Osprey Falls

Yellowstone National Park / Mammoth, Wyoming, USA

About Osprey Falls


Hiking Distance: 9.2 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 4.5-5.5 hours

Date first visited: 2004-06-23
Date last visited: 2020-08-04

Waterfall Latitude: 44.92774
Waterfall Longitude: -110.68176

Osprey Falls was an attractive 150ft waterfall nestled deep inside the steep and rugged Sheepeater Canyon on the Gardner River (or Gardiner River).

In addition to the impressive waterfall, this excursion provided an off-the-beaten-path experience with views of Bunsen Peak, wildflowers, the Gallatin Range, and the columnar basalt in Sheepeater Canyon.

Osprey_Falls_290_08042020 - Osprey Falls
Osprey Falls

By the way, Bunsen Peak was named after Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen of “bunsen burner” fame which was lab equipment that I recalled using in Chemistry class in both high school and university.

This was probably why it really intrigued me how Bunsen Peak got its name.

Bunsen made his 19th century contributions to the study of geothermal phenomena in Iceland.

This association with geothermal research was probably how Bunsen got a peak named after him in Yellowstone National Park given its plethora of geothermal features!

Changes to Osprey Falls Access

Osprey_Falls_396_08042020 - Bunsen Peak
Bunsen Peak

Apparently, getting to Osprey Falls used to be involve driving around to the east side of Bunsen Peak before a short but steep mile-long hike dropping right into Sheepeater Canyon.

Yet during our visit (and beyond into the future), that road around Bunsen Peak was only open to foot and mountain bike traffic.

When we first did this hike back in late June 2004, the total hiking distance was around 8 miles round trip.

However, when I came back and re-did this hike in August 2020, it appeared that the final stretch going into Sheepeater Canyon had been re-routed in such a way that the overall hike was now 9.2 miles round trip.

Osprey_Falls_176_08042020 - On my return hike to Osprey Falls in August 2020, the trail into Sheepeater Canyon seemed to be re-routed and extended to skirt along the rim of the canyon more before steeply dropping into the canyon itself
On my return hike to Osprey Falls in August 2020, the trail into Sheepeater Canyon seemed to be re-routed and extended to skirt along the rim of the canyon more before steeply dropping into the canyon itself

This longer hiking distance was indicated by signage at the trailhead, and it was confirmed by my GPS trip log (despite some literature still claiming it’s the former trail length).

There may be a shorter trail coming from the north side of Bunsen Peak near the Yak Camp, but since I didn’t do the hike this way, I can’t say more about it.

I’d imagine the trail routing changes were in response to the degree of erosion that can easily occur within Sheepeater Canyon, which I’m sure would be a persistent problem given the steepness and soil instability from past wildfires.

In any case, the long hiking distance ensured that this was a lightly-used trail with plenty of solitude and social distancing.

Osprey_Falls_008_06232004 - Julie on the Osprey Falls Trail descending into Sheepeater Canyon surrounded by many burnt trees when we first visited back in June 2004
Julie on the Osprey Falls Trail descending into Sheepeater Canyon surrounded by many burnt trees when we first visited back in June 2004

Julie and I were completely alone on this trail when we first did it back in June 2004, and I was maybe one of a dozen people on this trail during my August 2020 hike (at least once I got past the trailhead).

Most visitors in this area would do the shorter hike to the summit of Bunsen Peak, and I did consider the possibility of going up there, then descending to the falls before coming back on the Bunsen Peak Road to complete the loop.

However, that would have been a rather very strenuous hike with lots of elevation differences, and even just doing the out-and-back hike to Osprey Falls took me about 4.5 hours on my latest visit.

The trail along the Bunsen Peak Road was very wide open with limited shade so I definitely needed lots of water and sunscreen.

Osprey_Falls_067_08042020 - A large part of the Bunsen Peak Road traversed open terrain so wearing a hat and generously applying sunscreen was a good idea
A large part of the Bunsen Peak Road traversed open terrain so wearing a hat and generously applying sunscreen was a good idea

I opted not to apply bug spray because the mosquitoes didn’t bother me as much as they tended to be closer to the swampier Swan Lake Flat at the start of the hike.

Finally, given the sketchy footing in Sheepeater Canyon, I would also recommend wearing hiking boots to ensure maximum traction given the dropoff exposure there.

Osprey Falls Trail Description – Hiking Around Bunsen Peak

From the trailhead, I pretty much went past the gate and followed Bunsen Peak Road, which curved to the right as it went around the southern slopes of Bunsen Peak while skirting by the northern end of the Swan Lake Flat.

