This geological site provides a unique setting for a picnic. The parking lot also provides easy access to fishing the upper section of Gardner River and the trailhead of Sheepeater Creek Trail. The cliffs were named by Yellowstone Superintendent Philetus Norris in 1879. When visiting the area, he spotted the remains of wickiups, shelters made from tall saplings or tree branches, driven into the ground and tied together near the top to provide a type of shelter. An assumption was made that the wickiups were built by Shoshone Indians called Sheepeaters, a band that was known to frequent this area of Yellowstone during their migrations until the late 1800s. This Native American tribe derives its name from their hunting of Bighorn Sheep for food, to make utensils, tools and weapons, and for clothing.
Located immediately at the base of Sheepeater Cliff and alongside the Gardner River, this picnic area has 5 tables, a single restroom, trash dumpster and recycle canisters. No RV’s are allowed in the area as the turnaround area will not accommodate such vehicle lengths.
The cliff was formed nearly 500,000 years ago when basalt lava cooled and shrunk to form rock pillars called “columnar joints”. Many of the rock pillars have toppled to the ground over the years and provides excellent shelter for yellow-bellied marmots. Look for them in the piled rocks at the base of the cliff or listen for their familiar chirping sound.
An unmarked trail is located at the north part of the picnic area (sometimes referred to as Sheepeater Cliff Trail) that follows the Gardner River downstream and is one of the more enjoyable trails you can travel, especially with children. The trail is mostly level and not well maintained; you may hurdle some downed trees, stumble over rocks in the path, and bend over to pass through thick willows. But it is still very travelable. About 400 yards into the trail it passes by another Sheepeater Cliff (like the ones at the picnic area) where multiple yellow-bellied marmots call home. In fact, you will likely see a lot of them scurrying around the cliff, chirping and always on the lookout. As the trail continues you will begin to hear the roar of water, yet to be seen, where the river drops and runs swiftly downwards through a 200-yard narrowed area in the canyon. The trail stays on the cliffs above the river. The initial dropping of the river is called Tukuarika Falls, named after the Native American tribe, called the Sheepeaters. After the narrowed chute, the river flows into a small, but beautiful, open area rich with willows and tall grasses. Deer and Moose may be seen in this area. Because the trail stays atop the cliff, a breath-taking view of the river and open area are seen below. You can see fish rising in the calm area of the river as it flows through this area.
From this vantage spot, you can see what appears to be another abrupt elevation drop of the river at the end of the roughly 1,000-yard open area. As you continue your hike to the next, albeit smaller, chute of water, the trail starts to become more broken up and eventually disappears, but not until you are again rewarded with another spectacular view of small waterfalls and turbulent waters rushing down another narrowed chute in the canyon. Overall, the views along the hike are beautiful, the chute of rushing river and falls are powerful to behold, especially if viewed in the spring when water is running high, and marmots all along the path make this a very enjoyable hike for the whole family.
Sheepeater Cliff and Tukuarika Falls was mentioned in our article titled: "Best Places to Go and Things to do with Kids in Each of Yellowstone's 14 Road Sections"