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A glimpse of Yellowstone National Park

Posted by on September 15, 2014

The minute we realized we were going to spend a week in Montana we knew we had to visit nearby Yellowstone, America’s first national park. Only an hour from Big Sky to the West Entrance in the kitsch-y town of West Yellowstone, visiting the park was a no-brainer.

From Big Sky to West YellowstoneThat said, we knew a day trip would not do it justice, so we used this first exposure to discover the places that we will revisit when we have more time.

A logistic snag made us take a creative route through the park on our way to the Grand Tetons. Because the road between Old Faithful and West Thumb was closed after Labor Day for construction (phooey!), we ended up visiting the park in 2 segments.

On Monday afternoon, Jeff and I visited the geothermal areas down to Old Faithful. Then with a 5:15am start on Tuesday morning (aaaack!!!!), Matt, Sarah, Jeff, and I were in the park early to get a glimpse of the wildlife at their most active (dawn/dusk). The clockwise route around the lower Grand Loop Road added 2+ hours of driving, but was certainly scenic.

yellowstone-national-park-mapMy pre-trip research had not only told us that visiting Yellowstone in a day was ludicrous, but more importantly, it suggested that I might like the Tetons even more than Yellowstone. [Research don’t lie, peeps, the Grand Tetons were fabulous–but we’ll save that for the next post…]

For now, let’s talk about Yellowstone.

In our brief time there, three things made lasting impressions — the geothermal areas, the wildlife, and the scenery.

Geothermal activity in Yellowstone

I don’t know why but the geothermal areas of Yellowstone were, hands down, my favorite parts of the park. Maybe it was because we’d just seen the geothermal wonderfulness in Iceland? Or more likely, it’s because this is as close as I’ll ever get to being on another planet.

Geothermal activity looks positively otherworldly to me. I’m riveted.

Let’s start slowly…with the myriad of activity in the Lower Geyser Basin. First stop, the petrified wood/scorched earth look. What?!??!!?

Petrified Wood
And only a couple of steps away was Silex Spring, a hotter-than-hot spring with a deceptively cool blue color. The silica perimeter added to the eerie look.

Silex Spring
Around the corner, how ’bout a batch o’ gurgling mudpots? It’s fascinating to watch the Fountain Paint Pots gurgle like spaghetti sauce on the oven–a bubble here and there with the occasional burst. Um, what makes the earth want to do that??!?!? And why am I standing here watching it? Stupid tourist…

Fountain Paint Pot

Around one more corner is the Red Spouter, a cross between a fumarole (steam vent), mudpot (bubblin’ mud), and hot spring. Aptly named, the Red Spouter spews and hisses red mud at will. Yikes. Hard to capture on film, but this gives you an idea.

Bubblin' MudThen around a field of steaming geysers (none blew while we walked by), and back to the scorched earth/petrified look we saw at the start. There’s just no other word for it than otherwordly (at least to me!)

The scorched lookFrom the Lower Geyser Basin, we then drove to the Midway Geyser Basin, which contained one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen (and no, it ain’t Old Faithful).

Ok, here’s the lead up. We saw this on Monday afternoon and were enamored. Then we came back Tuesday morning, and were less enamored. Then we heard Lori and Jay hiked up a nearby mountain/hill to get a better view (on a separate day). And now I’m just plain jealous. I want to see that view! (Trust me when I say we will go back for that view…)

So here it is, our good, better, and best views of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the US and the 3rd largest in the world. Get ready for spectacular beauty!

The good (ok, worst) view came in the early morning, before the sun had come up above the steam. Granted, it provided a spooky backdrop, but otherwise the colors were too muted to be appreciated. That said, the layers of the microbial mats can clearly be seen in this view. (The ice on the boardwalk provided some suspense, too–luckily no one slipped from the icy boardwalk into the boiling spring!)

Grand Prismatic Spring-morning
The better view came in the afternoon, when the sun was high enough to light up the gold, orange, red, and blue “prism” of the spring. The blue color of the spring can barely be seen through the steam. The orange, red, and gold colors are due to the pigmented bacteria in the microbial mats adjacent to the spring.