The spur trail and signage largely pertained to the steeper trail ascending to the top of Bunsen Peak.

Osprey_Falls_017_08042020 - Context of the Bunsen Peak Road and the scenic Gallatin Range across Swan Lake Flat at the start of the Osprey Falls hike
Context of the Bunsen Peak Road and the scenic Gallatin Range across Swan Lake Flat at the start of the Osprey Falls hike

However, the Bunsen Peak Road went continued past it, where it became noticeably quiet very quickly after veering away from that other trail.

For the next 3.2 miles, the 4wd track was pretty much flat while passing through a mixture of mostly grasslands and some small groves of trees.

Back in June 2004 when we first did this hike, these trees were sproutlings participating in the area’s recovery after being pretty hard hit by the 1988 wildfires.

We were caught in a quickly-budding thunderstorm where lighting struck all around us and we were pretty much the tallest things on the trail during that visit.

Osprey_Falls_033_08042020 - Hiking between fully grown trees along the Bunsen Peak Road en route to Osprey Falls. When I first did this hike 16 years prior, these trees were nothing but sproutlings as part of the new growth after the 1988 wildfires
Hiking between fully grown trees along the Bunsen Peak Road en route to Osprey Falls. When I first did this hike 16 years prior, these trees were nothing but sproutlings as part of the new growth after the 1988 wildfires

Fortunately, we were very lucky to have avoided being struck by a bolt and “weathering the storm”, so to speak.

The lesson learned here was to pay closer attention to the forecasts and try to get an earlier start to minimize the chances of getting caught in one of these pop-up afternoon thunderstorms.

When I came back in August 2020, most of these sproutlings became fully grown trees again, which provided some welcome (albeit sparse and sporadic) shade against the hot Summer sun.

Throughout this long stretch of hiking, I got to experience Nature’s subtleties since there were hardly any people around.

Osprey_Falls_102_08042020 - My first glimpse into Sheepeater Canyon at around 2 miles into the hike along the Bunsen Peak Road
My first glimpse into Sheepeater Canyon at around 2 miles into the hike along the Bunsen Peak Road

Among the things that I noticed along the way were Bunsen Peak’s southern slopes, which I easily got to see from various angles.

I also witnessed plenty of wildflowers blooming alongside the 4wd track with many butterflies getting the nectar from them while pollinating in the process.

At around 2 miles into the hike, I started to see into the depths of Sheepeater Canyon along with the Gardner River flowing through it.

Finally after 3 miles into the hike, the track descended noticeably to a signed trail junction, where the signs indicated that this was the trail leading to Osprey Falls while also giving a warning about it being steep and narrow.

Osprey_Falls_161_08042020 - Signage marking the departure from the Bunsen Peak Road and the start of the narrower, steeper trail to Osprey Falls
Signage marking the departure from the Bunsen Peak Road and the start of the narrower, steeper trail to Osprey Falls

According to my trip notes, it took me about 90 minutes to get to this junction.

Osprey Falls Trail Description – Descending Into Sheepeater Canyon

Right behind the sign at the junction, the trail narrowed considerably from the 4wd track that I had been walking on to this point.

I recalled from my first visit back in June 2004 that the spur trail pretty much went right into the steep descent into Sheepeater Canyon.

However, on my more recent visit in August 2020, the trail took its time meandering through more forest while skirting the rim of the canyon.

Osprey_Falls_214_08042020 - Looking into Sheepeater Canyon while the Osprey Falls Trail skirted the canyon rim before making its steep descent
Looking into Sheepeater Canyon while the Osprey Falls Trail skirted the canyon rim before making its steep descent

It did this for the next half-mile before narrowing even more and clinging to ledges or loose slopes as the trail dropped into the canyon.

While concentrating on maintaining balance and footing during the sketchier parts of this steep descent, I did manage to notice pronounced basalt columns and formations on the other side of Sheepeater Canyon.

These cliffs were said to have originated from a basalt lava flow out of the Yellowstone Caldera about a half-million years old before the cutting action from the Gardner River exposed them.

Given the lower rate of erosion from these hard basalt cliffs, it hinted at why Osprey Falls ultimately came to be.

Osprey_Falls_228_08042020 - Context of the vertical basalt cliffs opposite the narrow Osprey Falls Trail during the descent into Sheepeater Canyon
Context of the vertical basalt cliffs opposite the narrow Osprey Falls Trail during the descent into Sheepeater Canyon

After traversing about 9 switchbacks on the upper part of the descent, the trail then skirted a quarter-mile stretch before resuming the switchbacking on the lower part of the descent (about a 5-6 of them).

