This is our second day in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA. Dazzled by the amazing world of Norris Hot Springs and Mammoth Old Springs, we are ready to make a new discovery in the park: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. It is the park’s most photographed site after Old Faithful, the 2nd largest geyser in the world.
We invite you to read our post on the Yellowstone map and guides to prepare your visit.
1. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the remnant of a complex volcanic history
The Yellowstone area was the site of a tremendous volcanic cataclysm about 600,000 years ago. A huge caldera erupted and was filled with lava and sediments for thousands of years. The canyon was at one time a geyser basin, which proves the thermal activity existing in the park.
Then, the forces of the Yellowstone River eroded the soft rocks of the canyon.
Even today, the canyon is constantly changing due to natural phenomena (erosion by the river, rock falls, weather, earthquakes …).
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 20 miles long and its highest walls can reach 1200 feet.
Three falls in the canyon
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is formed out of sedimentary soft rocks and of volcanic rocks, more resistant. The uneven erosion of the Yellowstone River on these rocks has resulted in the formation of waterfalls. There are three falls in the canyon:
- First, the Upper Falls (109-foot high),
- Then, the spectacular Lower Falls (308-foot high), twice as high as the Niagara Falls,
- and finally the less well–known Crystal Falls.
The falls beauty highlights the striking character of the site.
In the footsteps of Thomas Moran
Thomas Moran was one of the first American illustrators who painted American landscapes, in particular, the American West. In 1871, he joined a geological expedition which led him to Yellowstone. He painted the breathtaking lanscapes and presented its works to the American Congress, which became convinced of the necessity to protect this region. It was shortly after that Yellowstone became the first national park in the United States.
2. How to visit Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone?
Breathtaking views on the canyon are offered by several paths and viewpoints. The hikes are short but really worth it.
The Brink of the Lower Falls
From Canyon Village, a loop (North Rim Drive) runs along the north bank of the canyon. The first junction leads to the left to the Lower Falls parking lot, near a platform from where you can see them close. The view over the spectacular falls and on the other side, down the blue Yellowstone river is striking.
The Upper Falls view point
Less than one mile from the Lower Falls, the road leads to another platform above the Upper Falls. Smaller than the Lower counterpart, they are no less impressive. Upstream of the waterfall, you can see the Canyon Bridge built over the Yellowstone River.
The Uncle Tom’s Trail
About 1,5 mile from the North Rim Drive entrance, the road crosses the Chittenden Bridge on the left and then follows the South Rim Drive. After the bridge, the Uncle Tom’s Trail takes you down into the Canyon of the Yellowstone, at the foot of the Lower Falls. It is not really a trail, but a metal staircase with more than 300 steps leading visitors to the base of the Lowerfalls.
The descent is really impressive: although the fall is visible only further down the stairs, the rumbling of the river flowing 300 feet below, expresses its power.
At the bottom of the staircase, a platform makes it possible to contemplate the falls, framed by the canyon ocher walls. At the point of impact, the waters form a permanent mist in which a beautiful rainbow is formed. This sound and sight are absolutely impressive.
Coming back up may prove strenuous but benches are available along the stairs to regain one’s breath !
Why the name of Uncle Tom’s trail?
A man named HF.Richardson of Montana, nicknamed Uncle Tom, was granted permission in the 1890s to take visitors to the Yellowstone River and then to the falls. Once there, a picnic was organized.
At that time, it was not easy to reach the river: visitors had to descent the canyon with ladders made of ropes. It was really some kind of adventure for women wearing dress with crinoline to climb down the walls of the canyon!
South Rim Trail
This trail begins at the Chittenden Bridge and runs along the south rim of the canyon. Once back up from Uncle Tom’s trail, we pursue our hike along the South Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This 3,5 miles round-trip trail offers several amazing views of the site.
With its walls reaching 800 to 1200 feet high, the canyon resembles a large pink notch in the plateau covered with green forests of pines. We are amazed by the dramatic colors offered by the panorama. The ocher and pink walls of the canyon contrast with the dark blue waters of the Yellowstone River.
A careful look at the canyon rockywalls makes it possible to spot some raptors in search of food, perched on their nests.
The South Rim Trail ends with the most striking view of the site. The viewpoint, called Artist Point offers a grandiose perspective on the Grand Canyon and on the Lower Falls. We are amazed by the magnificence of the panorama.
Down the walls of the canyon, the Yellowstone River indifferently continues to flow in the direction of the Mississippi River.
The view is of great dramatic intensity.
Why is it called Artist Point?
Because it was believed that Thomas Moran did his famous painting “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” there. But in fact he stood in what is now called the Moran Overlook.
The Yellowstone Park offers radically different environments to the visitors. They are all so amazing and dazzling! Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the most spectacular site in Yellowstone National Park. Its falls contribute to the beauty of the site. This natural environment is so grandiose that it restores man to his right dimension.