A few miles south of Mammoth and just south of Swan Lake Flats a short side road to the east leads to Sheepeater Cliff. Near the confluence of Obsidian Creek and the Gardiner River, the cliff is an excellent example of columnar basalt. The vertical rock pillars formed as basalt lava cooled and shrunk, cracking and creating polygonal columns.
The cliff was named by Superintendent Philetus Norris in 1879. Near the cliff he saw remnants of American Indian dwellings called wickiups and assumed they belonged to a band of Shoshone Indians, the Tukudika, or Sheepeaters. However, wickiups were used by several tribes. While there is no archaeological evidence to suggest the use of this cliff by the Sheepeaters, there is little doubt they inhabited the park at times.
They’re called the Sheepeaters because they hunted big horn sheep. They also utilized big horn sheep for tools and clothing. Sheepeaters adapted to living in the mountains, inhabiting the Yellowstone area as they moved seasonally to harvest edible and medicinal plants, to fish and hunt bison, elk, deer, and big horn sheep.
They used dog travois to carry food, hides, and provisions as they migrated following food sources. They may have used dogs as more than pack animals during hunting excursions. Sheepeaters built large wooden traps to funnel small herds of game and the dogs may have helped to drive the animals into the traps. Sheepeaters also used rock and pit or brush blinds from which to ambush animals.
They made stone bowls/pots and fashioned hunting weapons and tools from obsidian. From the horns of big horn sheep, they made awls, ladles, spoons, other tools. Sheepeaters manufactured powerful hunting bows from the horns of big horn sheep as well. They soaked rams horns in hot water, perhaps in hot springs, to make them soft and pliable. Then they straightened them and joined two together, wrapping them with sinew in the middle to form a strong bow. The sheep’s horn bows as well as the hides and clothing of the Sheepeaters were prized trade items among other tribes. They lived in the region until the late 1800s before moving to the Wind River Reservation.
Along the banks of the Gardiner River, Sheepeater cliff is now home to yellow-bellied marmots. Look in the rocks along the base of the eroding cliff and you may spot one of these large rodents basking in the sun. Or you may only hear them chirping from the jumble of rocks that provide cover from predators such as coyotes and eagles. Look further down stream from the parking area and you will see another section of the cliff and more pillars of basalt. A short walk down stream is rewarded with a view of Tukuarika Falls, which translates as Sheepeater Falls.