(check out part 1 first)
Day 6 (Sun)
Got up reasonably early and started our trek from Butte to Yellowstone. 75 mph interstate highways make that trek a lot less than it could have been. The last 60 miles to yellowstone is on MT 2 lane highway, which is only marked at 70 mph. Our only truly wrong turn of the trip happened here. For whatever reason, we didn’t really think about the fact that we were supposed to turn under the Rosevelt Arch at the North end of the park, and instead followed the road that ran past it, well beyond where it stopped being so much a road, and started being a bronco ride of washboards.
Once we realized our mistake, we back tracked the 15 minutes, and made it to the village of Mammoth. Many Elk had already migrated into the town for the fall, so I got a few really nice pictures of them. We ate a quick lunch, then walked around the Mammoth Hot Springs for the afternoon.
The Mammoth Hot Springs are probably the biggest area of purely hot springs inside of Yellowstone. A hot spring is basically just a geyser without a nozel, so instead of bursting water coming out from time to time, you get a constant overflow of near boiling water out of the ground (remembering that water boils at 199 F at this altitude). This water is full of silica, so creates brilliant white waterfalls, as the silica builds up over time and looks like limestone. The near constant temperature above 160 F coming out of the springs makes it the host to Thermophiles, heat loving algae, that are distinctive colors depending on the temperature of the spring. If you are looking a brilliant blues and greens… that’s damn hot. If you see orange, that water is probably only 145 or so. Once is gets to bath water temperature because it’s run 100 feet over other rocks, you’ll get dark green plant growth that you might see anywhere else. Mammoth is almost entirely board walks, because stepping on the ground there is risky at best, and 3rd degree burns at worst. Like everything else in Yellowstone, it is constantly changing due to shifting heat in the ground, earthquakes, and the like. There were sections of trails closed due hot spring overflows, boiling over and through board walks at times. The folks at Yellowstone react when they can, and often just change the trails accordingly.
The afternoon involved a 2+ hour drive from Mammoth to the Lake, where our cabins were. The cabins were quite nice and clean. We ended up all the way in the back, which meant we had more quiet, and more wilderness behind us. The first night we had dinner in the Cafeteria at Lake Lodge. It turns out that getting dinner reservations at the Lake Hotel, and Old Faithful should be done well ahead of your trip to Yellowstone. We ended up with Monday night at 9:45 at Lake (which we canceled the next morning), 5:15 at Old Faithful (Tue), and 9:15 at Lake (Wed) for Susan’s birthday.
Day 7 (Mon)
We woke with the goal of checking on the Canyon / Tower area of Yellowstone. Susan suggested wisely that we start by going up to Tower Falls, and working our way back, otherwise we probably would never make it that far. All of 5 minutes up the road, we saw a dog like thing on the left, so swerved into the next pull off. It was a coyote hunting in the very distinctive “hop-hop-hop-hop-hop-pounce”. He got a couple of tasty snacks in the 10 minutes we were watching him. We started driving north again, when we started encountering Bear Jams.
When driving in Yellowstone, if you see a whole bunch of people pulled off at a turn off, you should do the same, as there is probably some kind of wildlife that they are all looking at. The more crazed and random the cars are parked, the more interesting the animal will be. If people have fully abandoned running cars in the middle of the road, you are clearly talking about a bear of some sort.
Our first Bear Jam was by Mt Washburn, where we also pulled over, and watched a black bear scramble along the mountain. While we were hanging out, we heard someone talk about wolves in another valley. Having never seen wolves in the wild, that got us pretty excited. We headed south, as we had passed by a jam earlier, and not thought twice about it. That, of course, was another black bear, which had wandered off on the way there.
So we headed north again. After a bit we passed a group pulled off with sighting scopes, which clearly needed investigation. We ditched the car at the next pull off, wandered up with our binoculars, and started chatting with the folks there. There was a wolf pack right at the tree line (500 yrds or so away), and after a minute we had the lead wolf (a gray) in our sights, as it was sitting in the sun. The others were black and hiding at the tree line, so we only got glimpses of them from time to time. Even though it was at 500 yrds, it was still really amazing to see Wolves in the wild. The reintroduction of the wolves in the 60s has let the Yellowstone ecosystem come back into balance (prior to which the Elk population was running completely rampant).
After 30 minutes of watching wolves, we headed out again, still trying to make it to Tower by lunch, which we did, though the final portion of the trail to the falls was closed due to land slide.
Working back south, we stopped at Wolf central again, and now the wolves were up and moving. Unfortunately most of that movement was still behind scrub and brush, and still at 500 yrds. We did get some more good reasonable views of the wolves, and now we knew they were findable, so looking for wolves became our constant theme for the trip.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a spectacular geologic feature. It’s a couple thousand feet across, and nearly a thousand feet deep, and due to the unique geology of Yellowstone has splashes of red, orange, yellow, and bright white all along the sides. There is a trail which runs on the west side, that we hiked from Inspiration Point, to the Lower Falls, the bigger of the 2 falls at the top of the canyon, which has a 300+ foot waterfall. We managed to find nesting Osprey on the hike, as well as started to realize how much at elevation we actually were, as hiking back up from the Lower Falls overlook really had us winded.
