Updated: Jan 21, 2021
“Time spent amongst trees is never wasted time.” Katrina Mayer.
Yellowstone has been on our collective minds for a long time. For both C and I, this trip was a combined 67+ years in the waiting.
C tearfully watched the day–to-day horror of an unimaginably huge forest fire burn the life out of Yellowstone in 1988. Day-to-day coverage by News 4 indelibly branded her with the parks worsening condition. And then life got in the way. The reintroduction of wolves in 1995 re-kindled C’s interest in the conservation of Yellowstone. And then life got in the way once again.
Thirty-seven years ago I lived and worked at Yellowstone. Three friends and I worked in the Lake Hotel kitchen for part of a summer. It wasn’t a great job, but it did let us have time off to explore the park. Once it was done and I was back on the East Coast, I knew that I would return for just the geysers and bisons someday.
Day 0 – Leaving, in a Jet Car...
Yellowstone-Day-Zero came whether we were ready for it or not. TDS internet issues plagued Estes Park all day, but resolved enough to let C’s immense work load dwindle to naught. Last minute items were ticked off her work “to do” checklist. Ultimately, 5PM arrived and no late day catastrophes materialized to snag our Yellowstone vacation-victory away…
We had called YS a few days earlier and were surprised and emotionally buoyed to find out that our camp site 265 at Madison campground was still open and waiting for us… in the middle of a pandemic… Wow!!! Karma seemed to be with us this time.
A short post-work vegetative state didn’t dim the excitement that we both felt. Naps were impossible, so we threw some last minute items in the car and drove away from Estes Park a full 2 hours earlier than planned. Google was kind and estimated that this would put us in the park sometime after dawn.
The adventure had officially started! C and I settled deeply into the BluRoo seats, rolled down the 34 canyon, and accelerated north and westward into the darkening sky. Time passed quickly on the highway, but slowed as we hit the smaller byways and towns in western Wyoming. Countless pronghorns puttered around the dark road’s edge all night, unconcerned at our passing. Only the pronghorn knows what and why they were eating off the roadside at o-dark-thirty.
Day 1 – Bison, Goats, and Geysers, Oh My!...
Daylight came slowly, the ever increasing brightness making the drive more joyful. We passed Jackson Hole to the East just as a red dawn broke over the Tetons. Colorful wildflowers lined the roadsides and a soft sunny pink and peach tone bathed the sage in a beautiful warm glow. A roadside stop materialized to the West offering a spectacular view of the Tetons and Jackson Lake. The brisk walk down to the Lake chilled us to the bone. A family of cinnamon brown mergansers paddled quickly away at our shivery approach.
Route 191 bore us into Yellowstone through the South entrance. At the park border our eyes opened wider and scanned for moose and other big critters. A right at West Thumb onto the Grand Loop road brought us down to the shores of Lake Yellowstone. Gentle waves lapped the shoreline. The expanse of cobalt blue sky over the lake refreshed our spirits. The quick stop and brief walk along Lake Yellowstone’s shore cleared 27 hours of cobwebs from our eyes. Brightly colored lupine, pussy toes, fireweed, and other native wildflowers dotted the shoreline and surrounding grasslands.
Our first Yellowstone geothermal feature, Sulphur Caldron, drew near to the East. We parked, and at our feet, tendrils of steam jetted from a half dozen fumaroles in the ground. A tenuous bunch of logs and a “Do Not Cross” sign guarded fools from falling into another steamer. East Cauldron geyser cooked away farther across the Yellowstone river, and a nearby bison seemed just a little too close to the steaming features for human comfort. A pungent and distinctively sulphurous aroma pervaded our senses wherever we walked.
Lake Lodge and Fishing Bridge were 2 blinks further down the road and we expectantly passed into Hayden Valley, the land of megafauna. Grazing bison littered the sagebrush. A few more active bison pulled our eyes to the nearest parking area. We set the long lens on its tripod just as a yearling started to frolic and jubilantly kick through a winding creek a few hundred yards away. Another bull/cow pair meandered about the sagebrush further out.
A loud but guttural huff, huff, huff, huff noise snapped us out of our “Wow, look at the distant bison” moment and into a “Wow, slowly walk away in a non-threatening manner” moment. Unbeknownst to us, a 2000 pound bull bison had materialized from behind. Its bloodshot eyes glared menacingly in our direction as it stomped past a scant 20 feet away. Commingled bison musk and wet-fur-river-stench wafted over our adrenaline-widened nostrils. We both believe that our abrupt withdrawl up the hill avoided an ugly stompling and co-listing as a Darwin’s award recipient. Vigilance and distance were our daily words from then on when out in the wilder animal places in the park.
