Determined to start the day even earlier today, Dave had everyone up before 7am! This was to be an almost 15 hour day away from our home on wheels, thank goodness for the somewhat more restful day yesterday. It was worth going in so early to see the fog slowly lifting over the water (and another elk resting in the trees).
We had a pretty good plan of action organized, thanks to the National Parks book, which had given a detailed description of things to see between Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. We made a beeline for Old Faithful (stopping only at the pretty Kepler Cascades), getting to that point in just over an hour. The Visitor Center there has predictions for this famous geyser’s eruptions, as well as others in the area. The next time on the schedule was 9:08am +/- 10 minutes.
We found a good spot on the front row of (still-wet) benches and waited, after some false-starts, some spitting teasers, it finally went off about 9:20 and kept going for almost 4 minutes. It was spectacular but the water height was somewhat camouflaged by the amount of steam and the direction of the wind. It was great to finally see something we’d really been waiting to get to.
There are a number of different geysers within walking distance of Old Faithful. We were excited to see Castle Geyser in the distance really spurting water for over 20 minutes! This one only goes off about every 14 hours so we had unknowingly timed it just right to see it. We walked the mile-loop around the small geysers. We thought Anemone Geyser was cool, it goes off for about a minute, to quite a low height, we could then clearly watch the water draining back down into the hole and as it re-heated, it went off again after about 10 minutes.
We continued around the loop, looking at: Plume Geyser, Beehive Geyser, Heart Spring, Lion Group (4 little geysers: mama, papa, big cub, little cub!), Aurum Geyser, Doublet Pool (two linked beautiful pools), Giantess Geyser. There were some different shapes and sizes of the geysers, some great colors of the different bacteria mats. Thermophiles, tiny microorganisms, live around the hot ground areas and contribute to these beautifully landscaped colors. The hottest areas are a deep blue, slowly cooling to around the edge through yellow, green, orange and brown.
We took a quick walk back to the outside area of the Visitor Center to listen to Ranger Sam (an ex-teacher) talk about bison. This was a program specifically geared towards the Junior Ranger age group, so the kids were all enthralled. We learned a lot about the bison, they are enormous animals, their babies are born at an already heavy 35lbs and are up and walking within 4 hours. Although, as they plod around, you feel as though they are very slow-moving, they actually have the ability to run at a sustained pace of 30mph for hours on end, thanks to their large leg bones.
They also have enormous paddle-like shoulder blades which assist with holding up their long hump bones. Huge muscles attach to these bones to help handle the incredible weight of their heads. They use those huge heads to sweep back and forth through the snow during the winter to find grass, hiding beneath the 3+ feet of snow. They have an incredible sense of smell; this is how they manage to find grass in the winter. The Ranger had a couple of different dried ‘scat’ piles for the kids to examine. In the summer they dry to a flat disk, which the Pioneers would collect as they trundled along in their wagons and then use to burn when they arrived at their destination and needed fire. In the winter, due to less-moisture, the scat heaps are quite different-looking and can be seen in the Park all around the geyser flats, where they head to find some respite from the cold. During the time of the Indians, every single part of the bison was carefully used to their advantage.
We also listened to some stories about the bison in the Park. They do periodically wander through the Old Faithful area. One such time, the Rangers had to come out of the Visitor Center and keep those around the geyser in place and stop anyone coming through as the herd meandered through the middle. Another time, during his Ranger program, a lone bull came through. The Ranger keeps a bison fur on one of the heavy benches so the kids can feel it and stroke it. This time, as the bison came through, he obviously caught the smell of the fur, kind of butted it a couple of times with his head, shuffled around, pawing at the ground and finally butted it, full-force, with his horns and easily flipped the concrete weighted bench fully over! He also spoke of how dangerous it is to be on the receiving end of an attack, one man who got too close, received such a gash from a bison horn, he was given 120 stitches on the back of his leg. Occasionally a seemingly-gentle herd gets spooked and starts stampeding through. A Ranger just leaving the area on her bike was caught in the middle, she stopped and stayed very still, they stormed past her and she escaped unharmed. It was a good reminder that although the animals are generally unconcerned by cars and human presence, they are still wild and can turn quite suddenly.
After the program, the kids sat on the benches and completed the last parts of their Junior Ranger programs before we went inside to have them checked. The two little ones received a patch with a wolf paw print, the older two, a patch with a bear print. The Ranger was very impressed that this was their 43rd completed program.
