The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone should be high on every visitor’s list I think. It was a bit of a revelation to me – I’d come to Yellowstone to see the geysers and other similar phenomena and hadn’t appreciated how much else the park had to offer. While the canyon isn’t as large or as dramatic as the Grand Canyon itself (and frankly not as good) it is still an incredible sight and worth spending some time exploring. Two roads follow the canyon; one on the north rim and one on the south (you have to return to the main road between your visits to each rim). This tip covers the north rim; I've written a separate one for the south.
On the north rim we stopped at:
- Inspiration Point at the far end of the road – this is the best place to get a general overview of the canyon, for which you’ll need to walk down about 55 steps
- Lookout Point – here we found excellent views of the Lower Falls, with ospreys circulating in the canyon below.
- Brink of the Upper Falls – there's a short walk and some steps down which take you to a point where you’re pretty close to the water’s edge (close enough to feel the spray and get some good photos)
This canyon of the Yellowstone river lies in the centre of the park. The canyon offers spectacular views, from viewpoints on both the north rim and south rim.
Most spectacular are the views of the Upper Falls and especially the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone river. One of the greatest views of the Lower Falls is from Red Rock Point, of which the trailhead starts at Lookout Point and takes some 45 minutes roundtrip.
The closest look that you can get of the Lower Falls (apart from the platform on the brink of the falls) is from Uncle Tom's trail, a short but steep trail with lots of stairs, that starts off the the South Rim. If you have no problems with walking lots of stairs, you should really do this short trail.
Best time of day to watch the Lower Falls is during the morning. During the afternoon, the falls will be covered by shadow.
At this overlook just south of Tower Junction a short boardwalk takes you to a point overlooking The Narrows. This is the most northerly look possible at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here the river is 500 feet below (not recommended for sufferers from vertigo) and the steep basalt column cliffs on the opposite side of the river, remnants of an ancient lava flow, are home to osprey and hawks. The dramatic scenery here inspired the artist Moran; his paintings of this scene were among those presented to Congress in 1872, leading to the establishment of the park.
My other tip on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone covers the sights of the north rim, while this one focuses on the south, where some of the best views are to be had. The best of all is from Artists’ Point at the far end of the road, which is one of the best places from which to appreciate the colours and the sheer scale of the canyon and spot ospreys; there’s also another excellent view from here of the Lower falls, and the overlooks are partially wheelchair accessible
We also planned to stop at and walk Uncle Tom’s Trail, which sounded great on the trail leaflet (“an unparalleled canyon and waterfall experience”) but were put off by torrential rain and a storm. Oh well, another time!
Don’t miss out on seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon and its two wonderful waterfalls are only visible from short walks and overlooks, as you cannot see it from the road. The Upper Falls has a 109 foot fall, and the Lower Falls drops 308 feet. The canyon walls are gray, brown, yellow, red, and orange, adding color to the spectacular views, which have inspired artists and photographers alike. If you are on a short time frame, at least make a stop at Artist Point, for a beautiful view of the Lower Falls. This one is my favorites as it gives the best overall view of both the Lower Falls and the canyon from two beautifully located viewing levels. The first level is accessible for people with disabilities, allowing them to view this magnificent site. As you gaze out over the canyon you will see the Yellowstone river churning far below you as it plunges over the falls and heads toward Tower Falls another 15 miles away. For shear beauty, the canyon is the Queen of the park.
Slightly less spectacular than the Lower Falls, but still one of the most impressive falls I've seen. The Upper Falls are located a few miles upstream and again there is a platform on the brink of the falls and a nice viewpoint on the South Rim. Closeby is a bridge that connects the South Rim (the road from Canyon Village into Hayden Valley) and the North Rim (a one-way loop).
We visited Yellowstone's Grand Canyon and the dreariest day of our vacation. We had just bought winter coats at the outdoor store in Canyon Village, so we thought we would brave the elements for a bit of sightseeing. Even on that cold, grey day, the Canyon was filled with a rainbow of hues. Absolutely breathtaking! The turquoise waters of the Yellowstone River cut down though layers and layers of rock for as far as the eye can see.
There are a view different stop offs to view the Canyon. The best view in my opinion was also the most work to get to. We took the Red Rock trail to the end for a spectacular view of the Lower Falls. It's a long, steep, switchbacked trail down the canyon, but what a view when you get there! An easier spot to view the Lower Falls is Lookout Point, just to the right of Red Rock trail.
Another great spot to view the Lower Falls is Artist's Point. If you go early in the morning on a sunny day, you will see a rainbow at the base of the falls.
Following the second large drop at Lower Yellowstone Falls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone starts to get serious – reaching a depth of 900-ft (275-m). Being a river erosion canyon, it has a width of only 0.5-mile (0.8-km). It is believed that much of the erosion is due to periodic major flooding in the past, such as when an ice dam that was blocking outflow from Yellowstone Lake let go many centuries ago.
We had not walked far beyond Lower Falls before noticing the very colourful effect the spray had on the nearby steep canyon wall, with lush green patches below areas of white caused by the abundant geological forces at work in Yellowstone. An hour after setting out on our hike, our trail converged with the car park at the end of the road paralleling the river. We took one last shot of the canyon ahead (2nd photo), looking past Artist Point on the right to the amazing hues of colours at distant Inspiration Point. We decided to call it quits then because we knew we had to drive back down through the Hayden Valley once more. We made a forced march along the side of this road with the sun beaming down until we reached our car park at the start of the hike.
