October 14: A Classic Yellowstone Day
Ask anyone about Yellowstone National Park, and you are likely to hear one or more of the following: Geysers, bison, mud pits, traffic, elk. On our first day in the Park, we were blessed to experience all of the above, and more (well, except for the traffic!)Our day began with sustenance, Head Chef style. (I am not shy about singing his praises, but for this trip, he really pushed the boat out. Knowing that we would not be visiting many restaurants, he prepared numerous meals ahead of time, and froze them. His menu planning for breakfast AND dinner was detailed and sumptuous - no cereal for breakfast in this cabin!)
From the moment we entered the Park, wonderful vistas spread before us. And just as quickly, we spotted our first wildlife, a bull elk. Well, actually, we spotted the cars pulled over at random spots on the road, and figured THEY had seen something. (Can you see the pale dot on the hillside, on the left-hand side? I know; it looked better through the binoculars!)
I was fascinated with the rapid changes in topography - open prairies one mile, and high rock formations the next.
As we drove, we occasionally passed through steam, obviously the product of an un-named steam vent or hot spring close to the road. Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the world's first national park primarily because of its unparalleled collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots and steam vents. So I was delighted when we made our initial stop at one of the geothermal features, Artists' Paintpots.
Mudpots are acidic features with a limited water supply. Their consistency and activity vary with the seasons and precipitation. The plaque below explains it well (you can enlarge by clicking on it).
A video is a better illustration than a still photo.
A short distance down the road, we arrived at Norris Geyser Basin. Parking the car, a few scrubby pine trees line a path to the visitor center. And then, suddenly, the path drops away and the basin yawned below us. The size and the number of features was incredible!
In the basin - far below the towering peaks of the Gallatin Mountains - water accumulates underground. Heated by the Yellowstone Volcano, the water travels upward to erupt from acidic geysers, rise from steaming fumaroles and simmer in shimmering pools.
Norris Geyser Basin is named for Philetus Walter Norris, second superintendent of Yellowstone from 1877 to 1882. He recorded this area's hydrothermal features in detail and also oversaw construction of some of the park's first roads, parts of which still remain as the Grand Loop Road.
Canyon Village is named after the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, featuring two massive waterfalls and a deep, brilliantly colored canyon. The Yellowstone Canyon Rim Drive has numerous pullouts - we focused on the "Brink of the Lower Falls" and "Lookout Point".
Reaching the Brink overlook requires hiking a steep trail that winds down the canyon wall ... a wall of hardened rhyolite lava ... a wall exposed by the Yellowstone River while excavating the canyon.
In the photo above, I am standing at the Brink, gazing directly down into the canyon. It was dizzying. The moving water, the deafening crash of the falls striking bottom, the mist that shrouds the base of the canyon in such a way that you can't really fathom its depth.
Below Lower Falls, volcanic heat and gases soften the rhyolite rock. The river carves more quickly here than upstream, sculpting a ledge and creating a waterfall. To the right is a picture from the vantage of Lookout Point. From here you can appreciate the full 308 feet of Lower Falls.
We rolled south toward Hayden Valley, renowned for reliable wildlife sightings. Sure enough, a sizeable herd of bison grazed peacefully, and further on, a large number of spotting scopes lining a parking lot was the only clue we needed that something special was out there. We pulled in and soon enough two different grizzlies came into focus in our spotting scope. Too far for pictures, but you can trust me that they were magnificent!
We skirted Yellowstone Lake, framed on the east by the Absaroka Mountains, before the road turned westward toward the Old Faithful Complex. The lake is the largest high-elevation lake (above 7,000 feet) in North America. Many of the area's 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes occur under the lake, causing uplift and subsidence events that continue to reshape the water's edge.
Judging from the stream of people heading for the parking lot, we had just missed an Old Faithful eruption. But I was OK with that; we saw the geyser erupt many moons ago when we came here with the kids. Plus, it meant there were less than a dozen people wandering the boardwalks - easy social distancing!
The Upper Geyser Basin, home of Old Faithful, hosts the majority of the world's active geysers. The concentration of hydrothermal features here provides ample evidence of Yellowstone's active volcano. Below is a video of the Spasmodic Geyser, bubbling away. You will also hear the wind - it was non-stop that day, making the temperatures feel even more bitter. Occasionally, I stood in the path of the steam, a futile attempt to warm up!
In this basin, partially molten rock (magma) from the volcano may be as close as 3 to 8 miles below your feet. Imagine!
Given the steam and the wind, at times it was almost impossible to obtain unobstructed views of the pools, especially the ones with the color. Here you can see my shadow, reaching high to gain perspective and amplify the blue shades of Crested Pool. With temperatures above 199 degrees F, Crested Pool is almost constantly boiling. The extreme heat prevents most bacterial growth, resulting in exceptionally clear blue water. As you would expect, every feature has signs warning about the dangers of leaving the boardwalk, especially for unstable ground. So, I thought it was interesting that you could see the hoof prints of bison around the features - they must know where it is safe to walk!!!
As we completed the loop, our final stop of the day was Fountain Paint Pot. That's a lot of mud!
Throughout the day, we observed numerous ravens in the parking lots. Of course, visitors are asked not to feed the wildlife, but it is apparent that the ravens have come to associate parking lots with nourishment! So, at our last stop, I had to take a picture of the raven "assigned" to this parking lot. I imagined this fellow was looking me over, assessing the likelihood of a handout. Sorry, buddy!
It seemed entirely fitting, as we neared the exit to the Park, returning to the cabin for the night, that we saw abundant wildlife. Four small gangs of elk, in the same location as the bull elk in the morning. A bald eagle ripping pieces off a freshly caught trout. And best of all, a herd of bison along the roadway (see video). Yes, the ideal ending to a classic Yellowstone day!
Editorial note: I am stunned that this is my 104th Mosaic Monday post. Two years. Where did that time go? My heartfelt thanks to everyone who supports Mosaic Monday - we are small but mighty!