A spine-tingling Yellowstone adventure along Uncle Tom’s Trail

A colorized photo shows early Yellowstone National Park visitors climbing along Uncle Tom's Trail. (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

A colorized photo shows early Yellowstone National Park visitors climbing along Uncle Tom’s Trail. (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

By Mark Miller

When Louis Downing visited Yellowstone National Park in 1911, good roads, comfortable hotels and competent tour guides left little room for adventure. But, as Downing found out, travelers could still get a thrill by taking “Uncle Tom’s Trail” to the base of the Lower Yellowstone Fall.

Downing, a druggist from Hamilton, Montana, toured the park “The Wylie Way,” that is, with Wylie Permanent Camping Company, which offered tourists a comprehensive package that included transportation, food and lodging in tents that were put up in the spring and left up for the season. Downing toured with a group of people he called “the family,” because they had become such fine friends on the trip. Here’s his description of what happened to members of the family when they decided to descend “Uncle Tom’s Trail.”

After sending a few cards, Grace D., Mr. Jewell, Jane D., Sis, Lee and Doc followed a pretty trail through the forest to Uncle Tom’s Trail. A big sign marked “Dangerous” hung at the top.

At the bottom of the trail, we could see a guide helping two women down—almost lifting them from rock to rock. Jane D. promptly decided that long skirts and high heels were not safe on that trail and refused to start. The boys agreed with her, but Grace, who wore flat heels, had started.

Sis wanted to go but agreed to remain at the top with Jane D. Doc went down like a squirrel. Mr. Jewell and Lee remained near Grace. Almost halfway down, Brother Lee’s Kodak fell to the bottom and broke into a dozen pieces. When they reached the river, they sat on a large rock and drank some of the water. They were directly under the falls, and the view in either direction was magnificent.

A light rain caused them to fear that the slippery rocks would make ascent dangerous, so they started up the trail though they could have spent hours in the canyon. They reached the top in twenty-two minutes.

Following the roadway, they came to a flight of stairs leading to a platform built close to the fall. The green water and white foam plunging over the rocks was simply magnificent.

Grace D. says the climb up those steps was the hardest she had ever taken; yet, the view was worth the effort. Doc took a picture of the Falls from this point.

In the meantime, the girls sat at the top of the trail—the mosquitoes swarming about them. They had almost made up their minds to start down when Sis slipped and fell a little to the left of the trail. She slid several feet before she could get hold of a rock that would hold her. Even then, she realized that it would soon loosen, so while Jane D. frantically shouted for help, Sis managed to pull herself up to the roots of a tree while the mosquitoes settled on her arms making it almost impossible to hold on.

Jane D. tried to signal the boys, but they were too far away to realize what she meant and merely waved their hands. She knew that Sis could not hold on much longer, so she ran toward the road and finally attracted the attention of several tourists. Mr. L.F. Huesselmann of Osage, Iowa, reached the scene first. But Sis, knowing that he could not pull her up alone, held on until Mr. W.F. Schroeder of Oakland, California, reached the trail. They succeeded in getting her up and several feet from the trail before she weakened and sat down. Jane D. was pale and nervous and Mrs. Schroeder was badly frightened. She said her knees had just given way when she saw Sis hanging above the trail.

Sis herself was over the fright in a few minutes, and laughed hysterically, but poor Jane D. couldn’t see anything to laugh at and said so.

From the Louis E. Downing Diary, available in the K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montana Library, Missoula. For more stories about early visitors to Yellowstone National Park, see M. Mark Miller’s Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.

One thought on “A spine-tingling Yellowstone adventure along Uncle Tom’s Trail

  1. An avalanche took out the lower third of the Uncle Tom’s Trail sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s. The Park Service chose not to rebuild it. It is no longer plausible to get down to the riverbottom from the OTT like it used to be. The terminus of the trail was about 100 vertical feet above the river, and a goat trail went down to the river from there on slippery slopes. I was last down there in the bottom of the canyon on the river in front of the Lower Falls ~ 1980.

    My Kodachrome slides of a rainbow under the towering falls against deep blue skies framed by yellow cliffs are quite precious to me. They cannot easily be re-done these days, if at all. Access denied.