Eventually, the trail continued its steep descent without any more switchbacks as it dropped towards the Gardner River before flattening out somewhat and following the course upstream.

Ultimately, the trail made one final ascent to an outcrop with a small alcove, which acted as a lookout in front of Osprey Falls.

There was a sign placed right before an old use-trail that appeared to go right up to the waterfall’s twisting drop.

Osprey_Falls_263_08042020 - Context of the alcove and signage discouraging further progress to Osprey Falls as seen from the rock outcrop at the end of the official trail
Context of the alcove and signage discouraging further progress to Osprey Falls as seen from the rock outcrop at the end of the official trail

However, the waterfall’s spray seemed to make that steep use-trail very slippery and very dangerous, and the sign communicated as such.

From the same outcrop, I managed to get direct views of the pronounced basalt columns of the Sheepeater Cliffs, which further added to the scenic reward for the effort it took to get here.

After having my fill of this lookout of Osprey Falls, I then descended back the way I came (ignoring some dangerously steep use-trail that dropped right down to the river).

Once towards the bottom of this descent, I spotted a far less steeper use-trail that ultimately dropped to the banks of the Gardner River, where I managed to scramble towards an unusual riverside view of Osprey Falls.

Osprey_Falls_304_08042020 - Looking up at Osprey Falls from the banks of the Gardner River
Looking up at Osprey Falls from the banks of the Gardner River

The forced perspective from this spot (along with its twisting trajectory) made the waterfall seem much less than 150ft, but it’s one of those things where the pictures really don’t do it justice.

I happened to share this spot with about 5-6 other people as they found informal spots for a picnic or an afternoon nap before taking on the relentless uphill hike back up to the Bunsen Peak Road.

Just to give you an idea of how steep this descent was, it was about a 700ft elevation loss that I had to get back.

To ensure that I wouldn’t have a bad slip-and-fall accident, it took me 45 minutes to do this descent, but it took me the same amount of time to do the relentless uphill on the way back up.

Osprey_Falls_315_08042020 - Closeup look at a huckleberry that I noticed while making the relentless climb back out of Sheepeater Canyon
Closeup look at a huckleberry that I noticed while making the relentless climb back out of Sheepeater Canyon

Given the slow pace of the ascent, I managed to notice many wildflowers as well as berries, including huckleberries and wild raspberries.

Once I made it back to the Bunsen Peak Road, the return hike faced west, which meant that I got to experience the scenery of the Gallatin Range rising over the Swan Lake Flat.

Authorities

Osprey Falls resides in Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner in Park County, Wyoming. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit the National Park Service website.

