Day 1: A GRAND CANYON OF ITS OWN
When Julie and I awoke at around 5am the first thing we noticed was how bright and blue the skies were! It was actually promising to be a good weather day!
We had ourselves the usual power breakfast of some power bars along with some instant noodles using the backpacking stove set and pocket rocket I had brought on this trip. And so with that out of the way, we were then tending to the errand of getting ready to check out and go.
So after breaking down our camp and putting things away and into the duffle then rental car, we drove off in the direction of Canyon. We were actually looking forward to sleeping on a bed tonight, but before that happens, we had to do a little sightseeing first.
As we drove northeast of the Madison Junction, we had another opportunity to check out Gibbon Falls at around 7:30am. This time, however, the sun was kind of against our line of sight so the harsh lighting against the dark shadows made photography quite suboptimal at this time of day.
We took a couple of photos of the falls from a spot where the view of the falls was more direct. But we skipped the main overview since we had done that under better lighting conditions on our first day in Yellowstone.
We then headed east of the Norris Junction we then took a one-way loop road for the Virginia Cascade. The road was narrow, but we had no problems going slow as we were looking around at the scenery while also keeping our eyes peeled for the Virginia Cascade.
When we finally did start to see the impressive waterfall on the Gibbon River, we had a little bit of trouble trying to find a suitable place to stop so we could admire the waterfall from outside our car.
We’d eventually find some makeshift pullout a little further from the falls, and then walked back on the road until we got views of the cascade again. The waterfall was still mostly in shadow but the morning sun didn’t quite wash out the remainder of the scenery.
There was a lot of forest around the waterfall itself so we never really got a very clean look at it. We weren’t sure if there was a way to get closer to the falls, but given that there weren’t sanctioned or decent places to stop the car around this lookout, we were under the impression that there was no safe way of getting there.
After having our fill of Virginia Cascade, we continued on the loop road and Julie spotted a pretty large elk grazing alongside the road. By this point, the road entered a flatter and prairie-type terrain instead of the rugged canyon near Virginia Cascade. And after trying to photo the elk without disturbing it (i.e. not getting out of the car), we then were back on the figure-8 Grand Loop Road.
At about 8:30am, we were in the Canyon area and we then headed onto the one-way loop road leaving Canyon Village and going alongside the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
As we were slowly making our way from one roadside stop to the next, we pretty much followed along Janet Chappel’s guide to Yellowstone just to gauge what the worthwhile roadside stops were. We ended up stopping for Grandview Point and Lookout Point on this go-around.
The Grandview Point didn’t have a view of the main waterfall – Lower Falls. However, it did feature a downstream view of the yellowish canyon in which the park got its name (from the yellow rocks of this canyon).
At Lookout Point, that was when we got our first satisfying view of Lower Falls. With the mid-morning light, all the cliffs were lit up the bright yellow. The waterfall itself was thundering even though we were watching it from a distance.
After having our fill of this loop drive (vowing to return and actually do the hikes around here later), we then drove over to the brink of the Upper Falls car park arriving there a little after 9am. From there, we walked a short distance to the very top of the Upper Falls (of which we still had yet to see a more satisfying frontal view of it).
Next, we then headed across the Chittenden Bridge and onto the road following the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The first car park we stopped at was for the Uncle Tom’s Trail at around 9:30am.
We figured that we mind as well get a much closer look at the major waterfall of the park, but we were also interested in experiencing the exhilaration of walking on elevated steel walkways where we could actually see through to the bottom. I’m sure that might make some people a little queazy for those fearful of heights, but I also thought it would make us fully aware of the degree of steepness the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone possessed.
It didn’t take long before we were at the overlook for Lower Falls. We came just in time to see some rainbows though photographing them together with the giant waterfall wasn’t easy, especially given the limited real-estate on the walkway.
Speaking of limited real estate, the endpoint of the Uncle Tom’s Trail was a little bit crowded. There was a large Chinese tour group that was here and we pretty much had to try to fit our way in and then wait until the tour would eventually rush out of there (knowing how Chinese tour groups tended to operate).
There was one Chinese lady in particular who thought she owned the overlook as she shoved people out of the way of her photo (me included), which left me with a bit of a sour taste. But I guess I kind of understood that mentality of just seizing the moment and throw courtesy out the door when you’re on limited time (hence why I hate being in large tour groups) since my grandma had a bit of that in her.
I guess when you live in poor conditions in rural China, that’s what you had to do in order to survive. So even though I stewed for a bit, the moment passed, the tour group left, and we were finally able to enjoy this lookout without as much stress (though individual visitors would trickle in and out of here continuously).
So with that, we were back up to the car park and then decided to see if there was a little more to the Uncle Tom’s area especially regarding views of the Upper Falls as well as Crystal Falls (as mentioned in the Yellowstone Treasures book).
Sure enough we managed to get a pretty satisfying frontal view of the Upper Falls (at around 10:30am) as we walked a little bit west of the Uncle Tom’s car park. We didn’t go further beyond these views of the powerful 110ft waterfall, which was very bright in the mid-morning sun and kind of tricked the camera into darkening everything else around it.
Just before we returned to the car, we also noticed a much smaller but also pretty waterfall known as Crystal Falls. The view from here seemed kind of partial and that reminded us that maybe we should get a closer look either this afternoon or tomorrow.
Then, we got into the car and drove further east towards the car park at Artist’s Point. There were definitely lots of people here, including large tour buses. And as we walked to the overlook, we could see why.
This particular viewpoint might be a distant one of Lower Falls, but it featured the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River dominating the landscape. Given the yellowish colors juxtaposed with the white of the waterfall and the blue of the skies with some green from the trees in between, it was no wonder why they called this lookout Artist Point as we could easily envision artists wanting to paint what they see here.
There was definitely no solitude in this place though it kind of planted the seeds of perhaps catching a sunrise here tomorrow. Maybe it might be a good place to see a sunrise accompanied with this view for some solitude. Food for thought.
Next, we headed back towards the Canyon Village so we could finally check into our lodge and drop off our stuff. However at around 11:30am, as we were on our way, we noticed a bit of a commotion as lots of cars and people were gathered near a meadow where there were some antlered elk grazing.
Honestly, we couldn’t tell the difference between elk, deer, and moose, but there was a ranger that was here to make sure no one got too close to the elk. And so we asked him what it was and he said it was elk. When I asked him what the difference was between the megafauna, I wasn’t sure I got his explanation about the difference between deer and elk. However, with moose, the droopy ears and the big nose or snout would definitely give it away. He also said they’re in the swamps in the south part of the park.
It turned out that it was still a little early to check in so we next drove a spur road past Canyon Village towards Inspiration Point. We’d get there around 11:50am where we caught some more grand views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone though Lower Falls was way distant in the shadows.
After having our fill of this viewpoint, we then stopped at the trailhead for Silver Cord Cascade. I recalled there was a large boulder near the trailhead that kind of helped us to identify this stopping point.
The walk itself was pretty shady and forested as it skirted the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was mostly featureless for most of the mile as we weren’t even able to see the canyon itself until we got close to the view of Silver Cord Cascade.
And when that happened at around 12:30pm, we admired the thin cascade where it seemed like we were here at the right time of day so as to ensure that the falls wouldn’t be darkened by shadow while everything else around it was bright.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do in terms of changing up the viewing experience do so we just took our photos and then left. Sure, we could’ve continued walking what would then be the Seven-Mile Hole Trail, which was said to be more than 7 miles return and it was hard upside down hiking into the canyon and then back out. But we had enough of this trail and were anxious to check into our lodge and have a lunch.
After taking a bit of a break with the logistics and the lunch, we then drove the loop road past the familiar viewpoints on the North Rim of the canyon. This time however, we stopped at the Red Rock Lookout, where we hiked onto the paved descending trail towards a more frontal view of Lower Falls where we were even able to feel sporadic droplets of spray traveling downstream to us.
I recalled there was an Indian guy showing us how we used his DSLR to take photos of this waterfall after we commented on his nice camera. I knew at some point I would have to commit to a DSLR, but I just hadn’t found the budget nor the will to commit to it yet.
As we made our way towards the back end of this loop road, we then tried to make it to the brink of the Lower Falls, but alas, that trail was closed. So we could only settle for the distant and partial view of Lower Falls. Bummer.
On the way back to the Canyon Village, we saw another pair of elk looking at one another. We couldn’t tell if they were looking past each other of if they were genuinely looking at each other. Whatever the case, it was a little fun photo moment (kind of looked like an elk stare down), and then at around 4pm we were once again back at the Canyon Village to take a bit of a siesta while also unwinding on this eventful day.