Volcanoes, hot springs and wildlife: Exploring America’s first National Park
Leaving the mountain town of Jackson, Wyoming we headed North towards Yellowstone National Park. As we climbed in altitude the snow thickened around us and in some places on the side of the road, where it has been banked by snow plows, it was five or six feet deep. A true winter wonderland!
Luckily, we were traveling in the off-season so Yellowstone was yet to be inundated with the throngs of summer visitors. It was such a relief to see there was no line of traffic at the ticket booths at the park entrance. When you are traveling as a family simple things, such as no queues to get in places, bring such pleasure.
The first point of interest we came to was the vast expanse of Yellowstone Lake which was still covered by a layer of ice. This presented a surreal image as we stood looking across to the far off mountains in 70 degree temperatures and wearing T-shirts.
For this visit to Yellowstone we had brought our motor home and had booked ourselves into the campsite at Fishing Bridge, only a short distance from Yellowstone Lake. As we entered the campsite we were greeted by signs warning that we were in an area frequented by bears and that tents and soft sided trailers were not permitted. This was a little nerve wracking, so we quickly set-up camp keeping a watch for prowling bears. Once encamped and feeling safe we rather ironically jumped into our car and set off in search of bears.
Not long into our quest we had our first wildlife sighting. Not a bear but a wily coyote strolling calmly along the roadside. We quickly pulled over to take a photograph. Having lived in and traveled across much of America we have seen plenty of coyotes before but this was by far the closest we have got yet as they tend to not want to get too close to humans in fear of being shot. In Yellowstone they can wander with impunity and do seem to care much about people armed only with cameras. We watched this wonderful creature for sometime as he seemed in no hurry to get off, nonchalantly looking at us for a few brief moments before calmly moving onward. If we could, we would have picked him up and taken him home – but I am sure the Park Rangers would have had something to say about that!
After this brief wildlife encounter we continued our search for bears. No too munch further on we pulled off into an open area where a large group of people were excitedly waiting for a sighting of some bears. As we patiently waited, Karen and Emily soon engaged some of these amateur naturalists in conversation. People came and went, and one of the families befriended by Karen passed by and told us that just around the headland there was a mother and two cubs – so off we went. When we got there we found a large collection of people with binoculars, telescopes and cameras with huge lenses peering into the woods, which evidently meant we were in the right place. One very kind lady with her telescope trained on the bears allowed us to look through at the bears hiding away behind some trees – it was our first sighting of grizzly bears and we were very excited. We hung around as the watching crowd swelled and the sun went down beyond the horizon – even though the bears were not co-operating too much. A real camaraderie was soon built among us observers, our bond only broken by several bison who decided to crash our party. These can be unpredictable creatures and are responsible for most human-animal interaction injuries in Yellowstone – so we kept at a respectable distance. Unfortunately, they are not so willing to keep their distance and at one point I had to make a dash to the car as one frisky beast came towards me. Sadly, we had to part with our newly made friends and return to our motor home for the evening.
Mammoth Hot Springs
On our second day in Yellowstone we awoke to a glorious sunny day and decided to head up to the north end of the park to visit Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the main thermal features in Yellowstone. It was quite a ride from where we were staying to Mammoth – some 50 plus miles – but the scenery and wildlife sighting made it all worthwhile. The snow was piled high at the side of the road, often several feet deep, but as we approached Mammoth where the elevation is much lower, the snow had all but disappeared.
The Mammoth area is one of the most developed areas of the Yellowstone, as well as a hotel and shops there are a several other buildings that are closely associated with the history of the Park. These are the barracks that were built for the troops who were installed at the time Yellowstone was established as the country’s first National Park, with the mission of protecting the Park’s wildlife and resources in the face of determined poachers – who to be fair had traditionally been allowed to exploit the areas resources! Anyway the troops are long gone and the buildings are now used by the Park Service as administration buildings, including the Visitor Center.
The main attraction here are the hot springs. They have been rising up out of the ground from time immemorial. Unlike other areas of Yellowstone these springs are not laced with sulfur so there is no smell, but they do contain deposits of calcite which have been laid down over the millennia to form tiered terraces tens of feet high over the side of the mountain. These terraces are spectacular, and are at various stages of evolution. The springs in this area are forever changing. Some stop after many years of terrace building whilst others start up overnight. Where springs have dried up the terraces start to under go a transformation, initially turning a dazzling white (reminiscent of the Taj Mahal), and then in time a duller grey color. These “skeletons” of old springs are exposed to the elements and without the renewing power of a flowing spring they are eroded by the weather extremes of Yellowstone and are ultimately turned to dust and go back to the earth from whence they came. In contrast to these dead springs there are the active hot springs! Here the steaming waters continue to build new terraces. The color of these terraces are stained with yellows, browns and oranges marking the presence of tiny micro-organisms called Thermophiles, which thrive in these steaming spring waters.