Further past Hayden a copse of fireweed drew us to the river side for a short break. Pink fireweed florets were in full bloom adding color to the languidly flowing Yellowstone River. We ate a few spider webs climbing back out of the brush, and then continued on to the Canyon, Norris, and then Madison campground.
Madison campground was a welcome sight for our weary eyes. Unfortunately we arrived too early! Check in was 1pm, and not 11am as typed out on our registration letter. Hmmm. Oh Well… We’d just have to find a more private place to lay up for an hour or so, no worries.
We drove out of Madison to the West to find a napping spot and shortly noticed a vast field filled with golden-petaled Arrowleaf Balsamroot down by the Madison river. No time was spent equivocating and we slipped into the first parking area that seemed the least people-dense...umm least dense-people? A short five minutes later I was enjoying a snooze five feet away from the burbling river in a field of Balsamroots. Straight up Heaven, I tell ya... C was an angel and watched over me as I slept, and the dragonflies, and flowers, and river…
Once more somewhat refreshed we headed back to the campground, finished check-in, setup camp and walked around the campground a bit.
The rangers had told us that bear activity was high! in the campground, but no evidence was evident as we walked through the lodegpoles to another segment of the crystal-clear Madison river. Perhaps the one bear-box per tent site helped to stymie their interest in the campground, who knows. Thanks to Yellowstone Forever and NPS for putting those in. As with our napping spot, fields of golden arrowleaf balsamroots, grasshoppers, and darting red and blue dragonflies lined the Madison here too.
The sun was still high so we took to the car again and scouted up Firehole River Drive. 37 years ago a friend painfully demonstrated why you might want to consider sneakers when cliff jumping. He threw himself from Firehole’s 40 foot cliff and on plunge, did a massive flat-foot slap. All of us laughed for days at that one. Our drive through showed that only a few cars lined the road, and even fewer people were in the “offsite” swimming areas. The main site had been boarded off and closed in a very discouraging way. Bummer. Next!!
We continued on towards the Grand Prismatic Spring but were deterred by all the people crowding the parking lot and entry lane. We put our heads down, pushed past the congestion, and turned onto Firehole Lake Drive. Different types of steamy turquoise, blue, and red hot pots and geysers lined the drive and beckoned for us to explore and immerse ourselves in sulphur-infused air. Each feature had a unique name. Broken Egg Spring, Firehole Spring, Great Fountain Geyser, White Dome Geyser matched the features visibly. Other such as Surprise Pool, Black Warrior Lake, Hot Lake, Firehole Lake, and Artesia Geyser left us scratching our heads a little harder. Fringed gentians lined parts of the road adding purple sprinkles to the colorful geothermal features. We were both awed by the juxtaposition of lush green riparian meadows with stark and barren geothermal landscapes.
The same Northbound traffic jam dashed any hopes of heading back to Madison from Firehole Drive. Instead, we turned south towards Old Faithful, fully knowing we’d have to loop through Hayden valley again to get home (YAY!). At Craig Pass, we stopped to read wayside placards about Isa Lake on the Continental Divide. Yellow water lilies dotted both sides of the lake-with-a-story.
The Mud Volcanoes area materialized on our left after passing LeHardy Rapids for the second time today. Hot blooping mud was on C’s list of Must-See-Things. I didn’t ask why…This time we pulled up for a visit... Late-day crowds were at a minimum on the rickety boardwalks, making the gloopy, gloppy, slooshy features more amenable to contemplative viewing. An unimpressed murder of crows met us at the bottom boardwalk and shrieked for goodies that we hadn’t brought. Poor buddies, they’d have to entertain themselves with the mud, C certainly did…
We drove once again through Hayden valley, stopping ONLY for riverside bison, herons, Canada geese, and cricket-mouthed white-crowned sparrows. A left at Canyon village brought us through a large central swath of lodgepoles and over to Norris Geyser basin. A left at Norris brought us alongside the meandering Gibbon river. As we drove, the river’s placid demeanor metamorphosed into an energetic set of rapids before turning more contemplative again. Various geothermal features poured out into the river in both near and far fields of our view.
The sun’s rays tinged the twilight with a dusky glow. A flash of white through the trees caught C’s eye as we passed Chocolate Pot Springs. We were hungry, but had an overwhelming feeling that we might be missing something. We safely U-turned and parked, fully expecting the white to be a child, plastic kitchen bag, or some other anthropogenic garbage.
It was better than that. It was a White Mountain Goat!!, one of the 200-300 in the park, down from who-knows-where to lick the minerals off the spring and munch the lowland greenery and flowers. We shared the mountain goat with a few others for some time, watching it nibble and meander unconcerned up the river bank.
