Just south of Canyon Junction, the mighty Yellowstone River spills its contents over two massive cliffs, creating the most dramatic and violent waterfalls in the park. Of the two waterfalls, the lower falls are the tallest and most dramatic, and hikers can get a good look at them from a number of perspectives as they spill into the great gash of Yellowstone Canyon.
One hiking route leads to the lip of the waterfall from the North Rim. Although this top-down viewpoint provides a fascinating vantage for observing a waterfall, the best views of the falls come courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Trail. This steep, switchbacking route scales the canyon’s southern declivity partially by metal staircase to look directly across at the thunderous waterfall.
The distance required to reach the viewpoint at the end of Uncle Tom’s Trail is marginal – only 0.6 mile. However, the route loses 500 feet on the way down, which you will have to regain as you climb back out. This makes the route considerably harder than its modest distance would imply.
From the north end of the parking lot, follow Uncle Tom’s Trail north as it begins an immediate descent through dense lodgepole pine forest. Turn right after about 100 yards on the South Rim Trail, which runs concurrently with Uncle Tom’s Trail for another 100 yards or so. Turn left at 0.1 mile to continue north along the switchbacking trail as it continues to descend. After passing a junction with a spur trail, you will reach the top of the staircase at 0.2 mile.
As you descend on the staircase, keep in mind that you probably won’t be alone. Sharing a metal staircase on a cliff-side with dozens of other hikes can be a bit nerve-wracking, so exercise a lot of patience and courtesy to make the experience as smooth for yourself and those around you as well.
At 0.3 mile, the staircase bottoms out, and you find yourself face-to-face with Lower Yellowstone Falls. From this close vantage point, the violent spectacle impresses and even overwhelms. The mist at the base of the falls produces a persistent rainbow. The din from the falls is deafening.
If you have some extra time, you can work your way back up the staircase and to the junction with the South Rim Trail. Turn left on the South Rim Trail to take a pleasant, mostly flat walk along the south rim of Yellowstone Canyon. The trail darts in and out of tree cover with plenty of open spots to look back toward the falls or down Yellowstone Canyon.
The characteristic yellow stone, from which the park derives its name, is rhyolite, a volcanic rock with a texture and appearance similar to granite. Most rhyolite is deficient in iron, but the rhyolite here has a decent amount of iron. The oxidation creates the yellow coloration found throughout the canyon.
You can continue along the South Rim Trail to the parking area for Artist’s Point, which could include an additional side trip to the point. Or, you can simply follow South Rim until you’ve seen your fill. However far you go, keep an eye out for wildflowers and wildlife roaming the nearby meadows.
The trail is well-traveled and easy to follow. The lower portion of Uncle Tom's Trail is a metal staircase leading to a viewpoint.
The nearest campground is Canyon Campground located within nearby Canyon Village
From the park's west entrance, head east on US-191, and continue for 27.3 miles (passing Madison) toward Norris Junction. At Norris Junction, turn right onto Norris Canyon Drive, and continue east for 11.6 miles to Canyon Village, and turn right onto Grand Loop Road. After 2.3 miles, turn left onto South Rim Drive, and follow it for 0.6 mile to the parking area for Uncle Tom's Trail.
With wildifres, smoke conditions, COVID-19, and National Forest and other public land closures rampant, please reach out to the land management agency in charge before you head out for a hike to make sure the trail is open and safe to be on.