As we came out, Old Faithful was supposed to be going off again within a few minutes. Once again, it was a good 10 minutes beyond its predicted 90. The number of people present for this eruption was at least triple of the earlier one, people were standing 4 deep; Dave found a good spot for the video camera and this time, the wind was blowing in a different direction and we had a much more clear view of the water, which was incredibly forceful. I’m glad we got to see this second one, what an incredible sight.
We drove the short distance to Black Sand Basin Area and watched Cliff Geyser go off, another smaller, but quite dramatic, geyser. Once again, we walked the loop, admiring the pools, particularly Sunset Lake, Rainbow Pool and Emerald Pool. Our intention was then to see the Biscuit Basin area; unfortunately this trail was currently closed. We bypassed that and went directly to the Midway Geyser Basin to view the Grand Prismatic Spring. By now, the crowds were really out in force, the lines for the bathrooms were unbelievable! I guess this is the downside of visiting these more accessible areas with short boardwalk loops – everyone can see them and walk around, so everyone does!
From Midway, we drove to the Lower Geyser Basin area (passing bison on the road) to check out the Fountain Paint Pot, this is one of the interesting areas with bubbling mud. In the spring, it is reasonably watery because of all the snow-melt but still looks cool with grayish mud spluttering and bubbling in a huge pool. Probably the best time to see it is in the summer when the mud gets much thicker and huge globules of mud spit out and create rippling holes. Everything pretty much dries up by the autumn and the cycle begins again.
One of my most favorite sights of the day was around this Lower Geyser loop. A beautiful, constantly spraying geyser, surrounded by a rainbow of bacteria mat means that seeing regular fountains will never hold the appeal they once had. I think it was called Celpsydna Geyser, of course, this was the one place that we did not pick up a brochure for! It was incredibly pretty, such a great reminder of the beauty of nature.
There was quite a line waiting to get into the Madison area, nothing to do with the bison wandering along the road, so we took an extra little loop to see the Firehole Falls, they were pretty, didn’t gain us a jump on the traffic though unfortunately! It was neat to see so many fly-fishermen along the way, often waist-deep in the water.
We bypassed the Madison Information Station and headed up towards Norris, admiring the elk as we went, intending to stop at Gibbon Falls. Unfortunately this entire area is being completely re-done and roadworks were in full effect. We had quite a wait to be escorted through the chaos, it will be wonderful when it is finished but that is quite a way off yet, I’m sure the area will be crazy during the summer. We had to laugh, while we were waiting in line, the driver of the car in front, turned off his engine, got out to have a smoke, when the line began to move, he jumped back in and obviously couldn’t find his keys! Things went flying in the car as he threw things to the back seat in his hunt, including the dog! Eventually he put his hazards on and everyone had to drive around him as the Ranger came up to check whether he needed break-down assistance – kind of embarrassing, lesson learned: if you turn off your engine, just leave the keys, ready to go again, in the ignition!
Once past all of the roadworks, we stopped in at the Norris Geyser Basin to see Steamboat Geyser. When it goes off, it rises to 2 or 3 times the height of Old Faithful; unfortunately it is extremely unpredictable and rarely erupts. The last time was in May of 2005, prior to that, it was 1991. When it goes off, all the water from the Lake below it empties and takes a couple of days to refill, can you imagine being the privileged person who gets to witness this rare phenomenon? Jake was hopeful that it would just start going while we were watching – not that it wasn’t active, it was spitting water about 10 feet high, which was dramatic enough! Further up the pathway was another pretty Emerald Pool, an incredible 27 feet deep, given their small circumference on the top, it’s hard to believe how far these pools go down.
From Norris, we drove north towards Mammoth Hot Springs, stopping at Roaring Mountain, which wasn’t quite as impressive as we had anticipated. Steaming fumeroles spout from the steep mountain side and make a kind of snoring noise against their white backdrop, in any other place, this probably would’ve seemed incredible, but because of everything we’d already seen, it was less remarkable, how spoiled we’ve become!
It was along this route, through Willow Park, that we saw our first (official – remember the Tetons debate?!) grizzly bear, right after watching a coyote cross the road in front of us. This time, there was no mistaking exactly what it was. We got some great pictures, it wasn’t too far from the road and wandered along, parallel to the road, not close enough that we were in danger, but not so far that we couldn’t clearly see it. It was so exciting, we kind of followed along with it, at times, it stopped in open grassland so we had very clear views of it. It totally made our day! Dave clambering out the sunroof for photos was also quite entertaining!
A couple of miles further up, we stopped to see what the next lot of commotion was about and were treated to the sight of a mama black bear and her cub up in a tree. After a few minutes, mama bear climbed down, leaving her cub clinging to the trunk, we stayed for a while but the cub just stayed where it was and mama wandered off into the forest.
