Yellowstone, day three — Canyon

Mike said to run for 4~5 hours and to practice staying fueled and hydrated. I wanted to try running at altitude.

Some friends had told me I had to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon rim was about 8000 feet (7918 for the visitor center there), that sounded like altitude, and the bottom of the canyon was roughly 6800 (which still sounded like altitude). So I found a topo map which showed a trail system with a 5 mile trail that ran from the top of the rim down into the canyon and connected (at mile ~3) to a 20 mile trail. 5 miles was too short, but 5 miles followed by as much of the 20 miler as I wanted sounded good.

I was still somewhat worried about bears. So I bought a can of bear spray just in case. It was a great huge thing. Bears apparently need a lot of deterrent. There was a warning on the can about not spraying it on yourself (to make yourself smell bad); obviously getting it into your own eyes is stupid, but more importantly bears actually like the taste in small quantities. I didn’t really want to carry it. I didn’t really want to be eaten by a bear either. I figured I would go to the trail head, and if they had one of those warning signs up (“Bears have been seen in this area”) then I’d carry the spray, and if they didn’t, then I wouldn’t.

I got up early and got into the car about 6:30. No traffic at that time of morning, which was nice, and interesting clouds moved across the mountains on the other side of the valley. I wasn’t in any particular hurry so I stopped and looked at Undine falls, and then at a hot spring down in the riverbed (for some reason I find hot springs down at the water fascinating).

Then I drove on to Tower Falls, where I again got out to look at the falls. These are very tall.

As I drove on to Canyon I noticed that my chest felt tight, and then I thought the car was having difficulty. Then I crested a rise with a sign Dunraven pass, elevation 8859.

I parked my car at the Canyon visitor center, saw no bear warning signs and set off. It was about a mile to the trailhead if I walked, and about 8 miles if I drove (one way loop road). So I made my run a little longer than I had expected.

I had a full camelback, and enough GU and chomps and blocks to last for 6½ hours.

It was very misty. It was also chilly, 42° according to the car thermometer, so I had a windbreaker, a long sleeve SBAA shirt and my running top.

The trailhead itself is marked by a large glacial boulder. To tell the truth, it looks like any other boulder to me, but it is big, and stands all by itself, so it is noticeable if nothing else.

The start was about half a mile from the rim so it took a while before I  got to see the canyon itself. The sides were pretty steep, and from the look of the tree roots I had the impression that the top was still eroding into the depths.

I stood back.

A little further along the Silver Chord Falls are visible on the opposite rim. The canyon is quite wide, and the falls are relatively narrow so from this viewpoint they just make a thin streak of white down the opposite rocks.

I’ve warmed up a bit and removed my windbreaker and stuffed it into the cammelback. The guidebooks warn of rapid weather changes (as happened yesterday when the storm blew in) so I want it close at hand.

The trail is pretty easy here. Flat, well maintained. I think I’m making good time. It turns out that I’m actually going a bit slowly, but it feels as if I am going faster. I guess that is the altitude. At least I’m not gasping for breath or anything like that.

I realize I haven’t been singing to the bears.

I decide they don’t really need a recital today.

I scramble over a rock with a small pine tree growing on it. It looks like a natural bonsai tree — all gnarled and contorted with a thick trunk and small set of branches. I wonder if the Japanese got the idea for bonsai from observing trees in the wild?

On the left of the trail (away from the canyon) the forest opens out into a large meadow. There are lots of wildflowers here, various asters, lupines, a beautiful lichen which clings to dead spurs.

This also seems to be an insect graveyard. There are a number of flowers with a dead insect embedded in them. At least, I think they are dead. My guess is that the rain of the previous day brought on a cold snap and the bees and butterflies just got too cold and died.

One more view from the canyon rim, and then the trail splits, and I head down into the canyon itself. It’s quite steep, one of those slopes which is easier to go up than down.

There are hot springs on the side of the trail too. I hadn’t realized there would be any. These aren’t particularly impressive, but it is certainly amazing just how common these features are.

A little further down the path splits again, there are two campsites, one up river, one down. I follow the up river trail first. It’s a little obscure, and very steep, but I find enough of it to convince myself I’m on it. There’s another hot spring here.

Finally I reach a point where I’m right at the river. The sky is clearing and it is nice and blue. It isn’t warm yet, but it looks prettier.

I wander around the river bank for a bit, climbing down into the river briefly and then it’s time to turn back.

Only I can’t find the trail.

The path along the bank is pretty obvious, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that leads up. I try just climbing up the slope without a trail, but it is scree and I can tell I won’t get very far that way. So I just run back and forth on the bank, until, eventually, I see the faint trail that leads up. I manage to lose the trail a couple more times, but none of those is as bad as the first. Eventually I reach the point where the two campsite trails diverged.

The other trail is in better shape and leads through wooded glades, across a small stream and gently downward.  On the way I get glimpses of Twin Falls on the other side of the river, and a little further beyond that is a nameless waterfall which isn’t as nice because it sort of hides behind a large boulder.

Eventually the trail reaches the river itself, and at about that point Sulfur Creek comes bouncing down the hillside (the near hillside) in a series of small waterfalls. The water in the creek is a milky color and I speculate that its source is a series of hot springs up on the canyon rim. The water is not warm though.

It really is lovely down here. The campsite at the end of the trail is perched 30 feet above the river and must have a good view (but there are people in it, so I turn back without disturbing them).

Then begins the slog up out of the Canyon. Mostly I manage to run, but every now and then I slow to a walk. It starts to get warm, and I consider removing my next layer, but then it clouds back over and cools down.

I notice that my Heart rate never gets above 83%. Wow. I think I working hard though.

I reach the top, and the place where the big trails diverge and I head out toward Mt. Washburn and Tower falls.

The trail crosses a little stream and continues out into a meadow full of wildflowers.

In Santa B all the wildflowers are pretty well over by mid-August and I was assuming that they would be finished here too. But this meadow is full of lupine, yarrow, and wild parsleys (and others I can’t identify).

The trail skirts the edge of the meadow and then heads into the woods again, out into another meadow and back into the woods.

Then it heads past another thermal area with a rather interestingly colored pool (and a rather ugly one too, which I didn’t photograph).

And back into the woods.

Passing through the woods I find a nice bed of blue bells, and then after them another thermal site. This one is more impressive, venting lots of steam into the air and containing the first mud vents that I have seen, these are hot springs which are so acidic that the water wears down the rock, turning it into mud, which then burps and boils on the surface.

I turn back for one last look at the springs, and then on into the woods again.

Up a little hill, and across a meadow, or rather a series of meadows. There are small streams, meandering through here, and as the trail crosses over one I see something which looks (sort of) like a Delphinium. The flowers are more open than any Delphinium I’ve seen before but I can’t imagine what else it might be.

Lots more wildflowers here. A columbine, two different Geraniums, many Asters and other things I can’t identify.

I decide I’m going to turn back when my watch hits 12 miles. No particular reason for that, I just need some sort of deadline, otherwise I’ll keep going; I don’t really want to turn back, but I know I must, soon. I’m now at 11.28 so I can keep going a little bit longer.

The sun comes out as I run through yet another little meadow, this one with a campsite in it. And a little beyond that it is time to turn around.

Back through the meadows with their wildflowers.

The sun doesn’t last. It comes and goes. I realize I still have on the long sleeve shirt I donned in the cool of the morning. It is still cool enough that there seems little point in removing it.

Once again I find flowers with dead (or at least immobile) insects on them. I don’t see this in Santa B. What causes it? Is it cold?

And back to the hot springs. I am continually amazed and how much desolation surrounds these vents. Why does the barren area reach above the springs further than it goes below? Does the steam (which I’ve breathed on many occasions) contain more toxins than the run-off water?

Into the woods, the other set of hot springs, woods again, meadows. A nice stand of fringed gentians, and near-by are some Indian Paintbrushes. Indian Paintbrushes (at least the Barbarian varieties) are all root parasites, I wonder what plant this guy is parasitizing, here, in an open meadow.

And finally I am back at the trail junction. It means to me that I’ve got another 2.7 miles on the trails and another mile or so of road. I’m not exactly tired, but I am looking forward to stopping.

Shortly after this I start to see people again (the trail down into the canyon is fairly popular). No one else is running though. I saw no other runners in the park. As I come up to one guy, hiking with his son, he asks me:

“Seen any bears?”

“No, thank goodness.” I realize I have forgotten even to worry about bears.

The guy swings a can of bear spray in his hand: “I’m ready!”

I’m glad I didn’t need any.

And then I reach the trailhead with its large erratic boulder. And then Canyon parking lot.

I immediately buy some lunch, and drive off to the south rim to find a place to eat.


Just south of Canyon, the Yellowstone River plunges over two huge waterfalls and ends up in the canyon. But south of those falls, the river is at ground level. And it is here that I find a picnic spot.

Thence I drive down to Artist’s Point, which has a good view of the lower falls. These falls are 300+ feet tall, and it looks as though the spume from the falls splashes up about a third that distance.

Pulling back a bit, the canyon itself is quite lovely. There are just enough clouds to make the sky interesting, but not so many as to hide the sun, not right now anyway.

And the view down the canyon isn’t bad either.

A little further up the road is a viewpoint for the upper falls. These aren’t as tall as the lower (only 100 feet), but still impressive.

Then I drive back across the river and take the north canyon rim loop road. The first stop on it lets you climb down to the top of the lower falls, but on the way there is a good view of the upper falls too. And a little further down there is a view of the spume of the upper falls which is pretty spectacular in its own right.

The climb down to the lower falls is surprisingly long, and full of very short switchbacks. I’m not usually that impressed by the top of a waterfall, you can’t really see the falls generally, but this takes my breath away. It’s a long way down. You still can’t see much of the falls, but you can see the spume, and there is a rainbow floating out of the spume.


Lower falls from above

Rainbow in the mist

The spume condenses on the canyon wall, and smaller waterfalls run down from there.

I dutifully went to all the other stops on the northern rim, but none were anywhere near as impressive as this one.

As I drove back to the hotel, the sun shining on the valley was quite lovely


The sign says this is prime grizzly bear territory, but I can’t make them out.


More Pictures

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