Yellowstone National Park

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park
Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park (Karl Weatherly/Digital Vision/Getty)

"...The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature..."
Nathaniel P. Langford, 1870

Explore one of Yellowstone National Park's unique treasures. The dramatic colors and shapes of the Grand Canyon are indeed awe-inspiring. The canyon is reflective of Yellowstone's complex geologic history; for instance, puffs of steam mark the locations of active geothermal features in the canyon's walls.

Get to know the Canyon in its different "moods"—from its various overlooks, through nature's seasons, at different times of day... the better you know the Canyon, the more you'll discover, not just its obvious splendors, but the small details that truly distinguish it.

The Canyon Through the Ages

The origins of the Canyon remain the focus of ongoing study and debate. One of the first to commit his questions and impressions of the Canyon to paper was Nathaniel P. Langford. Of course, every visitor to the Canyon comes away with a uniquely personal impression of what they're viewing. However, perhaps everyone experiences what Nathaniel Langford felt as he tried to imagine what created the natural wonder. A brief overview of its geologic history introduces a complex story.

Yellowstone suffered huge volcanic eruptions around 600,000 years ago, emptying a large underground magma chamber. Volcanic debris spread for thousands of square miles (kilometers) in a matter of minutes. The roof of this chamber collapsed, forming a giant smoldering pit—a caldera 30 miles (45 km) across, 45 miles (75 km) wide, and several thousand feet deep. Eventually the caldera was filled with lava.

One of these flows was the Canyon Rhyolite flow, which came from the east and ended just west of the present canyon. Approximately 590,000 years ago, a thermal basin developed in this lava flow, altering and weakening the rhyolite lava by action of the hot steam and gases. For evidence of the old thermal area today, look for steam in the canyon, as well as multi-hued rocks.

Large lakes were created by other lava flows that created the canyon, cutting through the various hard and soft rhyolites. Later, the canyon was blocked three different times by glaciers. Each time these glaciers formed lakes, which filled with sand and gravel. Floods from the melting glaciers at the end of each glacial period recarved the canyon, deepened it, and removed most of the sand and gravel. The large rocks in the river upstream from Chittenden Bridge and the Upper Falls were left behind in the last glacial flood.

The 308-foot (93 meter) Lower Falls was formed by the leading edge of the Canyon Rhyolite lava flow and the western edge of the old thermal basin. The hard, resistant lava at the brink did not erode, while the altered and weakened lava in the thermal basin eroded easily. The 109-foot (33 m) Upper Falls was also formed at a contact point of hard and soft rhyolite lavas. In this case, the brink and the massive cliffs are of a dense, resistant rhyolite, while immediately downstream the rhyolite lava contains much volcanic glass that erodes more easily.

The present appearance of the canyon dates from about 10,000 years ago, when the last glaciers melted. Since that time, erosional forces (water, wind, earthquakes, and other natural forces) have continued to sculpt the canyon.

The northernmost extent of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone can be viewed from overlooks in the Tower Fall-Calcite Springs area, approximately 19 miles (31 km) north of here.

Facts About the Canyon

Length: 20 miles (32 km)
Depth: 800-1,200 feet (240-360 m)
Width: 1,500-4,000 feet (450-1,200 m)
Height of Upper Falls: 109 feet (133 m)
Height of Lower Falls: 308 feet (193 m)
Primary rock type: Rhyolite/altered rhyolite

Ode to Canyon Osprey

There is more to the Canyon than first meets the eye! Look carefully among the rugged pinnacles—you may see a flash of wings or a thick pile of sticks. Soaring over the Yellowstone River or perched on their five-foot diameter nests, osprey (also called "fish hawks" or "fish eagles") intrigue and delight those who discover this seasonal canyon inhabitant.

Adult osprey return here between mid-April and early May, depending on weather patterns. Male and female birds may arrive at different times, because the pairs that "mate for life" spend the non-breeding seasons in separate places. By mid-May, the pair has mated, the female has laid a clutch of two to four tan-with-brown speckled eggs, and incubation has begun. The eggs hatch in about six to eight weeks.

Scrawny, naked chicks need much care. They must be sheltered from heat and cold and fed small amounts of fish often. At about one week of age, the young are covered with downy feathers. Growth is rapid; after three weeks, the plumage resembles that of an adult but with speckles of white at the edge of each feather.

By mid- to late August, the young are nearly the size of their parents and become increasingly independent. Typically, the entire family abandons the canyon by September, probably roosting in trees nearer to their food source: bodies of water.

Sometime during autumn, the entire population of Yellowstone osprey heads south following waterways to the Gulf of Mexico. From there they pursue separate destinations along the coasts of Mexico, Central America, and even as far as northern Venezuela.

Osprey are excellent fishers. Amazing eyesight enables them to spot fish in the water, adjust for distortion due to refraction, and dive from 100 feet (30 m) or more into the water for a fish. Sometimes, however, a fish may be dropped. Bald eagles have been known to harass osprey into dropping prey that eagles then retrieve in midair. Since the mid-1970s, five osprey nests have been occupied in the portion of the canyon near Canyon Village.

With binoculars, patience, and a little luck, you may be able to spot an osprey tending a nest or snagging a fish. Ranger-naturalists at the Canyon Visitor Center can help you learn more about osprey, including where to look for them.

A Variety of Habitats

Just a few feet away from the canyon rims, the character of the land changes completely. Dense forests, lush meadows, numerous small lakes, and a network of creeks provide a variety of habitats in which a surprising number of birds and small and large mammals live. How they live, and exactly where they may be seen, is intricately linked to time of year and even time of day.

The most easy-to-spot park animals are the bison and elk—probably due to sheer size and numbers. Each season highlights different phases of their life cycle: Spring is the time of calving; summer is when herds move to higher elevations (although smaller numbers usually remain in areas visible from park roads or developments); autumn is the season of the rut or mating and the return of herds to lower country; and winter tests the animals' ability to survive extreme cold and deep snow.

Other animals you'll see include mule deer, moose, red fox, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, great gray owls, and bald eagles, to name just a few.

Please keep wildlife wild. It is a rare privilege to see wild animals in their natural habitats. Respect their needs for space and solitude. Observe from safe distances and never feed any bird or other animal.

For Further Information

The following Yellowstone Association Publications are invaluable resources:

Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country, William J. Fritz
Geology of the National Parks, Harris and Tuttle
Agents of Chaos, Stephen L. Harris
Yellowstone: A Visitor's Companion, George Wuerthner
Yellowstone Trails: A Hiking Guide, Mark C. Marschall
Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry: Revised and Updated, Orville Bach, Jr.
Yellowstone National Park Dayhike Sampler, National Park Service


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