Friday, September 11
My coworkers all decided today was the day to do Tomato Soup, so I eagerly tag along with.
This isn’t a hike a person can easily try themselves unless they’re with someone who’s done it before because it’s entirely off trail, there is no worn path or markers to follow. In Yellowstone and other national parks I’ve worked at, it is legal to go off trail unless posted otherwise. Sometimes you need a permit depending on where you want to go though so it’s a good idea to check in with the back country ranger office first and explain your plans. They can also give you advice about the terrain and hazards you might face.
Every step on fallen pine needles, dry grass, and bare earth brings a little thrill of excitement. This is different than following a trail through the woods where you know exactly where you’ll end up. My coworkers have hiked out here before, but because there is no path it’s pretty much impossible to follow the same route twice. The possibility of stumbling across something none of us have seen before brings a bigger sense of adventure to the proceedings.
The first thing we stumble across is a lone bison, standing in the middle of a clearing and blocking our way. Going around him would be hard, runoff from hydrothermal features has made much of the meadow boggy and stepping in hot water isn’t how we want to start the day. Luckily he moves off quickly and we’re able to pass.
I creep closer to the pool the bison was standing in front of, being very careful where I step and looking at the edge critically to see if it’s an overhang. There are no boardwalks here to keep a person from falling through the crust, no signs warning visitors away from unstable areas, and no one else around to call for help if something were to happen. So we need to be very cautious; Death in Yellowstone is one of the most popular books we sell at the store and a lot of those stories involve hot springs.
It’s blue in the center and is steaming heavily, which means it’s probably quite hot. One of my coworkers has his temperature gun with him and he points it at the center of the pool, 180 degrees. Yep, wouldn’t want to fall in that one. The pool next to it has less steam and rust colored bacteria growing in it, indicating a cooler temperature which the temp gun confirms.
We follow a creek upstream. Even though it isn’t warm where we join with it, it’s easy to tell that it’s runoff from hydrothermal features because of the white residue left on rocks where the water has dried and the interesting colors of the creek bed. As we move closer to the source the water gets warmer, red and orange bacterial mats and emerald green algae colonize the water.
We cross the stream in two places where it’s narrow enough not to get our feet wet. Eventually it forks, and we follow the right fork up to two large steaming springs with a tiny bridge of land between them.
Judging by the way the pools are deepest on the side they share and the fact that the water level is the same in both of them, we can surmise that they connect under that spit of land and have the same water source. In one of them, a large chunk of ground has broken off and slid into the pool, making a little island. It was clearly an overhang that finally gave way under it’s own weight – this is why you never want to get too close to the edge of a hot spring.
My coworkers have received advice about another large hot spring in the area, nicknamed Micky Mouse because it has a main pool and two lobes that look like mouse ears. None of them have seen it before but have vague directions on where it should be. We strike up the hill into a dense stand of young pine, catching this smaller pool filled with the white skeletons of dead trees before being swallowed by the forest.
Walking through fire regrowth without a path is hard work. This area burned in the ’88 fires so the trees here are about 25 years old. They’re tall enough where you can’t see over them but still have limbs at ground level that you need to push through. Plus most of the old mature trees that died in the fire have fallen to the ground now, making a lattice of deadfall that we’re having to climb over.
We quickly get lost and miss Micky Mouse, but eventually steam becomes visible through the trees and we’re spit out of the forest next to a tiny reddish orange pool, must be close to Tomato Soup! Next to the pool a gigantic bleached scapula (shoulder blade) is leaning up against a dead tree. Must be from a bison. This isn’t the first or last bone we’ll come across out here, but it’s the most impressive. There are no other bison bones nearby, so I’m guessing someone moved it and set it down here.
Next up is a much larger pool in a lighter orange color, my coworkers call this one Cream of Tomato Soup, and are surprised at how much bigger it’s gotten since their last visit.
Uphill from that is Tomato Soup. Being off trail, this pool was not well known until it showed up in a book about Yellowstone’s thermal features. More people visit it now, but it’s still nothing like visiting the basins with boardwalk access. We don’t see another person the whole time we’re out here, although there are tracks to show that we’re not the first.
There are two other smaller pools in a similar color up here. Tabasco and Rose, but the shadows of the trees make them harder to photograph. Between them in a murky gray pool called Lattice that use to have a lot of dead trees crossing it, but they’re mostly gone now, my coworkers say this one has grown too.
At this point we could head back down the hill, but we still want to find Micky Mouse. We pass by a large hole in the ground issuing a little bit of steam, and I spy a red squirrel making his way across a dead tree spanning the hole towards us. Careful little guy, it probably wouldn’t be pleasant to fall down there!
We break through the trees and are confronted by a low area that would be all but impassible at wetter times of the year. It still looks boggy so instead of passing through it we climb up the side of another hill and finally get to look down on Micky Mouse.
It’s a very large pool and very dark in color with a lot of algae and weeds growing in it, it looks more like runoff than an actual spring. A look around confirms that the water gets stuck in this low area of the marsh, there are no outlets. So where’s the water coming from? The northern end looks steamier, if only we could get over that next rise and take a peek through the trees…
Ah-hah, found it! This smaller pool feeding into Micky Mouse is a brighter green and doesn’t have weeds growing in it, it must be hotter. Where the edge of the pool meets the hill ripples mar the surface of the water, indicating where the spring is coming out of the ground. Mystery solved, now it’s time to start heading back.
Turning back down the hill we find a curious pool, ringed by rust but with a deep spot in the center that turns from dark green to a light aqua. Walking around, it seems as though the lighter spot is a larger chamber visible through the narrower opening. There are tracks in the shallower part that are well preserved, the water level is higher than it was in the past.
Back at the runoff creek, we follow another fork up to it’s source. This nearly colorless pool is similar in size the twin ones on the other branch, but it’s a geyser instead of a hot spring. My coworkers say they’ve seen it erupt up to heights of five to ten feet on previous visits, but it doesn’t do that for us today. Instead it has bouts of bubbling and sizzling with intervals of quiet between them.
Not far from that is an impressive set of mud pots. This area reminds me a bit of the Artists Paintpots thermal area between Norris and Madison. Black and olive lichen grow where the ground remains warm from the heat underneath, the water bubbling up is acidic enough to dissolve the ground turning the water in these thermal features a multitude of muddy colors.
Visible from the mud pots is the largest spring we’ve seen yet, the size of a small swimming pool and bright blue in color. This is the main water source of the runoff creek, and where it flows from the pool it’s an equally bright yellow that boggles the mind. Of course it’s not the water itself that’s yellow, it’s the bacteria in the water.
But still, how amazing is it that you can find creeks that run red, orange, yellow, green and blue. My inner child giggles with delight that something this fantastical is actually 100% natural, and it makes me think that if water can come in every color of the rainbow, then surely some of the other seemingly far-fetched things I dream of are equally possible.
Things like hiking 100 miles in a summer while simultaneously working a job, maintaining a blog, and writing a book. By the time we get back to the car, we’ve clocked 4.3 miles which puts me at a solid 102.5 miles hiked since I arrived in Yellowstone. Mission accomplished!
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I hope you have enjoyed following me through Yellowstone’s back country these past 100+ miles! Yesterday (the 14th) marks my third nomadiversary as a full-timer (where has the time gone?!) and I’m looking forward to sharing many more adventures with you all.
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