Dinner in Canyon Village at their dining room, which didn’t require a reservation, just a 25 minute wait. Here Susan had her favorite meal of the trip, a spinach ravioli in cream sauce, that was really really good. Let me say, she was quite happy that she wasn’t ordering grilled cheese the entire trip.
Day 8 (Tue) – Upper Geyser Basin
Our feet were just about ready for another long hike, but our lungs weren’t. With our dinner reservation at Old Faithful Inn, it made sense to spend the whole day at the Upper Geyser Basin, so we headed off after a quick bite, arriving just about 10 am.
Yellowstone has an incredibly unique geology, which is why it has hot springs, why it never was homesteaded, and thus why it is still a park. Throughout the earth there are hot spots, areas where the crust is thinner, and magma gets reasonable close to the surface over a large area. Almost every single one of these is under the ocean, and when there are, they create things like Hawaii. The only one under a continent is Yellowstone, and due to that the entire area has risen a few thousand feet over the last 65 thousand years. Base elevation of most of Yellowstone is 6 – 7 thousand feet (vs. our base elevation of 4,500 at Many Glacier). The hot spot creates the thermal features, hot springs, geysers, mud pods, and steam vents, all pushing up silica in their water and steam all the time. This means all the “dirt” in Yellowstone is sand… at 7 thousand feet… with only 70 frost free days a year. This means exactly 1 species of tree can grow there, the lodge pole pine. The pine is very bendy, and only good for constructing things like log cabins. It is just too flexible for real lumber. The utter worthlessness of this land for commercial ventures, and the fact that it’s got these totally out of this world thermal features, made it a park in the 1870s, signed into law by President Grant. The jazziest one of these thermal features is of course geysers. No where else in the world will you be able to wander around for an afternoon on what looks like a martian land scape, and constantly be distracted by 20 – 150 foot streams of water bursting out near by, or in a distance. It is a truly unreal, and incredibly unique experience. It took 3 expeditions from Washington, the last including a photographer and a painter, before congress would believe any of the crazy stories about hell spilling over they kept being told.
There are 6 “big attraction” geysers that you can hit from the upper geyser basin (though one is further north by a few miles). The criteria for “big attraction” is > 50 foot streams of water, and a regular schedule which makes it go off at least once a day. These Geysers are: Old Faithful, Castle, Grand, Daisy, Riverside, Great Fountain. When we arrived there were approximate (often a 3 hour window) times for Old Faithful, Grand, Daisy, Riverside. Castle had gone off schedule due to a mini eruption, so was an unknown, and no information for Great Fountain. Old Faithful goes off every 90 minutes or so, with the next one in 30, so we wandered a little before that. Daisy was about 2, and Riverside and Grand were pushing our 5 pm dinner reservation, so we figured we’d just have to wait and see.
One of the first things you learn in the first 30 minutes on the geyser plain is to figure out what the wind is doing. When 100 ft of 199 degree water come bursting out of the ground into the 65 degree air, you get steam. You get a lot of steam. So much steam, you often can’t see anything if you are down wind of the geyser. The optimal position is directly perpendicular to the wind direction, so you get pretty pictures of geyser leaning slightly, and a steam cloud coming off of it. For out first view of Old Faithful, we hadn’t quite figured that out yet, so only moderately cool pictures were had.
We trekked up the geyser plain towards daisy next, looking at stuff along the way slowly. Some of the pools along the way were truly dramatic, with colors you don’t often find in nature. Once we finally got to Daisy geyser, we were doing the geyser wait. After about 30 minutes there was a huge fountain of water off in the distance, which turned out to be oblong geyser. I got a little itchy and started to head closer to that one, which was just the trigger to set off Daisy.
Once Daisy was over, we decided to wander along the path, and got to see Groto Geyser going off for 30 minutes before moving on past that. It goes off every couple of days, with 1.5 – 10 hours of eruption when it goes off. Although it isn’t one of the big 6, it was really fantastic to see. As we continued to roam around we managed to see Sawmill for 30 minutes of it’s eruption (sawmill goes off for 30 – 90 minutes with about the same amount of quiet time in between), and timed Lion Geyser perfectly which was great.
We ended the geyser wandering going out to see Riverside, which was nice, and went off 15 minutes early, just so we wouldn’t be late for our dinner. Riverside gets nice rainbows because of it’s arc. On the way back we noticed something going on at Castle, and it turns out that it had broken it’s irregular cycle with a truly impressive 45 minute display.
Dinner that night was really good, and the Old Faithful Lodge is quite something to be seen. The architecture is pure 1880s frontier, and has been kept at that standard ever since. We got to see some tourists nearly get creamed by a rampaging herd of bison they got way too close to, as well as watch our 4th Old Faithful eruption of the day right after a ranger talk on the geology of Yellowstone just as dusk was settling.
Compared to the last time I was there, this was such a better experience, and we got to see so much more. In order to truly see the geyser basin, you need to spend the time, and not really need to be anywhere else. Once you get on geyser time, and just relax into the area, you find you see and appreciate the whole area a lot more. It also helps when it is 70 and sunny, instead of 50 and raining.
Given the length of this post, there will be a part 3, and it will hopefully be out soon. If anyone managed to actually read through the whole thing, please let me know.