Washington was behind us, more than 2,000 miles lay ahead. We were Indiana bound, but our home state would have to wait . . . a couple weeks longer at least. A vast open land needed to be crossed and we planned to make more than a couple stops along the route. There was just too much in between—a rich tapestry of landscapes that enticed us to take closer looks.
Montana was where we really began to apply the brakes. With its big open sky and upheaved landscape, it was the scenery that pulled us in. We spent more than a few days here.
Seeing a land that homesteaders once claimed . . .
And still explored on horseback today.
And through it all, drove endless miles through rugged, empty country.
And found a place that suited us, camping under the grandeur of Absaroka peaks.
Several days later, after coming to know some Montana towns much better, we diverted from I-90 and followed a scenic road through a valley aptly named Paradise. Following the course of the Yellowstone River, the longest undamned river left in our country, we were led to our next destination, our anticipation of which made leaving Washington a little easier to do.
Not our first visit here, still it would be one of the highlights of this trip. We made our way through its most imposing entrance, the Roosevelt Arch, looking forward to the coming three days.
Established on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone is not just ours, but in fact, the world’s first national park. It is a huge national park, second only by area in the Lower 48 (Death Valley is larger), about 60 miles in both width and length. Having some of the most famous natural features in any of America’s national parks, its diversity of attractions is a match for any location on our planet. Even with 310 miles of paved roads in the park, it’s barely enough to handle the summer crowds. The three most popular areas are Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful and the Geyser area, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We chose to divide our days between the canyon and geysers, selecting a campground that compromised the distance between. Bridge Bay, located adjacent to huge Yellowstone Lake, was an enormous campground of over 400 sites. We were situated on its fringes, never feeling like part of the masses.
Yes, the park was full of people, the evidence of which could be found with the sometimes bumper-to-bumper traffic, especially if wildlife was involved. Tie-ups could last for quite a while too. When caught up in one, you quickly learn to go with the flow and take advantage of the encounters.
But mostly, we stayed off the beaten track, especially at peak times during the day. Up at sunrise, we would drive to our day’s destination early and take advantage of the sights before crowds arrived. Our first full day had Old Faithful and the geyser area on the agenda. We headed out.
Yellowstone is home to about half of the world’s geysers, yet they are only a small fragment of the 10,000 thermal features here in the park. The rest are steaming pools, hissing fumaroles, bubbling mud pots or hot seeps. Most of Yellowstone’s geysers are small, barely reaching ten feet in height. There are only 6 grand geysers, being those that erupt 100 feet or higher on a predictable daily basis.
Old Faithful easily qualifies as one that is grand. Named in 1870 during the Washburn Expedition, it was the first geyser in the park to receive a name. A true icon of Yellowstone, it is also known as one of the most predictable geographical features on Earth, now erupting about every 91 minutes or so.
One of the leaders of that Washburn Expedition, Nathaniel Langford wrote in his records after seeing their first geyser eruption:
“Judge, then, what must have been our astonishment, as we entered the basin at mid-afternoon of our second day’s travel, to see in the clear sunlight, at no great distance, an immense volume of clear, sparkling water projected into the air to the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet. “Geysers! geysers!” exclaimed one of our company . . .
It spouted at regular intervals nine times during our stay, the columns of boiling water being thrown from ninety to one hundred and twenty-five feet at each discharge, which lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. We gave it the name of Old Faithful.”
Truly, we could have been observing the same sight as they—our view of its eruption from the perspective we had. No bleachers of people to mar the sight, no photographers in evidence . . . we looked upon its incredible display as if the only people in the park.
The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest numbers of this fragile feature found in the park. Within one square mile there are at least 150 of these hydrothermal wonders. Located on the Firehole River, Riverside Geyser is also one of those six grand geysers. One of the most reliable in the park (not meaning to distract from Old Faithful’s reputation), its eruptions last for about 20 minutes, much longer than those of Old Faithful’s. We just happened to be a witness to its display too.
