Sunday, September 25, 2011

Surprising Yellowstone

Old Faithful, the icon of Yellowstone
I’ve always thought Yellowstone was about pristine crystal lakes, rivers, and streams with fishermen casting with graceful movements. I imagined the forests with towering pines and rushing waterfalls, a land filled with wildlife: moose, bear, deer, antelope, coyotes, buffalo and wolves, and, of course, Old Faithful. And Yellowstone is all of that. But I didn’t realize that a major portion of Yellowstone’s features were geothermal. I had no idea that there were HUNDREDS of geysers and sputtering mud pools and fumeroles (steam vents) and hot springs. In the two days we travelled the northern and southern loops of the park we saw steam rising everywhere, even at the edges of the lakes. When we first entered the park we thought there was a fire and there was some fire activity, but most of what we saw was steam from the various thermal spots. Almost everywhere there was at least a faint scent of sulphur from the simmering geothermal activity. Yellowstone is actually a huge volcano and when you drive around the park and stop at the various geyser basins you realize it. In the Old Faithful geyser area we saw three major geysers erupt: Old Faithful (three separate times), the Beehive geyser, and the Castle geyser which went on for at least half an hour of throwing up water and was still belching steam twenty minutes later when we moved on.

We did a tour of the volcano mud pots with a park ranger, a retired biology teacher who works during the summer and goes home to Virginia at the end of the season. We learned the four different types of geothermal activity in the park: geysers, fumeroles, hot springs, and mud pots. The colors are amazing and in one area called the Porcelain Basin the rich turquoise, orange, copper, and yellow reminded me of Indian pottery – beautiful! There’s one area called the paint pots, but we didn’t stop to tour that area. There just wasn’t time to do it all.

Simmering pool in the Porcelain Geyser Basin
One of the most interesting areas we visiting was on the Firehill River Loop. After stopping at a geyser called the White Dome that erupts every 35 minutes(Luckily we caught its five minute show.), we moved on to a spot that features the “constant geyser” that bubbles and spurts continuously. It was in a lake called the Black Warrior set between Fire Lake and Hot Lake. The “lakes” were more like ponds, but the entire area was a steam sauna. Walking the boardwalk around Hot Lake we passed through a cloud of steam that was like a steam bath. I’m sure during the winter it’s a popular spot for wildlife. One of the rangers told us bison will often settle down in steamy areas during the hot summer because it suppresses the stinging insects. In the winter it no doubt keeps them warm.

Speaking of wildlife we saw quite a bit. Buffalo were all over. We were stopped by a group in the road on our way in from the east entrance when we arrived. One night in the dark we almost hit a large bull sauntering along in the road. He obligingly moved over to the other side to let us pass. We saw elk, but I can’t claim they were in the wild. One group was lounging around next to the parking lot at a visitor center. Another group were in the grass around the lodge in Mammoth. They apparently have no fear of people, but the park emphasizes with signs everywhere to keep your distance. They have many more injuries from charging buffalo than from bears.

We never did see a bear as a matter of fact, but I wasn’t about to go hiking in the woods looking for one. Mostly we were on the boardwalks in the geothermal areas and around the lake. We probably hiked about ten miles while we were in Yellowstone but none of it was in the back country where we might have met a bear. That was fine with me. We did see two coyotes from a distance and later a grey wolf crossing the road as we headed toward the southern entrance on the way to the Grand Tetons on Saturday. We felt we had seen more in our two days than anyone has a right to expect and were well satisfied with our visit.

Yellowstone is definitely an intriguing and fascinating place and I hope we make it back again before we hang up our hiking boots.

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