Yellowstone-Canyon Tour

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.

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.

Other lava flows blocked rivers and streams forming 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 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.

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Glacial Boulder
Along the 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.

Observers on inpiration point platform. NPS Photo

Inspiration Point Platform
Inspiration Point is a natural observation point. It is at a location where the canyon wall juts far out into the canyon allowing spectacular views both upstream and down.

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."

Lookout Point
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
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.

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Brink of the Lower Falls
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."

Brink of Upper Falls. NPS Photo

The Brink of the Upper Falls
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."

Upper Falls Viewpoint
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.

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View of the Lower Falls from Uncle Tom’s Trail
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
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.

Point Sublime
When the Cook-Folsom expedition stepped out of the woods on the south rim of the canyon in 1869 the staggering view prompted Folsom to use the following adjectives in his description of it: "pretty, beautiful, picturesque, magnificent, grand, sublime, awful, terrible". It is thought to be that description which prompted the naming of Point Sublime in the early 1920s.

Silver Cord Cascade
Surface Creek flows passed this 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.

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Information provided by the National Park Service

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