Yellowstone National Park

The Canyon Through Time

"...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..."
- Nathaniel P. Langford, 1870

Explore one of Yellowstone National Park's premier wonders. Yellowstone's complex geologic history is expressed in vivid colors and dramatic shapes of the Grand Canyon. Puffs of steam mark the locations of active geothermal features in the canyon's walls. The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River add to the grandeur of this unique natural treasure. Get to know the Canyon from a variety of overlooks, at different times of day, and at different seasons. While it is easy to be captivated by the Canyon's most obvious splendors, look for the small things, the details that will make your experience uniquely memorable.

Nathaniel P. Langford, a member of one of the early expeditions to the remote and fabled Yellowstone country, was among the first to record his impressions of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Anyone who has visited the Canyon has come away with a uniquely personal impression of its grandeur. However, perhaps everyone experiences what Nathaniel Langford felt as he tried to imagine what created the canyon. A brief overview of its geologic history introduces a complex story, the details of which are the focus of ongoing study and debate.

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 (kilometers) in a matter of minutes. The roof of this chamber collapsed, forming a giant smoldering pit-a caldera 30 miles (45 km} across, 45 miles (75 km) wide and several thousand feet deep. Eventually the caldera was filled with lava.

One of these 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.

Look for steam in the canyon, evidence of the old thermal area. The multi-hued rocks of the canyon walls are also evidence of hydrothermally altered rhyolite.

Other lava flows created large lakes that overflowed and cut through the various hard and soft rhyolites, creating the canyon. 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. The large rocks in the river upstream from Chittenden Bridge and the Upper Falls were left behind in the last glacial flood.

The 308 foot (93 meter) Lower Falls was formed by the leading edge of the Canyon Rhyolite lava flow and the western edge of the old thermal basin. The hard, resistant lava at the brink did not erode, while the altered and weakened lava in the thermal basin eroded easily. The 109 foot (33 m) Upper Falls was also formed at a contact point of hard and soft rhyolite lavas. In this case, the brink and the massive cliffs are of a dense, resistant rhyolite, while immediately downstream the rhyolite lava contains much volcanic glass which erodes more easily.

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.

The northernmost extent of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone can be viewed from overlooks in the Tower Fall-Calcite Springs area, approximately 19 miles (31 km) north of here.

Canyon Facts

Length: 20 miles (32 km)
Depth: 800-1,200 feet (240-360 m)
Width: 1,500-4,000 feet (450-1,200 m)
Height of Upper Falls 109 feet 133 m)
Height of Lower Falls: 308 feet 193 m)
Primary rock type: Rhyolite/altered rhyolite

Canyon age: present appearance dates from about 10,000 years ago-the end of the last glaciation.

Canyon Wildlife

Among The Pinnacles
There is more to the Canyon than first meets the eye! Look carefully among the rugged pinnacles-you may see a flash of wings or a thick pile of sticks. Soaring over the Yellowstone River or perched on their five-foot diameter nests, osprey (also called"fish hawks" or "fish eagles") intrigue and delight those who discover this seasonal canyon inhabitant.

Adult osprey return here between mid-April and early May, depending on weather patterns. Male and female birds may arrive at different times, because the pairs that "mate for life" spend the non-breeding seasons in separate places. By mid-May, the pair has mated, the female has laid a clutch of two to four tan-with-brown speckled eggs, and incubation has begun. The eggs hatch in about six to eight weeks.

Scrawny, naked chicks need much care. They must be sheltered from heat and cold and fed small amounts of fish often. At about one week of age, the young are covered with downy feathers. Growth is rapid; after three weeks, the plumage resembles that of an adult but with speckles of white at the edge of each feather.

By mid- to late August, the young are nearly the size of their parents and become increasingly independent. Typically, the entire family abandons the canyon by September, probably roosting in trees nearer to their food source: bodies of water.

Sometime during autumn, the entire population of Yellowstone osprey heads south following waterways to the Gulf of Mexico. From there they pursue separate destinations along the coasts of Mexico, Central America, and even as far as northern Venezuela.

