While you can drive to many of the overlooks along the North Rim Trail in Yellowstone National Park, walking the entire length gives you access to exclusive views, a bonus waterfall, and some solitude. Highlights include the powerful Upper Falls which is then dwarfed by Lower Falls which then crashes through the otherworldly Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Similar to when I hiked the South Rim Trail, I parked at the Wapiti Lake trailhead, but this time, I crossed over Yellowstone River on the Chittenden Bridge. I love the contrast of the river, changing from the slow, meandering river, to some cascades right before it violently plummets in Yellowstone’s iconic falls. This is very evident as you walk over the bridge.
On the north side of the bridge, an old, gated road marks the beginning of the trail. There used to be more developments along the North Rim. A conscious effort was made to remove these to restore the area to more of a natural place. Along the trail, you’ll see ghosts of roads and little clearings that appear to have had buildings in them. The first reminder of this is the Canyon Bridge which is a beautiful old bridge that gives you a great overlook of the river. Right below the bridge, tall grasses swayed in the breeze and were mesmerizing from above.
Not long after the bridge, I began to encounter people on this paved road as I approached the spur trail to the brink of the Upper Falls. From the trailhead to this point, the river has never been far from my view which is always a treat. The trail down to the brink is paved with steps, but isn’t long. The powerful river rushed to the edge and plummeted down. It’s an incredibly powerful spot as you look straight down the waterfall.
Turning around, I headed back up to the junction and continued along the trail to the parking lot. Following the North Rim Trail here is a bit tricky as there aren’t any signs out of the parking lot, but if you just follow along the parking lot, eventually you’ll see a sign for the trail which leaves the pavement for the first time to a dirt path.
This section feels like a hiking trail. Not long after, I came to a spur that leads to an overlook of Crystal Falls. I had been to this place in May and it was interesting to see the difference in water volume of this waterfall. While it poured over in the spring, it was a lovely, lacy waterfall. I returned to the junction and followed along the trail which crosses over Cascade Creek which creates the waterfall. Once again, you can get fairly close to the brink which is great, although photos don’t ever seem to come out right for waterfalls from these vantages.
From there, the trail spends some time in trees with a few filtered views of the river and of Upper Falls. The trail, once again, got busy as I came closer to another parking lot. This one was for the brink of the much larger, Lower Falls. The spur trail down to the brink is much longer and drops more elevation as it switches back and forth. It is absolutely worth it. The Lower Falls are incredibly powerful and you are a guardrail away from them. Looking down to the bottom of the falls, the water compresses the air, blasting the mist across to the canyon walls where small waterfalls are created that run down the canyon walls. I took some pictures and video, then just soaked it all in.
I climbed back up the busy trail to the parking lot and followed the paved path along the rim. This section is fairly developed and has great views of the canyon. Further along, the trail gets back to a natural surface and pops in and out of the trees. I saw only a hiker or two through here and got some nice views of the canyon.
The next stop, with more people was Lookout Point. This area gives a full length shot of Lower Falls. While not framed as perfect as Artist Point, which you can see across the way, it is still a great spot. There is another trail that switchbacks about halfway down the canyon called Red Rock Trail. I took that, past some cool rock formations, then out a boardwalk that follows along the ridge. Lower Falls crashed in the sunlight and I was surrounded by the gnarled and beautiful canyon walls.
Back up to the top, I continued, past the parking lot to a wonderful section of trail. Many spots along this offer broad, sweeping views. The trail here, like so many of the middle sections was without people, which made for a nice experience.
The trail turned, once again, to a paved path as it approached the spur out to the fantastic Grand View. They weren’t overselling this spot when they named it. From here, the sweeping panorama of the canyon was great. All along the walls, the wonderful hoodoos and colorful rock clamored for my attention, while the Yellowstone River cascaded below.
Beyond this vantage and parking lot, the trail once again returned to natural rock on what felt like an old road, returned to its beginnings. It also gave sweeping views, but without the guardrails. The trail is safe and level, but the bleach-white rock is loose and turns into a treacherous slope. A move too close to the edge could easily lead to a long slide down to a tragic end.
The rock formations in this section, coupled with the colors were incredible. It was, once again, full of solitude. It felt like you were discovering a new place.
Eventually, the trail left the views for the trees with pocket views of the canyon until coming to the last parking lot and the end of the trail at Inspiration Point. This area has a great look of the river flowing out through the canyon. The view back upstream is a bit obscured. An earthquake caused the overlook to become unstable and is closed. While mildly disappointing that you can’t get out there, it still is worth the stop.
From there, I turned around and retraced my steps, minus all of the fantastic spur trails to the canyon’s rim.
I absolutely loved this trail. The canyon is transfixing and the river is powerful. While there are a lot of people at various sections, those sections are worth dealing with the crowds. The great thing about hiking the whole North Rim Trail is that you get many great sections of solitude that allow you to enjoy the natural environment that feels anything but normal. Of course, that is the story of Yellowstone National Park.