Fatigue finally caught up to us around 9:30PM after being mostly up, active, and lucid? for 38 hours... Even though we seriously contemplated it, there’d be no excursion in the wee hours to capture star photos tonight.
Day 2 – Norris Geyser Basin and Porcelain Pots, Fuming over the Sulphur…
Our eyes fluttered open to dappled sunlight on the tent ceiling. Four inches of memory foam cupped our bodies and made us just a little reticent about getting out from under the warm sleeping bag. Minutes passed before we were sufficiently braced enough to unzip the tent door and rain fly. Chilly air in the low 40Fs flowed into the tent, slowing our exit from our cozy quarters.
Water was heated and a fancy Starbucks latte packet made us each functional. Strawberry and cream oatmeal topped with dehydrated strawberries finished our Spartan breakfast, allowing us to get on the road expeditiously.
We pulled into the parking area of Norris geyser basin, the most dynamic geothermal area in the park, and immediately noticed the odd car or five covered in tarps and plastic. Hmmm. Interesting…
Crowds were light in the park. We walked left down into Back Basin and Steamboat Geyser. Die-hard locals in bad weather gear (Steamboat groupies) had clustered all along the boardwalk and viewing platform in lawn chairs and sleeping bags. They talked in low tones about various topics and speculated as to when Steamboat would erupt.
A central path to the front of the viewing platform remained open and allowed C and I to watch and photo Steamboat carry on with its pre-eruption commentary. Towering plumes of cottony steam shot up from a jagged mineral base to play in the sun. How could it get any better?
We eventually picked our way through others that had accumulated and continued down to Cistern Spring. At Cistern, dead trees formed a backdrop to the spring, their sintered bases protruding starkly from the hot geothermal waters.
Past Cistern, the crowds evaporated much like steam from the geysers. Only one or two other families passed by. An odd Steamboat groupy or two filled particular visual niches farther down in the basin, their narrow perspective a trade-off for COVID-free watching and avoidance of hot acid waters to come.
We passed by the quiescent Echinus, its viewing benches devoid of life. Other hotpots and small geysers passed by as well, C slowing to soak in steamy sulphurous clouds when they presented themselves.
Amazed by all the features, C and I’s conversation shifted to night timelapse photography and what would make for good photo composition. Would Cistern’s ghost forest be too dark to show up? Would the Milky Way be visible in any of the backdrops? Could we finagle a star reflection in one of the pools?
Geothermal features grew sparser as we continued up out of the Porcelain basin towards the venerable Norris museum. Built in 1930, the quietness of the museum contrasted sharply with the surrounding activity of erupting geysers.
The Black Growler steam vent and Ledge Geyser attracted our immediate attention as we descended from the museum down crumbly tarmac into Porcelain Basin. Towering jets of steam accompanied frantic hissing and “growling” of the two vents.
A less crowded boardwalk to the right drew us up and above the Porcelain Springs. Milky cataract-blue waters covered parts of the Springs as well as Colloidal and Swiss Cheese Pools. The boardwalk ended at a lunar-like landscape punctuate with hissing and jetting vents.
Lake Nuphar was a scant 50 yard walk through the woods rimming Porcelain Spring. Bumblebees and dragonflies flitted up and down the shoreline. Beautifully pink Canada thistle flowers drew in throngs of other pollinators. The contrast between the Lakes’ abundant life and the Springs’ barren landscape was especially poignant.
The boardwalk drew us back and down into the Basin proper. Masks and hats littered a few of the features on a relatively unremarkable Basin floor. A thermal stream coated in eerie white and green algae flowed South under the boardwalk towards Crackling Lake. The biology behind the color banding escaped us for now.
We continued through the forest and around Crackling Lake. An indelible series of boot impressions in geothermal mud to the North of the boardwalk reminded us that we shared the wonder of the area with all sorts of people. The boardwalk ultimately ended and a trail that took us uphill back to the parking area.
We took a short rest break near the Yellowstone Forever Park Store and had a conversation with an “Ambassador” that was controlling the flow of people into the facility. It was an informational turning point for C and I and clarified that Yellowstone was indeed open 24/7, even boardwalks, geysers, and other features (with a few caveats such as avoid fragile geothermal and other areas). Previous to this, online accounts about swimming and night activities had always been very vague, maybe by Park design, who knows… Our remaining walk to the car was buoyed by verbal carte-blanche offered by YF.
An email with the header “Interview with EPA's Air Toxics Assessment Group” popped unnoticed into my email queue the night that we drove around Yellowstone Lake. It must have arrived when we passed through the square meter of service area in Hayden Valley.
The email piqued our interest because we had expanded our job searches to include all CONUS, all relevant positions. Could this be a good lead? We’d send a response on Day 2, today.
