Terraced Falls was an impressive series of cascades and waterfalls tumbling in succession on the Falls River with a cumulative height of about 150ft. It was our introduction to waterfalling in the remote Bechler Backcountry region of southwestern Yellowstone National Park, which was also known as the “Cascade Corner” as most of the waterfalls within the national park’s boundaries were concentrated here. Certainly living up to its reputation as being full of waterfalls, our adventure that took in additional waterfalls and cascades including a handful of them on Cascade Creek (one of the tributaries feeding the Falls River), and the Cascade Acres (a wide set of rapids and cascades on the Falls River itself). Some of the cascades on Cascade Creek were attractive on their own, and could have had their own signage and tourism infrastructure if they weren’t merely incidental attractions on the Terraced Falls hike. Indeed, this was the type of excursion that could easily induce waterfall saturation within the 4 miles of round trip hiking to take it all in.
One thing that we remembered most about our experiences at Terraced Falls was the wild nature of the Bechler Backcountry. Indeed, there were lots of opportunities for dropoff hazards (especially at the end of the trail where I managed to lose an old Sony wide angle lens over the cliff on our first visit here in June 2004) and we were also cognizant that we needed to be bear aware as we were in grizzly country. We were actually lured here by a photo that was shown in the book The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery, which was very different from the photo shown at the top of this page and probably left more to be desired by comparison. In fact, that photo from the book was taken from the opposite side of the Falls River and required a potentially dangerous crossing upstream from the brink of the first cascade of Terraced Falls. In both my attempts so far at visiting this waterfall, the situations weren’t right to make the traverse and scramble to get that sought after view from the other side. One of these days, I’ll make another attempt when the opportunity would present itself, especially when the Falls River would be low enough and the weather calm enough to make that traverse safely.The hike began from the Cascade Creek Trailhead (see directions below). The trail began behind a sign towards the left side of the dirt pullouts (facing away from the Grassy Lake / Reclamation Road). From there, the trail descended as it passed by signs indicating entry through the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park at about a quarter-mile down. The trail continued descending as it eventually reached a trail junction just as it started to follow along Cascade Creek at about 0.4 miles from the trailhead. The trail branching to the right, which crossed Cascade Creek, was called the South Boundary Trail and would ultimately join up with the Mountain Ash Creek Trail (which was led to one of the routes leading to Union Falls). The trail on the left continued towards Terraced Falls. As we continued to descend alongside Cascade Creek, it didn’t take long before we started to encounter waterfalls within Cascade Creek itself.
The first waterfall we encountered was at its brink at about a quarter-mile beyond the South Boundary Trail junction. From the main trail, this was the only view we were afforded. However, there were informal scrambling use trails that led away from the main trail further downstream, and it eventually led me to the side and front of the falls roughly 160ft from off the trail. At 40ft tall, this waterfall was informally called the “Pothole Cascades” by a park employee named Mike Yochim who noted pothole formations in the bedrock of the stream during his visit around 1998 when he made the suggestion of this name.Continuing down the main Terraced Falls Trail, it didn’t take long before we started to notice another cascade on Cascade Creek at about 0.3 miles from “Pothole Cascades” or roughly a half-mile downstream of the South Boundary Trail Junction. This one was
easily visible from the main trail so Julie and I both noticed it on our first visit in June 2004, and I saw it again on my second visit in August 2017. According to the Yellowstone Waterfalls book referenced above, it was named by Paul Rubinstein (one of the authors) as the “Diamond Cascade” given its confluence of four mini-tiers with a cumulative 15ft drop or so.
The next cascade on Cascade Creek was another 400ft or so further downstream. This one was also visible from the main trail and we managed to only be able to view it from a distance. It appeared that the creek fell over a rounded rock layer, and the name given by the authors of the Yellowstone Waterfalls book named it the “Humpback Cascade”, which seemed to be an appropriate given its shape.About another 150ft or so downstream of the “Humpback Cascade” was a pair of cascades falling in twisting succession. At first, I was only able to look down unsatisfactorily near the brink of the upper drop of these cascades, but further down the trail another 350ft or so was a view (as well as informal scrambling path to improve that view) towards the front of the lower drop of the pair of cascades as well as a teasing hint of the upper drop, which was obstructed by trees. It turned out that Julie and I also saw these falls in a much more fuller and less obstructed state in our June 2004 visit so it was fairly easy to see. These pair of waterfalls were known as the “Cleft Cascades”. When I looked downstream from the view of this falls, I was also able to see where Cascade Creek joined the Falls River though I had to pay real close attention to it. Otherwise, there was no signage or other indication that the trail was now about to follow downstream along the Falls River starting just 200ft further on.
