Geocaching Destinations – Uncle Tom’s Trail, Yellowstone Park

There’s no shortage of things to see and do at Yellowstone Park.  Between geocaches, benchmarks, passport stamps,  Kodak moments and the occasional geodash point, there’s enough to keep us busy for weeks.  That’s why we keep going back. This hike on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of the more strenuous undertakings in the park but it’s worth it.

The first white explorer to see  the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was Charles Cook in 1869.  The canyon  runs for 20 miles southwest to northeast starting at the Lower Yellowstone Falls.  Along the way, it averages 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep.  The North Rim Road runs along its edge.

Old photo of the trail.
A National Park Service photo. On Uncle Tom’s Trail circa 1900. The original trail was built by “Uncle” Tom Richardson, a local rancher, in 1898.  It bore little resemblance to today’s route.  He led his clients down a series of ropes and ramshackle bridges all the way to the bottom of the canyon and the base of Lower Yellowstone Falls.  Lunch was provided.

One of the canyon’s most distinctive features is the layers of multi-colored rock that line the walls.   This entire chasm was once a geyser basin that was covered with glaciers.  The constant battle between Ice Age cold and volcanic heat produced physical and chemical changes in the rock that aren’t seen anywhere else.  When the glaciers retreated, catastrophic flooding  and erosion occurred, creating the canyon.  One of the dominant colors in the rock is yellow, hence the name Yellowstone.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
A great shot taken from an overlook further along the south rim. See the yellow stone right up front? The canyon walls are lined with it.

The original route is long gone, replaced by a series of  paved switchbacks cut into the slope.  When the switchbacks run out, there are 328 metal grate steps bolted into the rock face of the canyon wall. They take you straight down to an overlook at the base of the falls.  The modern route doesn’t go as far down as the original, but it’s close.

The start of the trail.
KidsRN at the trailhead. She’s not looking too excited about this.

The hike is about 1/2 mile one way. The elevation at the top is 8,000 feet and in that 1/2 mile, you’ll go down to 7,500 feet.  Almost half of that 500 foot vertical drop is in the 328 metal steps mentioned earlier.  If you have heart, lung or joint problems or if you have issues with heights and ledges, this probably isn’t the hike for you.  If you go, wear decent shoes – no heels, bare feet or flip flops – and make sure you’ve got plenty of water.  It will probably take two hours round trip but about halfway up, it seems like forever.  The overlooks on top of the canyon rim are crowded but there’s not a lot of people on this  trek.  It’s a bit off the beaten path and a lot who start turn around.  You’ll see fewer and fewer people as you approach the bottom.

The steps of Uncle Tom's Trail.
Here they are. There’s plenty of room for three people to pass and lots of landings with benches. The grated steel is not made for high heels, flip flops or bare feet. If you go in the morning, watch for ice, even in the summer. The trail is closed in the winter and may close periodically anytime for storms, rain and ice.

There are four virtual geocaches in close proximity to the parking area, several benchmarks and numerous overlooks.  You can park and walk to several at a time but will have to drive between jump off points as there are finds on both sides of the canyon.  It makes for a good day’s outing.  Cell phone coverage here is lousy, so plan on using a GPS instead of a smart phone app.  You can try pre-loading the caches into the phone and utilizing its internal GPS but we haven’t had much luck with that.  Smart phone GPS is never as good as a dedicated device.

At the base of Yellowstone Falls.
Us at the bottom. There’s no virtual geocache here.  We thought there was but our GPS led us astray.  Actually, it’s our own fault.  The cache we were looking for, called “Spectacular Yellowstone Falls”,  stated very clearly in the description that you do not have to go to the bottom of Uncle Tom’s Trail except we didn’t read it.  But we would have done the hike anyway.  Now comes the fun part – going back up.

This link will open a Google map of the immediate area.

This link will open the “Spectacular Yellowstone Falls” page on geocaching (dot) com.

Have fun with this one.  We did.  (:-D)  The Cachemanian Devils

National Park Service Passport Stamps

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. The Cachemanian Devils

A Walk in the Park

The United States is blessed with numerous parks for people to enjoy. There are national parks, state parks, county parks and municipal parks which provide activities ranging from picnic tables to mountain climbing. There truly is something for everyone. We of course like to get out our trusty GPS  for geocaching and other stashing activities.

The west gate of Mt. Vernon
Here’s a view of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon that most people don’t see. This is the West Gate. In Washington’s day, this was the entrance to Mt. Vernon. All the trees you see were terraces and fields with crops and orchards. Washington rode out here almost every day to take it all in. Today, this view is seen from a quiet residential street intersection in Mt. Vernon, VA. and is not on the official tour. We found out about it – and hunted it down – through a geocache.

The very first national park was Yellowstone National Park which was established March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. The National Park System wasn’t established until August 25, 1916 under President Woodrow Wilson. There are currently 391 areas in the system which cover over 84 million acres in 49 states (nothing in Delaware), the District of Columbia and in US Territories American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Alphabetically the parks range from the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace to Zion National Park. Some of them are very well known such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  Some are much lesser known such as Cowpens and Pea Ridge.  The largest national park is Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The smallest is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

In addition to National Parks, there are also National Monuments (Mt. Rushmore), National Military Parks (Gettysburg), National Historical Parks (Independence Hall), National Historical Sites (Ford’s Theater) and National Historical Trails (The Appalachian Trail). In recent years, the National Park System has logged well over 200 million visitors annually.

All of this is run by the National Park Service. It does not permit traditional container caches in the parks but that doesn’t stop us. There are virtual caches, photo caches,  webcam caches, earth caches and waymarks which are equally challenging. They have the added benefits of being informative and educational. There are also geodashing points, where you can end up literally in the middle of nowhere. All these things will take you to parts of the park that are off the beaten path.

State, county and municipal parks are not so strict. With the explosive growth of geocaching in the last several years, it’s hard to find a park anywhere that doesn’t have at least one geocache in it. Even the tiny memorial parks have them. Many of these caches are quick park ‘n’ grabs but many will also take you as far in the wild as you want to go. We’ve canoed to several caches and rode on horseback to a cache in Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall in Wyoming. Historical markers abound in these parks and often the geocaches are designed around them. It’s a great way to explore and learn.

Geocaching and all that goes with it has brought us to some of the most interesting and beautiful out-of-the-way places in this country. It remains an unregulated activity which relies upon the participants to respect and protect the environment in which the caches are located. Please do your part to help preserve it for others to enjoy.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils