Naturally, it is difficult to write a post about Yellowstone, since it is so famous. It is a cliche to say that Yellowstone is beautiful, or majestic, or inspiring – just as it would be if describing the Grand Canyon. And a few photos will not do the park justice, either. Yet, no tour of America could be complete without a stop at this beautiful and majestic and inspiring place.
I approached it from Montana. using the northwest entrance. It was early October, and a light snow had fallen overnight, and I drove the eighty miles from Bozeman to Gardiner with some of the snow still on my car’s hood. This was taken along the Yellowstone River, just north of Gardiner.
Once inside the park it was still a five or ten minute drive to Albright Visitor Center, which featured rangers in bright yellow vests standing in the road and asking people to stay in their cars – which seemed strange, until I saw that several elk had decided to eat breakfast on the lawn of the visitor center. This is, apparently, a common occurrence in the area, and in a few minutes the small herd had wandered in back of the building and disappeared.
My first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, just south of Albright, and one of the main reasons why people love the park. It is on top of a geothermal area, with deposits of calcium carbonate, and an endless cloud of steam rises out of the ground. There is a sulfuric smell around the springs as well, with signs warning visitors to stay on the boardwalk to prevent falling through the brittle crust of ground. People have been scalded when their legs went through. It is worth two photos.
The road going south, to Old Faithful Geyser, was closed, so I turned back to Albright Visitor Center and took the northern loop road, which meant that I would spend more time in the park than planned. I had hoped to reach Grand Teton National Park on the same day, but the closed road prevented that from happening. Of course, that turned out to be a good thing. After an hour I turned south, toward Canyon Village, and stopped at the parking lot for Tower Fall, which drops 132 feet into Tower Creek and the Yellowstone River. I walked down the trail – it has a railing until the last hundred feet or so – and from there it is a slightly dangerous zig-zag over rocks and gravel to the water’s edge.
I climbed the trail again and continued south. The roads of Yellowstone National Park form a giant figure eight pattern, with visitors going on the outside loops or, if they choose, through the middle road. Between these roads are the Rocky Mountains, ready to be explored by hearty campers and hikers who are willing to spend the night and take their chances.
I took the road more traveled, past Canyon Village and along the Yellowstone River to Fishing Bridge, at the north end of Yellowstone Lake, It covers 136 square miles and has a shoreline 110 miles long.
A few miles south of Fishing Bridge is a field (if that’s the right word) of steam rising from the ground, just at the lake’s edge. In this case there were no warning signs, just the visitor’s common sense not to get too close.
After seeing the steaming ground at the lake I drove a few miles south, and a thousand feet higher in elevation, with views of the distant mountains. At one point I drove across the Continental Divide, which marks the point where rivers flow either west, to the Pacific Ocean, or east, to the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. You can see the snow was deep enough for someone to build two snowmen: one on each side of me.
Now the road turned west, at the bottom end of the giant figure eight pattern, then north again. It was fortunate that the road at Mammoth Hot Springs was closed, because it meant Old Faithful was my last stop of the day – as if it were dessert for the banquet I had witnessed. I arrived between five and six o’clock, so there was a smaller crowd than would be there at noon, or in August. One of the reasons I went west in October was specifically to avoid the summer crowds.
We waited, staring at an uninteresting hint of steam rising from the ground. We knew approximately when the geyser would erupt (it’s faithful, after all), and the crowd predictably got bigger with every passing minute. I expected a rumbling sound, or a shaking of the ground under my feet, but nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, the geyser simply bubbled up, slowly, rising into the air so quietly that someone facing the other direction would not know it was happening at all. And there was no ooohs or aaahs from the crowd, either. We all simply watched in silence as the water and steam rose, and dissipated.
From there it was an hour’s drive to the town of West Yellowstone, past another field of steaming land. Is it fair to say I was getting jaded at the spectacle of the park? It seems disrespectful to say that, by the end of the day, a sight like the one below was just another glance out the car window, while wondering where I would have dinner that night. Of course I should have stayed more than one day at the park, and after a drive to Missoula and Helena I doubled back and went through Yellowstone a second time – reaching Grand Teton to boot. There were many other wonders to behold on this particular two week journey through the West, but none quiet as wonderful.