Uncle Tom’s Trail Hike to Lower Falls in Yellowstone

Closure: Uncle Tom’s Trail (the stairs) and the South Rim Trail may be closed for reconstruction. The short trail from Uncle Tom’s parking area to Artist Point is open. For more information, visit  www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/canyonprojects.htm

Uncle Tom’s Trail is a wonderful trail that takes you from the top of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the base of the 308-foot-high Lower Falls. You can almost always see a rainbow cutting through the falls’ powerful splash and mist. Tackling the 328 steps on the way down is a breeze–just remember that you have to come back up. But don’t worry. There are many benches and steel platforms to rest upon while covering the roughly 500 vertical feet.

Once in the Yellowstone’s Canyon area, take the Artist Point Road and park your vehicle in the parking lot at Artist Point. Look for the sign for Uncle Tom’s Trail. You first descend down a couple paved switchbacks before you reach the steel grate steps.

View of the Lower Falls from the bottom of Uncle Tom's Trail in Yellowstone. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski
View of the Lower Falls from the bottom of Uncle Tom’s Trail in Yellowstone. Gloria Wadzinski

The History of Uncle Tom’s Trail

Uncle Tom's Trail in 1905 when \
Uncle Tom’s Trail in 1905 when \”Uncle Tom\” would give his canyon tourPublic Domain

Not only does the rich landscape of Yellowstone National Park tell the story of a changed and changing world, but relics of the past are evidence of the many individuals who were touched by the landscape’s beauty and made their mark on the park in return.

Quite a few of the individuals instrumental in Yellowstone’s early history had a streak of eccentricity running through their veins. After all, they lived in a rugged and untamed land without modern amenities.

Among these many characters stands H.F. Richardson, a former Bozeman, Mont. resident. Known as “Uncle Tom” to his contemporaries, Richardson built a trail deep into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In the late 1890s the National Park Service granted him a permit to ferry tourists across the Yellowstone River and then lead them along the canyon’s south rim to the base of the Lower Falls. There, guests would enjoy a picnic lunch before turning back.

The trip was not for the faint of heart, requiring ropes and rope ladders to offer a measure of safety and prevent guests from tumbling off the steep canyon walls.

“It was a pretty difficult climb for most people,” Yellowstone National Park historian Lee Whittlesey told Chronicle Outdoors. “He would bring pins for the ladies to pin up their dresses to make the hiking easier.”

Richardson’s endeavors were rather short lived, however, lasting only for the seven-year duration between 1898 and 1905. The NPS’s construction of the Chittenden Bridge in 1903 largely contributed to the end of his business.