The geysers might be the feature putting on the shows, but the pools and springs and mud pots have a display just as eyecatching, albeit more stationary. It’s their vivid hues that are the show-stoppers here.
Hot springs, pools, and run-off channels exhibit all colors of the rainbow. Bacteria and algae are mainly responsible for the bright colors. Different temperatures of water also have an effect on what plant communities are present and their particular hues.
Morning Glory is such a pool and is a favored destination for park visitors.
Large hot pools also radiate with brilliant colors of deep blue to emerald green. These waters reflect the blue color rays in sunlight and then absorb the remainder of the color spectrum. A blue hot pool changes its mood from day to day, depending upon the intensity of light or the amount of particulate matter suspended in the water. And let me tell you—its color and clarity look very inviting, a place you would like to soak in.
We did a lot of walking that morning, checking out those thermal features. Worked up a good appetite too. A break at the Inn and some refreshments made the day all more worthwhile.
The Old Faithful Inn is a magnificent feature itself. Called a “masterpiece of stone and log,” the venerable old inn was the first of the great lodges in the national park system and is likely the most famous.
The structure is the largest log hotel in the world, if not the largest log building in the world. Built in 1903-1904, much of it during the long winter, it was designed by 29-year-old Robert Reamer, an architect for the Yellowstone Park Company. He drew the design for the lobby and the initial phase of guest rooms, known as the Old House. The east wing was extended in 1913-1914, and the west wing in 1927, also supervised from his designs.
Built in the style of rustic camps of the Adirondacks, it was constructed with materials gathered from the park, primarily logs and stone. The original cost was about $140,000. It has had extensive renovations and now has 327 rooms.
The crowds were really spilling out and around the entire geyser basin by the time we were ready to leave. We had done the place thoroughly and left practically no thermal feature unnoticed. To top it off, it was time for another Old Faithful eruption—we stood back from the crowds to watch. A good day was ending just fine.
Another trick to being in this park at crowded times, is to go out when others are coming back. As an added benefit, you catch the better light with that timing too.
Located in the central portion of the park and north of Yellowstone Lake, the Hayden Valley is one of the most interesting areas within the park. It is essentially an enormous meadow composed of grasslands, as can be seen below. It was named for Ferdinand V. Hayden, a surveyor who led several expeditions to Yellowstone beginning in 1871.
Surrounded by sage-covered hills, the Yellowstone River runs through the Hayden Valley, where the channel is wide and winding, providing a very scenic setting. Largely bare of trees, the area was a lake bottom in ancient times. It is a popular place for wildlife viewing, bison being most likely.
As darkness fell, we headed back to the Lake Area where the old Lake Hotel dominates. First built in 1981, it is the oldest lodging in the park, but it was re-designed and substantially expanded by Robert Reamer, architect of the Old Faithful Inn, in 1903. In contrast to that Inn, the Lake Hotel is a relatively plain clapboarded Colonial Revival structure with two large Ionic porticoes facing the lake. It wasn’t quite our kind of place.
On the other hand, the Lake Lodge was a good place to end our day. Located on the perimeter of the Lake Area, it’s off the well-beaten path (most significantly, away from the crowds) where one can sit on a porch lined with well-worn hickory rockers. With an old western feel, It’s a rustic lodge constructed of lodgepole pine logs. Inside the huge common area are leather chairs and sofas clustered in several seating areas, with two log burning, stone fireplaces that help to keep the evening chill at bay.
The best part of that porch is its view . . . overlooking the wide expanse of Yellowstone Lake. Twenty miles long and 14 miles across, the lake sits in the Yellowstone Caldera. At an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, it is the largest high-altitude lake in North America, having more than 100 miles of shoreline. It’s also very deep, averaging around 140 feet, and more than 400 feet at its deepest. The water’s average summer temperature never rises above 45 degrees. But the fishing is good—its waters are home to one of the largest inland populations of wild cutthroat trout in North America.
