Yellowstone National Park
Grand Loop Drive:
Driving Time: 45 minutes
Distance: 19 miles
From Canyon Village, you can travel north to Tower-Roosevelt or west to Norris. If you are coming from Fishing Bridge, turn right at the Canyon Village intersection and then right again into the parking lot for the visitor center. Park interpretive staff in the visitor center can help with your questions about the area; you may also wish to visit the Yellowstone Association bookstore. The Canyon Visitor Center hosts an engaging exhibit on bison, including several mounted specimens.
Of all the memories you will carry back with you from this magic place, few will be more satisfying than those of the 23-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This incredible chasm is best enjoyed via two roads off the Grand Loop: The North Rim Drive, a one-way road heading east from the crossroads at Canyon Village; and the South Rim Drive, heading right (east) from the Grand Loop Road, 3 miles south of the crossroads at Canyon Village.
In violent eruptions 650,000 years ago when the magma chamber underlying this region erupted, collapsing the ground above it debris spread across thousands of square miles. Water cutting through layers of this volcanic rock formed the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Later, the chasm was excavated further by three different glaciers. Each of those glaciers plugged the neck of the canyon like a dam, allowing it to fill with water. When the ice melted, the canyon was flooded with raging torrents of meltwater loaded with abrasive sand and gravel.
Both the North Rim and South Rim Drives afford fine views of the Upper Falls and the larger, more dramatic Lower Falls. Like the canyon itself, both waterfalls owe their existence to erosion; each one formed where relatively hard lava rock joins softer material. As you might expect, water cuts through soft rock faster than it cuts through hard rock. In time, the softer section ends up lower than the more erosion-resistant stretch adjacent to it. Where hard and soft rock meet, a waterfall is formed. Besides the falls, another canyon wonder you cannot miss, whether on the North Rim Drive or the South Rim Drive, is the array of beautiful colors: gold, yellow, pink, and rust. Each is the result of hot water, steam, and gasses burnishing the rhyolite walls.
Once you have thoroughly explored the canyon, continue north on the Grand Loop Road toward Tower-Roosevelt. The road between Canyon Village and Tower-Roosevelt crosses some of the highest terrain accessible by road in Yellowstone and is usually closed until early June because of snowfall. Those driving or towing large RVs may wish to avoid this section as the twisting, two-lane road is narrow, with very steep roadside drop-offs and without guard rails in some sections. Soon after leaving Canyon Village, the road climbs the east flank of the Washburn Range toward 8,859-foot Dunraven Pass. Visible to the east is mighty Mount Washburn, its 10,243-foot peak capped by a fire lookout.
As you make your way down the north side of Dunraven Pass, the landscape turns into a loosely woven patchwork of aspen and Douglas-fir forest. Open meadows near Antelope Creek are filled with sage, geranium, wheatgrass, aster, lupine, and paintbrush. Elk, bison, and even grizzlies, can be seen ambling through the open country. In the distance to the north and east are the mighty Absaroka mountains, a rugged line of peaks towering well above timberline.
Tower Fall is located on the right (east) side of the Grand Loop Road, about 16 miles north of Canyon Village. Adjacent to the General Store is a short trail that will take you to a fine view of the falls, which tumble 132 feet out of a fantasy land of tower-shaped volcanic rock before joining forces with the Yellowstone River. As you leave the parking area to turn right toward Tower-Roosevelt, note the striking bands of color in the vertical basalt columns in the cliffs overhanging the road. These columns were formed by a lava flow that cracked into hexagon-shaped pillars as it cooled.
Calcite Springs Overlook, about one mile ahead on your right, gives a bird's-eye view of the Narrows, the narrowest section of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Farther up the road, 18 miles from Canyon Village, is a small, restful-looking body of water on the right, known as Rainy Lake . The lake takes its name from numerous small springs which bubble up and disturb the surface, making it appear as though it is raining. Just after Rainy Lake, you will arrive at Tower-Roosevelt.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication