The Harlequin Lake Trail in Yellowstone National Park is one of my all time favorite spots in the park, but it is also a highly underrated and rarely mentioned spot on most Yellowstone itineraries. Harlequin Lake may not be as popular or striking as other notable destinations in Yellowstone, like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Springs, but here’s why you need to make a visit to Harlequin Lake on your Yellowstone trip!
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Table of Contents
Guide to the Harlequin Lake Trail in Yellowstone National Park
This guide to the Harlequin Lake Trail in Yellowstone includes the following:
- What to Know Before You Go
- Helpful Distances
- Location of Harlequin Lake
- Quick Overview of the Harlequin Lake Trail
- Full Report of the Harlequin Lake Trail
- What to Bring With You on the Harlequin Lake Trail
- Other Attractions Near the Harlequin Lake Trail in Yellowstone
What to Know Before You Go
Location of the Harlequin Lake Trailhead: the Harlequin Lake Trail is located in Yellowstone National Park. The trailhead is approximately 15 minutes from Yellowstone’s west entrance, on Highway 191/287/West Entrance Road. If you are traveling east from the west entrance on Highway 191, the Harlequin Lake Trailhead is on the left side. Parking is on the right side (park and then cross the road to access the trailhead).
Hours: Yellowstone National Park is open daily (there are seasonal closures – check the park website for up to date information)
Entrance Fees: $35 per vehicle, good for 7 consecutive days
Closest Town: West Yellowstone, Montana (Google Map)
Pet Policy: pets are NOT allowed on the Harlequin Lake Trail
Best Time of Year to Visit: Late Spring – Early Fall
(Highway 191/287/West Entrance Road is closed December – April)
- Yellowstone West Entrance to the Harlequin Lake Trail: 15 minutes
- Harlequin Lake to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: 45 minutes
- Harlequin Lake to the Norris Geyser Basin: 30 minutes
- Harlequin Lake to the Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Springs: 20 minutes
- Harlequin Lake to Old Faithful: 30 minutes
*Note that these times are estimates, and may be more if there is traffic
Quick Overview of the Harlequin Lake Trail
Length: 1 mile roundtrip out and back
Rating: Easy to Moderate – the Harlequin Lake Trail is short, shady, and non-technical. The first half of the trail proceeding to the lake contains a moderate amount of consistent incline until reaching Harlequin Lake.
Estimated Time to Complete: 30 minutes
Elevation Gain: 137 feet
The Harlequin Lake Trail Elevation Chart
Parking: there is NO parking immediately at the Harlequin Lake Trailhead. Park across the street in the parking lot, then cross back over the road to access the trailhead.
Facilities: there are NO bathrooms at the trailhead or in the parking lot.
Full Report of the Harlequin Lake Trail
So why is Harlequin Lake so underrated? And why does it deserve to make an appearance on your Yellowstone itinerary?
Whether this comes as a surprise or not, Yellowstone National Park is very busy during peak season. Many of its highlights, such as Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Springs, and the Norris Geyser Basin, frequently take hours of sitting in traffic to reach. Parking lots fill up early, especially on weekends. There are lots of crowds, and more noise than you might expect in a National Park. While Yellowstone is still awe-inspiring despite these seasonal characteristics, I highly recommend finding a peaceful, isolated, serene spot to soak in the beauty of Yellowstone, away from the chaos. This spot is Harlequin Lake, and it is one of my favorite destinations to get away from it all in Yellowstone.
There is a lot of intense geothermal activity going on around Harlequin Lake, but when you are in the mood for a good old fashioned forest hike to a calm, still lake, Harlequin Lake does that!
Off of Highway 191 , only 15 minutes from the west entrance of Yellowstone, there will be a small brown sign indicating the Harlequin Lake Trail. If you are like me, you may pass it initially on accident, looking for where to park. No worries – there is no actual parking directly at the Harlequin Lake Trailhead. Instead, park across the street in the parking area facing the river, and then walk back across the street to pick up the trailhead for the Harlequin Lake Trail.
The beginning of the Harlequin Lake Trail starts off in deep, dark forest, shouldered on both sides of this narrow path by groves of pines. Some of these pines show their age (and past history), as certain groves are younger and smaller, while other groves of pines are taller. No matter where you are on the forested trail of Harlequin Lake, it takes on a mysterious and mystical vibe!
The trail leading to the lake has some surprisingly moderate elevation gain, and it does not let up much until you reach Harlequin Lake itself. Just keep in mind that the trail is short, so this incline should only last about minutes, and it is shaded from the sun.
It is also important to note that this trail, due to its thick forest nature, can be occupied by mosquitos. I highly recommend bringing bug spray for the Harlequin Lake Trail.