Osprey_Falls_005_08042020 - Looking ahead at the Osprey Falls Trail just beyond the gate preventing vehicles from driving on the Bunsen Peak Road. This photo and the next several photos were taken from our August 2020 visit
Osprey_Falls_006_08042020 - Context of some overflow from Glen Creek as the Bunsen Peak Road went past the trail fork leading up to Bunsen Peak on the left
Osprey_Falls_016_08042020 - Context of someone riding an electric bike on the Bunsen Peak Road along the Swan Lake Flat with the Gallatin Range in the distance
Osprey_Falls_029_08042020 - This couple that passed me were the only hikers that did so throughout my entire Osprey Falls hike
Osprey_Falls_030_08042020 - Focused look across the Swan Lake Flat towards the Gallatin Range from the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_050_08042020 - This stray boulder fronted what appeared to be a pond that was turning into a meadow by the Bunsen Peak Road. I suspect that this was the main reason why mosquitoes were around when I wasn't moving
Osprey_Falls_053_08042020 - Context of the Bunsen Peak Road with Bunsen Peak looming above it. As you can see, the open nature of this road meant that sun protection and lots of water were very necessary on the Osprey Falls hike
Osprey_Falls_066_08042020 - Looking back towards the scenic Gallatin Range while walking away from it on the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_068_08042020 - Getting what little shade I could from the more mature trees growing alongside the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_069_08042020 - Bunsen Peak was almost always in view throughout the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_079_08042020 - With all this time spent in the serenity of the Bunsen Peak Road, I started to notice more subtle things like this bird that I didn't recall seeing before
Osprey_Falls_083_08042020 - Looking towards the south face of Bunsen Peak along the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_086_08042020 - Walking through more shaded parts of Bunsen Peak Road, but even this far from the Swan Lake Flat, mosquitoes were still around looking for an opportunity to draw blood from me
Osprey_Falls_103_08042020 - Looking back at one of the few people I encountered on this hike, who was heading back from Osprey Falls
Osprey_Falls_113_08042020 - Closeup look at one of the wildflowers blooming by the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_115_08042020 - Looking ahead in a southerly direction towards some mountains in the distance
Osprey_Falls_116_08042020 - Looking back at the dude on the electric bike heading back, which was somewhere around 2.5 miles into my hike to Osprey Falls
Osprey_Falls_133_08042020 - Another closeup look at a wildflower blooming by the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_146_08042020 - Noticing a beautiful butterfly doing its thing on this bunch of flowers by the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_148_08042020 - Noticing a bright blue butterfly doing its thing on this smaller bunch of flowers as seen while hiking the Bunsen Peak Road
Osprey_Falls_155_08042020 - At over 3 miles into the Bunsen Peak Road, the path started to descend noticeably
Osprey_Falls_162_08042020 - After going past the signed junction onto the narrower Osprey Falls Trail, I noticed that this path now skirted Sheepeater Canyon for a bit before making its steep descent
Osprey_Falls_164_08042020 - Closeup look at some squirrel or chipmunk while hiking the Osprey Falls Trail
Osprey_Falls_165_08042020 - Looking towards the contours of some of the cliffs of Sheepeater Canyon before the trail made its steep descent
Osprey_Falls_169_08042020 - Looking back downstream towards Sheepeater Canyon as I was on the part of the trail that seemed to be more extended than when we first did the Osprey Falls hike in June 2004
Osprey_Falls_178_08042020 - Looking down at the pronounced columnar basalt of the Sheepeater Cliffs along the Osprey Falls Trail
Osprey_Falls_181_08042020 - The context of the shrubs flanking the extended part of the Osprey Falls Trail as it continued to skirt the rim of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_197_08042020 - The Osprey Falls Trail starting to descend into Sheepeater Canyon as it approaches a slope
Osprey_Falls_205_08042020 - The Osprey Falls Trail switching back as its descent into Sheepeater Canyon steepens
Osprey_Falls_207_08042020 - Catching up to a hiker who was taking this descent into Sheepeater Canyon very carefully
Osprey_Falls_226_08042020 - Context of the steep descent into Sheepeater Canyon as the trail briefly switchbacked and went downstream
Osprey_Falls_232_08042020 - Context of the Sheepeater Cliffs as the Osprey Falls Trail switched back and headed upstream along the steep descent into Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_237_08042020 - The Osprey Falls Trail switching back again and heading downstream as the cliffs of Sheepeater Canyon continue to get taller as I kept going deeper into the canyon
Osprey_Falls_256_08042020 - Around this point of the descent into Sheepeater Canyon, the trail started to bottom out as I found myself pretty close to the Gardner River
Osprey_Falls_258_08042020 - Somewhere around this point, I spotted some informal use-trails that scrambled to the banks of the Gardner River while the main trail started to climb
Osprey_Falls_260_08042020 - Looking at the final climb to the end of the official Osprey Falls Trail
Osprey_Falls_265_08042020 - Looking across the Gardner River as the impressive basalt columns of the Sheepeater Cliffs on the opposite end of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_272_08042020 - Looking up at Osprey Falls against the early afternoon sun from the rock outcrop at the end of the official trail
Osprey_Falls_273_08042020 - This was not a cool sight to see as I noticed soiled toilet paper just left out in the alcove by Osprey Falls.  When the topic of wilderness ethics comes up, this is what we mean by 'leave no trace' and 'pack it in, pack it out'