Our next stop was the Mammoth Hot Springs Trail. For hundreds of years, Shoshone and Bannock people collected minerals from Mammoth Hot Springs for white paint. These minerals contribute to the beautiful terrace structures, along with heat, a natural ‘plumbing’ system, water, and limestone.
At Mammoth, a network of fractures and fissures form the plumbing system that allows hot water from underground to reach the surface. The water comes from rain and snow falling on the surrounding mountains and seeping deep into the earth where it is heated. Small earthquakes may keep the plumbing open. Limestone, deposited here millions of years ago when a vast sea covered this area, provides the final ingredient. Hot water with dissolved carbon dioxide makes a solution of weak carbonic acid. As the solution rises through rock, it dissolves calcium carbonate, the primary compound in limestone. At the surface, the calcium carbonate is deposited in the form of travertine, the rock that forms the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs (science education alive and well in the Valentine family!).
These terraces are like living sculptures, shaped by the volume of water, the slope of the ground, and objects in the water’s path. They change constantly, and sometimes overnight – but the overall activity of the entire area and the volume of water discharge remain relatively constant. Here, as in few other places on earth, rock forms before your eyes.
Minerva and Cleopatra Terraces were certainly the most beautiful, so walking around the Lower Terrace area was a real treat. You could imagine this being a definite ‘go-to’ spot for wildlife in the winter months when snow leaves them feeling quite chilly. Of course, the acidic levels mean there is little by way of plant-life; hence this cannot be a constant ‘home’ to them during the winter.
We completed the Upper Terrace Drive, enjoying the Orange Spring Mound, this spring flows from several vents from its top and side. Its striking colors come from the thermophiles living in the hot water, and beautiful white Angel Terrace, which was dry and crumbling for decades, but resumed activity in 1985. Some of the other dormant features we saw on the drive may on day flow again some day too; this is such a constantly changing area.
On the drive out, we passed Liberty Cap, which stands 37 feet high. It was created by a hot spring that was active in one location for a long time. Its internal pressure was sufficient to raise the water to a great height, allowing mineral deposits to build slowly and continuously for perhaps hundreds of years. Liberty Cap was named in 1871 by the Hayden Survey because it resembled the peaked knit caps, symbolizing freedom and liberty, worn during the French Revolution.
On the drive from the Mammoth area to Tower-Roosevelt, we saw an incredible elk with an amazing rack – it had about 7 or 8 points, it was huge! Once again, we were unsurprised (sadly) by the craziness of some people in their cars. The lady in front of us, just stopped, in the middle of the road, left the car running, got out and started videoing, causing absolute havoc for everyone behind her – unfortunately not the first incident we had experienced on the roads in Yellowstone this week.
We were all rather hungry by the time we reached Roosevelt Lodge and quite ready for dinner. Dave had an elk scallop, there was also buffalo on the menu but he’d tasted that once before so thought he’d try something different. The menu had a special note that the meat was raised outside of the Park so at least the kids didn’t feel like he was eating something that we potentially could’ve seen within the last few days! My dinner was delicious....and not the default vegetarian dish of past!
From the lodge, we drove a short distance to the little trail out to Tower Fall. The water levels in this park are incredible, some hot, some cold, many lakes, streams, rivers, waterfalls, the thermal areas – all extremely dramatic and beautiful, we are loving this National Park and would certainly hope to return one day. Dave is so happy with his new camera, gives these great 'flowing' water pictures.
As we headed through Hayden Valley, Dave stopped a couple of times to enquire as to what people were looking at. Both times, there were grizzly bears in the distance. Many people seem to set themselves up in the Valley with their long range cameras and binoculars, sitting on their lawn chairs and taking in the views and wildlife. Dave could see the bears through their scopes but on our camera, the bears were little brown dots! Regardless, he was happy to take his bear count today to SEVEN!
Beyond that point, our drive was pretty uneventful, other than bison walking along the road, right next to our window! We stopped at West Thumb Lake for pictures of the sunset, with a lone canoeist in the foreground and an interesting stretch of land stretching across the Lake. For some reason, the mosquitoes were out in force and it has to be said, those little pesky bugs are very large around here!
States visited: 49!
visited 49 states (98%)
Create your own visited map of The United States
Miles driven so far -
LOOP 1 (Aug 2009 - Aug 2010): 29,000
LOOP 2 (May - August 2012): 10,800
Highest altitude with camper: 11,158ft (I-70, CO)