Midway through the hike, you will reach the “turnaround” spot – Harlequin Lake itself. The first time I ever saw Harlequin Lake, after being immersed in such dark forest only to see it suddenly open up to a still shoreline, was breathtaking! Harlequin Lake is small and humble, but its simple beauty is both pristine and serene! There is deafening silence here, as you leave the crowds of Yellowstone behind you for a moment, and enjoy the moment of exploring the lake in solitude. Witness the lily pads that float on the quiet surface, or maybe even spot other wildlife enjoying the isolation of this removed patch of wilderness.
The Harlequin Lake Trail traces along the edge of the lake for a small stretch, before it is time to turn around and head back into the enveloping forest. Then it is a quick, mostly downhill jaunt back to the trailhead. After visiting Harlequin Lake, I personally like to return to the parking area across the street and enjoy a little (snack) break looking out towards the Madison River and hills of the valley, where quite often I have also been able to spot roaming bison enjoying the scene as well.
The Harlequin Lake Trail is wonderful for many reasons, including the ones mentioned above. The solitude, the escape, the peacefulness, the simpleness, the humbleness, and the beauty! But it is also a great hiking trail for other reasons! It is a short trail, making it ideal for hikers with children, hikers looking for a shorter trail, or hikers wanting to pack a few day hikes into one day at Yellowstone! It is also very close to the west entrance of Yellowstone, making it convenient to get to. It occurs before many of the more popular spots in Yellowstone, meaning you will not get caught waiting in traffic to park, you will not have to wait for a parking spot, and you will not have a hard time departing.
What to Bring on the Harlequin Lake Trail
There are a few things you can bring with you on the Harlequin Lake Trail to make the hike more enjoyable.
- Water – even though this is a short and shaded hike, always bring water with you no matter where you hike! I always carry my water on the go in a Platypus Hydration Bladder
- Hiking Footwear – while this is a very well maintained and non-technical trail, there is some moderate elevation gain that would benefit from a good pair of reliable hiking footwear, like my favorite Hoka One One Speedgoat trail running shoes.
- Bug Spray – the thick forest can harbor mosquitos, especially in warmer weather, so bring bug spray for this potential situation!
- Bear Spray – bear sightings can realistically happen anywhere in Yellowstone National Park, and the NPS recommends carrying bear spray with you no matter where you hike in the park. In fact, there is even a notice for this on the trailhead information sign at the onset of the Harlequin Lake Trail. Harlequin Lake is isolated, so it is a good idea to be fully prepared for potential bear encounters when hiking this trail.
Other Attractions Near the Harlequin Lake Trail
Continue your outdoor explorations of the Yellowstone area with these additional highlights (all of which are part of a perfect Yellowstone itinerary based from the west entrance!)
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This region of Yellowstone National Park revolves around the tallest waterfall in the park, with multiple hiking trails, viewpoints, and overlooks highlighting the canyon gorge and its resident waterfall!
Artists Paint Pot Trail
There are multiple places throughout Yellowstone National Park in which to witness the odd natural phenomenon that are paint pots, and the Artists Paint Pot Trail is one of them!
The Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin and its boardwalk trail hold a surprise around every corner. There are a plethora of geysers, pools, paint pots, steam vents, and more in this basin.
Gibbon Falls is a convenient, roadside waterfall with a short walking path. While not the biggest waterfall in Yellowstone, it is a charming, graceful waterfall that provides a perfect little window into another aspect of Yellowstone’s environment!
Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring
The colors of the Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring are some of the most recognizable and iconic sights in the entire park!
Fountain Paint Pot Trail
The Fountain Paint Pot Trail is another short, easy boardwalk trail to check out some more paint pots, mud pots, pools, and geysers, up close and personal, including the gigantic “Red Spouter”!
Don’t miss out on the grandest of geysers in Yellowstone, and while you are there, check out some of the nearby hiking trails, as well as the historic Old Faithful Inn!
West Yellowstone Town
The town of West Yellowstone itself is a destination too, with plenty of amenities, shopping, dining, museums, and other attractions, including one of my all time favorites, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center!
Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
If you want to witness and learn more about the local wildlife of Yellowstone, be sure to include a visit to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Here you can see bears, wolves, birds of prey, prairie dog towns, fish, and otters, as well as other native residents of the region.
Mesa Falls, Idaho
While not located within the borders of Yellowstone National Park, the impressive Mesa Falls is located about an hour away in neighboring east Idaho. This waterfall is actually comprised of two parts, the Upper and Lower Mesa Falls. The Upper Mesa Falls is arguably the standout of the two, with a trail that leads to overlooks directly over the falls, and a nature trail that traverses the grounds around the waterfall.
All of these attractions are conveniently clustered not only nearby the Harlequin Lake Trail, but also near the west gate of Yellowstone National Park. Check out all of these sights, plus the Harlequin Lake Trail, in this perfect 3 day Yellowstone itinerary from the west entrance!
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