The myths and stories of how Yellowstone became the world’s first national park are rich, varied, and sometimes, even true. There’s no denying, for instance, that Thomas Moran’s paintings and sketches of the park’s otherworldly vistas helped sway public and political opinions toward the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
His lustrous and sweeping landscapes created from the Hayden Expedition of 1871 offered idyllic views of places like the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Sketches and photographs made from vantages around the Canyon are among the artist’s most familiar and beloved images.
Nearly 150 years after Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson prowled the rims above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the Canyon area’s busiest and most scenic overlooks are getting some much-needed repairs and upgrades. Improvements are making it easier and safer than ever for modern-day Morans and Jacksons to create their own masterpieces.
Construction is wrapping up this fall on upgrades to the Brink of the Upper Falls overlook, one of six major overlook overhauls either completed, underway, or in planning since Artist Point was revamped in 2007.
Improvements made at Artist Point included a new approach to viewing areas that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The makeover proved popular with visitors, particularly those who use wheelchairs or otherwise prefer an accessible, sloped path over stairs or steeper approaches.
The Artist Point project set a standard for offering new accessible routes that is part of the design narrative for other overlook upgrades made since, and in the works, said Eric Ackley, a Yellowstone landscape architect.
“The idea is to provide an accessible route that offers an equal or comparable experience for visitors as a non-accessible one,” Ackley said.
Geothermic, acidic soils, and heavy erosion around Canyon’s viewpoints have degraded overlook infrastructure over the years, Ackley said. Safety issues arose as visitors went off paved surfaces to use social trails, or backed up along aging barriers to take selfies of the canyon views.
Planners held a design contest to develop a consistent, overall approach for all of the overlooks and began construction in 2016 on viewpoints at Uncle Tom’s Point and Inspiration Point. Those projects were concluded in 2018.
The total budget for the series of overlook upgrades is approximately $14 million, much of which has been raised by Yellowstone Forever and its partners. The projects are costly because of the challenges of construction in Yellowstone.
“We’re constructing these overlooks on the side of a canyon in soil that is weak, to say the least,” Ackley said. “Extra measures are taken to stabilize the rock structures and the pathways, and that costs quite a bit.”
Additional costs come from working in an environmentally sensitive area with specialized equipment, finding housing for workers, and operating in a short construction season.
Designs for the new overlooks reflect the rustic, natural aesthetic of when many of the sites were initially built as Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the 1930s. The goal is to have overlooks that blend into the landscape as much as possible, Ackley said.
That wasn’t always a guiding principle for development around Canyon, said Yellowstone historian Alicia Murphy. “There used to be a lot of development all around the rims, with buildings almost hanging off the edge,” Murphy said.
In 1898, “Uncle Tom” Richardson built a trail that used ladders and ropes to help visitors climb to the bottom of the canyon. “They did this wearing slick-soled shoes, the men wearing three-piece suits, and the women in heavy skirts,” Murphy said. “They just went for it, which is pretty amazing, but that’s just how climbing was at the time.”
In the 1940s, an idea was floated to construct an elevator to the canyon floor. It wasn’t built for a number of reasons, but the National Park Service and concessioners did build an array of buildings close to the edge of the rims, Murphy said, including stores, camps, cafeterias, and ranger stations. As part of the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary modernization efforts in 1966, the structures were removed to restore a more natural view.
New construction around Canyon is designed to maintain those natural views, which often means excavating into hillsides to give overlooks a lower profile, Ackley said. “It’s a delicate design balance, providing safe views that are still accessible for all,” he said. “We approach each area individually and try to maximize what we can get in the way of historic views and accessibility. But it has to relate to the context of the surrounding landscape.”
Funding from Yellowstone Forever has been critical in helping the National Park Service realize the best results possible on the overlook projects, starting with $1.5 million in contributions raised toward Artist Point.
“The Canyon overlooks and trails are the second most visited area in the park after Old Faithful. It’s obviously a magical place,” said Jeff Augustin, senior director of park projects for Yellowstone Forever.
Some overlook infrastructure around the Canyon area hasn’t seen major work for decades, Augustin said. “We had safety concerns, as well as about the overall impacts to the visitor experience,” he said. “This was something that was on the superintendent’s list of funding priorities, and we were able to bring a matching component where private philanthropy would match public funds at a 1:1 ratio.”
So far, Yellowstone Forever has raised over $6.5 million toward repairs, improvements, and structural makeovers at six overlooks. Artist Point, Uncle Tom’s Point, Inspiration Point, and Brink of the Upper Falls have been completed. As funds become available, Brink of the Lower Falls and Red Rock Point are next on the list.
For most visitors, the changes will amount to safer, more convenient, and less congested access. But for visitors who use wheelchairs or otherwise have additional accessibility needs, the new overlooks mean the difference between being able to take in some of the same views that inspired Moran and Jackson, or being excluded from those spots entirely.
Getting to overlooks using the older, less accessible trails has proven difficult in the past for frequent park visitor Kristin L. Blevins, who doesn’t normally use a wheelchair, but whose injuries make it difficult to stand or walk much without pain and spasms.
“When I visited Yellowstone last year with an Army buddy (with similar injuries), there were many places we didn’t visit,” Blevins said. “Even in a few locations it was difficult to do the number of stairs, the length of the walk, or the steep terrain.”
Blevins said any improvements in accessibility at popular attractions are always a welcome benefit for a wide range of people who deal with mobility issues.
“It will help us see more of the park,” she said, “which is always good.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Yellowstone Quarterly.