GARDINER — Nineteen out of 20 visitors to Yellowstone National Park never get off the pavement during their summer visits.
That number changes a bit in winter, if only because the ratio of outdoor enthusiasts to tourists bumps up a bit. Those who are willing to forsake their warm cars or heated snowmobile seats can make a fine adventure on a snowshoe hike to Hellroaring Canyon.
The three-mile round-trip takes off from a well-marked trailhead between Mammoth and Tower Junction, although the parking area isn’t cleared in winter. 2019’s so-far light snowpack made a January visit to the site so easy, even the snowshoes weren’t needed. But someone conveniently dragged a gear sled down the trail, marking it for others to easily see.
Hellroaring Trailhead starts a classic multi-day backpacking journey through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, which sounds like the evil twin of the much better-known Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It follows a set of nicely graded switchbacks down several hundred vertical feet to a suspension bridge above a very narrow slot canyon, where the Yellowstone has been compressed into a stream less than 20 feet wide. To the north, the beginnings of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness loom while the more dramatic walls of the Black Canyon appear to the west. But the bridge itself makes a fine day trip for a picnic or afternoon exploration.
Be aware that during the federal government shutdown the National Park Service has extremely limited law enforcement or rescue services available. And while black and grizzly bears are hibernating in January, the area gets frequented by both species during the summer months.