About Osprey Falls
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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