Fog lays like a blanket over the campground as my neighbors and I climb into their big white truck, destination: Norris Geyser Basin.
But a funny thing happens when we get to the end of the driveway. The road east between Old Faithful and West Thumb has been closed since the start of the season, a bridge is being completely rebuilt. All the literature has been saying that the bridge will be open on June 11th, that’s today, but none of us really believed the construction crew would finish on time.
But at 9 in the morning through the rapidly dissipating fog, it’s clear that the “road closed” sign is gone, the Grand Loop is now fully open. So instead of turning left towards Madison and Norris, we turn right and head up Craig Pass.
It’s a pretty drive. The big fires of ’88 missed this section of the park, and the conifers are old and tall. Jagged ridges rise up through the trees on either side of the road. This section of the loop crosses the continental divide twice, and near the top of the pass a pullout reveals a misty Shoshone Lake nestled in a valley. There is no road access to Shoshone, one must either hike in, or boat in (no motors allowed) from Lewis Lake to the south.
We glide on into West Thumb on the downhill slope and find a parking spot. West Thumb is on the west shore of the “thumb” of Yellowstone Lake. This will be the first time I’ve seen the lake since I was 14, I bet I’ll appreciate it much more than I did then.
As we get out of the truck, a crowd is gathering in front of the picnic area. Elk! Two cows and a spotted calf are nibbling on the dewy grass. They take very little notice of us, enjoying their breakfast as a sedately pace.
The fog hasn’t burned off over the lake yet, and it adds an element of surreality as we take the boardwalk along the West Thumb Basin near the lake shore.
Bluebell Pool delights with it’s clear, pure color and nearby greenery.
Fishing Cone lies dormant under the surface of the clear waters of the lake. Back when the water level was lower, Fishing Cone rose from the surface and the water inside it’s cone was hot enough to cook with. Anglers would stand on the cone and cast into the lake. When they caught a fish, they’d dunk it into the cone to cook it on the spot.
The lake itself reminds me a lot of Lake Tahoe. It’s clear, big, and deep. In fact, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America. It’s surface elevation is 7,733 feet, and it’s maximum depth is an impressive 410 feet. It looks very strange on a map, with multiple fingers and a very irregular shape, that’s due to the thermal activity in the area. The ground around here rises and falls and changes the contours of the lake. The West Thumb area is geologically speaking quite new, an eruption many thousands of years ago blew out this crater that the lake filled in.
We make a couple stops inside the YA bookstores at West Thumb and Grant Village to say hi to coworkers, and then continue following the loop road counterclockwise along the lake.
My neighbors want to see Fishing Bridge, a historic bridge that visitors use to be able to fish from for Cutthroat trout. Fishing from the bridge is no longer allowed today, it’s a prime spawning area for the trout and their numbers were dwindling from over-fishing. It’s still a neat thing to walk over, I fail to get a picture for some reason.
After that, I make a mistake. I was jokingly designated the navigator of our group, and I get turned around. After walking the bridge we get back in the truck and cross over it, when we should have turned around and went back the way we came.
We leave the lake, and mountains still capped with snow rise up before us. The road climbs. We come to picturesque Sylvan Lake (I think every state in the west must have a Sylvan Lake, thoughts?) where a pair of Mallard ducks are diving for dinner. Sylvan Pass is not far beyond it.
Huh, I didn’t think the loop road got this mountainous, sure is pretty. We hug the side of a mountain on the way down, small streams cascade down the steep slope into the valley far below. As our descent slows, the road widens into multiple lanes guarded by brown huts. Uh-oh, is that…? Yep, we’re at the east gate to the park, whoops!
The pilot of our group turns to the co-pilot (his wife) and me (the navigator, heh) and gives us a look. “I was paying attention to the road, what’s your excuse?” The co-pilot lifts up her chin “This was the scenic route is all.” She says with a smile. “Err, yes. We went exactly where I meant for us to go.” I pipe in with a sage nod. The pilot grins and shakes his head, and turns our ship about.
It’s getting on in the afternoon by the time we make it back to Fishing Bridge, and a choice lies before us. Back the way we came, which is 19 mile shorter, or turn right and finish the grand loop. We opt for further exploration and turn right.
A sign looms ahead: “Mud Volcano”. Well heck, that sounds interesting. “Turn here!” the co-pilot shouts, and the pilot obliges.
The Mud Volcano hydrothermal area is pretty unique. Every single one of it’s features is muddy, and the whole basin reeks of rotten eggs and stinky socks.
