National Park

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lower Falls from Artist Point, John Barnett 1969
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lower Falls
  from Artist Point, John Barnett 1969; NPS Photo

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone varies from 800 to 1200 feet in depth and from 1,500 to 4,000 feet in width. It’s length is about 24 miles long. The upper 2 1/2 miles of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the most colorful section. Hot spring activity has continued through the ages altering the lava rock to produce lovely colors which are largely due to the varied iron compounds. The steam vents and geysers are still working in the canyon walls.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Photo Tour

Yellowstone River in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, below Lower Falls, photo by S.R. Brantley,
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, below Lower Falls,
  photo by S.R. Brantley,

About 600,000 years ago, huge volcanic eruptions occurred in Yellowstone, emptying a large underground magma chamber. Volcanic debris spread for thousands of square miles in a matter of minutes. The roof of this chamber collapsed, forming a giant smoldering pit. This caldera was 30 miles (45 km) across, 45 miles (75 km) long, and several thousand feet deep. Eventually the caldera was filled with lava.

Inspiration Point Platform, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, photo
Inspiration Point Platform is a natural observation
  point. It is located where the canyon wall juts far
  out into the canyon allowing spectacular views both
  upstream and downstream, Grand Canyon of the
  Yellowstone, photo by

One of these lava flows was the Canyon Rhyolite flow, approximately 590,000 years ago which came from the east and ended just west of the present canyon. A thermal basin developed in this lava flow, altering and weakening the rhyolite lava by action of the hot steam and gases. Steam rises from vents in the canyon today and the multi-hued rocks of the canyon walls are also evidence of hydrothermally altered rhyolite.

View down river from Inspiration Point in Grand Canyon of the the Yellowstone, photo by
View down canyon from Inspiration Point. Inspiration
  Point juts so far out into the Grand Canyon of the
  Yellowstone, that it was called Promontory Point
  in 1879. Sometime around 1884 it was renamed
  Inspiration Point for the brilliant colors you can see
  in the canyon. Photo by

Other lava flows blocked rivers and streams forming lakes that overflowed and cut through the various hard and soft rhyolites, creating the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Later the canyon was blocked three different times by glaciers. Each time these glaciers formed lakes, which filled with sand and gravel. Floods from the melting glaciers at the end of each glacial period recarved the canyon, deepened it, and removed most of the sand and gravel.

View up river from Inspiration Point in Grand Canyon of the the Yellowstone, photo by
View up Canyon from Inspiration Point. Nathanial P.
  Langford, used the words below to describe his visit
  to Inspiration Point in 1870. Photo by

The present appearance of the canyon dates from about 10,000 years ago when the last glaciers melted. Since that time, erosional forces (water, wind, earthquakes, and other natural forces) have continued to sculpt the canyon.

A member of the Washburn party in 1870, Nathanial P. Langford, used these words to describe his visit to this point:

“The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.”

Glacial Boulder near Inspiration Point. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone photo by
Glacial Boulder near Inspiration Point Photo

Along the Yellowstone National Park road to Inspiration Point there is a house-sized granite boulder sitting in the pine forest alongside the road. It was plucked from the Beartooth Mountains by an early Pinedale Glacier and dropped on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone nearly 80,000 years ago. Continued glacial advances and retreats led to the present-day appearance of the canyon and surrounding area.

Silver Cord Cascade Overlook Trail, Photo
On the Trail to Silver Cord Cascade Overlook
  photo by

This photo was taken along the trail leading to the Silver Cord Cascade Overlook on the north rim. The Silver Cord Cascade is on the opposite side of the canyon where Surface Creek flows over the canyon lip and falls in a series of cascades down to the Yellowstone River. Surface Creek flows past the Silver Cord Cascade Overlook and then falls abruptly in a long series of falls down to the river. While not a single waterfall, this cascade may well have given rise to the stories of a waterfall over 1000 feet tall that was hidden in the mountains.

Members of the Washburn party discovered the cascade in 1870 and named it Silverthread Fall. In 1885 the USGS Hague parties gave it the name that survives today, Silver Cord Cascade.