Osprey are excellent fishers. Amazing eyesight enables them to spot fish in the water, adjust for distortion due to refraction, and dive from 100 feet (30 m) or more into the water for a fish. Sometimes, however, a fish may be dropped. Bald eagles have been known to harass osprey into dropping prey that eagles then retrieve in midair. Since the mid-1970s, five osprey nests have been occupied in the portion of the canyon near Canyon Village.

With binoculars, patience and a little luck, you may be able to spot an osprey tending a nest or snagging a fish. Ranger-naturalists at the Canyon Visitor Center can help you learn more about osprey, including where to look for them.

Forests And Meadows
Wander a few feet away from the canyon rims and the character of the land changes completely. Dense forests, lush meadows, numerous small lakes and a network of creeks provide a variety of habitats in which a surprising number of birds and small and large mammals live. How they live, and exactly where they may be seen, is intricately linked to time of year and even time of day.

Perhaps the most easily seen animals-due to sheer size and numbers-are the bison and elk that roam the park, including the Canyon area. Each season highlights different phases of their life cycle: spring is the time of calving, summer is when herds move to higher elevations (although smaller numbers usually remain in areas visible from park roads or developments), autumn is the season of the rut or mating and the return of herds to lower country, and winter tests the animals' ability to survive extreme cold and deep snow.

You may also see mule deer, moose, red fox, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, great gray owls, and bald eagles, to name just a few.

Please keep wildlife wild. It is a rare privilege to see wild animals in their natural habitats. Respect their needs for space and solitude. Observe from safe distances and never feed any bird or other animal.

Canyon Features and Trails

Numerous trails suitable for short or extended hikes into Yellowstone's backcountry begin in the Canyon area. Consult the Dayhike Sampler, Short Hikes in the Canyon Area, and other publications for more information. Always obtain current trail conditions and bear activity information at visitor centers.

A number of trails wind along the rims and down into the Canyon. Descriptions listed below will help you plan your hike. Trails into the Canyon will be steep. Wear comfortable shoes, carry water, and take your time! Spring, fall and winter visitors should inquire locally for updates on trail conditions. Due to hazardous conditions, some trails are closed at these times.

North Rim Walks & Overlooks

Inspiration Point Trail: Park at the northernmost parking area on the North Rim Drive. More than 50 steps direct you down this moderately strenuous walk to an overlook and spectacular canyon views. Trail is closed in winter.

Grandview Point Trail: Park at the Grandview parking area. This is a very short paved walk to one of the most colorful views of the Canyon.

Grandview Pt. To P Loop: Park at either end of the trail. About l/2 mile (0.8 km) in length, this paved trail is especially pleasant in the early morning. Look for the sign at the P26 cabin or Grandview Point parking area.

Red Rock/Lookout Points: Park at the Lookout Point parking area. The paved trail to Red Rock drops 500 feet (150 m) in about 3/8 mile (0.6 km). Lookout Point, on the rim, offers essentially the same view of the Lower Falls as Red Rock, but does not get as close to the falls. Not recommended for those with heart, lung or other health conditions. Trail is closed in winter and subject to closures in the spring and fall due to snow, ice or other conditions.

Brink Of The Lower Falls: Park at the southernmost parking area on the North Rim Drive. The 3/4 mile (1.2 km) walk along a paved trail drops about 600 feet ( 180 m) into the canyon to the brink of the 308-foot (93 m) Lower Falls. Not recommended for those with heart, lung or other health conditions. Trail is closed in winter and subject to closures in the spring and fall due to snow, ice or other conditions. Check with rangers for trail information.

Brink Of The Upper Falls: Park at the Upper Falls parking area. This is a 1/4 mile (0.4 km) round trip walk, including numerous stairs, to the lip of the 109-foot (33 m) Upper Falls. Spring, fall and winter visitors: trail may be icy and/or snow-covered.

