There is a lot to see and do at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You could spend days--or longer!-- exploring the canyon, but most people just don't have the time.
So, here’s what you don’t want to miss.
Make your first stop at the visitor center in Canyon Village to get oriented to the area. Each visitor center has a theme, and this one’s theme is geology and volcanoes. You can also use bathrooms, get food, and shop in Canyon Village (we recommend milkshakes at the 50s-style lunch counter).
From here you will get the most well known view of the Canyon. This is where Thomas Moran was said to have sketched his 1872 images of the falls. That’s not true, he worked from the North Rim, but the name stuck. And the view is amazing. It will be crowded, but worth a stop. The walk is really short, but there is a trail that leaves from the back side of the viewing area and leads to three backcountry lakes along a relatively flat trail, for folks who want to stretch their legs and explore. Check the park newspaper, or at the Canyon Visitor Education Center for ranger talk times.
Uncle Tom’s Trail
You need to be fairly fit and have about an hour for this one, but it is our family’s favorite Canyon stop. This steep, strenuous walk goes about halfway down the canyon and gives you amazing, up-close views of the Lower Falls. The trail drops 500 feet (150 m) in a series of more than 300 stairs and paved inclines. The Park Service warns that this trail is not for people with heart conditions or fear of heights.
The road along the north side of the canyon is one-way. As of right now, you start at the west end and drive east. Rumor has it that the Park Service is going to switch the direction of the road (again).
The Brink of the Upper or Lower Falls
Definitely plan on walking to the brink of either the Lower or Upper Falls. They are both busy, but there is something about looking over all that water as the Yellowstone River rushes over a rhyolite cliff face. The volume of water flowing over the falls can vary from 63,500 gallons/second at peak runoff to 5,000 gallons/second. Either way, it’s a lot of water.
The Upper Falls trail is the easier of the two, and less crowded. It’s a 0.4 mile round trip with 75 feet of elevation gain. Pretty easy. The Upper Falls is 109-feet.
The Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park at 308 feet. The trail is more rigorous, but hanging over the top of the 308-foot tall waterfall is pretty spectacular. You’ll switchback several times as you descend 600 feet in 0.4 miles. It’s the 0.4 miles back up the hill that gets most people, but there are benches along the way to rest on.
It’s a short walk (0.15 miles), with minimal elevation gain (but, 13 stair steps) to get a panoramic view of the canyon, including a look at the Upper Falls.
The Park Service says, “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.”
Enjoy your time at Canyon. If you want more help planning your Yellowstone vacation, check out my coaching page.