Yellowstone National Park – Day 4 – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – 7/25/15 – 10 miles
Jim and I broke down camp very early because we’re changing campgrounds today. While parents were wrangling small children to breakfast and other folks were enjoying that second cup of coffee, we were the first car in the parking lot ready to walk both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
GC of the Yellowstone is the largest canyon in the park, formed by erosion rather than as a result of glaciation. From Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows north through the canyon, dropping from Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls to carve the gorge in dramatic style. The most spectacular section called the North and South Rims is about 3 miles long, but the entire canyon is about 20 miles long from Upper Yellowstone Falls to Tower Falls, up to 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep in places.
Ask Jim and he’ll tell you that this is the most outstanding, don’t-miss area of Yellowstone NP. Because of the infrastructure created to make it all easily accessible, the crowds are there, but like Old Faithful it’s good to see people enjoying and appreciating these natural wonders (mostly).
We started on the North Rim Trail at Brink of the Lower Falls, a steep .75-mile trail that includes switchbacks and a lot of stairs down to – yes – a viewing platform at the edge of the Lower Falls. The thundering noise of the waterfall left me speechless.
Looking down river, see the mist rising from the base of Lower Falls
Back on the North Rim Trail, Lookout Point is just a few steps off the path for a stunning panoramic view of Lower Falls.
For a closer view requiring more effort, we hiked to Red Rock Point, a steep quarter- mile descent with stairs and switchbacks. (Interestingly, this trail is not on the park website or park map. I found it in hiking guidebooks.) Lower Falls drops 308 feet, twice high as Niagara Falls.
The view down river from Red Rock Point
Back up the steps and continuing along the North Rim, we watched a young couple hop the low stone wall and venture out on a narrow ridge, where they dangled their feet over the edge and the woman struck yoga poses for the camera. The rest of us followed the rules, stayed on the sidewalk and judged harshly.
A little girl with sharp eyes pointed me to an eagle’s nest with two chicks.
Grand View: the pink and yellow colors along the volcanic rhyolite canyon walls indicate the presence or absence of water in individual iron compounds formed during the time that the area was an active geyser basin. [End of geology lesson.]
Rather than continue out to Inspiration Point, Jim and I opted to turn around at Grand View and retrace our steps along the North Rim back to our car, where we picked up our daypacks and turned toward the South Rim. [We stopped at Brink of the Upper Falls but I can’t find the pictures!]
The pavement went away and we followed the dirt trail, first crossing an old bridge left in place from the original road to the North Rim and then connecting with Grand Loop Road where it crosses the Yellowstone River on Chittenden Bridge.
Walking along this section upriver of the falls, we didn’t encounter more than a handful of people and had the feeling that most don’t venture here, choosing instead to drive across the bridge and hike each of the rim sections separately. The water was both placid …
… and turbulent. Just past this point is the Upper Falls. Jim commented that if you fell in you wouldn’t be able to save yourself.
Following the trail for the first mile along the South Rim from the bridge was sketchy, hard to tell where we should and shouldn’t be walking. Well-worn paths were everywhere but so were “no-no” signs to stay off certain places.
Found a dangerously fantastic view of the Upper Falls on the opposite bank from the Brink of the Upper Falls viewing area.
After this picture we hiked past one of those warning signs.
We paused briefly at Upper Falls Overlook but knew that there were better things ahead. By the time we reached the top of Uncle Tom’s Trail, the tour buses had disgorged the masses and we joined the flow. A rambunctious little boy ran ahead of his family and got mixed in with the crowd, but the parents finally caught up with him. The dad was carrying a baby in a front pack and a toddler in a backpack. Oh, and there were one or two other kids… lots of credit for Dad still smiling.
Uncle Tom’s Trail isn’t really a walking trail, rather a series of concrete and mesh steel staircases (328 steps) attached to the canyon rock. The trail is named for Uncle Tom Richardson, who guided visitors on this trail back at the turn of the 20th century (then 528 steps and rope ladders). The lung-busting climb back up is best done slowly with pauses for reflection. Great hike, highly recommend it, but early or late in the day.
Rainbow at Lower Falls along Uncle Tom’s Trail
Lower Falls from base of Uncle Tom’s Trail
The trail along the South Rim is wide, paved in some places, and generally ascends towards Artist Point. The river disappears deep into the canyon except for the occasional glimmer and the main attraction becomes the canyon walls. We stopped for lunch here.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Did I say that the crowds had arrived back at Uncle Tom’s Trail? Well, aside from those few hundreds, the remaining inhabitants of planet Earth were all at Artist Point Overlook. Coming off the trail into the parking lot was a serious buzz-kill and we nearly turned around rather than muscle our way to the viewpoint. We got that iconic photo, but there really was no enjoying the moment.
We took our time on the return hike but agreed we didn’t need to check out every overlook a second time. We did pause again, though, in the quiet section above the Upper Falls to eat again and savor being so close to the river.
Back across the bridge there was a small traffic jam caused by a handsome elk enjoying his own afternoon snack.
At Madison Camp- ground, we found our assigned tent site, again not an ideal space because sites were close together and very open, but at $25 per night one cannot be persnickety. Dinner called to us from the Slippery Otter Pub in the town of West Yellowstone, our only venture outside of the park. We toasted to a third enchanting day in Yellowstone National Park.
"Language is inadequate to convey a just conception of the awful grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature's handiwork." ~David Folsom, early Yellowstone explorer