Take the Stairs-- 328 of Them -- to Visit 'Uncle Tom' in Yellowstone
Lower falls of the Yellowstone River.
328 total stairs down and 328 up.
Yellowstone National Park is a 2.2-million acre preserve and a hiker's paradise with almost 1,200 miles of trails along a variety of terrain, ranging from boardwalks to asphalt to dirt.
However, while many visitors don't have the time for any extensive hikes, they may still crave at least one unusual - even unforgettable - trek to a less visited part of the park accessible only by "steps."
If that's the case, the best alternative may be Uncle Tom's Trail in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
While this trail, composed mostly of steel steps, is not recommended for those with heart or lung problems, or those who have difficulty negotiating stairs, this path goes 500 feet down into the canyon - next to the lower falls of the Yellowstone - and is well worth the effort.
Most of the walk is on perforated steel sheeting, where 328 stairs go three-quarters of the way down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and offer what may be the best views of the 308-foot high lower falls of the Yellowstone River.
In the early 1890s,"Uncle" Tom Richardson wanted to give visitors a chance to enjoy a closeup of the thundering spray of lower falls. He would ferry people across the Yellowstone river near Otter Creek and then take them by horse and wagon to near where today's Uncle Tom's parking area is.
From there, visitors would take an all-day hike down 528 cement steps of various size and weights in rock niches on the south wall of the canyon. Steel rods held a rope for extra support.
The stairs ended only one third of the way into the canyon and so hikers had to scramble over rocks to the canyon floor, near the Tom Thumb geyser, where Uncle Tom would serve lunch to guests.
In 1903, a wooden section of stairs was added to the original trail. Years later, the trail fell into disrepair after Richardson moved on.
The Park Service rebuilt the trail beginning in 1965 and opened today's version in 1966. Because of safety and environmental concerns, the trail does not go to the bottom of the canyon itself.
The Park Services keeps a close watch on stairs that need to be replaced on this unique trail. Because the the canyon walls are unstable, climbing off-trail in this area is prohibited.
The Uncle Tom Trail is probably only a half-mile roundtrip. It features room for up and down travel and benches along the way for resting. There's a small bench at the bottom and a small area to take photographs. Trees overhanging at the bottom block part of the view at the bottom, though.
A large patch of snow may be visible at the base of the falls into summer. The 1,200-foot-deep canyon's yellow and red colors may also be enjoyed well below the rim at the end of the trail.
The hike is suitable for younger children, but they need supervision to avoid falls. There have been at least two serious accidents along the trail. A seven-year-old boy fell 200 feet down the trail in 1988 and was seriously injured. In 1991, a man went off the trail and slipped 135 feet.
It may take only take 30 minutes for fast walkers or an hour for others to travel to the bottom of Uncle Tom's Trail. In cold weather, ice may form on the steps. Sturdy, comfortable shoes are a necessity. Whenever the Canyon area is open (about May through October) - Uncle Tom's Trail is usually open.
Uncle Tom's Trail is popular, but still has far smaller crowds than you encounter at Artist Point, Inspiration Point, Lookout Point or on Brink of the Falls Trail.
For the hour or less time required, this hike provides a unique experience, perhaps like climbing the numerous stairs of the Empire State Building or World Trade Center - outdoors in one of America's most scenic areas.
(--Distilled from a story by Lynn Arave, originally in the Deseret News.)