From now on, if anyone asks me where they might hike in Yellowstone and not be consumed by the maddening summer crowds, I’ll know exactly what to tell them.
Try the trail to Osprey Falls, I’ll say. You’ll probably meet so few people that you could count them on one hand.
There are hundreds of waterfalls in Yellowstone. Some are quite easy to view after only a few minutes walk from a parking lot. Others involve a hike of several miles or more. Others still are so remote that most people (including me) will never get anywhere near them.
Osprey Falls falls into the second category of involvement. It had been on my Yellowstone Bucket List since last summer and this year Linda and Richard were excited to go with me. Our round trip would be somewhere between eight and nine miles, depending on which map and/or trail guide we used and how old it happened to be (and there are some antique guides in this park).
It is an easy hike (at first!) with wide expanses of view, contouring around the base of Bunsen Peak near Mammoth Hot Springs for about three miles.
View west through the smoky haze
Upper Gardner River in Sheepeater Canyon
But then we arrive at The Sign warning “TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK.” Fourteen miles down a steep and narrow trail? Hold on a minute, hikers! What is this, the Grand Canyon? Did we make a wrong turn somewhere? This isn’t what they promised in that trail guide!
Taking a cookie break before the descent
No wait. There’s a decimal point in the middle of that number. It is really 1.4 miles down Sheepeater Canyon to Osprey Falls. Much better, we all agreed, as I stopped hyperventilating and my pounding pulse rate settled down.
However, The Sign neglects to enumerate just how steep the trail becomes. Having done our homework we know there is an 800–foot descent involved in this adventure, along with an accompanying 800–foot ascent.
We’ll worry about that later! On to Osprey Falls! We’re burning daylight!
Sheepeater Cliffs tower above the Gardner River
Trail to Osprey Falls
Linda & Richard on the descent
We could hear the falls before we could see them, but then we looked up and there they thundered, tumbling 150 feet down into the canyon.
150-foot Osprey FallsYours Truly, arm-waving at the falls
We had the place to ourselves. As we lunched and listened to the roar and rumble of the falls I did a quick check of the map. This is indeed the Gardner River that has carved out Sheepeater Canyon. These impressive columnar spires of the Swan Lake Flat Basalt towering everywhere above us form the Sheepeater Cliffs. But we are outside of the Yellowstone caldera. What are these basalts doing here?
According to people who know more about this sort of stuff than I do, since the massive rhyolitic ash–flows and most recent caldera collapse of around 640,000 years ago, basalts erupted intermittently around the margins of the Yellowstone Plateau. Most of these basaltic flows occurred in a fairly restricted area that also happened to be the site of earlier eruptions of the volcano.
The Swan Lake Flat Basalt came from several vents in an area north of the caldera, primarily along a zone of recurring faults extending north from Norris Geyser Basin (which also happen to bring heated ground water to Mammoth Hot Springs). The basalt lies conformably on (directly on top of) the Lava Creek Tuff , the extraordinarily enormous ash flow which was deposited during the supervolcano eruption of 640,000 years ago.
The spectacular columnar jointing occurred as a result of contraction that occurred as the basalt cooled, crystallized, and cracked.
Columnar jointing in the Swan Lake Flat Basalt of Sheepeater Cliffs
Of course we eventually had to start our ascent. As Richard commented, There is a price to pay for all this beauty! But as often is the case, the climb out was not as dreadful as we had anticipated since we took our usual slow and easy time.
One last close look at the river
Up the trail was easy!
With air to spare we made it back to the rim of the canyon.
Back on top with air to spare
A trio of spruce grouse squawked and fretted until we were well past.
Back at the car we were off in search of a picnic table. It was time for celebration with a toast to Osprey Falls!