From the bottom of the mountain there are walkways that wind their way up past the springs old and new. The newer, active springs are the most interesting with their flowing waters glinting in the sunlight and clear blue pools, but the architecture of the older terraces are still pleasing to the eye. As we get about half way up we bump into an English couple we met a few days earlier at Jenny Lake in the Tetons. If that was not coincidence enough a few steps further on we met two young ladies whom Emily and Jack had befriended on the campsite we stayed at in Glendale, Utah when visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. These two, originating from Michigan, are on an adventure, camping out the back of a car on a six week tour of the West, having finished school. Since we had left them 2 weeks earlier they had trekked up the West Coast through Oregon up to Seattle and then across to Yellowstone. It was an amazing coincidence for us to be here in the same spot at the same time – such events as these, which seem to happen at an unexpectedly high frequency in one’s lifetime can turn you into a believer of Fatalism if you are not careful. Anyway after exchanging pleasantries – or in Emily’s case flying leaps and hugs – we moved on. At the top of the walkway – which was quite a steep climb, and challenging at this altitude – we reached Canary Spring which is the most active and splendid of the springs in the Mammoth area. This spring is flowing at a tremendous rate and cascades downwards hundreds of feet. It is truly beautiful and worth the climb (for the less adventurous there is a car park near the summit). We stayed and admired the spring for a few reflective minutes until the peace was broken by the arrival of a bus load of tourists.
After another fabulous day we headed back down south towards the Fishing Bridge Campground. As we grew close we decided to go back down the road to where we had seen the bears the previous day. As we approached the area we saw lots of cars on the side of the road with people out, pointing cameras and spotting scopes up to the hillside. We hurriedly parked our car and joined them. Our reward was to see a female grizzly with two cubs a few hundred yards away climbing a hillside. The day before we had needed a spotting scope to see them, this time they could easily be seen by the naked eye. What a joy! The last time we had come to Yellowstone we saw no bears – on this trip in the first two days we had seen several.
We woke to another pleasant morning up at 8000 feet – a bit chilly but at least the sun was shining. Our first port of call was to be a thermal area called Mud Volcano. Along the way we decided to check out our favorite bear spotting area, and our success rate was maintained as we got to see a large black bear working it’s way beside the lake and into the surrounding woods.
Mud Volcano is a very active area and the air was filled with the acrid smell of sulfur. There was a short, but interesting board walk which went past a number of thermal features. The first feature is called Dragon Mouths Spring, which is a hot spring that puffs out steam – hence it’s name. The next feature was the one that gives the area it’s name, Mud Volcano. This is a bubbling mud pot, but 70 years ago was an explosive volcano of mud, erupting many times a minute, throwing boiling mud tens of feet into the air. Today, sadly it is much calmer. We spend a pleasant hour mooching around the various features, which was made all the better as we were there early enough to avoid the throng of tourists and their buses.
West Thumb Basin
By the time it was afternoon the weather had started to close in, so we headed off to the West Thumb Basin area down on the banks of Yellowstone Lake. Here the thermal features are very different from Mud Volcano. They are made up of relatively calm, super heated pools. Whilst they look inviting, falling into these would mean instantaneous death! The pools are perfectly clear and you can see to the bottom of many; which can be as deep as 90 feet. The edges of the pools, where it is slightly cooler, are highlighted in the yellow, orange and brown tints of the ever present thermophiles. The steaming pools were in stark contrast to the lake which was still covered by ice.
We gently ambled around the various pools. Our only annoyance was with one mother who had ignored the signs about staying on the boardwalks and had her daughter stepping on to the surrounding ground for a photograph. The reason for the boardwalks is not only to protect the fauna in the area, but the ground is a thin crust and a person’s weight can easily break, resulting in them dropping to their death in a pool of super hot water below!
Not yet done with the day we drove 40 miles north to see the most famous thermal feature in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful geyser. We had been to see Old Faithful the previous year in July, when there were huge crowds. Today, the numbers were more modest, but there was still a healthy number of people out to watch. For the last 75 years Old Faithful has been delighting visitors, throwing steam and boiling hot water 150 feet in the air every 90 minutes or so – making it the most reliable of the geysers in the Park. It used to go up every hour but years of earthquakes have re-arranged the plumbing extending the eruption times out. One of these days Old Faithful will sadly be quiet for ever – so those who haven’t seen it yet get there quick!!!
The weather was somewhat grey but it did not seem to deter people waiting for Old Faithful to go up. So, not wanting to be party poopers we settled down for the show. Whilst the National Park Service is telling everyone that the geysers of Yellowstone (which two thirds of the world’s total) are totally natural – we suspect there is a little man underground with a big lever. With travel comes cynicism!! Whatever the case we were all delighted when Old Faithful started to bubble steam and water before going into impressive full eruption. After a few minutes everything started to quieten down, the hot jets receded and eventually calmness returned to the geyser.
