Dean M. Chriss
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
"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
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.