We have just completed four full days in Yellowstone National Park. Visiting this oldest and second largest (to Death Valley) outside Alaska is an experience that covers so many scenic and geological wonders and which presents something new on any repeat trip here, as Molly and I have found in our six or so visits.
The Park is a giant (almost 4000 square miles) caldera of an ancient volcano and contains some of the most interesting and diverse thermal areas in the world. It also contains a huge lake, a canyon (dubbed the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone) with magnificent waterfalls, mountains above 10,000 feet with road passes approaching 9000 feet, and huge areas of dense forest. It is also home to many large wild animals, including bear, wolf, moose, many species of deer and, most often seen, bison and elk. It is difficult to say which aspect is the most interesting but I suspect that seeing the wild beasts and the many and varied thermal areas are perhaps the top on the list for most visitors.
Unless one has actually visited Yellowstone (or one of three other similar places in the world) it is difficult to comprehend the landscapes that are present and the wide variety of features that are prevalent when boiling water emerges from the ground. The colors alone (pink, white, black, brown, orange and – of course – blue) are magnificent but when these are combined with every kind of eruption and ground terrain, the whole is almost unreal. Steam rises from dozens of sources across the landscape, boiling water forms clear pools of water with multi-colored runoff to the surrounding land, and the land itself seems to boil as molten areas of crust bubble with the heat and pressure from under the surface.
Add to this surreal landscape the natural beauty of trees, rivers, waterfalls and desert and you begin to describe Yellowstone.
We did see Old Faithful perform twice during our visit but, although the sight is impressive and a “must”, it is by no means the most interesting or unusual of the thermal features. Those thousands who capture this icon on camera and then get on the bus or in their cars to leave the area have certainly witnessed an awesome natural wonder but have only scratched the surface of this part of the Park.
At the north end of the park is the Mammoth Hot Springs area. This is a series of hot springs that have formed terraces of perhaps 200 feet in height and in virtually every pastel shade as well as browns, whites and black. We started this visit by driving to the top of the area and walking down a series of boardwalks to view several springs in various stages of activity. Later we started at the bottom of the hill and climbed boardwalks and wooden staircases almost to the top and saw even more spectacular formations. Perhaps the most interesting was a pure white terrace which looked like it had been precisely carved to form solid blocks of ice. The “ice” was travertine which in a much more dense form is the marble used in so many buildings throughout the world.
Yellowstone’s Thermal Areas
As we said, Yellowstone is far more than a thermal area and on two of our days here we touched on other features of the Park.
On our final day in the park we started by driving the south rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We had been on the north rim two days ago and got some great views of the canyon walls, the river and the two major waterfalls, but today’s views were, if anything, even better. We also drove alongside the Yellowstone River as far as the northern end of Yellowstone Lake (140 square miles at an elevation of 7700 feet.
Along the way we saw a huge herd of bison: they were off in the distance across the river but this was the first time we had seen such a large grouping together. There were probably 50 or so. We also spotted a bald eagle (very briefly) and several elk so we felt we had done quite well during our four day stay in this wonderful park.
Tomorrow (Thursday) we leave Wyoming and Yellowstone Park and head further west to Idaho and then to Oregon. We hope to report on that part of the journey within the next week.
Bob and Molly