When Harrison Smith visited Yellowstone Park in the nineteen teens, he was most impressed the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. After marveling at the views from the rim, Smith hired a guide to take him to the canyon floor. There he got another thrill. Here’s his story.
The wonders of the Park are inexhaustible; there are underground caverns to explore, geysers of mud, boiling pools of colored clay, and hot springs, the basins of which are as delicately and beautifully colored as if they had been inlaid with precious stones. But the deep chasm into which the thundering flood of the Yellowstone River plunges, remains forever undimmed in the recollections of all who have seen it. It ranks with Nature’s great masterpieces.
Before it reaches the Canon, this river flows through Yellowstone Lake, a magnificent sheet of water of one-hundred , and forty square miles lying almost eight thousand feet above the sea, dotted with forested islands and nearly surrounded by lofty snow-capped mountains. A few miles – below the lake, the river after a succession of cascades suddenly leaps over a cliff.
This is the Upper Fall and half a mile lower down it thunders over the Lower Fall, which has a descent of three hundred and eight feet. Near this fall the river enters the Canon, which ranges in depth from six hundred to twelve hundred feet. Its depth is not tremendous compared with the Colorado Canon, but its precipitous and varied cliffs are so richly colored that it defies description.
Imagine a great, wedge-shaped gash in the earth, with a foaming white river rushing along at the bottom, and at one end, a torrent pouring over the brink of a precipice. Then imagine that the volcanic rocks that make the walls of the Canon are painted every imaginable color, with orange, red and purple hues predominating. With the cloudless blue of the sky overhead, and the riot of colors below, accentuated by the fan-like spread of the white falls, and the foaming river, the whole scene might well be a fantastic dream.
Crawling out on a projecting ledge that the gnarled roots of an ancient pine had kept from tumbling into the abyss, I leaned far over the edge. The only sound that marred the intense quiet came from the high and narrow gate-way from which the river leaped to freedom far below. Even that was soft and mellow and in keeping with Nature’s peaceful strength.
In spite of the distance I could see the double rainbow that curved up from the base of the falls, while hovering over the center of the canon with wings wide-spread in the thin air, an eagle floated, the guardian spirit of the scene. I felt that I was merely a brief intruder, and that here was the true master and ruler of this splendid domain. For the moment I would willingly have given up my kinship with man, for the ability to soar down between those gleaming walls, and fly, winter and summer about the white mountain peaks that circled the horizon, and over the broad emerald lake to this paradise of color and beauty that the river had carved out for its treasure house.
It is possible to scramble to the bottom of the canon by a winding trail and to walk through its entire length among the pines that border both sides of the river. But although the magic colors of the cliffs gain in splendor on a closer inspection, the feeling of spaciousness that you get in your first bird’s-eye glimpse over the top of the precipice is entirely lost.
With a guide and three of the more adventurous of my fellow travelers, we tramped almost twenty miles along the river bank. It was difficult and dangerous work, climbing the great boulders and skirting steep precipices, that had been hurled down by the frost from some lofty crag. That night we camped beside a small river that branched into the Yellowstone.
About a mile away from the camp, the guide discovered deer tracks on a shelving bank of the Yellowstone. Before the shadows of evening had turned into night we were posted on a ledge about one-hundred feet above the river, silently waiting.
We had been there only a few minutes when the guide pointed excitedly down to the right of the spot we were watching. There, with their front legs sunk in the black water up to their knees, stood two fawns, eagerly drinking. Beside them their mother anxiously looked around, as if she suspected some hidden danger, and then, satisfied that they were safe, followed their example. They stole away as silently as they had come, and melted into the black shadows of the pines.
An hour later we heard a slight crashing through the trees, and although it was almost too dark to make him out, watched an antlered stag daintily step to the brink of the river. He had been drinking only a moment, when in shifting my position, I dislodged a pebble; it sounded in the deathly stillness like a small avalanche. I caught one glimpse of the lordly up-lifted head of the stag; there was a crash of loose stones under his feet and he turned and fled into the friendly depths of the forest.
We made our way back to camp; and soon fell asleep with the sound of rushing water in our ears and with the brilliant stars and the black night for our canopy.
— Excerpt from Harrison Smith, “The Yellowstone National Park.” Pages 144-153 in North America, New York: The Century Co., 1914.
— Photo from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.