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Yellowstone River Overlook, Wyoming

This climb is excerpted from An Outdoor Family Guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, by Lisa Gollin Evans, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle. ©1996 by Lisa Gollin Evans. All rights reserved.

This short trail brings you to an impressive overlook of the Yellowstone River at the Grand Canyon's northern end. Walking along the canyon rim, 700 feet above the river, there is opportunity to see bighorn sheep on the cliffs, mule deer or elk in the meadows, and countless marmots on the trailside rocks.

Easy2 miles one-way
Mid-May through early OctoberLow
Starting ElevationMaps
6,200 feet; 200 foot elevation gainUSGS 7.5-minute Tower Junction and Specimen Creek, WY

Drive 1.5 miles east from Tower Junction on Tower-Northeast Entrance Road to the Yellowstone River Picnic Area on the right (south) side of the road. Park in the picnic area and look for the signed trail that heads southeast, ascending the hill behind the picnic area. (The trailhead sign indicates the junction with Specimen Ridge Trail in 2 miles.)

The trail climbs the grassy slope, thick with sagebrush and flowers in summer. Douglas fir dot the hillside, easily recognized by their soft needles and distinctive cones with tiny trident-shaped bracts protruding from their scales. One Yellowstone ranger imaginatively likened the tridents to the backsides (two back legs and a tail) of tiny mice jumping into holes between the scales—an excellent description for children.

"Below, to your right the Yellowstone River flows rapidly north. Walk east along the rim to enjoy the magnificent views. All around notice the glacial erratics...""

The trail quickly reaches the rim of the canyon. Below, to your right the Yellowstone River flows rapidly north. Walk east along the rim to enjoy the magnificent views. All around notice the glacial erratics (large boulders) dotting the hillsides and meadows. The erratics were dropped by the huge glaciers that shaped the valley. Note also that many erratics have a tree growing from their north sides. Boulders shelter seedlings from damaging winds, allowing them to flourish.

In early summer, arrowleaf balsamroot adorns the hillside. The large, yellow heads bloom in luxurious bunches. The flowers are easily identified by their arrowhead-shaped leaves. Young shoots are a favorite early summer treat of elk and deer. Native Americans also had many uses for this plant: a healing poultice was made from its leaves, its seeds and woody roots were roasted, and its ripe stem was peeled and eaten raw like celery. By July, their bright heads shrivel to brown as these dry slopes welcome smaller and more subtle flowers.

Soon arrive at an area with an abundance of rocks and a large number of yellow-bellied marmots. Each morning, chunky marmots waddle from their rocky burrows to eat the nearby vegetation. By September, their summer munching has added half an inch of fat all over their round bodies. Roly-poly marmots are a favorite prey of golden eagles.

"Across the river, the geothermal activity of Calcite Springs comes into view. This is an excellent place to see how heat and water dramatically change the appearance of rock...."

The trail continues southeast along the canyon rim. Across the river, the geothermal activity of Calcite Springs comes into view. This is an excellent place to see how heat and water dramatically change the appearance of rock. On cliffs opposite the springs, bighorn sheep can be seen in early summer and fall. As you walk, notice also the dark holes at the top of the cliffs, marked by white bird droppings. These are nests of ravens, the huge black birds seen throughout the park.

The trail approaches "The Narrows," the narrowest section of the 14-mile-long Grand Canyon. Proceed to the junction with the Specimen Ridge Trail, 2 miles from the trailhead. Riverside at this point, you are directly opposite the Tower Fall parking lot. History enters here, just east (upstream) of Tower Creek's entrance into the Yellowstone River. There you'll find the site of the "Bannock Ford."

From 1840 to 1878, at this relatively narrow and shallow section, Indians, including the Bannock, crossed the river to enter their summer hunting grounds. The scarcity of bison in the west drove the Bannock and neighboring tribes to seek bison herds in the east. The ford was part of the 200-mile trail across northern Yellowstone used by the Indians. The trail was only in use for about 40 years, for by 1878, the government had forced the Bannock and other tribes onto reservations. Nevertheless, the trail is permanently a part of Yellowstone, for the present-day road from Mammoth to Cooke City closely follows the original Bannock Trail. The trail junction is a good place to turn around, retrace your steps, and enjoy the views as you head back to the trailhead.

Lisa Gollin Evans received her B.A. from Cornell University, then obtained a J.D. from Boalt Hall School of Law. Between books, Evans works in the field of environmental law, most recently for the Massachusetts Department of Coastal Zone Management.

Evans believes that respect for, and stewardship of, the environment grows from a child's positive experiences in natural areas. The best way to create tomorrow's environmentalists is to expose children to the wonders, beauty, and excitement of nature. Her series of guides helps families put her ideas into practice and make the most of their wilderness vacations. Her books include Rocky Mountain National Park: A Family Guide, Lake Tahoe: A Family Guide, and An Outdoor Family Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Evans has also written an award-winning nonfiction children's book, An Elephant Never Forgets Its Snorkel (Crown) that was named an "Outstanding Science Book for Children" in 1992 by the National Association of Science Teachers and the Children's Book Council. Evans has also written, An Outdoor Family Guide to Acadia National Park, for The Mountaineers Books. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Marblehead, Massachusetts.