Grand Prismatic Spring
Hence the reason that the best view of the spring comes when you see it from above. When we visited, we didn’t realize that you could hike the Fairy Falls trail to see the spring from above. Bum feet or no, I would have done that hike. That’s how pretty this place is! (This picture is courtesy of L. Davis, who had the smarts to hike the path!)

grandprismatic3
I mean, come on, is that not ridiculously beautiful???? WOW!

Before this visit, I had only heard of the Grand Prismatic Spring because of the moron (ahem, person) who crashed a drone into it earlier this summer. Errrgh, humans! [Notably, unmanned aircraft operations have since been banned in the park.]

But now, I think the spring has made it onto my “top 10 coolest things I’ve seen on this planet” list. Woah.

Ok, so after all of that wonder…we then went to see Old Faithful. I’ll admit we only went to see it because we thought we should. It’s Old Faithful, right? You can’t go to Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful. So….we did.

Old Faithful Signage
And what did we find? People, tons of them. And traffic, and RV’s, and a geyser that goes off every 60 to 90 minutes while hundreds of onlookers photograph, video, post, and tweet about it.

So that’s what we did too. Here you go…

OldFaithful
I must say, if I had it to do again, I could have skipped Old Faithful. (Sacrilege, I know!)

What I really wanted to see erupt was Steamboat. Steamboat, also in Yellowstone, is the world’s tallest geyser, historically spewing up to 300 ft in the air (Old Faithful spews 100-180 ft high). When we visited on Tuesday (2 Sept), Steamboat’s last eruption was in August of 2013, and then 8 years before that. So it’s anything but regular.

But guess when it went off? Wednesday, 3 Sept.

Seriously?????

Sigh.

So, instead of seeing Steamboat, we followed the loop road around and visited the Sulphur Cauldron. I must say, these areas are aptly named. I absolutely could have been in a rotten egg-laden witches brew. Check out these odd, smelly, gurgling cauldrons amidst such a peaceful, lovely backdrop. We took some pix, smelled some eggs, and bolted. That can’t be good for your health.

Sulphur Cauldron Panorama
And last, and maybe the most aptly named, was the Dragon’s Mouth Spring. This picture doesn’t do it justice (at all) and the video I took (that I thought would be awesome) was utter crap.  So you’re just going to have to take my word for it.

Walking up to this “cave”, it was easy to see how someone/thing could think it was a dragon’s mouth. Gaseous eruptions made it sound like a low growling, while the gurgling green liquid could have easily been a dragon’s juices ready to digest you. It smelled funky, too. A dragon’s mouth indeed, aaaaaack!

Dragon's Mouth
And with that, we end our little journey through the geothermal areas of Yellowstone. Cool, eh?

And you know what’s even cooler? That it only costs $25 for a car to visit this park for a week (along with the adjacent Grand Teton National Park). They’ve done a great job making this park accessible to all. Well done.

But now, on to the wildlife. Also super cool.

Wildlife in Yellowstone

Ok, so we mentioned that we got up way too early in order to see the wildlife at their most active. For us, that didn’t work. My guess is that there is less wildlife near the West Entrance and geothermal areas (en route to Old Faithful) because there are more people there. Bottom line: we didn’t see too much.

That said, Lori and Jay went out even earlier than us (ahem, 4:00am?) to get to the Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park to spot wolves (Jay’s goal for the trip). They happily reported watching a pack of 9 wolves for over an hour. So cool.

Though the early morning didn’t pay off for us, we still did get to see some beasts–the most common of which were bison.

The below bison was particularly notable. He was peacefully grazing on the other side of the river when we drove up. Sarah, Matt, and Jeff got out (on our side of the river) to photograph him, being very respectful of his space.

Mr. Bison promptly decided to ford the river and head to our side of the plains, before crossing the road near where we were parked, on his way elsewhere. I’ll admit, my voice hit that scared girl’s pitch that I didn’t even know I had, trying to get Jeff back into the car. In hindsight, all was fine. But in that moment, I pictured us getting a Darwin award for pissing off a bison.

Phew.

They may look slow and ambling, but they can move!

Bison on the move
The other notable bison was the one that caused a “bison jam” – famous in Yellowstone. Bison have the right of way anywhere in the park. Apparently someone had told this one he needed to walk the line…and that he did. Driversby gave him his space (while vigorously photographing out the windows!) I can’t say I’d want to meet a bison on a motorcycle. No thanks!

