21st – 25th June – Yellowstone became the world’s first national park when it was established in 1872 and it must surely have some of the most surreal and spectacular landscapes on Earth. Some 640,000 years ago, a huge area at what is now the centre of the park, suddenly exploded, covering thousands of square miles with ash and leaving a smouldering, collapsed crater many miles across. Not only does the landscape in the park illustrate just how violent the Earth can be, but should the giant that presently lies dormant here suddenly awake, a large part of the world would be changed once again for ever!
We have our last glimpse of Jackson Lake and the Teton Mountain Range as we leave Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and enter Yellowstone at its southern end. There are many deep pockets of snow between the pine trees and plenty on the hills. The amazing Snake River that followed us through the Tetons, branches away east and we now have the fast flowing Lewis River that flows from Lewis Lake.
Our first stop is at the West Thumb Geyser Basin where a boardwalk leads us around a fascinating and colourful group of thermal features located by the shore of Yellowstone Lake, North America’s largest, high-altitude crater lake at over 7,000 feet. In the distance across the blue/green water, which looks incredibly calm, is a line of snow-capped mountains, the Absaroka Mountain Range, where the Yellowstone River begins its journey.
From here we drive to the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world that are really caused by three conditions: molten rock that in Yellowstone can be as close as 3 to 8 miles below its surface, cold water in the form of rain or snow and a network of cracks that enable this cold water to seep down where it makes contact with the hot zone, heating up slowly until it explodes. One of the most famous of these geysers is of course Old Faithful by the Firehole River. It erupts more frequently than any of the other big geysers, although it is not the largest or most regular in the park. The nearby Visitor Centre provides information on when the next eruption will take place and the surrounding benches fill very quickly as everyone waits with baited breath for the ‘show’, when thousands of gallons of boiling water will thunder into the sky! There’s a few ooohs and aaahs as small spurts erupt pretty much on time and then come the big ones that can last anything from 1 to 5 minutes, reaching nearly 200 feet into the air.
We follow a trail that takes us around this Upper Basin, past numerous, colourful, boiling springs and geyserite formations…….
……..including the magnificent, ancient cone of Castle Geyser, which is noisily erupting as we walk by….quite an incredible sight!
Yellowstone is quite busy at the moment, but we have been lucky in reserving 3 nights at the Bridge Bay Campground. A very nice site but no electricity hook-ups here, so no heating from our cooker tonight, and it’s going to be quite chilly.
There’s a 50% chance of rain on our second day and it’s decidedly overcast and colder as we head out from the campground to go north as far as Tower- Roosevelt before going east along the Lamar Valley, where we have been told there is a good chance of seeing wildlife. Yellowstone is not just famous for its geysers, springs, fumaroles and mudpots, its importance as a wildlife sanctuary has grown over the years and it is said that more plants and animals live in Yellowstone now in their natural habitats, than anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
We stop and take a short trail to Le Hardy’s Rapids on the way. It’s bitterly cold and I don’t think that anyone would survive long in these raging waters. Amazingly however, there are a few very attractively marked, small Harlequin Ducks sitting on and around a large rock. Every so often they jump into the water for food, whilst their little feet must be paddling so fast against the force of the water to stop them being swept away. Also in these waters, we watch Cut Throat Fish leaping the rapids on their way to spawning grounds….another amazing feat! Their name comes from a red line under their throats. It’s a struggle and not all find it easy but it’s just another incredible act of nature.
Our drive north takes us through the beautiful Hayden Valley with grey sagebrush hills and marshes formed by the Yellowstone River as it slowly meanders through.
A little further north, trails and overlooks provide a very different and spectacular sight of this river’s two major waterfalls as it roars through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The 308 ft. Lower Falls drops between canyon walls that display yellow, pink and red rock, colours that are created by heat and chemical action on volcanic rock. At 109 ft. the Upper Falls are still worth a visit, although not quite so impressive.
Storm clouds are gathering in the distance as our road, edged with snow, crosses over Dunraven Pass at 8,859 feet. Weather can change here very quickly with little warning and the sleet and hail that follows means that our visit to the Lamar Valley will have to wait until the next day.
Our second attempt to visit the Lamar Valley however, certainly doesn’t disappoint for seeing wildlife, always a highlight for us……
Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, the spectacular Grand Prismatic Spring, can be found in the Midway Geyser Basin. Approximately 370 ft. wide, it will be a certain highlight, like the jewel in the crown with its blue pool circled with oranges, yellows and browns. Steaming and bubbling fissures and creeks create amazing patterns and the whole surface looks as if it has been varnished, with the clouds reflected in the glaze. The direction of the wind however, is causing the clouds of steam to drift across its brilliant, blue centre hiding it from view, but it is still quite an incredible sight!
Continuing north in the park, we arrive at Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and oldest geyser basin in the park, where changes occur every year. New geysers may erupt, steam can suddenly hiss from vents, or hot springs suddenly stop flowing. Many of its geysers and hot springs are acidic rather than alkaline. A trail winds around a section known as the Porcelain Basin, named for its porcelain-like appearance.
A visit to Mammoth Hot Springs is our final destination before leaving Yellowstone, where tiers of colourful, cascading terraces have been formed over thousands of years from hot water laden with minerals from deep beneath the surface, finding its way its way to the surface.
Yellowstone’s natural wonders are certainly spectacular…..and dangerous. Whilst watching mists drifting from bubbling pools, admiring the vivid colours circling the springs, or the quiet waters of Yellowstone Lake, it’s easy to forget the inferno that’s boiling away under our feet!