In the next quarter-mile or so, the trail continued skirting along the Falls River though it climbed somewhat so it would require a steep scramble to access the Falls River from there. The next water feature was where the Falls River was flowing loudly as whitewater became more prevalent. It turned out that these whitewater rapids and sloping waterslides comprised the so-called Cascade Acres, which was difficult to see cleanly due to the rugged terrain and trees in the way, but I was definitely able to hear it breaking the otherwise tranquil silence of this part of the Yellowstone backcountry.
In another 0.3 miles from Cascade Acres or roughly a half-mile downstream of the “Cleft Cascades” was where the trail was almost level with the Falls River. I suspected that this was where the potential crossing of the Falls River to access the other side was at. There were a couple of faint trails of use here, corroborating my suspicion, but given the high rate of flow on both occasions I’ve done this hike (as well as the threat of flash flooding from neighboring thunderstorms during my second visit in August 2017), the I couldn’t safely make that attempt.Finally at around 0.4 miles from Cascade Acres or nearly 3/4-mile from the “Cleft Cascades” was the start of the waterfall series comprising Terraced Falls. The first of the waterfalls couldn’t cleanly be seen due to the presence of trees getting in the way as well as the steep dropoffs by the trail going right into the Falls River. Just another 500ft further was the precarious rocky outcrop perched right at the brink of the main series of drops of Terraced Falls. This was the spot where I had lost my Sony lens back in June 2004 so I made sure that my camera was properly secured on my second visit, and that I was as surefooted as I could be for a fall here would most certainly be fatal.
From that rocky outcrop, I was not only able to witness the power of the Falls River dropping below me, but I was also able to look at the expanse of the backcountry further downstream. The trail actually continued a short distance further from the rocky outcrop above Terraced Falls. There used to be signage here saying that the trail was closed back in June 2004, but regardless of whether that sign was there or not, there was still a dangerously steep gully that the trail disappeared into.
While in my younger days, I perhaps foolishly took a chance and went down this very steep gully to the banks of the Falls River, it turned out that I would have to wade out into the Falls River anyways to get a more frontal view of it from its base (as shown in the Charles Maynard book about Yellowstone Waterfalls. Given how steep the descent was, it was definitely a big concern of mine whether it was possible to climb back up, and wet shoes wouldn’t have helped my cause had I tried to risk it for that better photo. Nevertheless for the real adventurous risk taker, had I persisted further downstream, the scramble would have eventually led to the 55ft Rainbow Falls.
The rocky outcrop at the brink of Terraced Falls was pretty much the turnaround point of this hike, which was about 2 miles in each direction from the trailhead (or 4 miles round trip). It took me about 2.5 hours away from the car on my second visit when I did this solo. It probably took Julie and I a similar amount of time on our first visit back in June 2004. The catch, however, was that it was a mostly uphill hike on the return so it was pretty much an upside-down hike.
Although Terraced Falls was within the Yellowstone National Park boundaries, the trail accessing it actually started just outside of it at the Cascade Creek Trailhead. In order to get to this trailhead, we had to drive west on the unpaved Grassy Lake Road for nearly 14 miles (about an hour drive) west of Flagg Ranch. The road became unpaved just past the bridge over Polecat Creek. The road had a few rough patches with potholes and some water-damaged ruts, but it was otherwise doable by passenger vehicles. The Cascade Creek Trailhead was about 2 miles further west of the dam holding up the Grassy Lake Reservoir. There was parking for a handful of cars by the trailhead, but there was also some spillover parking spots on the opposite side of the Grassy Lake / Reclamation Road.
For some context, Flagg Ranch was about 2.5 miles south of the South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, 55 miles (75 minutes drive) north of Jackson, and 72 miles (under 2 hours drive) southeast of West Yellowstone, Montana. While Flagg Ranch was also a mere 48 miles (over 2 hours drive) east of Ashton, Idaho, it was on the Grassy Lake Road (also called the Reclamation Road), which was said to be pretty rough the closer to the Idaho border you go. I’ve never taken the Grassy Lake Road west of the Cascade Creek Trailhead before so I can’t say much more about the road conditions.
For additional geographical context, West Yellowstone, Montana was 58 miles (at least 90 minutes drive) south of Gardiner, Montana, 90 miles (over 90 minutes drive) south of Bozeman, Montana, 108 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and 321 miles (about 4.5 hours drive) north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
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