By the time we arrived in Hayden valley, bison had started moving from Yellowstone River up into the sagebrush to the West. Ones and twos, and groups of a dozen at a time crossed the Grand Loop Road at different intervals causing bison-jams (buffalams?) the length of the valley. We pulled off the road in an area near a mixed group of bison that were milling around. A short climb up a nearby hill gave us an excellent perspective to watch and photograph from a distance.
Today’s observations sealed our views on bison mating and reproduction. We had missed the confrontational part of the rut, where the bulls had competed for cows. Now, each bull closely guarded their particular cow from other sneaky bulls, directing them where to go and occasionally checking to see if they were in estrous (Flehman behavior).
I had cell service while we were somewhere on the hill or later in a parking lot and sent EPA a brief email explaining that I was in the boonies without real cell service and would have to delay any interviews until back in Estes Park. A quick response from EPA HR outlined that interviews had to be completed far sooner than that, so we were at a regrettable impasse. Ultimately I bid the idea of working for the Air Toxics group goodbye… and we moved on to more bison.
Hiking through Norris Geyser basin and Hayden valley had coated us with a crusty sulphurous biofilm that needed to be swam off. The presence of fishermen in waders the day before tipped us off to a potential swimming spot to the South of Gibbon Meadows, so we drove to investigate.
Muddied, squishy trails followed the bank northward from the parking lot towards a distant Gibbon Geyser Basin. Brilliant green grasses grew to the edge of the river and sometimes out onto islands and into shallow places. Beautiful stalks of whitish green hooded lady’s tresses (a native orchid) decorated the wettest parts of the river bank.
A series of hidden potholes in the trail left us looking for more stable footing, so we took to the water. The river bottom was sandy gravel and shallower here, so was easy going. White water buttercups struggled to stay rooted against the current. A dry sandbar materialized farther up the river out of sight and hearing of the road. Perfect for an afternoon repast and a swim!
C continued to explore upstream while I relaxed on the sand bar. The gravel bottom transitioned to mud in a few deeper areas, prohibiting further exploration without swimming. Downstream in the faster part of the river we discovered a deeper hole washed out of the river bank. Light penetrated the clear water six or more feet to the mixed gravel mud bottom.
We took the plunge in the hole and flailed about until the grime of the day was gone. No trout rose to investigate what all the commotion was about. The water was chilly, but not cold. Could it be that water from the intensely geothermal Norris Geyser basin had moderated its temperature?
After swimming, we dried in the warmth of the afternoon sunshine while puttering around in the upstream shallows. A mottled sculpin warily darted onto the submerged hulk of a burned out lodgepole. It paused for a photo before continuing downstream, possibly into the jaws of a waiting cutthroat trout.
A plethora of fringed gentian wildflowers grew in the grass near the parking area. A little exploration turned up a smaller hot spring bubbling from the ground and running into the Gibbon river. We had probably walked right over it in our haste to find a nice swimming area. The spring’s availability in the grass added to its diminutive panache. Even though the water was too hot to do more than a quick dip of the hands or feet, its vigorous bubbles and boils succeeded in mesmerizing our senses for a time.
Back at camp, C and I prepped some water and rehydrated our Mountain House dinners. We’d taken to these meals to reduce the amount of camp drudgery surrounding meals AND because they are super delicious. Campers in the site next to us had changed their skins, sizes, and accommodations at some point during the day.
C and I lugged a pile of heavier clothes and gear down to the end of the boardwalk above Porcelain Springs and “camped” for the sunset. It was still early evening so we had plenty of time to set up camera gear and find comfortable ways to occupy ourselves. The occasional tourist wandered our way, considerately thought better of it, and wandered back down the boardwalk in the opposite direction. Much like silky threads in a spider web, vibrations through the boardwalk telegraphed their progress to us long after they had passed from sight.
The park quieted considerably as visitors wandered away from the Porcelain Basin towards dinner. The camera shutter clicked away on its interval timer.
Sunset came without much flourish. Low hanging clouds caught threads of orange and threw them haphazardly down into the standing pools of Porcelain Springs. Sputtering steam vents and geysers disrupted the serenity of the sunset and broke up dull reflections into a ruddier and seemingly delayed version of the aerial display. Clouds covered the last rays of the day and stole the remaining warmth from the air. Steam from the occasional vent puffed past, adding a taste of sulphurous humidity and warmth to the platform.
Sunlight tilted below the horizon. Darkness freed twinkling stars to fall slowly from the West into the distant Ragged Hills. An occasional Perseid meteor flashed across the horizon. We sat there long into the night, sometimes accompanied by a little mouse, watching and listening as the steam vents jetted away.