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What is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a 24-mile long, 1,000 feet deep canyon on the east side of Yellowstone National Park. The upper two miles are where most of the scenic action is at: two huge waterfalls and the iconic Yellow-colored canyon, from which the park gets its name. It is perhaps the most photographed site in Yellowstone.

It is one of the top three sites you MUST see in Yellowstone, along with Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring.

It is, on average, about 1,000 feet deep. This would be considered deep if it were in the eastern part of the country, but here in the Rockies, it’s relatively shallow. By comparison, the deepest canyon in North America is Hell’s Canyon in Idaho and Oregon, at over 8,000 feet. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is over 6,000 feet deep. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in Colorado, is over 2,000 feet deep (and looks quite similar, except that it is black instead of yellow).

So it’s not the depth that makes this canyon so special. In fact, the shallower depth lends a more intimate feel, whereas the Grand Canyon is too big and imposing to get cozy with. So the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is deep enough to inspire awe, yet shallow enough to take it all in.

Of course, it also has waterfalls. There are three waterfalls you can see in this area of the park: The Upper Falls, the Lower Falls, and Crystal Falls.

The most iconic is the Lower Falls (sometimes called Yellowstone Falls), which is framed by the yellow-colored canyon. The Lower Falls drops over 300 feet, twice the height of Niagra Falls.

Geology of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The canyon is formed by the Yellowstone River, which flows northward, out of Yellowstone lake. It flows through Hayden Valley, forms the Grand Canyon, and continues mostly along the path of the upper loop road of the park. It leaves the park near Gardiner, MT, eventually drains to the Missouri.

The canyon exists due to the geyser activity in the park. Geothermal activity below softened the rock, which allowed the river to carve it. And the same geothermal activity has basically “cooked” the rock (altering the chemicals), giving it such distinctive yellow and red colors.

What’s amazing is you still see the walls steaming from the geothermal activity!

History of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Mountain men told others about this amazing place from the 1830s to the 1860s. Famous mountain man Jim Bridger said you could yell into the canyon at night and be woken up by your echo the next morning.

But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that people started getting serious about exploring Yellowstone.

Three expeditions to the area, from 1869-1871, literally put it on the map.

In 1871, the federal government paid surveyors to explore Yellowstone to confirm the rumors of this place that supposedly spit water out of the ground and had Yellow canyons. It was called the Hayden Expedition, named for Ferdinand Hayden.

Hayden brought a photographer and an artist with him to get visual documentation of the sites. The artist — Thomas Moran — was a back up plan in case the photography didn’t work out.

Photography was still relatively young and keep in mind that these guys explored on horseback and had to pack around heavy photography equipment with them. It would be tragic if the sites were real and the photography didn’t work out.

Although a backup plan, Thomas Moran stole the show. The photography worked, but it was in black and white. Yellowstone is a colorful place. Moran’s color paintings brought it to life for congress and the people who lived in the east — most of the American population by far.

When he returned home to his studio, he painted a 7 feet by 12 feet masterpiece called The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The photos and paintings helped inspire congress to set aside this land as the world’s first national park. Congress purchased the painting from Moran for $10,000!

Strange Yellowstone Behavior

It’s worth noting here that for some reason, Yellowstone has the power of making people do strange things. Maybe it’s the sulfur in the air, but like Florida Man, Yellowstone Visitor is always up to something bizarre.

In January 2020, a visitor obtained a permit to enter Yellowstone on a snowmobile. He came in search of treasure. He was convinced the famous Fenn Treasure was here.

The Fenn Treasure was a million dollar treasure hidden somewhere in the Rockies by Forrest Fenn, an artist in New Mexico. He created a cryptic poem as the clue to find this treasure. People hunted for it all over the west for 10 years.

The visitor on snowmobile was convinced the treasure lay at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

So naturally he repelled down the canyon wall to the bottom. Only he ran out of rope — either because it was too short or his friend couldn’t hear him to give him more — but he ended up stranded at the bottom of the canyon. In the middle of winter. Yellowstone winter!

Rangers rescued him by helicopter. He was later fined and banned from the park for 5 years.

There have also been 3 deaths in the canyon since 2012.

How to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Not by repelling!

There are overlooks on both sides of the canyon. These overlooks are connected by roads and by trails.

Because the river turns between each of the falls, you cannot see the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls at the same time.

There are three roads that take you to viewing points. They are: North Rim Drive, Brink of the Upper Falls, and South Rim Drive.

North Rim Drive

Brink of the Lower Falls

The North Rim Drive is a one-way road. The first parking lot is for the brink of the lower falls. You’ll walk .8 miles down about 600 feet to get to the landing spot, which is right next to the top of the waterfall. You’ll have good views of the yellow canyon from here.

Lookout Point (and Red Rocks Lookout)

Lookout Point. You can see Lower Lookout Point at the bottom of the photo.

This is the best place to view the falls and canyon on the north side. You can see it from up top at Lookout Point, and you can also hike down Red Rock Trail to a closer view at Red Rock Point.

Grand View & Inspiration Point

With these views, you’re not as close to the falls, but you get more of the canyon in your view. Note that Inspiration Point is beyond the bend in the river, so you really can’t see the falls at all from there. Rather, you’ll be looking at the canyon the other direction.

Upper Falls Road

Brink of the Upper Falls

This is technically not part of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You cannot see the yellow canyon from here. But it is located just upstream, between the north and south sides, and is definitely a place you’ll want to stop.

This is a very popular stop. It’s located right on the Grand Loop Road, the only stop on either side that has its own dedicated road and parking lot.

The falls are just a short walk from the parking lot. There are two spots to look out, but the one right next to the waterfall is by far the best. You get to see the river flow right towards you, then turn and tumble over the edge, usually accompanied by a rainbow.

South Rim Drive

Uncle Tom’s Parking Lot

The first stop on this road is Uncle Tom’s Parking lot. The parking lot is big; I’ve never seen it completely full. There are three things to see here.

Artist Point

View of the Lower Falls from Artist Point

This is the granddaddy of viewpoints for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

It’s the last stop on the South Rim Drive. It’s a short walk from the parking lot. This area juts out into the river, and thus provides the only straight shot of the river and falls in one view.

There’s a reason why Thomas Moran chose to paint his famous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone painting from this spot, and there’s a reason why this spot is called Artist Point.

Planning your trip to Yellowstone

There are so many things to do at Yellowstone — and it is so big and spread out — that planning a trip can be challenging. If you don’t have a game plan, you will drive around and wonder — should we turn in here, or keep going?

We’ve created a guide to help you plan your trip. It gives you a game plan to get the most out of Yellowstone. It’s simple, but it’s also based on years of experience we have in visiting the park.

We’ll help you. Check out our Yellowstone Guide and then relax, because you’ve got this!