Friday, April 13, 2012

Yellowstone Trails - Uncle Tom's Trail

Since Campfire Fridays seems to be turning into Campfire Saturdays, I’ve decided to try something new, and post about some of the interesting trails you can hike in Yellowstone. The one I’ll talk about this week is really not a trail at all, and rather than a hike, this is more your stairmasters workout tenfold. But the rewards are a close-up personal view of the Lower Falls
Lower Falls as seen from Artist Point

It took my husband several years to get me on this particular trail. I am a big chicken when it comes to heights. Since my first attempt (I don’t remember how many years ago, honest), this has become a “must do” trail every year. One plus – highly unlikely to run into a bear.

Husband Rich and son Justin heading down 
The “trail” is called Uncle Tom’s Trail, and it starts out as a narrow paved series of switchbacks (code for steep down or uphill) from the parking lot at Artist Point in the Canyon area. Then you get to your first of 328 (yes, we counted them) steel grate steps that take you down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone about ½ mile. This is the equivalent of climbing the stairs of a 20 story building.
Let me say here, that before you get to the staircase, the park service put up a warning sign that anyone with heart problems should not attempt this trail. First of all, if you’re like me, and a big wimp when it comes to heights, this trail will get the adrenaline going mighty quick. Did I say it goes down? Not a gradual down, but a drop along the canyon face by 500 vertical feet. And the metal grate steps are just that – grates. Very see-through. So if you look down at your feet, you are looking way down into the canyon. The angle of the sheer drop is unbelievable, and gave me the willies. You’ll keep looking at the bolts and supports that hold the staircase to the canyon wall, and pray that someone checks these things for security every now and then.  On the way up, your heart will be working overtime. When we did this trail last year, there were three college age guys – young guys, fairly athletic -  who thought they were tough, and passed us on the way up. By the time we all reached the top, we had passed them. They went way too quick going up, and the last stretch did them in. Thank fully, there are benches along the way to stop and take a breather.
Heading back up
The reward, if you make it all the way to the bottom (actually not all the way to the bottom – the park service got tired of fixing the staircase every year from snow damage, and took out the last 200 or so stairs, so you can’t get all the way to the bottom of the canyon anymore), is a spectacular close up view of the Lower Falls. Almost always, you can see a rainbow through the mist of the waters created by the powerful forces of the falls. Be sure to wave to the people standing on the lookout platform on the other side of the river. To get to that spot, it’s a mere ½ mile paved walk down, but it’s all switchbacks, and a moderately difficult walk back out (but that’s for another post).

Uncle Tom’s Trail was started by a man named “Uncle” Tom Richardson in 1898. He was granted a permit to take tourists across the Yellowstone River and into the Grand Canyon. From 1898 to 1905, he ferried guests across the river and led them along the south rim. From there, he installed a series of ropes and rope ladders that offered some security amid the sheer cliffs of the canyon.
“It was a pretty difficult climb for most people,” says Yellowstone National Park historian Lee Whittlesey. “He would bring pins for the ladies to pin up their dresses to make the hiking easier.”
The park service completed construction on the Chittenden Bridge in 1903, which gave visitors access to the south rim, and they also installed a wooden staircase, and Uncle Tom went out of business. The wood was replaced by metal in the 1930’s.
So, if you are adventurous, in good health, and want to experience a part of Yellowstone that the majority of visitors never will, take a “hike” down Uncle Tom’s trail. Best time to hike this trail: right around the time most people return to their campsites or hotel rooms, around 7pm. Be sure to bring lots of water.

In my book, Yellowstone Redemption, my poor hero, Chase Russell, had to descend and climb back out of the canyon three times, and he didn't have ropes, ladders, or a staircase.


  1. Gorgeous, Peggy! Makes me so homesick. And thanks for all the background. I like the new series.

  2. I love this new series. So breathtaking and beautiful. I loved the falls in person, but I don't think I could have climbed all those stairs. Thanks for the pictures of your climb.

  3. I loved this Peggy thanks for the link