Bison Jam
The second most common sighting was of elk. This one was particularly handsome. Nice rack! (tehe…sorry, quick teenage boy moment there!)

Elk by the river
That’s pretty much all we saw (at least in Yellowstone), but Lori and Jay also saw a coyote. I’ll admit, these things creep me out. I’m glad I didn’t come upon him! (Photo courtesy of L. Davis)

Yellowstone coyote

Scenery in Yellowstone

Since we didn’t stay in Yellowstone long, we really didn’t see as much of the scenery as we’d like. We’ll save that for next time when we can stay longer.

But we were able to view the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Before this trip, I didn’t even know Yellowstone had a Grand Canyon…but it does!
The Lower FallsAnd Lori and Jay were able to see the full canyon from the best vantage point – Artist Point. So named for all of the artists who cop a squat there to paint the beautiful scene. Don’t ask me how we missed this. I’m going to blame it on hunger…we needed lunch at this point and were on a mission! (Photo courtesy of L. Davis)

Artist Point
Another area that we’ll see next time, but Lori and Jay saw this time, was the Natural Bridge. A hike along the Natural Bridge Trail brings you to this bridge that is 30 feet across and 50 feet tall. The trail is closed in late spring and early summer due to bear activity–they like the trout in the creek. Yikes! (Photo courtesy of L. Davis)

Natural bridge Yellowstone2And last but not least, the grandeur of Yellowstone can be seen in this view of the Hayden Valley. The brown specks in the lower middle of the picture are a herd of 15+ bison, to provide perspective.

Hayden Valley

This has given you just a peek of some of the things to see in Yellowstone. There is so much more–Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake, Norris Geyser Basin, and much, much more. We’ll come back for those another day.

But what our trip hopefully did show is that it’s easy to stay in the car and “see” Yellowstone. But if you want to “experience” Yellowstone, get out of the car, onto the trails, and farther away from other people. That’s when you can really appreciate the magnificent landscape with the added benefit of seeing more wildlife along the way.

Have any of you guys been to Yellowstone? If so, do you have any suggestions for what we should see/do next time? We’re all ears!

And if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this long post, thanks for reading–you’re a trooper!

7 Responses to A glimpse of Yellowstone National Park

  1. Julie Ostrander

    Seriously, what day were you in Yellowstone? We were there Sept. 7-11th! We were supposed to stay until the 12th, but camping in 15 degree temps is not meant for 2 and 5 year olds! So beautiful, isn’t it??? The geothermal activity blew my mind!

    • Julie Ostrander

      reading your post more close I see that you were there on Sept 2nd. 😉

      • Jen

        🙂 We were in Montana Aug 30 to Sept 6 and in Yellowstone on the afternoon of the 1st and morning of the 2nd. Indeed, it was gorgeous. I cannot imagine camping there though. And not because of the cold temps (though awful), but more because of the bears! I’m a wuss that way. You Minnesotans come from a stronger stock than I!!!

  2. Linda Koloda

    I have been there (believe it or not) for a short visit when we traveled to California. I do remember the awesome, breathtaking scenery and the gagging odor of the sulphur springs! But, you captured so much more than we got to explore – thanks for sharing!

    • Jen

      Gagging is a good word–that was disgusting! Could definitely feel it fill my lungs. Yucko. Glad you’ve been out to see/experience the wonder of Yellowstone!

  3. DSG

    Cool post! I took a “field trip” to Yellowstone in a 15-passenger van when I was in college, and we met with a scientist from Bozeman at one of the hot springs. He told us all about extremophiles and archaebacteria (although since renamed to archaea – similar to losing pluto as a planet, ha), which are microorganisms that live in the hot springs and produce all those wild colors that you saw.

    • Jen

      Oooh-that must have been so cool!! I would have loved to learn about the bacteria (archea or otherwise :)) The colors really are stunning, and extremophiles fascinate me. I’m sure we can learn so much from them! In fact, Thermus aquaticus (the Taq of Taq polymerase used in PCR) was first discovered in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone. How geeky are we?!!?!?!?!?

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