There are so many spectacular viewing spots of the upper falls, the lower falls, and the canyon itself that that area of Yellowstone can command a day by itself. The canyon is about twenty-four miles long and varies from a quarter to three quarters of a mile in width. The views from the rim, eight hundred to twelve hundred feet above the river, are breathtaking. For me, with the walker, numerous spots were very easily accessible, some a little more work, and some too steep or dangerous, but I certainly didn’t miss much.
There are no reports of the canyon having been “discovered,” though Native Americans and trappers must have known about it. Its presence wasn’t publicized until 1869/1870, when two separate expeditions explored the area and the travelers marveled at the scenery.
The walls of the canyon are a dull yellow, with streaks of red, green, pink, and black, brought about over the years by interaction of the many hot springs and geysers with the various metals and elements present in the rocky cliffs—in effect, “cooking” them and oxidizing them, bringing out the colors. It’s generally assumed that sulfur has produced the yellow tone of much of the rock but it’s actually iron. In reality, the canyon is rusting.
As for the canyon’s formation, it seems erosion by the river’s waters has accomplished this. The site itself was probably created around 600,000 years ago at the time of the ancient volcanic eruptions. Apparently in winter heavy ice formed dams downriver, holding back the water, increasing pressure against the walls of the canyon and then, at thaw, creating flash floods. The erosion by the river is an ongoing process, so the canyon has slowly continued to deepen over the eons and still continues to do so.
One day, on the long drive to the national park, we found a campground in the national forest, right next to the Shoshone River, only about twenty miles from the gate, so on our last morning in the area we moved our home base. There were no hookups, so getting settled there was fairly quick and simple, and then we were on our way to the park again. And even though we were close to the road, we got a good night’s rest once we got back there.
There’s still one more segment on Yellowstone, and then it’ll be on to other places.
Trivia: In 1890 a Bozeman resident known as “Uncle Tom” was given a permit to operate a ferry across the Yellowstone River and take tourists down into the canyon below the lower falls on “Uncle Tom’s Trail.” The original trail is no longer there, but there is a steep stairway down to the base of the lower falls that is still called “Uncle Tom’s Trail.”