Dean M. Chriss
A Story of Rock and Water, Lower Yellowstone Falls

A Story of Rock and Water, Lower Yellowstone Falls

(Click image to enlarge)

Here the Yellowstone River descends 308 feet (94 meters) over a Rhyolite lava flow that was created 590,000 years ago. The rock is hard but the cold clear water is patient. It slowly wears its way through the huge obstacle as it drains last winter's snow melt and more recent rains from the largest lake above 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) in North America.

This photograph was captured from Uncle Tom's Trail in Yellowstone National Park very early on an October morning. The trail was was closed temporarily in 2016 when the National Park Service undertook the project of renovating all overlooks and trails in Yellowstone's Canyon area. It reopened briefly in 2018 without renovation, and in 2019 was "closed indefinitely", which is NPS speak for "permanently". Word from within NPS says that the trail is being removed from park maps and the name "Uncle Tom's Point" will be changed to "Upper Falls Viewpoints". I doubt the trail will ever reopen.

In 1898 the Department of the Interior granted "Uncle Tom" H. F. Richardson a permit to operate a ferry across the Yellowstone River. He ferried park visitors across the Yellowstone River above the current site of the Chittenden Memorial Bridge and then escorted them to a steep "trail" constructed from ladders and ropes that they traveled to the base of the Lower Falls. This trail was known as "Uncle Tom's Trail". The original trail had rope ladders and 528 steps. The National park Service has since replaced the trail with steep metal stairs containing 382 steps that go 3/4 of the way down the side of the canyon to a viewing platform immediately downriver from the base of Lower Yellowstone Falls. It was the closest and most dramatic Lower Falls viewpoint, and certainly my favorite. The image above was digitally captured from the stairway portion of the trail. Years earlier, before it became impossible to take photographs from the stairway at the appropriate time, I captured another photograph of the Lower Falls with a rainbow on Kodachrome film. It can be seen here.

The trail leading to the stairs was always problematic because visitors refusing to stay on it cause massive erosion of the canyon rim. Further, the narrow metal stairs that were adequate for decades had become completely overwhelmed by today's crowds. Updating them would mean replacing the entire structure with one that could accommodate crowds of today and of the future. Considering the fact that nearly 5 million people per year currently visit Yellowstone, that's a big deal. The estimated cost of an appropriate structure is said to be $35 million. Such a massive structure would degrade views of the canyon from everywhere else and cause considerable environmental damage in being built. The loss of this trail is a tiny part of the cost everyone must pay for being collectively too stupid to control our own numbers. The trail to Tower Falls met a similar fate when repairs to meet then current standards, necessitated by a 2012 rock and mud slide, proved impractical and too expensive.

Even though it is sad, closing these trails is certainly the correct decision.  For trails like these the changes to accommodate today's enormous mobs of visitors cannot reasonably be made in the delicate surroundings and space that is available. It's an inevitable consequence of unbridled population growth. Making the issue worse is that NPS very often has outdated or inaccurate trail information on the Yellowstone website. In the case of Uncle Tom's Trail the National Park Service website announced its October 2018 reopening without mentioning that the trail closed indefinitely in 2019! Over several decades I have found that outdated and inaccurate trail information on National Park Service websites is very common. Accurate and up to date trail status can more often be found on websites like AllTrails or even TripAdvisor. Those websites often contain information posted by people who believed the NPS website, went to the trail in question, and found it closed.