Dean M. Chriss
Lower Yellowstone Falls with Rainbow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Lower Yellowstone Falls with Rainbow

(Click image to enlarge)

For a while around the summer solstice, the sun deeply penetrates the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River immediately downriver from Lower Yellowstone Falls. On clear days when there is enough water going over the falls, the sunlight forms a rainbow in the mist. This photograph was captured on a late morning in June from a trail that once provided the most dramatic and closest views of the Lower Falls.

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 came to be known as "Uncle Tom's Trail". The original trail had rope ladders and 528 steps. The National park Service replaced them with steep metal stairs containing 382 steps that go 3/4 of the way down the side of the canyon to a viewing platform located immediately downriver from the base of the waterfall. Aside from being my favorite, it was by far the most dramatic and closest Lower Falls viewpoint. The image above was taken from the stairway in the early 1990s using Kodachrome film.

I have no similar digitally captured images. By the time I switched to digital cameras in 2005 it was only possible to take good photographs from the stairway very early in the morning in the off seasons, when virtually no other visitors were present. Rainbows appear only later in the day during the popular seasons of late spring and summer. By 2005 the stairway had become too overwhelmed with visitors at those times. Not only did it vibrate heavily under their footsteps, but it was impossible to stop without creating a traffic jam. Another photograph captured digitally on a very early October morning from the same stairway can be seen here.

Uncle Tom's Trail 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.

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 in the early 2000s 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.