Treading Unstable Ground

Westward Wanderlust, Day 4
July 13th, 2012
Yellowstone National Park, Montana

We were up bright and early and on the Yellowstone Loop. We stopped at Shoshone Lake for breakfast and coffee, crossed the Continental Divide, and headed towards the most famous geothermal feature of them all, the ever reliable, Old Faithful.

Woo hoo! Across the great divide!

Just a friendly warning from the good old NPS.

FYI, you can’t do anything here.

But first, we were lucky enough to be able to see a lesser known and less predictable geyser go off. The Beehive Geyser, which, when active, will to erupt every 12-16 hours was an unexpected delight. Beehive has the power to shoot water straight up into the air, reaching heights of 150-200 feet.

Beehive Geyser

Before heading back to Old Faithful, (average eruption – every 93 minutes) we had some time to check out the awesome architecture in the Yellowstone Lodge.

Yellowstone Lodge

Yellowstone Lodge

The breeze had picked up slightly by the time we made it back to Old Faithful, but her performance was no less spectacular!

Old Faithful…amping up.

In her 1 ½-5 minute eruptions, Old Faithful spews 3,700-8,400 gallons of boiling water, reaching a height of 106-184 feet.

Old Faithful blowin’ her top!

We explored the rest of the geyser basin, stopping often to peer into the power gurgling beneath us.

the heat beneath the crust.

The smell of the sulfuric pools was palpable. With each breath I could taste the sharp, almost metallic heat of the boiling craters in the back of my throat. The thick white steam billowed around us as we traversed the wooden plank paths build just inches above the crust of unstable Earth. My tongue felt like a slab of hot, salted, iron as I captured deep breaths of the humid steam.

Iron Spring Creek

In addition to the huge concentration of geothermal features in Yellowstone, I was surprised and impressed as to their variety; be it size, shape, color, temperature, or temperament, all of the hydrothermal features are unique and worth seeing.

Sunset Lake

The ribbons of color the weave along the edge of these pools are formed by thermaphiles, or heat-loving organisms. It is these tiny, primative life forms that add such dramatic, beautiful color to Yellowstone’s awesome hydrothermal features. The most common in this area, Cynobacteria, can live in temperatures up to 167 degrees F. The incredibly blue water in the pools denotes areas of extreme heat reaching over 199 degrees F, too hot to allow the growth of most bacteria.

Hot alien honeycomb!

The crusted ground.

With bizarre, extraterrestrial landscapes like these, it was often hard to believe that we were in the middle of a National Parks that is well known for sustaining an abundance of wildlife. Other than the reminders provided by the park signs, there is little within these basins that would suggest animal habitat. But what do I know?

Yellow Monkey Flowers

I was not able to figure out what this was, but it flourishes near the thermal features!

Mountain Bluebird

We drove on through Yellowstone, stopping at the Biscuit Basin for a hike and more thermal features.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior Geyser Crater

After our hike, we continued to follow Gibbon River toward the Norris Geyser Basin.

Gibbon River

D enjoying the view of Gibbon River

When you see a traffic jam like this in any National Park,

What wildlife awaits??

you can bet that there is wildlife up ahead.

And there was!

A bison! (Photo by DRJ)

Photo by DRJ

Photo by DRJ

Even when the majority of the day has been dominated by photographic subjects that I did not need to sneak up on, it is always good to be ready, just in case…

Poised and at the ready!

Lone coyote on the prowl.

One of my favorite hydrothermal features is the mudpots. These acidic features constantly bubble as gases from below escape through the mud and clay. Not only do they make awesome pop-ploping sounds, but they look like bottomless vats of boiling chocolate milk!

Fountain Mud Pots

Once we reached The Artists’ Paintpots, I was obsessed with the capturing the constant, slopping, bubbling motion of the mudpots.






We arrived at the Norris Geyser Basin with a lightening storm on our heels. We hiked the basin in the rain and watched the rest of the storm move in.

