The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a classic, V-shaped canyon carved by the Yellowstone River as it flowed through and eroded lava rock that covered the area in the wake of the violent caldera eruption 600,000 years ago. The lava flows that would form the canyon walls were rich in iron compounds. These oxidized over time, and gave the canyon its rusty red coloring, but visitors will note that bands of green and yellow are also present. This is coloration indicates the presence or absence of water in the rocks’ iron compounds — essentially, whether or not the rocks are rusting.
While it wasn’t formed by glaciation, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has seen its fair share of glaciers. For instance, visitors cannot help but notice a house-sized granite boulder near Inspiration Point. It was carried down from Montana’s Beartooth Mountains during the a glacial period 80,000 years ago. But the canyon has lots more than rocks to offer its visitors.
The Yellowstone River’s spectacular falls have captivated and inspired visitors for more than a century. A member of the 1870 Washburn expedition to the Yellowstone region wrote, “A grander scene than the lower cataract of the Yellowstone was never witnessed by mortal eyes.” The painter Thomas Moran immortalized the falls in his 1872 masterpiece, sketched at Lookout Point. In the early days of the park, a guide named “Uncle” Tom Richardson built a trail to the base of the lower falls and led tourists down it for a picnic lunch with a fantastic view.
While the original Uncle Tom’s Trail trail no longer exists (its successor is much improved), the view today remains very much the same, and no less stunning or magnificent. The same can be said about any of the scenic vistas from which travelers can view the falls. Inspiration Point juts far out over the canyon, making for spectacular views both upstream and down.
The Lower Falls, at 308 feet, are the tallest in the park. The Upper Falls are 109 feet tall. The longest chain of cascades in Yellowstone can also be found in the canyon. Silver Cord Cascade tumbles more than 1,000 feet before joining the Yellowstone River. While it isn’t a single waterfall, it’s believed that Silver Cord’s great length might be the root of a once-popular legend about a thousand-foot waterfall hidden deep in the park.