The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is unique in many ways. How many ravines can boast such magnificent color? Yellows, oranges and reds may seem similar to the canyons of Utah or Arizona, but the hues are truly different. The river that rages through it is not unlike others in the west, but the Upper and Lower Falls set it apart. And the cherry on top? Thermal features on the walls and banks of Yellowstone’s Grand give it a character unto itself. Once I considered all of this, I knew I had to hike it.
Our second day in the park was set aside with the purpose of seeing as much of the canyon as possible. We had already secured our backcountry permit; we had site 4C2 waiting for us at the bottom. But first we needed to get things in perspective: best to start at the top. We drove to the Canyon Village area and made our way to North Rim Drive. The road provides access to, surprisingly, the North Rim of the Canyon. Our first stop was the Brink of the Lower Falls trail. We descended a few hundred feet via paved switchback trail, and were soon at the platform that teeters over the falls. What an incredible view! We were literally standing overtop of the 300 foot plunge into the canyon. It was late in summer, but the power of the river was still obvious. It was tough not to linger here, but we had more to see.
Further up the road we stopped at Lookout Point. As we made our way towards the viewing area, we noticed a nest of Ospreys to our left. They had constructed their home atop a rock spire, and in the nest three young chicks chirped for food. They were soon placated, as an adult arrived with a small mouse in its clutches. Ospreys are gorgeous birds of prey, and it was amazing to be able to have such a close up look at them, if only for a few minutes. We made a stop at the next pullout, but by now Skip and I were ready to hit the trail.
After lunch and a beer, we did our final prep for the hike. I tied the boots up tight, as we had quite a decent ahead of us. We departed the Glacial Boulder trailhead around 2pm and began our hike. The first mile of trail was well used and we encountered a few groups seeing the sights. Not long after we began, we stopped for a view across the canyon of Silver Chord Cascade. Aptly named, the cascade begins in Silver Lake and plunges all the way to the bottom of the canyon. It was the biggest of several small ribbons of water that we saw across the void.
The hike took us though a dense pine forest, sometimes on the edge of the canyon. The trail split near Mount Washburn, and we scanned a large meadow popular with grizzlies, but didn’t see any of the beasts. Soon after, we began the 1,200 foot decent down the canyon walls. The trail was steep and covered in loose rocks. We passed a dormant geyser cone and wound our way through an active thermal area. The scent of sulfur fumes was heavy on the air. We passed a group of four hikers beginning their arduous push to the top. We were just starting to lose steam when we passed the branch trail to the first campsite. 4C2 was about a quarter mile away.
The campsite was located just feet off the main trail, but since the foot traffic was nonexistent, it didn’t seem to matter. Tents were soon pitched, and we found the bear pole further down the trail. Instead of hanging our packs, we brought them down to the river. The shore was strewn with rocks, and we found a couple that were ideal for lounging. Boots off and pants rolled up, we got to enjoy the cool river as the sun beat down from high overhead. It was the perfect spot to kick back; the river raged all around us, the water was refreshing, and the canyon was beautiful.
As the sun began to dip and darkness crept into the canyon, we prepared our dinner. My meal of dehydrated Kung Pau Chicken was lackluster, but didn’t detract from the scene in the least. We explored the area on foot; a short hike downriver brought us to the last campsite in the area, 4C3. Turns out that this was the real gem. It was perched just above the water, with a log near the tent area providing an amazing view up canyon. We briefly considered moving out tents, but moments later saw a lone backpacker making his way towards us. We went down to greet the weary traveler; he was a younger guy making his way. He was enthused to learn he only had a short way to go before reaching his camp. Lucky bastard! Later in the night we caught glimpses of his headlamp shining out from the log with a world class view… we were slightly jealous but it was hard to harbor any negative feelings in such an amazing place.
The high point of our evening came just before darkness. As we sat on a rock shelf above the river I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. We watched as a bald eagle surfed the canyon airstream some 20 feet from us. The eagle was no doubt making his way home after a day of hunting in the waters upstream from our spot. This is still one of my fondest memories of the park. Night fell shortly after, and we headed to our tents for a restful sleep. The sounds of the river provided perfect ambient sound to fuel my slumber.
The next day we rose early and enjoyed breakfast on the shore. The first part of the hike was a bear; the ascent had us panting and sweating, but we made our way steadily back to the top. After that the 3 miles back to the trailhead were a breeze. Our first night in the backcountry of Yellowstone was an unforgettable one, and a memory that I will hold close to my heart whenever I think back to my first trip to the park.