The Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is one of the most iconic vistas and popular destinations in Yellowstone National Park. The multiple pullouts and viewing platforms along the north and south rims are always full of tourists taking in the scenery, along with numerous pictures and selfies.
Sharp-eyed observers also notice a long, narrow metal staircase descending into the canyon along the south rim. Its 328 steps steeply descend to the base of the Lower Falls, offering another spectacular view of the canyon. Making the journey wouldn’t dampen anyone’s spirit, but would most certainly dampen whatever they’d be wearing.
The sight of Uncle Tom’s Trail is enough to awaken the thrill-seeker in any Yellowstone visitor — until they realize there’s nobody on the stairs, even in the peak of summer. That’s because nobody’s been on the trail in five years, and nobody will ever again make the descent.
Uncle Tom’s Trail is a relic of an age gone by in Yellowstone that will soon become another vanished memory of the park’s chaotic origins.
Uncle Tom’s Trail was named for the man who created an adventurous enterprise from it. Herbert “Uncle Tom” Richardson created the trail in 1896 after getting a permit from the National Park Service.
Richardson operated a business ferrying people across the Yellowstone River, where the Chittenden Memorial Bridge now stands. Customers would be taken across the river and led down into the canyon using ropes and ladders to make their trips up and down.
It was a lucrative but short-lived business. Richardson started losing customers once the bridge went up in 1903, and the U.S. Army built a wooden staircase on the trail in 1905, replacing his rope-and-ladder method. By 1906, Uncle Tom had abandoned his trail.
A metal staircase replaced the wooden one in 1965, making it easier for visitors to take the 328 steps down to a platform to view the summit of the Lower Falls.
Oh Yeah, You Have To Go Back Up
Bob Richard is a lifelong Cody resident and historian who spent six summers as a National Park Service ranger in Yellowstone. He has vivid memories of his experiences with Uncle Tom’s Trail.
“It was steep,” he said. “And when you got to the bottom, you wished you hadn't gone down there because you had to come back up.”
Uncle Tom’s Trail endured as one of Yellowstone's more daring and eclectic exploration options for decades. But all trails reach their end.
Problems Coming Up
The trail has been completely closed since 2019, but the first signs of its end came a few years earlier. In 2017, the trail and staircase closed as part of the rehabilitation project on Upper Falls Viewpoint, previously known as Uncle Tom’s Point.
Linda Veress with Yellowstone’s Public Affairs Office said the rehabilitation project initially included a refurbishment of Uncle Tom’s Trail.
“The staircase was originally slated for replacement as a component of the overarching rehabilitation project but was removed from the project due to cost escalation,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
Uncle Tom’s Trail briefly reopened in October 2018 and again in Summer 2019. Then it was “indefinitely closed” that same summer when the staircase’s structural safety was questioned.
Veress said park staff noticed individual stairs has been dented from rock falls, which created multiple tripping hazards on the already precarious descent. While fixing those stairs, maintenance workers raised other safety concerns.
Richard, 86, remembers the staircase being a high-maintenance problem in his time, too. However, it had a useful, if morbid, purpose for park rangers.
“Part of our job was if somebody fell into the canyon, we had to go down and bring them back,” he said. “Nobody survives. We had to do two different rescues during my six summers in Yellowstone.”
Veress confirmed that Uncle Tom’s Trail is “permanently closed” and the National Park Service intends to remove the staircase in the future.
“The structure has exceeded its planned design life and has suffered from a lack of recurring and preventative maintenance activities,” Veress said. “The general condition of the stairwell is poor. There are bent treads, missing handrails, cracked welds and rust.”
The projected cost to rehabilitate the staircase were between $3 million and $3.5 million in 2019. Given the existing issues and several years of neglect, a new estimate would undoubtedly be higher.
Veress said Yellowstone “does not plan to reinvest in the significant maintenance needs of the staircase as the costs to repair it are too high.”
Richard laments the future removal of Uncle Tom’s Trail, as any historian would. But he understands why it's in the park’s best interest to send it into history.
“So, I think (Yellowstone) Superintendent Cam Scholly will follow through with it and make sure it's taken care of properly,” he said. “It’s sad, because that's history. But every time we get somebody from the Department of Interior in D.C., they come on to the superintendent and say, “That's not safe. You need to remove or get rid of that.’ It’s sad, but they're also worried about the liability.”
No future Yellowstone visitors will venture to the base of the Lower Falls and into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on Uncle Tom’s Trail. The experience will live on as a factoid of history for as long as a park endures, while Richard and many others can share their living memories of the steep, but exhilarating, descent — and the exhausting climb back up.
“It was a beautiful experience with the falls,” Richard said, “and it was a treat for me.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at: ARossi@CowboyStateDaily.com
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.