Uncle Tom’s trail is a short but rewarding trail down the south wall of the canyon to a platform that offers unparalleled views of Yellowstone National Park’s highest waterfall, the Lower Yellowstone Falls, from near its base.
Here's our complete guide to Uncle Tom's Trail.
Uncle Tom's Quick Facts
- A popular and busy trail
- Trail first used in 1898 by tour guide ‘Uncle’ Tom Richardson who took his guests down a series of ropes and ladders to the viewpoint.
- Length 0.97km round-trip
- 328 stairs down to the platform
- +/- 150m drop from canyon rim to the platform
- Best in late Spring, Summer and early Fall
- No permit required
- Rainbows almost guaranteed
Uncle Tom's Trail
At 94m high, the Lower Falls are nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls, and watching the Yellowstone River plummet over the edge and into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is nothing short of spectacular.
Make an honest assessment of your overall fitness and health before heading out on Uncle Tom's Trail. The steepness of the stairs can be harsh on your knees on the walk down, and the climb back up can leave you out of breath and feeling winded.
There are pullovers with benches to stop and rest as well as handrails for support along the staircase. Take it slow, enjoy the views if you need to rest, and make sure that you have enough water to keep you hydrated.
Your starting point is the South Rim Trail parking lot at Uncle Tom’s point on the canyon rim. From there you follow the signs for Uncle Tom’s Trail.
You can also visit the Upper Falls viewpoint, which is an easy two-minute walk along a sign posted boardwalk. For a longer hike, follow the South Rim Trail further east to Artist Point which offers another impressive view of the Canyon and Lower Falls.
The signposts in the parking lot will direct you a few hundred metres over a flat walking section to the start of Uncle Tom’s trail. Along this short flat walking section is a breakaway path to the left that offers a view down the canyon away from the waterfall. Just below this junction is the start of the stairs.
Three hundred and twenty eight metal stairs will take you down a steep pathway along the canyon wall to the platform viewpoint of the Lower Yellowstone Falls. Pick your way carefully down here and ensure that you are wearing a good pair of shoes with a sturdy grip as the stairs can be slippery.
Once you reach the platform at the bottom you will be greeted by the impressive site of the Yellowstone River tumbling down 94m to the canyon floor. The spray from the waterfall creates an impressive mist that you will likely see before you spot the waterfall. Rainbows are a common sight, as are rivulets running down the canyon walls into the river.
When you are ready to tackle the climb back up to the top remember to take it easy and make good use of the benches to rest and catch your breath if necessary.
Uncle Tom’s Trail is found in the Canyon Village area of the Yellowstone National Park.
To get there from Canyon Junction take the Grand Loop Road south and drive 3.7km to turn left onto South Rim Drive.
Cross over the Yellowstone River and continue another kilometre and take the first road left to the parking lot for Uncle Tom’s Trail and South Rim Trail.
This trail is well signposted from the parking lot and maps and route guides are available from the Visitor Centres.
For an overview of Yellowstone National Park, Lonely Planet's Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks is highly recommended and provides sound advice on every aspect of the Park from accommodation, hiking, maps, when to go and where to stay.
Note on the steep steps
Though not technically difficult in any way, the steps are steep and whilst it may seem easy on the descent, the walk back up can be strenuous. There are handrails for support and benches to rest on along the route.
Uncle Tom's Trail Itinerary
This is a short 1 – 2 hour hike and there is plenty of shade along the way so you can tackle this at any time of the day. Beware of slippery steps if it has been raining!
From Uncle Tom’s parking lot to the trailhead
Follow the signs in the parking lot that direct you to the South Rim trailhead.
Trailhead to the top of the stairs
At the trailhead turn right and follow the signs for Uncle Tom’s Trail towards a junction up ahead. Turn left at the junction and continue to follow the signs for Uncle Tom’s Trail. At the third junction, keep right. The stairs begin just below this.
Stairs to the platform
Take the 328 stairs down to the platform.
Return on same itinerary.
At Home in Wild Places offers a short video to give an overview of the breathtaking sights that can be seen along Uncle Tom’s Trail.
Uncle Tom's Trail FAQ
Best time to hike Uncle Tom's trail?
Springtime, when there is runoff from the snow, is when the Lower Yellowstone Falls are at their most impressive. The trail is accessible during spring, summer and fall. During the winter months it may close for maintenance and it is advisable to avoid the trail during heavy rainfall.
How difficult is Uncle Tom's trail?
Though this is not a technical hike the stairs are steep and a good overall level of fitness is recommended for this trail.
What gear do I need?
Hiking Uncle Tom's Trail requires a few pieces of essential gear. Make sure you are wearing a sturdy pair of shoes with good drip. Also, carry a waterproof jacket as the spray from the waterfall might wet you.
Where can I get water along the way?
Make sure you take enough water to drink with you on the trail as there are no refill points along the route.
What weather should I avoid when hiking the Uncle Tom’s Trail?
You can check the weather beforehand. Avoid hiking in heavy rainfall as it will make the stairs slippery and it will reduce the visibility of the Falls when you are on the platform.
What sights will I see on Uncle Tom’s Trail?
You will see the Lower Yellowstone Falls, the Yellowstone River and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Possibility to see the Upper Yellowstone Falls if you go to the viewpoint in the parking lot.
What travel insurance do I need?
Hiking insurance is alway a good idea at Yellowstone. If an accident or incident should occur that requires immediate medical assistance and evacuation you will most definitely want adequate hiking insurance that can cover the costs of air ambulance and treatment.
Check out World Nomads for a quick calculation of the cost of travel insurance for your trip.
What wildlife could I potentially come across?
You might see some birds along the route but as Uncle Tom’s Trail is generally busy, most wildlife keeps away from the immediate vicinity.