Saturday, June 7, 2014

Weekends Across America X - Yellowstone National Park

Sure, I may be a grizzled road warrior. I may have dozens of countries under my belt. I have scaled rocky peaks and swam with sharks, conquered jungle trails with nothing but a sweaty backpack, rode through the desert on camel back, and braved street food on a dirt road in Colombia. And yet, nothing prepared me for seeing Yellowstone up close.

We've all seen pictures, we expect transcendent beauty and grandeur of epic proportions. What I don't think one is ever prepared for, is the reality of walking in a geologically active caldera of super-volcano the size of a small state which has carved and sculpted this entire land over millions of years. Yellowstone is very much alive: the active hissing, gurgling, spouting and fuming happening all around, the dim awareness of molten tectonic plates flowing beneath the surface, is perhaps the park's most mesmerizing feature.

scenery on the drive from Bozeman, Montana, to West Yellowstone, Wyoming
walking through snow in flip flops: terrible idea! half a star!
Yellowstone is enormous. To thoroughly explore it would take years; to take in the most prominent highlights, a good week. It is wonderfully and thoughtfully developed with paved roads (but be prepared for a lot of driving and maddening, frequent, and interminable traffic jams caused by gawking dolts refusing to pull over when they see a bison), picnic areas, miles of boardwalks for viewing geothermal features, and even guided walking tours by park rangers.

Our first stops were in the Lower Geyser Basin. This was our first brush (ever?) with geothermal features, and we saw them all - hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles - all on our first stop!

I was stunned into dumb silence seeing these in person. It's hard to imagine nature producing such a palette of colors.

The color of the pools is determined by their temperature, which in turn dictates the kind of bacteria that can live and thrive in it. The jewel-blue pools like the ones above are the hottest.

An angry little mud pot

A much cooler pool in jade green

A geyser in action

petrified trees lie at the lip of a hot spring.
These springs are about as alkaline as battery acid, and the liquid is close to boiling in some of them. Since Yellowstone is an active area, the features constantly change. Some die, others grow or shrink, and new ones form unexpectedly. If a pool encroaches on existing trees, it kills them instantly.

Further out, we took a lovely hike through the woods to Mystic Falls.

This was followed by the obligatory stop at Old Faithful. Old man Faithful is the most "regular" geyser in the park, erupting spectacularly every 90 minutes or so, a predictability that's very rare among the other geysers, some of which don't erupt for years! Around Old Faithful, however, there is a whole infrastructure to facilitate its appreciation - spectator seating, food... In fact, the only lodging that's located IN the park, is right at the foot of the geyser. It's definitely a crowd pleaser.

the crowd awaiting the next eruption with the lodge in the background
et voila - the moment of glory.

Old Faithful is not the only attraction in this part of the park. The area around it is beautiful, with plenty of other features to appreciate, fantastic hikes, and some great wildlife watching! 

the perfectly lovely Blue Star pool

great panoramic views of Old Faithful and the lodge from the hiking trails.

Did you know that people die in Yellowstone every year? Well, it's true. The most common cause of injury and death is, predictably, traffic accidents, but there are more creative ways that Yellowstone can claim a life. Some people go for an unscheduled swim in the hot springs, and get dissolved alive in those deadly beauties. The less sure-footed fall off a 700 ridge, but a few particularly unfortunate suckers meet their end via bear. All of these instances are exceptionally rare, but you do get a stern warning upon entering park grounds. So that last option had me worried the most, because it seemed like the one I could control the least. We didn't buy bear spray or a horn, but I did carry a stick around and banged it loudly whenever we were hiking alone in remote parts of the woods. Bears won't attack humans unless you come upon them by surprise and startle them (or they are protecting their young). So, making noise on the trail is usually a good rule of thumb to avoid death by bear. We DID see bears, WITH CUBS, TWICE during our trip, but luckily it was from a safe distance and we got to enjoy both experiences thoroughly.