Our geyser fetish satisfied, we headed off to the wonderful Old Faithful Inn, once the largest log cabin in the world. On a cold, wet day (although today was pleasant) it is a haven of warmth and comfort. The main lobby is truly amazing. It is centered around a spectacular free standing, four sided stone fire place, the stack of which rises five stories up through the roof of the Inn. The stair cases wind their way up into the sky, joining together a number of mezzanine floors and platforms, some what resembling a rustic version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Magic. We love this place – it has a real special feeling.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Our third day in Yellowstone was destined to be a busy one as there were many more things we wanted to squeeze in on this trip. Straight after breakfast we packed our car for the day ahead and drove to the Midway Geyser Basin, the home of the most spectacular pool in the whole of Yellowstone, the Grand Prismatic Spring. This spring is named for its striking coloration. The colors match the red, orange, yellow green and blue of a rainbow. It is huge, approximately 370 feet (110 m) in diameter and is 160 feet (50 m) deep, making it the third largest in the world, after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand and Boiling Lake in Dominica. As inviting as the pool might look, it has a steady temperature of 160 °F (70 °C) so best to stick to the board walks and not fall in!
Looking for a brief respite from thermal water features we next headed to see Yellowstone Falls. We had heard of a trail called “The Artist Trail” that ended at a sumptuous sounding place called “Point Sublime”, that offered spectacular views of the falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
The trail is a 2.6 mile round-trip of moderate difficulty. The hike begins just south of Canyon Village and is accessed from the parking lot near the Upper Falls/Uncle Tom’s Trail parking lot or by driving to the Artist Point Trailhead. It doesn’t matter where you start this hike, the views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are absolutely stunning. The unique and colorful rhyolite rock formations that shape the canyon walls seem to capture light perfectly, adding incredible depth and dimension to this remarkably dynamic geologic feature. The canyon itself is approximately 20 miles in length and varies in depth from 800 to 1,200 ft. and it’s maximum width reaches 4,000 ft. across.
From a variety of viewpoints along the Artist Point Trail you can look almost straight down at the Yellowstone River as it carves its deep path along the canyon far below. The highest waterfall in Yellowstone, the Lower Falls, is often visible to the west, dropping a total of 308 ft., nearly twice the size of Niagara Falls. The trail to Point Sublime traverses the sheer cliffs along the southern edge of the Grand Canyon making this an unforgettable hike.
Hayden & Lamar Valleys
To end our day, and after our hike along the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, we needed to take a bit of a rest so we took ourselves on a mini road trip through areas known as the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. These are some of the best wildlife viewing areas in Yellowstone and simply the best place to find herds of bison. The valley floor along the river is an ancient lake bed from a time when Yellowstone Lake was much larger.
Old Faithful Revisited
Much of Yellowstone Park is at around 8000 feet in elevation, resulting in long, hard winters. You might hope that in the latter days of Spring one might be safe from the ravages of winter – no such luck. As we raised ourselves from our slumbers on our last morning in Yellowstone we were greeted by snow falling. Not to be deterred from enjoying the embers of our Yellowstone experience we headed back to the Old Faithful Inn, buoyed by the thought of a hot buffet breakfast.
After breakfast we decided to go and revisit our friend Old Faithful. Standing there in the cold, with the snow falling, waiting for the old girl (if you could sex a geyser this one would in our opinion be of the gentle sex) to go up was a surreal experience. We were not the only people crazy enough to be standing there, and we got chatting to a young Californian couple. The inclement weather brought out the war spirit of the crowd as we offered each other moral support to get through the waiting period. Unfortunately, whilst Old Faithful goes up every 90 minutes or so there is a range of times between eruptions and on this particular occasion we were the very end of the spread of these times. As we waited we wondered what was going on. Had the weather frozen the tap shut!!! Needless to say Old Faithful ultimately did not let us down and up she went, her jet looking like some giant subterranean whale’s spout. The mist and snow made the visibility poor so the spectacle was somewhat disappointing and as soon as it was over we headed back to the Inn to warm up and pick up some souvenirs.
We decided to take a different route back to Fishing Village, via Canyon Village. As we transversed the road to Canyon Village we came across a number of cars parked on the side of the road with people outside. This was a good sign of wildlife close to the road – so we hurriedly pulled over to see what was going on. As we waited we saw through the snow, which was falling thickly now, two wolves calmly walking down the road. These shy creatures are typically hard to get to close to and we were amazed when they passed no more than 10 feet from where we parked. Of course we snapped away as they come by.
Excitedly we left our wolves behind and headed off to Canyon Village. Here we parked up and went to the Visitor Center, a two storey building dedicated to the geology of Yellowstone. Inside there were exhibits on the volcanic nature of Yellowstone. It is one of the largest volcanoes in world and eruptions have occurred several times in the past, the last being some 600,000 years ago, which created a 35 mile wide caldera, and threw dust high into the atmosphere covering much of the United States. Yellowstone is still an active volcanic area and another eruption could occur anytime. Other exhibits showed the impact of seismic activity on the area, which goes hand-in-hand with volcanoes. This Visitor Center was a great place to spend some time, especially on a wet or snowy day like this.