April 30 – May 1, 2007
My head felt light and my heart was racing after the long drive – we finally reached Yellowstone, but was the effort to get here worth it?
The scenery had not changed markedly since entering the park. Snow capped mountains and deep valley continued to dominate the landscape, ever since we left I-90 for US Route 89. Although the season was only at the turning point from winter to spring, everything was already covered by layers of greenery.
We soon learned two things about traveling in Yellowstone in late April. Some major roads, such as the section between Yellowstone Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Lake, and the road connecting Yellowstone to Grand Teton, were closed due to winter condition. Which meant low season! I would always trade some inconveniences if in return I could have the park all to myself.
Another thing about Yellowstone – the legendary hot springs and other geothermal features in the park are concentrated within many basins and these systems were formed from an ancient caldera. We planned to visit three systems and the Grand Canyon on the first day and two more on the second day.
After half an hour drive into the park, we had our first wild life sighting. Wild didn’t seem an accurate description, since the elks were grazing grass in front of a lodging site like a herd of sheep. I stood right in front of one of them to take a closer shot – it couldn’t care less and continued with whatever it was doing.
Mammoth Hot Spring
Back in our car and a few minutes drive south, we spotted an entire mountain slope covered by steaming white powder. Unknowingly, we arrived at our first stop, the Mammoth Hot Spring.
Our introduction to Yellowstone was a surreal panorama of white mineral, brown pools, and dead trees. The scenery reminded me some of Dali’s paintings.
The Mammoth Hot Spring is a series of travertine terraces, which are formed from limestone, a rock type made of calcium carbonate. Thermal waters rise through the limestone, carrying high amounts of dissolved carbonate. Carbon dioxide is released at the surface and calcium carbonate deposited as travertine, the chalky white rock of the terraces. These features constantly and quickly change due to the rapid rate of deposition.
The colours of the boiling water, like the many other hot springs in Yellowstone, is the combination of algae and bacteria.
Norris Geyser Basin
From the overlook at the start of the trail of Norris Geyser Basin, we saw a lowered landform dotted with steaming puddles of geysers. We followed the trail and soon lost count of the number of geysers we came across.
Although still clueless with a DSLR, it was during some random photo-shooting at this geyser basin that I looked at the newly taken photos through my D50’s LCD monitor and thought to myself – this place is so beautiful that anyone can take good pictures here.
The combination of colours from minerals, algae, and bacteria in the water was amazing. Even though I had seen photos of Yellowstone before, I was still taken aback by the possibility (in the absence of a nuclear meltdown) of a ribbon of yellow, orange, and green colours meandering across a white terrain.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We had our first bison sighting on the way to Yellowstone’s own Grand Canyon. Clearly unimpressed by a metallic box with wheels, the bison stood in the middle of the road with no intention to move aside. We were the only one on the narrow two-lane road, so I gladly parked our car and started taking photos of the bison with a telephoto lens. It finally cleared the road for us after a couple minutes.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, although not comparable to its counterpart in Arizona, is a beautiful spot and offers some scenic diversity to the national park’s more famous geysers and hot-springs. The canyon has its yellow colour from the iron compounds contained in its rocks. When these iron compounds oxidize, the rocks will rust as a result and change into red. The colour texture of the canyon is especially profound under the glow of the golden hour.
Since the road further down to Yellowstone Lake was still closed, we backtracked and hurried our way to the icon of Yellowstone before sunset – the Old Faithful.
Upper Geyser Basin
I love traveling in the off-season. The infamous congestion along Yellowstone’s roads in the summer months was at this point still devoid of cars. After parking our car at the Wal-Mart size parking lot, we followed a sign towards Old Faithful.
Everyone has seen photos of the Old Faithful – when the geyser is in eruption. Our experience more likely echoed countless others’ first sight of the geyser – arriving at an empty field that was surrounded by rows of bleachers. The next eruption would be in forty minutes, so we went for a walk towards a nearby hill.
The Upper Geyser Basin, which includes the Old Faithful, has the highest concentration of geothermal features in Yellowstone. That had become apparent quickly, as the trail along the hill is surrounded by many geysers.
The sky was getting darker by the minute. Gust of wind blew from a geyser some white steam and the choking smell of sulphur into our faces. A gush of water shot up from a hole just a few steps away from us. All of a sudden, there was a blare from an explosion in a distance. We looked back and thought we had missed the Old Faithful’s eruption, but the geyser remained inactive. The eruption, we found out, was Castle Geyser’s. Although faraway from us, the water pillar was clearly visible, and the sound of erupting water spread across the land. As all my senses were simultaneously immersed with the environment, it hit me that behind the man-made convenience imposed upon this landscape, Yellowstone had always been, and always would be, one of the most geologically active and volatile area in the world.
We returned to the empty field and took a seat in the first row of bleachers fifteen minutes before the estimated eruption. A family of five and two other couples were the only other people waiting. Maybe because it was getting dark and not that many people were present, there wasn’t much outward display of anticipation. Everyone was sitting quietly, exchanging some casual conversations, and staring blankly at the empty field.
Contrary to popular belief, the Old Faithful is not famous for the size or length of its eruption. Instead, the amazing thing about the Old Faithful’s eruption is its regularity and frequency. And once again like clockwork, the geyser erupted in front of us – a burst of hot water shot up from the ground, towering up to around 40 metres. The water volume rapidly dropped after the first ten seconds, leaving the water pillar half of its initial height. After some more random bursts of water, the eruption was over, lasting around a minute.
For the entire duration, everyone remained in their seat. The Old Faithful eruption, so iconic, felt underwhelming in person, especially comparing to the many other unique features in the park. I looked one last time at the empty ground before heading for our car. Our drive to West Yellowstone was guided by the last glimpse of light in the sky.
West Yellowstone is a charmless little town at the western entrance of the park. We thought about staying inside the park, but the accommodation was cheaper in West Yellowstone.
Before our long drive home, there was one more place I wanted to visit – the Grand Prismatic Spring. Twenty minutes into the park, we saw a herd of bison grazing along a river. I parked our car across the river and we ate the last bit of food we brought from Vancouver.
Fountain Paint Pots
En route to Grand Prismatic Spring, we had a quick stop at Lower Geyser Basin. The scale of this basin is much smaller than either Norris and Upper Geyser Basin. I took a quick walk by myself and left without much of an impression.
Fountain Painting Pots, a short drive away, is more interesting in comparison. These mud pots are pools of constantly boiling mud in several different colours. The mud pots were watery due to a high water table at this time of the year. The mud would become much thicker in the summer.
Midway Geyser Basin
The Midway Geyser Basin is, in my opinion, the best Yellowstone has to offer. It is relatively small, but the basin contains two of the largest features in the park – the 60m by 90m Excelsior Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Spring, with a diametre of 110m. The turquoise of the former and the fiery red of the latter are colours you would only expect in a chemical spill, and even after seeing countless hot springs in the park these two managed to put me in awe. Best yet – the tranquility we enjoyed as the only human at the basin was priceless.
It was time to head home. I still wanted to go south further to Grand Teton, but our break was nearing to an end. Was Yellowstone worth the long drive from Vancouver? Absolutely. But with another twelve-hours drive ahead of me, I would just have to ask myself that question again when I got back to Vancouver.