This is Part 2 of a planned 5 part series on Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We will spend 5 days and nights exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities; our travels will take us on a circuitous route from Bozeman, MT to Jackson Hole, WY and back again. In Part 2, we'll travel Yellowstone's Lower Loop Road, encountering an Old Faithful Geyser eruption, several the park's famous thermal sites, the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone (featuring some breathtaking waterfalls), and the aptly named Grand Prismatic Spring.
Today, I find myself eagerly up before dawn for the second day in a row. I'm not a morning person, but that always seems to change when we're on vacation. I can't sleep in when I have an adventure waiting for me. I've mapped out an extremely full itinerary for the day, following the circuitous route of Yellowstone's Lower Loop Road, and stopping off at nearly every major sight along the way.
Our first stop this morning, though, is literally across the parking lot from our hotel. We are headed over to Old Faithful to see the 6:17am eruption. Old Faithful erupts about 17 time a day and is fairly predictable (within plus or minus 10 minutes--thus the faithful in its name). So, we have a fairly good idea of when we need to be there. We arrive a bit early, though, (around 5:45am) to check out the Upper Geyser Basin in the pre-dawn light and ensure that we don't miss the eruption.
It's chilly this morning--as it is most mornings in Yellowstone, even in mid-summer--and our breath creates little white puffs of smoke in the air. The geyser basin is smoking, too. From a distance, the ash grey and reds of the basin, set on the backdrop of a pink and orange sky, make it appear as if the entire landscape is awash in fire. It's only steam, though--a result of the fiery (volcanic) activity taking place right under our feet.
We don't wander far in our explorations. We want to be front and center to witness the eruption. Old Faithful gives a few warning spurts, and then it's spraying into the air, gaining height as it builds momentum. The geyser can reach as high as 184 ft, but it averages around 130 ft. during an eruption--at either height, it's truly impressive. An eruption can last anywhere from 1.5 to 5 minutes. We don't time how long this one lasts, but we have ample time to get plenty of good photographs and then stop to enjoy the phenomenon out from behind a lens shutter. [You can find answers to Old Faithful frequently asked questions on the NPS website here.]
Once the eruption is complete, we begin our exploration of the Upper Geyser Basin. The Upper Geyser Basin is made up of a stretch of trails and boardwalks connecting the area's most active (and scenic) thermal features. There is quite a density of geysers and pools to see within this stretch of a few short miles. Our first stop, though, is off the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalks. We are tackling the steep round-trip hike up to Observation Point.
We're wandering into the forest on this short hike, and we're quite alone this early in the day. I'm glad we remembered to bring our bear spray with us--better safe than sorry. On a hike in Yellowstone, you want to ensure you make some noise. One option is to simply call out "BEEEAAAAR" periodically; you might feel a bit ridiculous, but you never want to surprise a bear. If they have ample warning that you are approaching, they will typically move on; if they are taken unaware, they are more likely to attack. The only problem with making so much noise is that you will more than likely scare off the rest of the wildlife you encounter, as well. That being said, we do manage to spot (and not frighten off) a few animals along the way.
The trail is steep but clearly marked. It's definitely a good warmup for a day that will be filled with a LOT of walking. At the top, we have sweeping views of the geyser basin below. This would be a good spot to take in an Old Faithful eruption from a different angle, but we have other plans for this morning. Instead, we complete our hike, descending the trail, and head for the boardwalk encircling Geyser Hill.
Each geyser is unique. They can erupt with predictability or without warning, can spew continuously or for only minutes, can surface frequently or lie dormant for years. They can shoot hundreds of feet into the air or only a few, can come out as a thin spray or a wide spew. Many have indicators (or approximate schedules provided by the park service), but we've decided not to attempt to schedule our explorations today to any specific thermal events. If we encounter another eruption, it will simply be a bonus.
Photos: Top Left: Geyser Basin Boardwalk Path; Top Right: Doublet Pool; Bottom Left: Spasmodic Geyser; Bottom Right: Giant Geyser
The Geyser Hill section of the basin features several pools and geysers (none currently spouting), but the one feature that sticks out most to me in this section is Doublet Pool. The milky blue color of its water and the defined, scalloped edges of its border are quite unique. The latter are the result of hard water deposits for the concentrated levels of silica in the water, to which the unique hue of the pool can also be attributed.
