Lamar Valley Trail
Length: 5.3 miles, one way.
Elevation change: Trailhead at 6,600 feet (80-foot drop).
Trailhead: The Soda Butte Trailhead is on the Northeast Entrance Road, between Tower and Cooke City, about 10.75 miles east of Tower Junction, or 4.0 miles east of the Lamar Ranger Station.
Two trailheads exist for this valley hike. Both are within a quarter mile of each other, but the first is 2.8 miles from Lamar Ranger Station. This trailhead is not recommended for hikers because it generally is used by horse packers accessing the upper Lamar region and the Absaroka (pronounced Ab-sore-ka) Range. Horses crossing Soda Butte Creek have no difficulty but hikers will get their feet wet. About a mile and a quarter east is the hikers' access. This trail crosses a wooden bridge and continues south along the eastern edge of the Lamar Valley, at the base of Mount Norris. The trail is relatively flat, exposed, and cuts through sagebrush and bunchgrasses. Just before the trail climbs a steep bench or terrace, the horse trail joins the hikers' trail. Then, at the base of the bench, the trail junction for Upper Lamar-including Cache, Calfee and Miller creeks-splits to the east, and heads up-valley.
The Lamar Valley Trail fords the Lamar River toward the base of Amethyst Mountain (9,614 feet) and the start of the Specimen Ridge Trail (see Specimen Ridge Trail for description). This is a major river ford, so spring or early summer crossing, when the river is in full force, is not recommended. By late summer and fall, the river is down, but it still can be treacherous to cross. The cobble river bottom is uneven and slippery- old sneakers are the best footwear for fording here. After climbing the river bank, the trail is well-marked for the Specimen Ridge Trail, but the Lamar Valley Trail is very faint. Game trails crisscross the Lamar Valley, and the best plan is to follow worn trails and maintain a sense of direction by paralleling the Lamar river and valley.
The Lamar Valley Trail provides one of the best opportunities to walk among and view wildlife in the park. The steep, forested slope on the southern edge of the valley harbors elk and bison during the day. They move in and out of the forest, spending most of their nights in the open, unprotected valley. Visible along the forest edge are veins and arteries of game trails leading to and from the forest and valley. Coyotes also wander along the trails looking for an opportunistic meal.
In the winter of 1995, Canada gray wolves, primarily black in color, were introduced into Yellowstone and were released into the Lamar Valley. Several holding pens were built along the valley, out of the public's view, and the wolves were released that spring. Some wolves immediately left the park, while others discovered the advantage of being in the Lamar Valley during elk calving season. Many visitors were able to view the drama of wolves bringing down and disemboweling one or two elk calves a day. If the wolves remain, it will take several years to determine what effect this experiment will have on elk and bison populations. Coyotes have been a major character of the Lamar, but their status certainly will change and they will be displaced.
The openness of the Lamar Valley is its uniqueness. To look up and down the valley while hiking and to realize the vast distance to cover by foot is humbling.
Near the trails' end, you can see a clump of cottonwoods at a distance. The cottonwood clump shelters the Lamar picnic area. Just before the picnic area is another river ford. This ford is, however, twice as treacherous, since both the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek merge up-river. Scout for a shallow area to cross, and make sure your pack straps and buckles are unsnapped.