Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It Looks Like It Grew There

I was thinking of naming this post “Double Double Toil and Trouble,” or some truncation of that, but it sounds kinda silly and so do any pieces of it I might use. But that really would be an appropriate summary of the day, minus the toil and trouble part. This whole place is basically a giant bubbling cauldron of strange unearthly materials that, when put together in just the way that Yellowstone has them, produces a potion unlike anything else in the world. 
The day began anything but boiling. Next to that first night at Yosemite, this was the coldest night I’ve camped out on this trip. I huddled around the camp stove for warmth while cooking my breakfast of pancakes and bacon. It was so cold that when I tried to unscrew the propane canister from the stove, my fingers momentarily froze to the container (burning compressed propane is an endothermic reaction).

Figuring I’d beat the crowds (and because I wanted to take advantage of the car’s heat, I set out on today’s loop around 9:30. However, when I got to my first destination, a collection of steam vents, fumaroles, and mud pots known as the Artists Paintpots, there was already no parking. That was strange because there were far more cars in the parking lot than there were people on the relatively uncrowded trail.

Like much of the “good” part of Yellowstone, my first reaction to this place was that it was just downright strange. But this time it was a kid-friendly kind of strange, with the mud pots making the exact sound you’d expect a mud pot in a movie to make, as they belched thick muddy clay and it spished back down.

Moving on down the southern park loop, I stopped at a series of geyser basins. I didn’t have to worry about missing the turn for them, because my arrival at each one was heralded by a distinct smell of sulfur and the unmistakable plumes of steam rising in the distance.

One of these basins was home to the Grand Prismatic Spring. I think it’s the largest hot spring in the park, but what makes it really stand out is its color. The water in the center is teal, changing to bright green towards the edges. A crust of bright yellow leads into several red-orange streams leading away from it. I’m sure it looks even more dramatic from the air, but unfortunately I didn’t have a helicopter at my disposal today.

Next up was the big daddy of the park – Old Faithful.

It’s funny, but when it’s not erupting, it’s a little white hill with puffs of smoke coming out, yet around it is seating for hundreds. I must have gotten there right after an eruption because the seats were just about empty. So I wandered the Old Faithful complex for a while and when I returned I found the largest crowd I’ve seen anywhere on this trip. Stationed around the area were rangers giving talks about the mechanics of geysers. When he introduced himself as “a ranger here at Yellowstone,” I could tell he was trying to sound humble, but after 13 parks, I know that he knows the clout that comes with that job title. Although, he clearly earned it. He gave a pretty decent talk.

A few minutes after he was done killing time, the geyser started up. ‘’I learned today that every picture you’ve ever seen of Old Faithful erupting was taken within the first 10 seconds of the beginning of the eruption, because that’s when it shoots the highest. After that, it gradually loses height and fizzles out. I was expecting more of a big start and an abrupt finish, but I guess that’s not how these things work. It was still a good show. Beats the hell out of the Bellagio.

After watching the geyser, I had to go into the Old Faithful Inn, since I’d heard so much about it. Apparently an entire style of architecture was based around this one building, which is basically the largest log cabin you’ve ever seen. It’s also the inspiration for one of the hotels at Disney in the Animal Kingdom park. When it was relatively new, a famous travel writer remarked that it’s the only manmade feature of the park that doesn’t look like it was built – it looks like it grew there. In addition to the walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture being made of lodgepole pine trunks, even the banisters and support trusses are made from branches, gnarled just enough to give them character but still allowing them to perform their structural duties.

While I was there, I saw almost every person eating ice cream, so I figured they must be on to something and this place must have some majorly good ice cream. So I got myself some (moose tracks – I’m not usually a moose tracks person, but in a place like this, how could I not?), and strolled back to the lobby, where a tour of the inn was just starting. Having nothing else that I needed to be doing, I decided to tag along. It was a decent tour. A little slow in terms of pacing, but it gave me a chance to look around the place without looking like Dwight Schrute at that dinner party, checking all the smoke alarms.

Moving on, I drove over to Yellowstone Lake and the West Thumb geyser basin, but was ambushed by a rogue thunderstorm just as I was getting started on the trail. So I had to go to plan B. Unlike at Boy Scout camp, where plan B is famously, “Plan A with a raincoat,” I decided that today plan B was “sit in the car until it stops raining.” So an hour later, I resumed my stroll.

Just in case geysers, steam vents, fumaroles, and mud pots weren’t strange enough on their own, in this geyser basin there were all of those features in the lake. I would have loved to see an underwater geyser erupt, but, alas, it was not to be.

Around this time, the sun was beginning to set. At first I thought about staying in that same spot to watch it, but I was facing north, away from any of the interesting clouds and colors, and it looked like it might rain again with me a half mile from the car. So I decided to drive to a spot, which turned out to be called Pumice Point (not sure why), where I had views of the lake to both the east and west, giving me the best chance to see something interesting. As I sat in the car, waiting for the clouds to light up, writing postcards, and listening to the results of the Wisconsin recall elections trickle in, here’s what I got:

So that’s the end of my Yellowstone adventure. I have to say, the park really redeemed itself after a historically poor performance for the first ¾ of a day. I think there’s probably another day’s worth of stuff to see here, but once you’ve seen Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, what’s another mud pot? Besides, I can’t wait to get to Grand Teton tomorrow, for what’s sure to be some of the best scenery around.


  1. HAHA!! "Unlike at Boy Scout camp, where plan B is famously, 'Plan A with a raincoat.'" That was hysterical.

  2. I did USY on Wheels in high school. The two things I remember of Yellowstone were 1) That amazing inn and the insane line for ice cream in it, and 2) One of the people on the trip taunting and (deservingly) getting chased and nearly run down by a bison. A guy in a pickup drove by in the nick of time and he jumped on. A true pity.