Something like 90% of the people who come out here don’t get 200 yards away from their cars. They drive the pretty-enough trails out to Artist’s Point, take a picture of a bison or a bear, or whatever else wanders within eyeshot on the way, and spend 15 minutes at the falls before rewinding the whole journey back with only a roll of pictures to show for it.
A whole lot of time is saved, but what’s lost in that infinitely easier drive to the foot of the falls is the whole meat and bones of the entire operation. It completely bypasses the hike, and that is really the essential part. Because without it, it’s all relatively unimpressive – like somebody spoiled a secret plot twist to a book you’d never even heard of: out of context, it means nothing. Sure, the waterfall is still beautiful and the pictures always turn out fantastic, but in 15 minutes all those people are making their way back to their rental cars wondering, “What’s next?”
What they’re really missing is not the next chapter in their adventure, but the prologue. Those rolling, empty hills of the trailhead that trick you into thinking just over that next crest you’ll find something other than sky and grass (you won’t).
They miss the shock when, after horizons and horizons of blue on green, the earth suddenly gives way and turns barren.
Those white chalky rocks set in sharp relief against the earlier green, and the smell of rotting-egg sulfur eroding the memory of the fresh pine.
The slowly bubbling pits of pewter muck that look like if you fell inside, you’d emerge a superhero – or more likely, an arch-villain.
And just as quickly as you were deposited into that morbidly fascinating scene, it is fading into the distance as you enter a tree-enveloped glade, with its godsent breeze that not only cools your sweat-covered back, but masks the stench of hot sulfur in your nose.
And then, for me, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. I swear—cross my heart and hope to die—that with the right sun washing down their cascades, those stratified rocks look like slowly flowing water. Shifting with the descending sun and the viewer’s own perspective, the rocks the line the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone paint a different, stunning picture for every moment. Hues of red and orange bleeding with yellow, borrowing from the green of the trees in the foreground and contrasted against the blue of the sky – It’s absolutely, incredibly, will strike you dumb for lack of words gorgeous. And the unlucky fool who rolls up to Angel Falls, snaps some photos, and is back on the road inside of fifteen minutes misses the one scene, that by itself, justifies the entire cross country trip – absurd gas prices and all.
But more than the fact that I spent a combined hour and a half just looking at the Canyon and Falls, (I could’ve stayed longer) there is something to be said for the hike itself. Because you see, on that sweltering day in July, after the draining trek through fields and deadlands and glades—all with way less water than is safe or recommended—after sweating through my shirt and then just removing it entirely, after all that, I was sure that those falls were mine. I had conquered something that had eluded the 200-yard-perimeter folk, and as much as it stung, I was proud to have the sunburn to prove it.
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