Yellowstone National Park’s South Rim Trail: Waterfall on the Rocks – Make it a Double

“In the end, it’s all just rocks and water.”

~ One-star review of Yellowstone National Park

What did this ranting reviewer expect from Yellowstone Park? Trees? Grass? Copious wildlife? Fields of wildflowers? The melodious sound of songbirds?

Some people just want it all, and Yellowstone National Park just does not … not have those things. There’s a drainage ditch behind a fence across from the Waffle House just off the freeway in Billings, Montana. That is nothing but rocks and water. Maybe the reviewer got lost on his way to the park, because, as far as this blogger is concerned, Yellowstone had practically everything a national park enthusiast could want and then some.

One of those things was The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a twenty-mile rocky, rhyolite abyss on the Yellowstone River that hosts two spectacular rocky waterfalls … I mean, if you like that sort of thing. We do, and we set out on our rocks-and-water hike from the Artist’s Point parking area on South Rim Drive. The cerulean Wyoming sky was cloudless, and the temperature was comfortably in the sixties. Almost immediately, the wide and well maintained trail treated us to an overlook with a tantalizingly distant view of the lower falls nearly a half-mile up the canyon.

The South Rim Trail was easy hiking, and the overlooks were plentiful. Most times the best view was up the canyon toward the falls. Occasionally, we got a good look downstream, the green water of the Yellowstone River snaking its way through the yellow, rhyolite canyon. Wildflowers dotted the brush to our left. The scent of pine was in the air. As the sun rose higher and the shadows shortened, the north canyon wall was alive with color, its yellow and beige face topped with a brushy fringe of hunter-green forest.

We had hiked just over a mile when we came to a spectacular, unobstructed view of the lower falls.

The lower falls was magnificent. The Yellowstone River spilled like liquid jade from its crest, a 70-foot chink in the yellow and grey Rhyolite canyon, turning frothy white as it tumbled 308 feet to the basin below. As the water churned in the plunge pool below, it sent up a billowing plume of mist that refracted the brilliant morning sun into prismatic splashes of color that danced about the canyon. We spent quite some time marveling at the massive cataract before moving on.

Another three-quarters of a mile brought us to the Upper Falls overlook, where we were treated to yet another stunning view of a magnificent waterfall.

The upper falls is only 109 feet, a third of the height of its downstream sister. Slightly wider at the brink, the upper falls tumbled with a kindred power and authority, kicked up a corresponding cloud of light-refracting brume, and produced similar luminescent, rainbow swatches. I often find it difficult to wrap my mind around the sheer magnificence of nature. Gazing at these watery wonders, a myriad of thoughts coursed through my brain, the vast majority of which revolved around the staggering beauty of this natural world. One thought that did not pass through my overcrowded cerebrum?

It’s all just rocks and water.

After we had looked our fill, we retraced our steps to the Artist’s Point parking area, passed through it, and hiked the paved tenth of a mile to the pretty painter’s place to take in this classic view up the canyon. This short walk was teeming with the yogurt-guzzling hordes1, but it was worth suffering the mass of fussy children and exasperated parents to enjoy this vantage point. There’s a good chance you’ve seen the mountain-loving Albert Bierstadt’s painting of this sublime view.

We enjoyed Artist’s Point briefly, then beat a hasty retreat out of the throng and back to the lot.

1. See Crater Lake: It’s Blue, Da Ba Dee Da Ba Daa

The Upper Falls viewpoint is less than 100 yards from a parking lot, and the Lower Falls is a scant quarter mile, so this isn’t a can’t-see-it-if-you-don’t-hike-it attraction. Likewise, Artist’s Point is easily accessible as well, so expect to share your experience with others. We started off early (7:45am) and found the trail less crowded than we anticipated. I don’t think one-star reviews of Yellowstone are keeping people away, and while there were some less-than-stellar reviews of this trail, most complained about a lack of views. Lies. Damnable lies. The South Rim Trail is totally worth your time and the wear-and-tear on your boots. Enjoy this relatively easy hike and all the scenic splendor it has to offer. A word of caution though: There are a lot of rocks and water. ♦

Date: July 12, 2022
Location: Yellowstone National Park, WY
Trailhead: 44.718770, -110.482450
Distance: 2.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 247 feet
Difficulty: Easy

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke (Crow),  Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Tséstho’e (Cheyenne).

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