Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a relatively young formation, perhaps having between 10,000 and 14,000 years old. Although few geologic studies have been done, it’s generally agreed that the canyon was formed by erosion rather than glaciation, thanks to the powerful waters of the Yellowstone River, which flows from the slopes of Yount Peak 600 miles to the Missouri River in North Dakota. As an interesting aside, the Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the continental United States.
To get to the canyon, we passed through Hayden Valley, an ideal place to view wildlife. We saw bison and mule deer roaming its broad fields, as well as ducks, swans, white pelicans and Canadian geese in the marshes along the river banks. This is the same valley where we encountered the “bearparazzi” pursuing a black bear yesterday. We also spent time exploring LeHardys Rapids, but it was too early in the season to see any of the spawning cutthroat trout jumping the falls.
The canyon measures 20 miles in length from the Upper Falls to the Tower Falls, with depths between 800 and 1,200 feet, and widths between 1,500 and 4,000 feet. We entered via the south rim, which brought us into immediate view of the Upper Falls. At 109 feet in height, the Upper Falls bring more than 63,000 gallons of water every second to the Lower Falls, which, at 308 feet, is twice as high as Niagara Falls.
As we gazed at the Upper Falls, we surveyed the canyon walls and were delighted to see Crystal Falls, the outfall of Cascade Creek, adding more water to the Yellowstone River below.
An easy hike brought us to Uncle Tom’s Trail, named after Tom Richardson, an early park guide who brought visitors on day hikes to the base of the Lower Falls and even served them a picnic lunch. In those days, visitors arrived at their lookout perch using ropes and rickety steps. Today’s visitors make their way via a sturdy steel staircase, but the distance and the altitude are unchanged. It was almost comical to see other middle-aged adventurers like ourselves taking “breathers” at various levels along the steep 300-step stairway. Us Texans just aren’t accustomed to strenuous physical activity at an altitude of 8,000 feet.
After a brief respite to catch our breath, we drove to Artist Point, so called for its classic view of the canyon and Lower Falls, which has long inspired artists and photographers. The thermal waters interacting with volcanic rock created the canyon’s colors, making for breathtaking vistas. Had it not been for the hundreds of tourists milling about taking countless pictures we might have better enjoyed the view
Our day of canyon exploration ended with a visit to Brink of the Upper Falls lookout, where we stood beside the Yellowstone River as it thundered over the lava cliff. The waters were powerful and pulsating, majestic and menacing.
A few lessons we learned are worth sharing:
First, the inventor of the selfie stick should be stabbed through the heart with one. Nothing mars the experience like self-absorbed tourists positioning themselves to take the perfect selfie for self promotion on social media.
Second, digital photography is the curse of the modern age. In bygone days, professional photographers (and amateurs) would use film sparingly because they not only had to pay to process the film but also to print any pictures. With digital photography, anyone with a cellphone or digital camera can take untold numbers of photographs without incurring any extra cost, and can process said photographs using an array of free apps. Consequently, visitors to scenic locales take hundreds of photographs from dozens of angles, preventing anyone else from having their “shot.”
Third, being a park ranger is a thankless job. It seems to consist primarily of telling people, often repeatedly, “Don’t get close to the animal. You’re too close to the animal. Back away from the animal.” And all because certain people seem obsessed with having a picture taken (selfie or otherwise) with a wild animal.