North Rim Trail: Portions of this trail are paved. Starting at the South Rim Drive bridge (also known as Chittenden Bridge), the first 1/2 mile (0.8 km) to the Upper Falls parking area takes the hiker close to the river, a beautiful and impressive torrent as it approaches the canyon. From slightly west of the Upper Falls parking area, the trail continues past Crystal Falls on Cascade Creek another l/2 mile (0.8 km) to the Lower Falls parking area, then to Lookout Point (1/2 mile, 0.8 km), to Grandview Point (1/4 mile, 0.4 km) and finally to Inspiration Point (slightly more than I mile or 1.6 km). By trail, Inspiration Point is slightly more than 2 1/4 miles (3.6 km) from the Upper Falls parking area and slightly less than 3 miles (4.8 km) from the South Rim Drive bridge.

South Rim Walks & Overlooks

Uncle Tom's Trail: A short walk into the Canyon toward the base of the Lower Falls, Uncle Tom's trail is a very strenuous walk, dropping about 500 feet (150 m) over a series of more than 300 stairs and paved inclines. It is not recommended for people with heart, lung or other health conditions. Much of the walk is constructed of perforated steel sheeting, so you should wear comfortable, flat-heeled walking shoes. Portions of the walk are often wet, which in the spring or fall or in the early morning, may create a film of ice. Please walk carefully. Trail is closed in winter and subject to closures in the spring and fall due to snow, ice or other conditions.

Upper Falls Overlook: A short walk from the west side of Uncle Tom's parking area to view the Upper Falls. Handicapped accessible. Trail may be closed in winter.

South Rim Trail: Park at the large lot near the South Rim Drive bridge (Chittenden Bridge). This partially paved trail parallels the Canyon for 3 1/4 miles (5.2 km) to Point Sublime. Many striking viewpoints of both falls and the canyon can be reached on this trail, as well as access to Uncle Tom's Trail, Artist Point (13/4 miles, 2.8 km), and Lily Pad Lake.

Artist Point: Park at the Artist Point parking area. A short, scenic walk to longer views of the Lower Falls and the canyon in both directions. Handicapped accessible with assistance.

Clear Lake Trail: From the Uncle Tom's parking area, this trail takes the hiker through large rolling meadows and forested areas to Clear Lake (2 l/4 miles, 3.6 km). Get current information on trail conditions and bear activity from rangers at visitor centers.

Ribbon Lake Trail: From the Wapiti trailhead to Clear and Ribbon lakes, follow the markers for Clear Lake to the first junction, then turn right. At the second junction, turn left (north); Ribbon Lake is about 3/4 mile (1.2 km) farther. Trails also connect to Lily Pad Lake, Clear Lake and the South Rim Trail. Get current information on trail conditions and bear activity from rangers at visitor centers.

Driving The Rims

The most famous section of the Canyon lies between the North and South Rim Drives just east of the Grand Loop Road. Little of the Canyon is visible from these drives. However, overlooks offer sweeping views of the Canyon and different perspectives of the falls.

On the North Rim, you can see the Canyon from Inspiration, Lookout and Grandview Points. The Lower Falls is visible from Lookout Point.

A short spur road off the Grand Loop Road ends in a parking area: a path leads to an overlook at the brink of the Upper Falls, a dramatic vantage point for viewing the Yellowstone River as it enters the Canyon.

On the South Rim Drive, the Upper Falls is visible from Upper Falls Overlook, and Artist Point offers spectacular views of the Lower Falls.

For More Information

To learn more about the geology, hiking and other features of Yellowstone, ask a ranger at a visitor center. The following publications, sold by the Yellowstone Association, provide more information:

Geologic Map of Yellowstone National Park, Montana State University
Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country, William J. Fritz
Geology of the National Parks, Harris and Tuttle
Agents of Chaos, Stephen L. Harris
Yellowstone: A Visitor's Companion, George Wuerthner
Yellowstone Trails: A Hiking Guide, Mark C. Marschall
Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry: Revised and Updated, Orville Bach, Jr.
Yellowstone National Park Dayhike Sampler, National Park Service

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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