HomeOutdoorsParksBackpacker Completes 25-Year Quest to Conquer Every Trail in Yellowstone National Park

Backpacker Completes 25-Year Quest to Conquer Every Trail in Yellowstone National Park

by Caitlin Berard
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River Inside Yellowstone National Park
(Photo by pabst_ell via Getty Images)

It took a quarter of a century, navigating blizzard conditions, contending with grizzly bears, and suffering multiple injuries, but outdoor enthusiast Ken Duell finally completed his quest. He backpacked his way through every trail in Yellowstone National Park.

The adventure began in 1996, when Duell embarked into the wilds of Yellowstone for the first time. Since then, he missed only one year, and that was only because the COVID-19 pandemic shut down park exploration across the country. Though he doesn’t have an exact number, Duell estimates he’s hiked over 2,000 miles inside Yellowstone National Park alone.

“The trail system isn’t in a linear fashion,” Duell explained to The Spokesman-Review. By his calculation, he hiked over 100 miles to cover 26 new miles of trail sections last fall to reach the finish line of his staggering goal.

He was so dedicated to his objective that he backpacked over 20 miles just to cover a small 2-mile stretch of trail he had yet to hike. So dedicated that even other hiking enthusiasts were left dumbfounded by his strenuous feat.

Married couple Randy and Leslie Smith have been backpacking the west coast for decades, the last two of which they spent in the company of Ken Duell. In their 30 years of biannual trips to Yellowstone National Park, the Smiths have covered an impressive 4,000 miles of trails – and even they often find themselves looking at their friend in disbelief.

“I don’t have the tenacity that Ken has to just hike a trail because it’s there,” Leslie said. “Some of them are not that fun.”

“Ken’s taken us on some grim hikes, some day hikes he needed that were just awful,” Randy agreed. “Hot, dry, dusty, and you could hear traffic noise. Yeah, we kind of wanted to wring his neck after those.”

Backpacker’s Yellowstone National Park Adventure Started With Fly Fishing

Given his obvious fondness for hiking and backpacking, it’s easy to assume that’s where Ken Duell’s passion for Yellowstone National Park began. However, the backpacking was actually a byproduct of his original activity of choice: fly fishing.

Decades ago, Duell traveled to Yellowstone’s backcountry in search of the ideal fly fishing locale. Only after trekking back and forth across the park countless times did he realize that he’d actually covered a lot of ground, which sparked another idea. What if he hiked every mapped mile of the Yellowstone National Park trails? And it was that passing thought that set 25 years of outdoor adventure in motion.

“I have to thank my family for putting up with me disappearing from two to three weeks a year,” Duell said.

His journey is now complete, the backpacking bucket list of a lifetime crossed off. But Ken Duell’s love for Yellowstone National Park runs deep. Far too deep for him to abandon it just because he’s seen it all. So he’ll keep going back, taking his friends to the best the park has to offer.

Besides, there are more adventures waiting. For Duell, no Yellowstone list can be fully complete without finishing all of the park’s winter-use trails. With that behind him, (it’s only 21 miles, after all), he’ll make up another quest and conquer that one too.