Storm moving in across Norris Geyser Basin. (Photo by DRJ)

Standing in a geyser basin adds a whole other dimention to the experience of “big sky”. Even at 7,484 feet above sea level, you feel simultaneously low to the ground, but level with the sky. With all the open space surrounding you, the sloping land seems to stretch like layers of muslin or miles of hand-pulled taffy; intermintint steam and white-grey crust on the surface reminding me that one uncalculated step on the unstable ground could end in 3rd degree burns.

Continuing North to Mammoth Hot Springs, we did a few more hikes as well as more geyser viewing in the rain. This is D’s second time visiting Yellowstone, and he was shocked at the lack of water flowing from the springs. The place still looked spectacular to me, but I can imagine how amazing it would have been to see the springs flowing.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

I couldn’t believe this little sandpiper could walk in the boiling sulfuric water!

We continued heading North in hopes of getting to the top of the loop before dark. On the way, we found a hidden side road and took it. Fog was beginning to set it and dusk was an hour or so away. This combination made for a beautifully eerie drive down our private path that wound through hills and stands of leafless trees like a lazy eel. We drove slowly, enjoying this unexpected moment of intimacy with the landscape.

Our hidden road.

Finally, we arrived at the crest and began to head East over top of Yellowstone Loop road, stopping at Roosevelt tower to stretch our legs. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw a couple with a camera looking eagerly across the ravine to the wilderness on the other side. With all of the opportunities for photographing wildlife combined with the often intense park traffic, D and I have developed a system for such occasions. When someone, or a group of someones, are all staring at a tree, up a mountain, down a river bank, etc., I jump out of the car (since D is usually driving on the crazy winding mountain roads) and run over to the scene. Once I see what the attraction is, I turn to D and give him the signal. Yes, that’s right. We came up with hand signals. As I ran over to the couple with the camera and asked them what they were looking at, I had the first chance to turn to D and flash him our hand signal for “Bear”.

The couple said that they had been watching a black bear work her way across the top of the ridge, but had just lost sight of her. We stood with them for a while, straining to look across the ravine in the impending darkness. We didn’t see anything, so we packed up our camera and lenses and started down the path past Roosevelt Tower toward Tower Fall. We could see our breath cloud from our moths as we hiked downward, all the time scouring the opposite ridge for anything that moved. We were rewarded for our diligence.

American Black Bear

Not the best photo of a bear, but proof enough that we saw one!

We followed the trail to a beautiful view of Tower Fall and then started back.

Tower Fall

We knew that once we finished our hike here, we would have to start heading back to our campsite at Lewis Lake. Driving on the roads after nightfall in a place that was home to deer, elk, bison, wolves, coyotes, and bears, could make for a long and anxious drive home.

The mood of Yellowstone changes as night begins to fall. The steam from the geysers unexpectedly swells from behind the silhouettes of skeletal trees and black masses of unlit landscape. Even the Gibbon River, that looked so peaceful hours earlier had an almost sinister quality to it. All of Yellowstone’s colors had morphed into ghostly blues and greys, foggy whites, and bottomless blacks.

Gibbon River at dusk.

Yellowstone after hours.

Geyser steam at dusk.

By the time we made it back to Lewis Lake, the night had taken hold everything, her darkness awarding the animals the ability to emerge anywhere they pleased, unknown and unseen. Moving through our campsite with the help of our headlamps, we enjoyed a Trout Hop Black IPA and finally crawled into our tent around 11:00 pm. It was 54 degrees and sleep came easy. Tomorrow we head to Yellowstone’s neighbor, Grand Teton National Park.

Day 4 Soundtrack –
Gibbon Falls – America “Horse with no Name”
Norris Geyser Basin – The Who “Goin’ Mobile”

4 thoughts on “Treading Unstable Ground

  1. Wow! What amazing pictures! Who needs to go to Europe when we can find such beauty in our own back yard! Thanks you guys for sharing your trip and talented photography with us.Here to more adventures! Love you both butches, Mary

  2. Pingback: Rocky Mountain National Park – Day 2 | inkinthebranches

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