Another early start to the next day. This time we were headed in the opposite direction. With the morning mist still laying low across the Hayden Valley, we were headed to the Canyon Area.
If there’s one thing that Yellowstone is famous for, it’s Old Faithful. But if there’s one thing that it should be famous for, it’s the incredible Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Renowned painter Thomas Moran made the canyon famous. In particular, his depiction of it’s richly layered colors from his perch at what is now called Artist’s Point captured the area’s uncommon grandeur and unparalleled beauty. Moran painted the canyon, but stated that the colors of Yellowstone Canyon were “beyond the reach of human art.” Moran accompanied the 1871 Hayden Expedition, and his paintings helped convince Congress to create our nation’s first national park. Twenty-four miles long, 4,000 feet wide, the Yellowstone River has cut through rock down 800 to 1,200 feet deep over the centuries. Hot acidic water and steam altered the characteristics of the volcanic rock in this area, making it softer and vulnerable to erosion, as well as affecting its color. The canyon is basically a geyser basin eroded by a river. The upper 7 miles of the canyon lay within the confines of the crater from the great catastrophic eruption.
The waterfalls are spectacular, especially the 308-foot Lower Falls (twice the height of Niagara and three times as high as the Upper Falls), After getting my shot from the South Rim, we entered the North Rim Drive to access a closer view of the Lower Falls. A steep, switchbacking trail leads a half-mile down into the canyon to bring you nearly face-to-face with those falls. There I had the full effect, plus an arching rainbow was my reward.
After a hearty breakfast at the nearby Canyon Inn, with energy restored, we had one last trail to conquer before leaving the canyon behind.
Uncle Tom’s Trail may be the most unusual hike in the park. Not really a trail, it’s a series of stairs made of steel mesh, concrete, and asphalt, 328 steps from top to bottom. The “grand staircase” takes you to an incredible viewpoint near the base of the Lower Falls. The trail gets its name from “Uncle” Tom Richardson, who took park visitors into the canyon from 1898 to 1903 on this trail, which originally had 528 steps and rope ladders. Not only did we have the closest possible view, but throw in some mist and sound effects too. It was an awesome experience, and a good way to test our stamina on the climb back up.
Returning to camp, we hung around and stayed away from crowds. With tomorrow being departure day, we had some organizing to get done. Then afternoon faded into evening and I wanted one last lake view to take away. Some clouds filtered in, so with camera in hand, I made the short trip down to the lakeside. I wasn’t disappointed.
Before breakfast next morning we were pulling away. Following the north shore of Yellowstone Lake, past the Lake Hotel illuminated by the sun’s early rays, we drove east. Unfortunately, it was through some of the most devastated landscape of the park—scorched, but still standing trees filled the scene across the meadows and up through mountainsides.
The summer of 1988 brought some of the greatest forest fires ever to occur in the Yellowstone area. The great fires of 1988 burned across almost half of the park’s area, reaching slightly under 1 million acres. Damage to the forests in the park was extensive. In fact, the last time the park area experienced fires of this magnitude was in the 1600’s.
A big factor in the severity of the fires in 1988 was the tremendous buildup of fuels. Some of this was due to fire suppression policies which had been followed at various times in the history of the park, and some due to the fact that no major fire had been experienced in the Yellowstone ecosystem since the 1750’s, when large fires burned in forests near the lake.
There have been many beneficial effects of the fire as well. One of these is increased food for elk, moose, bison, and other large animals. The snags provide living space for birds and other animals. The heat of the fires killed soil pathogens and changed, or improved, the properties of the soil. It recycled nutrients. The fire thinned the remaining forest and hopefully will result in increased vigor of the remaining living trees. So even though it looks bleak and dead, there are many signs that life is returning. Yellowstone might have been diminished, but not for long. It is a place that came long before, and will hopefully be a place for the ages. Our time here had been more than a little enlightening.
From the great Yellowstone Park,
Chris and Melinda
. . . passing on the right.