Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

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If there’s one thing that Yellowstone is famous for, it’s Old Faithful.  But if there’s one thing that it shouldbe famous for, it’s the incredible Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  This beautiful, deep canyon includes two huge waterfalls, and remarkably colorful, steep walls which, in places, are still steaming and bubbling with geothermal activity.  If you’ve seen Old Faithful, and only have time to visit one more attraction in Yellowstone, this is what you should choose.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is located roughly at the middle of the park’s figure-8 road, on the east side.  Turn at Canyon Village, then follow the one-way road to several of the best viewpoints.

Inspiration Point

As you travel the one-way road from the Canyon Village visitor center, you come upon another side road, which leads to Inspiration Point.  From the parking lot, steps lead out to the point, which isn’t far away.  Expect a crowd here, and at every other stop along the canyon rim.

As you stand on the point, you get an absolutely awesome view up the canyon (to the west).  In the distance, far, far away, you can see the Yellowstone River’s Upper Falls.  At this viewpoint, the lower falls are hidden.

Looking to the east, you also get a great view of the rest of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Notice the pink and yellow canyon walls here.  In places, they’re still steaming from underground vents, which explains why there are no trees growing in certain spots.

Even though it offers a great view, Inspiration Point offers just one view.  Your only choice is to walk to the end of the trail and stand in one designated place, and see exactly what everyone else sees.

The main viewpoints are always going to be crowded, and everyone ends up taking the exact same picture.  If you have time, consider hiking the trail that runs along the north rim, between Inspiration Point and Upper Falls View.  This is your best bet for finding a view of the canyon that at least 90% of visitors don’t see.

Since I was visiting after noon, the sun was already falling in the western sky, which meant the view to the east (looking away from the sun) was better.  Sure, the canyon is beautiful in this direction, but the view you really want to enjoy is towards the falls.  So, if you can arrange your visit to the canyon in the morning, you might have a better view, or get better pictures.

Lookout Point

As I continued along the one way road, I passed the next viewpoint (Grand View), then stopped at Lookout Point.

From Lookout Point, you get a great view of the Lower Falls.

Look closely, and you can see the railings surrounding the “brink of the lower falls” viewpoint, just above the point where the Yellowstone River takes the plunge.

From Lookout Point, you also enjoy another great view of the lower canyon.

Brink of the Upper Falls Viewpoint

I passed by the Brink of the Lower Falls Viewpoint (it required a pretty hefty walk downhill), and continued back to the main road.  Once there, I took a left, then another left, which led to the Brink of the Upper Falls Viewpoint.

As you stand at the Brink of the Upper Falls, you watch the Yellowstone River flow lazily along.  It has no idea what’s coming as it rounds this curve…

… then plunges 109 feet.

The Upper Falls is the smaller of the two waterfalls.  The Lower Falls plunges 308 feet–nearly three times the distance of the Upper Falls.

At this point, I decided I had seen enough of the canyon and the waterfalls, and headed on my way.  However, there are plenty more viewpoints and trails in this area–enough that you could easily spend an entire day, devoted solely to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  By car, you can reach an excellent viewpoint on the south rim: Artist Point.  Also starting here is Uncle Tom’s Trail, which follows the south rim.

One more thing I should mention:

Be sure to look for these restored park tour busses in the canyon area.  If you’re lucky, one will be parked out in front of the Canyon Village Visitor’s Center.

Back in the 1940’s, there were as many as 98 of the White Model 706 busses in Yellowstone, but they were eventually taken out of service and sold.  In the 1980’s, a tour company in Alaska found eight of the old busses and used them there until 2001, when they were sold back to the park.  The yellow touring busses returned to service in the summer of 2007, providing short tours and day-long excursions.  And in case you are wondering, these yellow busses are the same models as the red jammers used in Glacier National Park.

I checked out the yellow busses after having lunch at the Canyon Lodge.  It looked like it should have been a great place for lunch, but it wasn’t.  The food was overcooked and overpriced, and even worse, the slow service wasted at least an hour, which I would have much rather used exploring a trail somewhere in the park.

When you leave the canyon area, head west toward Norris, taking the road that connects the upper and lower circles of the park’s figure-8 road.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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