Uncle Tom’s Trail in Yellowstone National Park is a unique experience and a trail rich in history. “Uncle Tom” Richardson, an adventurer from Bozeman, Montana, constructed the original trail deep into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the late 1800s. Tourists gained access to the base of the falls by scaling down steep canyon walls. A series of ropes and rope ladders aided in the dangerous descent.
Thankfully, today’s visitors have a much safer way to enjoy close-up views of the highest waterfall in Yellowstone National Park! Descend 328 steps from the South Rim to an observation platform near the base of the 308-foot Lower Falls. This short hike offers a waterfall experience you don’t want to miss! If you don’t mind climbing steps, and a lot of them, Uncle Tom’s Trail makes a great addition to a day spent exploring the Canyon area.
We cover Uncle Tom’s Trail and over 20 other hikes and things to do in our itinerary for Yellowstone National Park. Our guide is a downloadable .pdf that comes in really handy when internet service is not available. We cover the best hikes, what to pack, where to stay in the park and what to do in the area.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR UNCLE TOM’S TRAIL
Trail location for Uncle Tom’s Trail, courtesy of the National Park Service
Detailed trail location for Uncle Tom’s Trail, courtesy of the National Park Service
Uncle Tom’s Trail is located in the Canyon Village Area on the south side of the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Falls on South Rim Drive. There are two parking options for the hike. For the shorter hike, which leads you right to the stairs, park at the Uncle Tom’s Point parking lot, located 0.8 miles east of Grand Loop Road on South Rim Drive. The other option is the Artist Point parking lot, located at the end of South Rim Drive (0.6 miles past Uncle Tom’s Point).
If you have ninety minutes or so, we recommend parking at Artist Point, taking in the view of Yellowstone Falls and then hiking along the South Rim Trail to Uncle Tom’s Trail. If you are short on time (or just would like a shorter route), then park at Uncle Tom’s Point.
- Directions from Canyon Village to Uncle Tom's Trail (this route will take approximately 15 minutes, and traffic will not be too heavy )
- Directions from Fishing Bridge to Uncle Tom's Trail (this route will take approximately 35 minutes without traffic, but be prepared for traffic around the Mud Volcano area)
There are nearly 90 spots (which includes spots for RV’s) in the Uncle Tom’s Point parking area. Since the hike is relatively short, turnover in the lot is high, so spots should open up at a rate of about one per minute. The parking area for Artists Point is larger and has an even higher turnover rate, as most come just to view the Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point and not to hike. Traffic can be backed up during peak hours, so just be mentally prepared and give yourself plenty of time.
There are restrooms available at both parking lots, and no restrooms on the trail.
HIKING UNCLE TOM’S TRAIL
Uncle Tom’s Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
We started our hike from the Artist Point parking area, since we wanted to take some photos at the lookout point before the crowds arrived.
After enjoying one of the most photographed views in Yellowstone, we decided we wanted to get a closer look at the Lower Falls and followed signs for the South Rim Trail to Uncle Tom’s Trail.
Artist Point to Uncle Tom’s Trail is a 2-mile out-and-back hike with 325 feet in elevation gain. Many skip this part of the trail and instead park at Uncle Tom’s Point (west of Artist Point) to access Uncle Tom’s Trail. When hiked from Uncle Tom’s Point, Uncle Tom’s Trail is 0.6-miles roundtrip.
However, we especially enjoyed this quiet portion of the South Rim Trail with striking views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone along the way. Follow the South Rim Trail as it winds along the canyon and in and out of forest for about 0.8 miles until you reach the junction for Uncle Tom’s Trail.
A series of paved switchbacks lead to famed steps of Uncle Tom’s Trail. 328 steps descend the rocky cliffs of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and lead to a viewing platform near the base of the falls.
Feel the spray from the impressive mist and listen to the roar of the massive Lower Falls. For perspective, be sure to look up to check out the tiny humans on the viewing platform at the Brink of the Lower Falls on the North Rim! With some sunshine, you may even spot a rainbow in the cloud of mist at the base of the falls. Sadly, it was overcast on the day of our visit, but we still got some great shots!
Climb the stairs (the hardest part!) and retrace your steps back to the Artist Point parking area (Uncle Tom’s Point, if you chose the shorter hike option).
To extend the hike, turn right off Uncle Tom’s Trail and continue on the South Rim Trail to Upper Falls Viewpoint or travel as far as Chittenden Bridge.
BEST TIME TO HIKE UNCLE TOM’S TRAIL
This trail is closed in the winter and subject to closures in the spring and fall when conditions aren’t safe. However, springtime is the most impressive time to visit due to spring runoff from melting snow! Avoid this trail during heavy rainfall (or snowfall) since the perforated steel steps are very slippery when wet.
There is plenty of shade on this trail, so this hike can be attempted any time of the day. It is the least crowded first thing in the morning. We had the platform to ourselves for almost ten minutes when a couple arrived and took our family photo. We passed several people on our way back up the trail and the Artist Point lot was completely full by the time we arrived back at our car! Evening is a great time to visit as well to avoid the crowds.
NOTE: This trail is short, but the steps are steep and the walk back up can be strenuous. There are benches along the route to rest and handrails for support. However, the trail isn’t recommended for people with heart, lung or health conditions.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Ahead of your trip, download our itinerary for Yellowstone National Park. This resource can really help you speed up your planning for your trip and can help especially when you don’t have cell service in the park (which is most of the time).
- Ahead of your trip, we have an extensive blog on 10 reasons why you’ll fall in love with Yellowstone National Park. We also covered another hike in detail in our blog, Hiking the Mud Volcano Trail.
- Our headline product are our posters. When you get back from your trip, contact us and we’ll work with you to create a vintage-style travel poster from a photo you send to us. We’ve created thousands, and we guarantee you’ll love it! We also have standard WPA-style national park posters (from our own visits) that you can purchase here as well.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
- Uncle Tom’s Trail is a great hike to do with kids, but for a ton of great information on coming here with your family, check out Cath’s blog (from “Passports and Adventures”) on Visiting Yellowstone with Kids.