trail brought us to Artist Point, which is easily accessible by car, so quite crowded. An overlook gives a great view of the Upper Falls on the Yellowstone River. The views are stunning.
Walk through Artist Point parking lot to the far end near the restrooms to find the trailhead for the South Rim Trail. It used to be paved, with some asphalt still showing through in places. This was my least favorite section of the Clear Lake Trail as it’s got some fairly steep sections. Yep, me and hills, we don’t go together. Quite a bit of up and downs took us back around to Uncle Tom’s parking lot, with some great views of the Falls. It’s fun coming around bends and seeing the camper parked there waiting for us. Ah, home sweet home!