There’s something about the water that comes up in this basin that dissolves the rock around it, that’s how mudpots become mudpots. I think it has something to do with low pH, but I’m not positive. Either way, the results are pretty unique.
Mudpots often don’t have a really high water output and are dependent on water in the environment. In the spring, frequent rains and snowmelt make mudpots into brown hot springs. Later in the summer as the water evaporates, the mud becomes thick and gas escapes in soupy bubbles. In the fall, many mudpots dry out and become simply vents for steam.
After Mud Volcano, the valley along the Yellowstone River widens and becomes dotted with sagebrush as the trees recede from the banks. We’ve arrived at Hayden Valley.
This is often a good place to view wildlife in the park, but all we see today are large numbers of bison and flocks of geese along the shore. We’re here at the wrong time of day. Morning and evening are usually the best times to see wildlife in Yellowstone, not only because those are the times of day when a lot of animals are most active, but also because there are less people around. Every park I’ve worked at so far I’ve noticed that during high visitation times, wildlife is scarce, and it makes sense. Even better for viewing wildlife is if you can time your visit to a less busy time of year, spring and fall instead of summer when everyone comes – Yellowstone’s busiest month of the year is July and it’s fast approaching.
Once we hit Canyon Village, we’re in an area all of us have seen before, so we finish the loop without any further stops. Phew, what fun!
Friday, June 12
Hiking time! At 8 am I stumble out the door to find my co-workers already parked outside Cas and rearing to go. Silly morning people.
Today we’re hiking to Fairy Falls, one of the tallest falls in the park at 170 feet. The closest parking area is located just south of Midway Geyser Basin, and it’s quite small. This is a popular hike and the little lot fills up quickly, so the best way to ensure a parking spot is to come early, hence the 8 am start time today.
The trail starts along an old road, and crosses a bridge over the Firehole River. It follows the treeline behind Midway Geyser Basin, offering tantalizing glimpses of Grand Prismatic Spring, the second largest hot spring in the world.
It’s a calm morning and there are few people out hiking yet, we were only the fourth car in the lot. A mile in, the old road continues straight, where the Fairy Falls trail veers off into a thick grove of young lodgepole pine.
At 6 miles, this trail is still rated easy because it’s quite flat. The couple I’m hiking with today (different than my neighbors, the couple I went driving with yesterday) are in their 70’s, but still quite active. Our pace isn’t fast, which is fine because it allows me a more time to take in the birdsong, the whisper of a faint breeze through trees, the flowers that are now popping up all over the park, and the buzzing of mosquitoes.
We hear the falls before we see them. It’s set back into a recess in the cliff and isn’t visible until you’re almost right on top of it.
And wow, can you get close. It’s not a high volume waterfall, but is elegant in appearance, with the rocks at the lower part of the falls funneling the water into multiple little channels. The name Fairy Falls fits.
We could turn around and go back now, but another 0.6 miles would take us to Spray and Imperial Geysers, the later of which I’ve been told is very impressive. The day is still young, so we go for it.
Crossing the stream at the bottom of Fairy Falls, the trail winds through a mixed aspen and pine grove before emptying into a field frequented by bison. Bees buzz lazily around the flowers, paying us no mind.
A red creek frames the far side of the meadow.
Well, not red really. The water is clear, and the red color comes from tiny microbes living in the water called thermophiles that love heat. The creek is actually runoff from a hydrothermal feature nearby, a pretty big one judging by the size. Spray geyser spews water continuously into the air at a height of 3-4 feet across the way, but that’s not the cause of this creek. We follow it upstream.
Imperial Geyser lies at the start of it. Wow, what color!
Water leaps to the air in bursts almost continuously for about a minute, then lies still only about 10 seconds before erupting again. Imperial historically goes through years of near continuous eruption like this, followed by years where it behaves more like a hot spring. I’m glad that it’s putting on a show for us right now.
W get our fill of pictures then sit down for lunch. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic. The day is warm, the wind has picked up and it’s keeping the mosquitoes down, and we have an incredible show to watch. The fact that this is a completely natural phenomenon is mind boggling.
The hike back after lunch retraces our steps. Walking out to Imperial added 0.6 miles each way, so our grand total for today’s hike is 7.2 miles, not bad! I’ve now walked the Morning Glory loop at Old Faithful three times at 2.8 miles each, Mystic Falls was 3.5 miles, Purple Mountain was 6 miles, so that makes 25.1 miles total so far!
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