After exploring the boardwalk ringing Geyser Hill, we head northwest on the boardwalk slats to survey more of the Upper Geyser Basin's thermal features. We pass several geysers and pools along this path, to include Spasmodic Geyser (which is in eruption fairly frequently at about every 1-3 hours but only reaches a height of about 15 ft.) and Giant Geyser (which can remain dormant for several decades but when it does erupt, can reach 250 ft.).
One thing is abundantly clear--the ground here is HOT. Water is literally boiling beneath our feet. We watch in amazement as several pools bubble and spew. It's easy to see how geysers are so frequently activated in this section of the park. The activity going on underground is more awe-inspiring than even what we can see here on the surface.
While we encounter a lot of "grey" features in this area of the park, there are still splashes of color mixed in. Several of the basin's pools exhibit a varying, vibrant spectrum. Most of Yellowstone's vibrant colors are thanks to a combination of some sorts of mineral deposits and thermophiles (heat loving microorganisms that can vary in color depending upon water pH and temperature).
As we reach the end of the stretch of boardwalk we are traversing and hit a paved trail, we encounter Grotto Geyser. The geyser has a unique shape we have not encountered elsewhere. Geologists believe it is a result of trapped tree trunks now encased in geyserite. We check the feature out and then initially move on, but soon we realize an eruption is beginning and double back to watch. We are fairly lucky in getting to see this one--it erupts only about once every 8 hours (however, once begun, the eruption can last several hours).
Photos: Left: Riverside Geyser; Right: Fan Geyser, Mortar Geyser and Spiteful Geysers
From Grotto Geyser, we continue north along the paved path past Riverside Geyser (known for often producing a rainbow when it erupts) and then a grouping of geysers a little further up the Firehole River (Fan, Mortar and Spiteful). While we don't get to witness any further eruptions along this stretch, the steam emitted by each of the vents is still a sight in itself. Our final destination before we reverse direction this morning is next--the colorful Morning Glory Pool.
The Morning Glory pool was once a brilliant blue color, resembling the flower for which it is named. While the pool is still quite beautiful, it is not the stunning sight of its former glory. The pool's disfigurement serves as a warning of how easily visitors can damage Yellowstone's fragile ecosystem. Over the years, park visitors have thrown coins, garbage, and clothing items into the pools. All of this trash inevitably blocked the heat vents at the bottom, affecting the temperature and the delicate balance of thermophiles that grow there. As a result, slowly, the beautiful blue of the pool is receding. Hopefully, this pool's story will be a reminder to visitors to leave the park's other thermal features as they found them.
Photos: Castle Geyser
Backtracking a bit on the path we just traversed, we explore the area around Punch Bowl Spring and Black Sand Pool, and then we walk southeast on the paved trail back toward Old Faithful. The walk back is scenic, and we take in the view of the thermal activity from a bit of a different angle. Of the features we encounter, the one that sticks out to me most is Castle Geyser. While it only erupts about once every 13 hours, this one is worth stopping to take a look just for its distinct shape--reminiscent of a sandcastle.
It's nearly 8am now, and people are beginning to get out and about. I'm glad we had a chance to explore the geyser basin in relative peace. We plan to hopefully remain ahead of the crowds for a little longer today and begin our Lower Loop Road journey soon. But first, we need to fuel up for a long day--while we have food options nearby.
In Yellowstone, food options are few and far between. Most of the major junctions have some form of sustenance (even if it's just snacks in a general store), but certainly not all of them. Combine that with the fact that it can take quite a while to get from junction to junction in Yellowstone, and planning to eat a hearty breakfast is smart. Before we make it to the Old Faithful Inn on our walk back to find breakfast, though, we spot the fun looking Hamilton's Store and decide to take a quick detour inside to look around. Once inside, we see that they have a small breakfast counter and decide this will do perfectly for a quick meal.
I'm more of an oatmeal and blueberries kind of girl for breakfast, but today, that is not on the menu. There actually isn't a ton on the menu, but that's just fine with us this morning. We order caffeine (coffee for my husband, tea for me) and each opt for a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on an English muffin. It comes with two hash browns, as well (I at least keep to eating only one of those). It hits the spot after the morning's exertions, and soon we are off to the car to begin our drive.
Map of Yellowstone
Today we're taking Yellowstone's Lower Loop Road (counterclockwise). The first leg of our journey is from Old Faithful to West Thumb--a 17 mile stretch of road that takes about an hour to traverse. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is certainly not at the top of Yellowstone's most famous hot spring sites, but it's still worth visiting this boardwalk loop that fronts Yellowstone Lake. Plus, it will give us a chance to stretch our legs after an hour in the car.
About 4 miles before reaching our first destination, we cross the continental divide. We actually crossed over it several miles back, as well, but we have gained further elevation since that point (at 8,262 ft) and are now at an elevation of 8,391 ft. The Continental Divide, also referred to as the Great Divide, separates the watersheds of the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean. In other words, it is the point from which one one side, the watershed ultimately flows toward one ocean and on the other, it does the opposite.
Shortly after, we find ourselves at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. The basin is ringed by a 1/2 mile boardwalk loop, with a path added through the center of the loop for a better look at some of the central thermal features. There are several interesting thermals along the boardwalk trail here, but my favorite is definitely Abyss Pool. Abyss pool has the honor of being amongst the park's deepest measured hot spring (53 ft.). Unlike many of the thermal features that look deceivingly colorful and inviting, this one looks almost sinister, bordered by dark colors, to include blood red. I love its uniqueness.
Photos: West Thumb Geyser Basin (Upper Right: Percolating Spring; Middle Left: Collapsing Pool; Middle Right: Blue Funnel Spring)
We spend a bit of time exploring the boardwalk in full and come across a few fun features, to include the bubbling Percolating Spring, the crumbling Collapsing Pool and the funnel-shaped Blue Funnel Spring. Many of Yellowstone's famous sights are named for their appearance. West Thumb itself falls into that category. West Thumb is a jutted portion of Lake Yellowstone. It got its name from Lake Yellowstone's loose resemblance to a hand and West Thumb's loose resemblance to its thumb--pointing west, of course.
The geyser basin provides our first glimpse of Lake Yellowstone--specifically the West Thumb portion. Part of the boardwalk trail skirts the lake's waterfront. Interestingly, there are geysers located near the shoreline in the water's shallows that we can spot from the trail, as well.
Photos: Lake Yellowstone (Center Photo: Lakeshore Geyser)
Back out on the road, we decide to skip detouring south from here to Grant Village since it's mainly just a tourist outpost with a gas station, visitor's center, and general store. So, the next leg of our journey will take us along the Loop Road from West Thumb to Lake Village (21 miles, approximately 45 minutes). This entire section of the Loop Road skirts Lake Yellowstone. Lake Yellowstone is North America's largest high altitude lake. We can get a bit of an idea of how immense the lake is along this stretch of road because in several spots, especially in the overcast weather, we can barely make out the opposite shore.
The lake and its surrounding environs draw wildlife, and we have some pretty awesome sighting during this portion of our drive. From the car, we spot bison and get an up-close experience with a bull. We also see traffic slowing at another spot (always a sure sign of wildlife) and people getting out to see something we can't quite make out from the car. So, we find a safe spot to pull over and do the same. Sure enough, there is an enormous buck (Elk) grazing in a grassy area nearby. His antlers are spectacular.
When we get to the turnoff for Lake Village, we skip that detour since we will be staying at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel there later in our trip. We do, however, cut off the main road a little past Lake Village to see Fishing Bridge (ironically, fishing is forbidden here). Fishing Bridge crosses over the Yellowstone River shortly before its outlet into Lake Yellowstone and provides a scenic view of the river. After crossing over the bridge, we don't stay on the road for long, though; we quickly reverse our route to get back out onto the Loop Road, headed north.
Along the way, we spot a pair fly fishing in waders and stop to watch for a few minutes. We don't witness them bringing in any catches, but it's still riveting to watch the line jump and skim across the water, driven by expert flicks of the wrist. Each year, Yellowstone attracts approximately 50,000 anglers to its shores. It looks to be an extremely peaceful way to spend a few hours on a longer visit to the park, but we're short on time today and soon we're off again to explore more of the Lower Loop. [If you're interested in trying you luck in the Yellowstone waterways, fishing regulations and permit information can be found on the park's website here.]
From Lake Village to Canyon Village it's about a 45 minute drive (16 miles), but we have plans to stop off at Mud Volcano which is about 6 miles north of the Fishing Bridge turn-off. We know we're near Mud Volcano before we even arrive at the parking lot because we can smell it. A lot of Yellowstone's thermal features have a sulfur smell, but the scent in the air around Mud Volcano is a bit overpowering. The smell is (fairly obviously) the result of the strong concentration of sulfur in the ground here.
Mud volcano has several interesting sulfur pools and mud pots to explore. The pH in this area of the park is particularly acidic (as low as 1.2, equivalent with stomach acid). The acidity of the water--which is strong enough to break down rock--is responsible for the prevalence of mud pots here.
For obvious reason, Mud Volcano is somewhere that you must remain on the boardwalks at all times. There is a 0.6 mile loop encircling the main sights from which to explore the area. The first major feature we encounter along our route is Dragon's Mouth Spring. The spring has eroded an adjoining cavern into rock, and the boiling water within emits a "roaring" noise as the sound echos. It's a particularly fun feature. The next thermal we see is the area's namesake, Mud Volcano, a crater/boiling mud spring. Next is Grizzly Fumarole, and soon we find ourselves at the farthest end of the loop, at Sour Lake. Sour Lake may look harmless, but the liquid within is, essentially the equivalent of concentrated sulfuric acid in terms of pH. We stay plenty far away!
My favorite feature at Mud Volcano, though, comes a bit after Sour Lake. Churning Cauldron is one that we have to take the time to stop and watch for a few minutes. It is the most turbulent of the pools we've encountered anywhere in the park. The bubbling gas beneath the surface produces waves that splash over the sides of the pool, periodically slushing water violently up into the air. It's fascinating.
Photos: Mud Volcano Area (Left: Boardwalk; Center: Dragon's Mouth Spring; Right: Sour Lake)
We also take a moment while wandering Mud Volcano's sights to enjoy the lovely wildflowers in bloom on the outskirts of the boardwalk loop. The fields surrounding Mud Volcano are carpeted in purples, whites, and yellows. The delicate blooms are a refreshing break from the tumultuous sulfur pools and mud pots so prevalent in this area of the park.
Photos: Wildflower Fields Around Mud Volcano
Back in the car, our final stretch between here and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone is the Hayden Valley. Hayden Valley is a verdant area well known for its abundance of wildlife, but interesting, wildlife seems to be fairly scarce today. The bison herds move in and out of this area fairly regularly in summer, and today they appear to be "out." We will get another shot at wildlife sightings here, though, when we travel this way on our way back north through Yellowstone later in our vacation. On the bright side, there's no wildlife in the road to impede our journey to the canyon--bison herds have been known to stop traffic in the park for hours.
Photos: The Hayden Valley
The Canyon Village area is the second most traversed section of the park (after the area around Old Faithful)--which make sense as it's where the Upper Loop and Lower Loop roads meet. Additionally, unlike the majority of the park's big sights, you have to travel off the main thoroughfare, in some places doubling back the way you came, which adds a bit to the congested feel. Since it's also significantly later in the day now, there are a lot more people out and about than there were when we wandered the Upper Geyser Basin this morning.
The Grand Canyon at Yellowstone varies from 800 to 1200 ft. in depth and from 1500 to 4000 ft. in width and is approximately 24 miles in length (per a sign we encounter along the rim trail). Exploring the canyon is broken into two separate drives--the North Rim Drive and the South Rim Drive. We start with the South Rim drive since it's the first we meet with in our travels north. While the North Rim Drive is mostly a one-way route, the South Rim Drive is a two-way dead end where you must double back the way you came.
