Yellowstone’s West Thumb Geyser Basin and Lake Overlook Trail: Overlooking the Rule of Thumb

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t post about short, sightseeing walks on engineered pathways. However, with so much to see in Yellowstone National Park and a keenness to pack as much as possible into a relatively short visit, this week I’m serving up a combo-meal that includes a light hiking entrée with a side order of hot springs — all on the banks of Yellowstone Lake. Both routes depart from the West Thumb parking lot, so rather than give you individual coordinates for a pair of trails only yards apart, the digits at the end of this post will take you to a parking bay equidistant from the two trailheads. If someone is already in that space, you’re on your own.

We arrived in the West Thumb Lot just before 9:00am. To our delight, the area had yet to become crowded, and we first sought out the West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail. We found it near the northeast corner of the lot. The Basin Trail is boardwalk, and it’s important to resist stepping off that walk to more closely observe the colorful, steaming pools that populate this area. These restrictions are for the preservation of the delicate ecosystems that thrive in the basin, but also for your own safety. The iridescent pools beckon, so beautiful it’s difficult to imagine they conceal danger. Darkly comic signs, looking every bit as if they have been there since 1965, remind visitors of the peril, indicating that, should little Timmy wander off the designated promenade, he will surely be vaporized.

Note: As campy as the above photo may be, the safety concerns are all too real. Just five short weeks after our visit to West Thumb Basin, this headline appeared on the website

Floating Human Foot at Yellowstone Is Grim Reminder of Hot Spring Dangers

The article continues: “US rangers have found a human foot floating in a hot pool in Yellowstone national park, the park service said Friday, warning visitors to stay away from thermal waters. The partial foot was inside a shoe in the Abyss Pool, one of the deepest hot springs in the park, whose temperature is around 140 Fahrenheit (60 Celsius).

Pro Tip: Leaving an appendage in a hot spring is a violation of leave no trace. Stay on the trail, folks!

We set off counterclockwise on this planked loop. To the east was West Thumb, a bulbous protrusion on the west side of Yellowstone Lake. Every few feet there was a new geothermal attraction to view. We passed Seismograph Pool and Bluebell Spring before turning north alongside the lake, where some of the geysers (Lakeshore and Fishing Cone) were underwater. Neither erupt anymore. Big Cone, which was above water that day, but isn’t always, erupts only rarely.

We continued around the ash-grey, geothermal moonscape, weaving among lazily steaming pools and sparse tufts of plant life. Two pools stood out in the crowd of fuming hot springs: Black Pool for being perfectly picturesque against a backdrop of lake, mountains, and sky and Abyss Pool for being a stunning shade of midnight blue resulting from its depth. Abyss Pool is one of the deepest springs in the park at fifty-three feet — or fifty-four — if you include the additional foot recently discovered by rangers.

We passed through the pines and back into the parking lot with nine-tenths of a mile under our unwearied boots. We stopped by the cars long enough to cram PopTarts into our pie-holes before strolling to our second trail of the morning.

The West Thumb Overlook Loop Trail ran from the parking lot through field and forest before crossing the South Entrance Road, where the trail split. We bore right and continued through the northwestern Wyoming countryside, enjoying the nearly cloudless day.

Soon, the trail began to slowly ascend, a thin, beige striation winding upward through grass and pine. There was no missing the overlook — it looked exactly like an overlook. It was the highest point on the trail and included a bench that I made use of while drinking in the view.

The view from the easy-to-find overlook was sublime. Looking east, the knoll atop which we sat fell away to deep-green pines intersecting Yellowstone Lake in a ragged line. Farther off, the blue-grey mountains of the Absaroka Range were decoupaged onto the sky. West Thumb Basin gleamed in the morning sunlight while the wispiest wisps of cotton clouds hovered in the distance.

After a few moments of stillness and contemplation, we continued our hike.

The West Thumb Basin Overlook Trail meandered down the other side of the hillock and back into pine forest. We passed Lewis flax, broadleaf arnica, and even a single, shockingly-purple Nuttall’s larkspur, a trailside sentinel in the grass. The day was mild and the hiking easy. With a new mile and a half under our soles, we finished the loop and strolled the final quarter mile back to the parking area.

The Overlook Trail is a great warm-up to start a day of hiking in Yellowstone National Park. At one and three-quarter miles with two hundred feet of elevation, it’s a quick jaunt that begs to be paired with another attraction. Finding that other attraction requires almost no effort; the Basin Trail is right next door, and the hot springs and geysers are well worth the walk. Combining these means you park once and hike twice. A greater hiking to driving ratio is a rule of thumb not to be overlooked. Lastly, whenever you’re out in the nature, remember this easy adage: kill nothing but time; take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but foot. ♦

FOOTPRINTS! I meant leave nothing but footprints!

Date: July 13, 2022
Location: Yellowstone National Park, WY
Trailhead: 44.415709, -110.574405
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 248 feet
Difficulty: Easy

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke (Crow),  Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Tséstho’e (Cheyenne).

2 thoughts on “Yellowstone’s West Thumb Geyser Basin and Lake Overlook Trail: Overlooking the Rule of Thumb

  1. I love West Thumb! It’s probably a better experience when there’s not a human foot floating around. Good thing you missed that part!
    I’ve not walked the lake overlook part of the trail though; I’ll have to check that out sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Yellowstone National Park’s Fairy Falls: Fairy Trails Can Come True | BIT|Hiker

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