A yellow-bellied marmot.

When a storm rolled through in the evening, and rain combined with the fading light and smoking vents, it created some incredibly atmospheric scenery.

Our tour of "must see" attractions continues the next day with a visit to Grand Prismatic Spring, possibly rivaling Old Faithful for the title of "most iconic feature". This otherworldly creature is definitely both grand, and prismatic, so prismatic in fact that it tints its own steam. I only wish I could see it from above - though not enough to crash a drone into it... I'm looking at you, Gary from Hartford!!

On to West Thumb, an area on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.

Another amazing sight - a steaming vent sitting in the water of a partially frozen lake, with an imposing mountain ridge in the background.

A salmon run spot

Here's the other thing about Yellowstone that I was not prepared for: variety.  Variety of landscape, of wildlife, of climates, geological marvels and light qualities. It is such a feast for the eyes, it is almost absurd. Even the hot springs and geysers - after you've seen a hundred of them, you might think you've built up a tolerance for their alien beauty, but then another one come along that blows your socks off before you've had a chance to pull them up after the last geyser eruption.

The aptly named, and more than slightly unnerving Dragonthroat.
 Dragonthroat looks like a fumarole, but is in fact a hot spring. Wait, what? Yes, a fumarole produces only steam, whereas a hot spring flows with water. Dragonthroat produces a small amount of water every day, so, despite the obvious penchant for belching out copious, eggy fumes, this smokestack is a spring.

Here's another friendly local. This mudpot blew the entire mountain apart in the 1940s. It's apparently much better behaved now, though you never know for long with Yellowstone denizens.

a massive fumarole
Some scenes from our drive to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Upper Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

In my "Happy Place"

Behold: the massive Norris Geyser Basin!

You can easily spend a full day exploring Norris and its offshoot trails. While taking in the majestic sights, don't forget to look down, or you might miss some amazing details of volcanic life.

I should mention, by the way, that all these mystical and humbling hot springs all smell like one non stop hot egg fart.
This is what being inside a fart feels like.

When you're sure you've seen every variation of geothermal feature naturally possible, drive on to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs

On our final day, we had decided that we'd had enough paved roads and sprightly boardwalk trails, and decided that we're rugged enough to take on a backcountry hike.

Backcountry hikes are a different sort of activity in Yellowstone National Park.  Since the area covered by the park is so vast, a huge majority of it is actually completely wild and undeveloped. The most "infrastructure" you might see while hiking the backcountry is a ersatz little footpath, fading under the onslaught of grass. The trails also tend to be quite long, easily 5 miles or more, through forest, steppe, mud, and (unmarked) geysers. But, what the heck, we'd eaten guinea pig in a dodgy  Peruvian posada and lived to tell about it, we weren't going to psych ourselves out of a little hike!

swallows nesting under the bridge that begins the back country hike.

a startled trio of whooping cranes takes flight

hot springs that are completely unmarked had me a little nervous. As did herds of bison that looked as if they clearly expected us to understand that they preferred these parts to remain free of human presence. As did fresh bear tracks. Note the stick which was not for walking. I had to consent that I'm still a total city girl. Flo remained unfazed.
I would be remiss if I didn't show you some of the amazing wildlife encounters we were lucky enough to have throughout our trip.

baby bison excited for summer

papa bison excited for mating season.

mama bison unsure sure about papa's moves.

grizzly bear and her cub foraging for food. We watched them for about half an hour, because let's be honest - how often do you get to see this in real life?

black bear and her two kiddos.

coyote? It was pretty big and shaggy and white.
Yellowstone was my unabashed beauty binge. For four days I was high on clean air and walked around in stupefied wonder through Darwin's fever dream. It forever cemented my love of national parks, taught me so much fascinating natural history, and allowed me the privilege to be a part of this natural treasure-miracle, if only for a short time.

I leave you with a few parting shots.

Now go see for yourself!

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