Friday, September 5

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

A young landscape painter by the name of Thomas Moran is said to have inspired the creation of the world’s first national park. In 1871 the recently formed US Geological Survey funded an expedition into the Yellowstone region. Moran, and an accomplished photographer William Henry Jackson, were commissioned to document their findings.

Moran painted an enormous canvas of Lower Falls cascading through the technicolor depths of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This vista and others like it encouraged Congress to pass the Yellowstone National Park Act in 1872. Interestingly, its passage into law occurred just months before the New Zealand government passed similar legislation establishing Ruapehu National Park.

Lower Falls is one of two iconic falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The Yellowstone river first plummets over Upper Falls (a mere 109 feet high), before dropping an impressive 308 feet over Lower Falls. The river then swirls and weaves its way in a foaming torrent through 20 miles of dramatic canyon. At its deepest point the canyon is more than 1000 feet deep and little more than 4000 feet from rim to rim at its widest point.

The canyon walls are an impressive array of white, red, yellow and pink bands and streaks. The colours are the result of geothermal activity in the canyon walls. If you look closely you can see tufts of steam still rising from vents. Surprisingly, the canyon is relatively young in geological terms. It current form was created around 10,000 years ago as retreating Ice Age glaciers created flood event of biblical proportions.

Garry and I spent this morning touring the canyon’s south rim. We stopped first at Uncle Tom’s trail to capture an iconic view of Upper Falls before venturing down more than 328 metal steps to view the even more dramatic Lower Falls. The view three-quarters of the way down the canyon wall is simply breath-taking. However, the decent is rather hair-raising and Garry wasn’t game to venture the entire way.

We then ventured on to Artist Point, considered the canyon’s most famous outlook. The view from here is simply magic. Visitors are greeted with a view more than a mile up the canyon towards Lower Falls. It’s very similar to the landscape captured by Thomas Moran – and, to be honest – it really does look like his 19th Century canvas. Garry and I saw a full-scale reproduction of his work in the nearby visitor’s centre yesterday.

 The remainder of our morning was spent tracing the Yellowstone River through the Hayden Valley to its headwaters as they emerge from Yellowstone Lake. The Hayden Valley is renowned for its wildlife spotting. We weren’t disappointed. Several bison entertained us with some superb roadside grazing. We subsequently returned to the area at dusk and were lucky enough to spot elk herds grazing along the river bank.

Our travels today took us along the eastern shores of Lake Yellowstone as far as Lake Butte Overlook. Here the road branches off and climbs 200 metres to a panoramic view across the entire lake. The view was magnificent. We soaked up the iridescent blue expanse as its sparkled and glistened in the afternoon sunlight. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day exploring the central region of Yellowstone National Park.

In fact, we enjoyed today so much we’ve made some last minute changes to our itinerary. Instead of dashing south to view the Grand Tetons we’ve decided to spend another day in the park. We’ve now booked ourselves a room in West Yellowstone on the park’s western boundary. We’ll make our way their tomorrow following another glimpse of the Grand Canyon and a wander through the Norris Geyser basin (home to the largest geysers in the park).

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