Osprey_Falls_275_08042020 - I wasn't the only one at Osprey Falls, but there were at most less than a half-dozen people here during my time here
Osprey_Falls_279_08042020 - Focused look right at the pronounced basalt columns of the Sheepeater Cliffs as seen from the end of the Osprey Falls Trail
Osprey_Falls_284_08042020 - This was what Osprey Falls looked like from the closure sign at the end of the official trail by the alcove
Osprey_Falls_288_08042020 - Context of the basalt columns and Osprey Falls seen together
Osprey_Falls_292_08042020 - Last look at Osprey Falls before leaving the lookout at the end of the official trail
Osprey_Falls_299_08042020 - Looking down at the use-trail that I took to get to the banks of the Gardner River
Osprey_Falls_301_08042020 - Looking up at Osprey Falls appearing smaller from this forced perspective by the banks of the Gardner River
Osprey_Falls_312_08042020 - Looking up the steep and narrow Osprey Falls Trail as I started the arduous climb back out of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_318_08042020 - Continuing the relentless climb up Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_322_08042020 - With the slow pace of making the steep climb out of Sheepeater Canyon, I noticed more subtle things like this bunch of purple berries
Osprey_Falls_325_08042020 - Closeup look at a wild raspberry in Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_328_08042020 - Noticing an interesting-looking purple flower while ascending out of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_329_08042020 - Context of the narrow Osprey Falls Trail as I was climbing out of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_345_08042020 - Almost back up at the top of the steep climb out of Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_347_08042020 - With as little human traffic that were on the Osprey Falls Trail, I noticed interesting wildlife like this gliding eagle hovering over Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_362_08042020 - Finally making it up out of Sheepeater Canyon and hiking back along the Bunsen Peak Road, but this time facing the Gallatin Range so it was a scenic hike back
Osprey_Falls_366_08042020 - Given how high some of the shrubs in the middle of the Bunsen Peak Road have grown, you can tell that this road has been closed for quite a while now
Osprey_Falls_376_08042020 - Even pretty late in the afternoon, Bunsen Peak still enjoys nice backlighting from the sun
Osprey_Falls_391_08042020 - Back at the familiar rock near a swampy part of the Swan Lake Flat as I was getting close to the end of the Osprey Falls hike
Osprey_Falls_398_08042020 - Finally starting to see vehicles driving along the Grand Loop Road as I was getting very close to the end of the long Osprey Falls hike
Osprey_Falls_407_08042020 - Finally returning to the Osprey Falls Trailhead, which was still pretty busy even late in the afternoon on my August 2020 visit
Osprey_Falls_003_06232004 - Wildflowers blooming along the Bunsen Peak Road near the start of the Osprey Falls hike when we first did this excursion back in June 2004. This photo and the rest of the photos in this gallery took place on that first visit
Osprey_Falls_006_06232004 - Julie walking on the 4x4 road with wildflowers in bloom before the thunderstorm overtook us
Osprey_Falls_052_06232004 - Looking towards Bunsen Peak shortly after the scary lightning storm blew over during our first time here in June 2004
Osprey_Falls_007_06232004 - Looking into Sheepeater Canyon early on in the hike
Osprey_Falls_046_06232004 - We saw this bird while hiking that flat three-mile stretch along the southern slopes of Bunsen Peak
Osprey_Falls_043_06232004 - Looking into Sheepeater Canyon before the descent
Osprey_Falls_008_06232004 - Julie descending amongst burnt trees into Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_010_06232004 - Julie descending further down the steep trail into Sheepeater Canyon
Osprey_Falls_011_06232004 - Julie near the bottom of the descent as the narrow trail follows the Gardner River
Osprey_Falls_025_06232004 - The sun started to show itself again when we made it to Osprey Falls
Osprey_Falls_003_jx_06232004 - That's me trying to steady the camera with my trekking poles for a long exposure photo
Osprey_Falls_035_06232004 - Osprey Falls in long exposure
Osprey_Falls_040_06232004 - Broad look at Osprey Falls when we first saw it back in June 2004
Osprey_Falls_048_06232004 - Julie heading back on the three-mile stretch with some partially snowy mountains in the distance
Osprey_Falls_051_06232004 - Hiking back to the Swan Flat with the scenic Gallatin Range looming in the distance
Osprey_Falls_053_06232004 - Almost made it back to the trailhead

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To get to the Osprey Falls Trailhead, look for parking near a pullout area or along the Grand Loop Road by the Swan Lake Flat (roughly 5 miles south of Mammoth).

It’s a large, flat, and extensive grassy area.

Osprey_Falls_003_08042020 - The parking area right at the Osprey Falls and Bunsen Peak Trailheads
The parking area right at the Osprey Falls and Bunsen Peak Trailheads

There is a parking area with limited space at the Swan Flat Trailhead, but there are also additional pullouts across the road as well as informal roadside pullouts further along the Swan Flat portion of the drive.

Mammoth and the Mammoth Hot Springs is about 90 minutes drive (84 miles) from Bozeman, Montana. Mammoth is also under 90 minutes drive (49 miles) from West Yellowstone, Montana. West Yellowstone is roughly 4.5 hours drive from Salt Lake City.

Back and forth sweep of Osprey Falls from the elevated outcrop at the end of the official trail


Sweep of Osprey Falls and the surrounding context as seen from the alcove


Sweep showing the Gardner River and Osprey Falls from the base

Tagged with: sheepeater, bunsen peak, gardner river, mammoth, mammoth hot springs, yellowstone, wyoming, waterfall, rockies, rocky mountains, swan flat



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.