If you like getting down into things, you cannot beat the stair trails to viewpoints deep in the canyon. We did the Uncle Tom Trail which drops three-quarters of the way into the canyon over 328 steps. There seemed to be even more steps than advertised and many people were huffing and puffing on their way back up. That said, it is a well worthwhile side trip. This trail has some history with “Uncle Tom” Richardson leading tours down it since 1900 though back in those days it involved a few rope ladders for good measure!
This was our favorite part of the canyon, offering a real close up to the Lower Falls and when we were there, a rainbow, perhaps a common thing with the right sun as the spray should be omnipresent.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is generally the biggest surprise to the first time park visitor. I know for me it was a revelation when I first saw it in 1994, not just for its beauty but for my not ever hearing of it. On my return trip in 2008, it was one of the things I looked forward to showing my wife most and it being one of the few promoted hiking areas in the park, it remains one of my favorites.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone may be far less grand than its big Arizona brother but it is still 20 miles long, 1000 feet deep, 2500 feet across and is estimated to be 10,000 years old. Forged by erosion rather than glacial activity, its bright yellow color is the result of hydrothermal alteration of the rhyolite that forms its steep walls. The iron compounds within the rhyolite are actually rusting before your very eyes, to different degrees depending on the presence of water within.
Though many of the overlooks are car-accessible, the trails along the canyon's edge are relatively flat and quite pleasant. If you are at all able, you should park your car and walk from one viewpoint to the next. It is a far nicer way to visit this heavily congested area. To get decent photos, this is one area you need to be around noon. While it is named Grand Canyon, it is not so grand in a wide sense, but more so in a colorful one. Perhaps a better name would have been The Yellow Canyon of Yellowstone. At any rate, it is fairly narrow and quite deep so the best light is close to noon when the sun's rays shine down into and illuminates the sublimely colorful rock that makes the canyon so spectacular.
There are trails on both sides of the canyon and for those looking for some exercise or just some solitude from the masses at the more popular viewpoints, they are a great option. While many of the more far flung viewpoints offer great overviews of the canyon, they lack the stunning colors of the ones that draw everyone in. Some of the most scenic viewpoints are The Artist's Point on the South Rim and Lookout Point on the North Rim.
We had a great experience here our first stop though it was ill-timed for photos. We decided on a whim to head over late our first afternoon in the park and wound up running into the very nice couple we had met just a week earlier at Glacier National Park in Montana on the Iceberg Lake hike. That was another ill-timed hike in the rain but I guess our poor timings for photos turned out to be good ones for making some very dear friends.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is very steep. You cannot climb down it, or get all the way to the Yellowstone river at the bottom. It is VERY impressive looking however, even from the top. There are some path some of the way down, where you can get a better view of the falls, but we could see them just fine from above.
There is an easy and nice hike you can do: the loop trail to Clear Lake. It first goes through a meadow and some forest, past a bison ( not sure it will still be there :-) , to the lake, then past some thermal stinky mudpot areas , past another small lake to "Artists Point" , back along the Canyon rim trail to where you started in the parking lot.
The Brink of the Lower Falls trail is a wonderful experience. You will find yourself standing at the top of the largest falls in the park, where you can experience the rush of water as it falls suddenly downward to the Yellowstone River 350 feet below. This is a fun, and interesting experience, but it is not for everyone. The three eighth of a mile walk carries you 600 feet steeply downward over a series of switchbacks, leaving you to climb 600 feet up again. If you are out of shape, have small children, or do not find walking comfortable, you will not enjoy this hike. The volume of water that plunges over the falls you will be standing over, varies from 63,500 gallons per second at peak runoff in the spring, to 5,000 gallons per second in the fall.
The North Rim Trail offers a fairly easy forested walk, opening to various views of the canyon, river, and its falls. The distance is about 3 miles one way, and since this is not a loop trail, unless someone drops you off at one end, and picks you up at the other end, you must turn around and walk back to your starting point, making the hike a little less than 6 miles. You do not, however, have to hike the entire trail, but could choose one of various starting points, and then walk as far as you like, turning around and returning when you wish.
If you plan to walk the trail from the south end, you will find the trail head at the South Rim Drive bridge (also called the Chittenden Bridge). If you begin at the bridge on the south end, the first half mile, which runs to the Upper Falls parking area, gives you beautiful views of the river as it approaches the canyon. The Upper Falls parking area, is therefore another location that you could start your hike from. From this parking lot the trail continues past Crystal Falls, which is located on Cascade Creek for another ½ mile to the Lower Falls Parking area. The trail goes over the top of this waterfalls. From this parking area you would continue another ½ mile north to Lookout Point, then another ¼ miles to Grandview Point, and from there finish your hike by walking another mile to Inspiration Point.
If you are walking it from the north end, the trail head is located at Inspiration Point, and you would simply walk the trail in reverse of my above description. When walking in this direction, the trail from Inspiration Point to Grand View Point runs through the forest, away from the rim of the canyon for a mile. For this reason, if you wish to shorten your hike, and not walk the entire trail, I would recommend cutting out this first portion of the north end. With the reduction of this one mile, you are actually cutting two miles off the round trip, shortening the hike to 4 miles.
This is a nice hike, and if you take a number of photographs, and stop at all the view points, I recommend that you plan a half day.
My first three photos were taken near the south section of the trail, and the last two are taken in the north area between Inspiration Point and Grand View Point.