View from Lookout Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone photo by
View from Lookout Point. Photo by

This was a popular lookout for many early visitors to the park. Noticing that it got regular visitation, in 1880 Superintendent P.W. Norris built a railing here and the location has been called Lookout Point ever since. It is likely that this was the superintendents preferred name for the spot. It had been called many things prior to 1880 including Point Lookout, Lookout Rock, Mount Lookout, and Prospect Point.

Red Rock Point in Grand Canyon of the the Yellowstone, photo by
Red Rock Point in the Grand Canyon of the
  Yellowstone, Photo by

Red Rock Point is near the tall reddish pinnacle of rock below the Lower Falls. Iron oxide is the cause of this rock’s red pigmentation. The pinnacle has had several names relating to its color including Red Pinnacles and Cinnabar Tower. It was finally given its present-day name of Red Rock by the 1886 Park Photographer, F. Jay Haynes. The boardwalk to Red Rock Point is visible in the foreground of this photo.

The Brink of the Lower Falls of Yellowstone photo by
The Brink of the Lower Falls photo by

The Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park at 308 feet. The arrow at the top of the photo points at a group of visitors on the platform at the Brink of the Lower Falls. Over the years the estimates of the height of this falls has varied dramatically. In 1851 Jim Bridger estimated its height at 250 feet. One outrageous newspaper story from 1867 placed its height at “thousands of feet”. A map from 1869 gives the falls its current name of Lower Falls for the first time and estimates the height at 350 feet. It mattered little how tall the observers thought the falls was. They consistently write journal entries that comment on its awe-inspiring nature. A member of the 1870 Washburn party N. P. Langford gave this brief but poetic description: “A grander scene than the lower cataract of the Yellowstone was never witnessed by mortal eyes.”

The Brink of the Upper Falls of Yellowstone photo by
The Brink of the Upper Falls photo by

This is the smaller of the two famous waterfalls on the Yellowstone River at 109 feet tall. To get a feel for its magnitude notice that the arrow at the top of the photo points at three people standing on the platform at the Brink of the Upper Falls. This falls was called the “upper falls” for the first time by members of the 1869 Folsom party who estimated its height at 115 feet. Visitors to the Brink of the Upper Falls have throughout time found the power of the experience worthy of detailed description. In 1870 N.P. Langford of the Washburn party wrote of his visit to the brink:

“Mr. Hedges and I made our way down to this table rock, where we sat for a long time. As from this spot we looked up at the descending waters, we insensibly felt that the slightest protrusion in them would hurl us backwards into the gulf below. A thousand arrows of foam, apparently aimed at us, leaped from the verge, and passed rapidly down the sheet. But as the view grew upon us, and we comprehended the power, majesty and beauty of the scene, we became insensible to the danger and gave ourselves up to the full enjoyment of it.”

View of Upper Falls from across the Canyon, photo by
View of Upper Falls from across the Canyon.
   Photo by

Of the two famous Yellowstone River waterfalls this one stands at a higher elevation, but it is considerably shorter in height than its downstream neighbor, the Lower Falls. The height of the Upper Falls is 109 feet. According to a companion, the famous mountain man Jim Bridger visited this waterfall in 1846. Word spread of its existence and in the 1860s some prospectors went out of their way to visit it.

Uncle Tom's Trail view of the Lower Falls, photo by
Uncle Tom’s Trail View of the Lower Falls,
   Photo by”

Uncle Tom’s Trail was first constructed in 1898 by “Uncle” Tom Richardson. The five years following its construction, Uncle Tom led visitors on tours which included crossing the river upstream from the present day Chittenden Bridge, and then following his rough trail to the base of the Lower Falls. The tour was concluded with a picnic and a return trip across the river. Today Uncle Tom’s Trail is very different from the simple trail used by Mr. Richardson and his visitors. It is still, however, a very strenuous walk into the canyon. The trail drops 500 feet (150 m) in a series of more than 300 stairs and paved inclines.

Artist Point view in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone photo by
View of the Lower Falls from Artist Point
   photo by

Many people thought that this was the point where Thomas Moran made the sketches he used to produce his famous painting of the canyon in 1872. In fact those sketches were made from the north rim in a location known today as Moran Point. The name Artist Point is believed to have been given to this location around 1883 by Park Photographer F. Jay Haynes. The name appeared in print for the first time in Mr. Haynes guidebook, published in 1890.


This post incorporates text from:

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Online Tour.