Yellowstone - Part 3
Sep 16, 2009
|Before I do anything else, I have a correction: in my last post I stated that Yellowstone is our “oldest and largest” national park. Not exactly, as was pointed out to me by the ever-astute Bill Joyce! It is, indeed the “oldest”, but not the “largest”. Not even the largest in the continental US. In fact, as nearly as I can figure out (well, this is what Bill told me!) Yellowstone is #4, behind Wrangell-St. Elias and Denali, both in Alaska, and Death Valley in California. So, if you read that post before I made the correction, you’ve been warned – don’t use that information!
I absolutely insist that this is the last posting for Yellowstone. As fabulous as it is, and as much fun as we had there, I just know that there’s only so much tolerance out there in blog-land for endless pictures of geysers, thermal pools and bison (cute as they are). So (and this is the real reason this is somewhat behind schedule) I was relentless (well, sort of) in cutting down the pictures, although it might not look like it. As usual, though, I put the overflow here so the photo-junkies among you can see more.
I’ve talked about the animals, the incredible Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the amazing travertine terrace formations at Mammoth Hot Springs . . . but, you say, what about Old Faithful? Other than possibly the bison, Old Faithful is arguably the most famous feature in Yellowstone National Park and, frankly, the only one lots of people see. (Although you know if you’ve been there that you can’t get to Old Faithful until you’ve driven a minimum of 30 miles from outside the park, depending on where you come in, and generally more like 50-60 or more miles, so you HAVE to have seen something else if you’re paying attention.)
Yellowstone National Park has a number of active geothermal areas, ranging from those, like Mud Volcano and Artists’ Paint Pots, that are essentially large bubbling pots of mud, to the various geyser basins that have actively erupting geysers as well as hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents).
Geysers, as you may know, are like giant pressure cookers. The pressure from super-heated water below the earth’s surface builds up under and in a series of constricted fissures below the surface of the earth until it forces the cooler water above to overflow the surface, allowing the steam and boiling water below to shoot into the air. Although Old Faithful is the best-known and most frequently predictable geyser in Yellowstone, there are many more; some erupt on a more-or-less predictable schedule (for example, at x time plus or minus 2 hours – a four hour window during which the eruption might happen), others haven’t erupted in years, but could at any minute. Earthquakes or other disturbances, which happen quite frequently at Yellowstone although most are small enough not to be felt, can alter the “plumbing” of the geysers and thus the frequency, predictability and height of eruptions.
Hot springs are more like pans of boiling water – there aren’t the kinds of constrictions in the underground “plumbing” that cause the pressure to build up, so the super-heated water constantly rises to the surface of the pool and cooler water is forced down so that it is constantly re-circulating. Hot springs generally have colorful rings around them or run-off channels – this is caused primarily by heat-loving micro-organisms (the different colors indicate different temperatures, thus different micro-organisms). Some pools are cloudy or iridescent because of suspended minerals, such as silica (a frequently occurring phenomenon at the Norris Geyser Basin); others are a brilliant color because of the way the water reflects and refracts the light (that’s the case with Morning Glory Pool and others with “colorful” names). Some, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring, as well as Morning Glory Pool and a number of others, do both – the spring itself refracts light so that it appears a brilliant color and the surface areas around it have bacterial mats with their own color, depending on the temperature of the water.
It’s all too much to even try to comprehend and, after a while of trying, we just gave up and enjoyed the spectacle. In addition to the tours of the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Mud Volcano area we took shortly after we arrived in the park, we took one day to explore the Midway Geyser Basin and a couple of smaller areas in the vicinity of Old Faithful. Another day we dedicated to Old Faithful itself and the other major (and, to my mind, more interesting) geysers and hot springs in the nearer vicinity. And, finally, we spent a day walking the trails of the Norris Geyser Basin and Artists’ Paint Pots. Amazingly enough, when we took the 2.8 mile trail around the area behind Old Faithful, we managed to catch all but one or two of the geysers erupting – we knew it was possible but, given the margin of error for most of them, we thought it was unlikely. Sometimes karma just works that way -- no wildlife, but good geysers!
Having seen most of the major attractions (but not by a long stretch all that are there), we couldn’t possibly say what was our favorite – each is different, with different appearances depending on the weather and the time of day, and we loved them all. As primarily visual people, we were entranced by the amount and variety of colors we saw, but were also stunned by the starkness of areas covered by geyserite (a form of silica that covers large parts of the ground in geothermal areas) and the trees whose root systems and trunks have been invaded by the silica, killing the trees but leaving the trunks standing as mute testimony to the power and resilience of nature in a harsh environment.
Of course, there was more to our experience in Yellowstone. We weren’t as fortunate as many have been in our wildlife sightings (we seem to have used up our newly-found positive wildlife karma in Custer State Park), but, in addition to bison and the one distant bear we recorded in the last posting, we did see a couple of elk, lots of deer, a couple of Osprey (including what we think was a fledgling in a precarious nest above the Yellowstone River) and a Bald Eagle (it was on our way out of the park and there was no place to stop to take a picture, but it was a nice one).
We also had, surprisingly, several outstanding meals in various lodges. In addition to our great dinner at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel, we had a very nice dinner at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and two outstanding lunches at the Old Faithful Inn. The last is the oldest (I hope I’m right in this . . . certainly the oldest remaining) lodge in the park, having been built in 1905, and is a wonderful structure of logs and (dare I say it?) Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced details. We loved it and, in fact, had our last Old Faithful eruption sighting from the viewing platform at the Inn, with drinks from the nearby bar and espresso bar. Not a bad way to see an iconic natural phenomenon, huh?
So . . . we leave Yellowstone. We’re talking about the possibility of returning next spring, to see the park at a different time of year, but . . . that’s a long way away. For now, we will head west for a short way, to visit Craters of the Moon – a completely different type of volcanic landscape – and then head south, visiting Bryce National Park before returning home to Phoenix for our “winter life”. But stay with us – anything can happen!