Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone & Uncle Tom

One stop you will want to be sure and make on your Yellowstone trip is at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone courtesy of Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

For years I was under the impression that there were two waterfalls to be seen – the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls.  Much to my surprise, when researching the falls, I learned that there are actually three falls.  The Upper – the Lower and Crystal Falls.  I never knew that there were actually the three falls.  You never hear anyone mention Crystal Falls when they tell you about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Crystal Falls courtesy of Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

Crystal Falls is located between the upper and lower falls and can be seen from the South Rim Trail just a little east of the Uncle Tom’s area.  Crystal Falls was created by the outfall of Cascade Creek into the canyon.  I, personally, have never seen Crystal Falls but you can be sure that on my next visit to the area I will make it a point to see it.

Aerial view of Upper Falls of the Yellowstone courtesy of Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

The Upper Falls is 109 feet. At 308 feet the Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park.  In considering the height alone, it is more than twice the size of Niagara Falls.

The canyon itself measures approximately 20 miles long.  It is more than 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide.

The volume of water that goes over the falls varies from 63,500 gallons per second during the peak runoff season and decreases to around 5,000 gallons per second during the rest of the year.  The sound of the water going over the falls is something you will never forget once you hear it.  You will get a sense of the power of the water as it goes over the falls.

You can get to the bottom of the canyon but there is only one trail in the area that will take you there and that is Seven Mile Hole Trail.  This is a steep and strenuous round trip of 11 miles.  Be sure you have on your good walking shoes and have plenty of water with you.

North Rim Drive:   Here you will find accessible walkways at the Brink of The Lower Falls which will lead you to views of both waterfalls.  However, due to a bend in the canyon, there is no place where you can view both the upper and lower falls at the same time.

The Lower Falls can also be viewed from Lookout, Red Rock and Inspiration Points.

South Rim Drive:  The Lower Falls can be seen at Artist Point, from Uncle Tom’s Trail and from a few places along the South Rim Trail.  The Upper. Falls can be seen from two viewpoints at Uncle Tom’s Point.

There is a viewing point on the Grand Loop Road south of Canyon Junction where you can see the brink of the Upper Falls.

Lower Falls from Uncle Tom’s Trail. Photo courtesy of Neal Herbert/Yellowstone National Park

A little history regarding the man referred to as “Uncle Tom”.  Research says he was H. F. Richardson, formerly from Bozeman.  He built a trail deep into the canyon.  In the late 1890’s he was granted a permit by the National Park Service to ferry tourists across the Yellowstone River and then lead them along the south rim of the canyon to the base of the Lower Falls where they would enjoy a picnic lunch before returning.  The trip required the use of ropes and rope ladders which offered a measure of safety and to prevent guests from tumbling off the steep canyon walls.  It was, needless to say, not a trip for the faint of heart but I can imagine how rewarding it must have been and it created memories none of those early tourists were likely to forget.  In 1903 the National Park Service constructed the Chittenden Bridge and this was a contributing factor in the demise of “Uncle Tom’s” business venture.  It had lasted for seven years between 1898 and 1905.  The trail originally used by Uncle Tom has been reworked to meet current standards but it is still a strenuous hike and drops 500 feet.  Bear in mind that on the return trip the trail will be rising 500 feet!

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone from Uncle Tom’s trail courtesy of Jim                                     Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

While at the canyon be on the lookout for osprey flying over the river or perched in their five-foot diameter nests.  There are generally six to ten osprey nests in the area near Canyon Village.  They will nest there from late April until late August or early September.  You should also be on the lookout for ravens, bald eagles and swallows.

As always, be sure you have your camera.  You will not want to leave Yellowstone without photos of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to take home with you.

AUTHOR: Sue Knapp