Closest entrances and distances: 40 miles from West Yellowstone (west) entrance; 38 miles from Gardiner (north) entrance; 48 miles from the Cooke City (northeast) entrance; 43 miles from the east entrance
The Canyon area should be on the top of any Yellowstone visitor’s to-do list for one simple reason: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ★★★. Along with Old Faithful, it’s one of the park’s two marquee destinations. Seen from above, the canyon looks like the earth itself has a loose seam: A 20-mile-long, sheer-sided gorge plunges more than 1,000 feet to the Yellowstone River, widening up to 4,000 feet across in places. Two thundering waterfalls pour over two immense drops in the river’s course, and a palette of bright reds, yellows, oranges, whites, and browns swirls across the rocky walls. In short, it’s every bit as impressive as that other Grand Canyon, if not quite as big.
The Yellowstone River carved this massive chasm over thousands of years. Volcanic activity deposited rhyolite and tuff over the area, and heat from the geyser basins here weakened the rock, making it soft and easily eroded by the rushing river. Upper and Lower Falls owe their existence to bands of harder volcanic rock, which didn’t erode as quickly as the softer stuff; these more resistant spots formed dramatic drops that the river plummets over, to grand effect. And those colors? There’s plenty of iron in the rhyolite. As different layers of rock are exposed at different times, varying stages of oxidation turn the cliffs their signature hues.
Canyon Village is the base for exploring the canyon, a sprawling development featuring lodging, dining options, a general store, Canyon Campground, and the Canyon Visitor Education Center (tel. 307/344-2550). Stop here for a primer on Yellowstone’s supervolcano and its effects on the landscape: Exhibits include a floating globe showing the world’s volcanic hotspots; a 3D map; video reenactments of the major Yellowstone eruption 640,000 years ago; and blocks of ash illustrating the volcano’s destructive power.
Then go see that geology in action. One-way North Rim Drive begins 1.2 miles south of the village and cruises past a series of canyon rim overlooks before returning to the village. If you only have time to see the canyon from one side, I’d go for the South Rim—but the north side offers perspectives you can’t see across the way, so it’s well worth the trip.
First stop: Brink of Lower Falls Trail, a .8-mile (round-trip) paved trail that dips 600 feet to a precarious perch above the 308-foot waterfall. It’s a steep trip to a gorgeous vantage point and also grants a peek at 109-foot Upper Falls near the top. Next up is Lookout Point for a wider perspective on Lower Falls (and an osprey nesting site). If you’re feeling energetic, continue down the Red Rock Trail, a boardwalk staircase that dives 500 feet deeper into the canyon in .4 mile. The next pullout, Grand View Overlook, is unique in that it points not to the waterfalls, but downstream, where you’ll see the rich canyon colors and the Yellowstone River below. The final view, Inspiration Point, offers another astounding vista of Lower Falls and the canyon downstream.
You can drive between these major viewpoints, but the better option is hoofing it on the North Rim Trail ★★ connecting Inspiration Point to the Wapiti Lake Trailhead on the South Rim. This 3-mile (one-way) track links all the North Rim Drive highlights, but you won’t have to fight for parking spaces, plus you’ll drink in extended views along the chasm’s edge. The section between Lookout Point and Grand View is wheelchair accessible.
Back out on Grand Loop Road, a short spur south of North Rim Drive leads to the Brink of Upper Falls viewing platform. Take the .3-mile trail to an overlook so close to the pounding cascade, you’ll get a visceral sense of just how powerful this incredible plume truly is.
The turnoff to South Rim Drive shoots east off Grand Loop Road 2.3 miles south of Canyon Village. The first stunner here is the Upper Falls Viewpoint, which gives a longer view than the up-close-and-personal one you just saw at Brink of Upper Falls. A bit farther down the canyon you’ll find Uncle Tom’s Trail ★★, the canyon’s best view. But it’s not for the acrophobic: The “trail” is really a set of 328 open-grate steel steps bolted to the rock, which plummets steeply into the inner canyon. Though the staircase is steep and a bit vertigo-inducing, the perspective of Lower Falls waiting at the bottom platform is nothing short of amazing. Take heart on the climb back up: At least you’re not seeing the sights like early-20th-century visitors did, who journeyed down the canyon on a series of ropes and ladders.
Artist Point ★ is the final stop off South Rim Drive. If this encompassing view of Lower Falls, the Yellowstone River, and the polychrome canyon looks familiar, it’s probably because this vista is one of the park’s most-photographed spots. Well before it earned that distinction, artist Thomas Moran made Artist Point famous with his landscape painting from this very perspective; you’ve likely seen a reproduction of it in a gallery or art book. Head this way early in the morning for the best light and to avoid midday crowds. Several hikes also take off from here, including the trail to Lily Pad Lake, Ribbon Lake, and Point Sublime. That last one is especially notable: Hike 3.3 miles (one-way) along the rim to a much more private vista over the canyon.
Just like on the North Rim, hiking all or part of the South Rim Trail ★★ is the best way to take in the airy views. The 1.8-mile, partially paved path links the Wapiti Lake Trailhead to Artist Point and winds through a high-elevation forest with near-constant peeks into the canyon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.