[Hiking The Canyon Rim Note: There are trails along both the North Rim and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone. They both begin at the Wapiti Lake Trailhead on South Rim Drive near Chittenden Bridge. The South Rim Trail is approximate 1.75 miles (one way), ending at Artist Point. From there, you can choose to continue on an additional mile (each way) to Point Sublime. The North Rim Trail is approximately 3 miles (each way). It traverses the major canyon overlooks, running parallel to North Rim Drive and ends at Inspiration Point. You can also walk just a portion of the North Rim Trail beginning at any of the major viewpoints.]
Our first stop into the drive is a viewpoint of Yellowstone's Upper Falls. To get there, we make the turn off for Uncle Tom's Trail (a trail comprised of 328 metal steps and a 500 ft. descent to the base of Lower Falls). We are not taking Uncle Tom's Trail today, but the shared parking lot is what we're after. The viewpoint for the 109 ft. Upper Falls is a short walk from there.
Technically, we could have visited Upper Falls on our way in or out of the South Rim, but I have purposely planned to visit Upper Falls first so that we can enjoy its beauty. Many say once you see the dramatically situated 308 ft. Lower Falls, Upper Falls gets dwarfed in comparison. So, we are here to first enjoy Upper Falls for what it is--a magnificent waterfall. It may be the angle we are viewing it from or the volume of water it is dispersing, but I have a hard time believing that others don't find Upper Falls as impressive as I'm finding it today. I'm eager to see what Lower Falls looks like if this is the less famous of the two!
Next, we take our car to the end of South Rim Drive to visit Artist Point. Artist Point is the canyon's most well known viewpoint, as exemplified by the stop's jam-packed parking lot (we have to circle several times to get a spot). The viewpoint is famous for a reason; it provide a spectacular, head-on view of Lower Falls and the canyon below as the Yellowstone River Rishes through. This spot affords us our first view of Lower Falls, and it is quite magnificent, but it's a decent distance up the canyon from here. We plan to get some closer views--much closer--as we head over to the North Rim.
As we backtrack out to the Grand Loop Road and then turn off onto the one-way North Rim Drive, the first viewpoint we hit is the Brink of the Lower Falls. There is an optional hike to the "brink" from here, but I am not keen to do it. I'm usually up for anything--I'm rarely exhaustible when I'm excited for an adventure--but I have figured out that by the end of today we will have walked near 11 miles. I'm not so keen to make it 12 by adding another 1.5 mile hike to the itinerary, no less one that has a 600 ft. elevation loss and then GAIN during the round trip. However, for some reason, my husband has it in his head that we must see Lower Falls from the point at which it cascades down into the canyon. He points out people on the brink's platform below from the viewpoint we're standing at and says "it doesn't look that far"--famous last words. So, after some grumbling on my part, we're on our way.
Photos: Brink of the Lower Falls
The steep 3/4 mile hike down is along a fairly busy trail that can get a bit congested in tight spots. While going down is obviously easier, you use different muscles on steep declines, and I can feel them protesting a bit as we move at a rapid clip. My husband soon realizes that our destination is not as "close" as it looked from above; I refrain from telling him I told you so (barely). Nonetheless, when we do arrive at the viewing platform, balanced directly over the waterfall as the point from which it descends into the canyon, I do have to agree that it is quite a unique experience. We stand and survey the river rushing toward us, feeling its spray lightly brush our faces, and then watch as the water reaches the brink of where the cascade down begins, barreling through the empty air and crashing into the canyon below.
From the platform, we can also clearly view the water rushing through the canyon floor, propelled on the momentum of its cascade over the the cliff-face. It's unique to get to see the river from this vantage point. One minute you can feel its rush and spray from above and the next, it is speeding through the canyon below.
The reverse hike back up is extremely steep. It's comprised of a series of switch-backs, and as long as I have momentum on my side, I'm ok, but stopping mid-hill is not an option. Unfortunately, we encounter a bit of a human traffic jam along the way and are forced to stop on a particularly steep incline. We can barely re-gain enough momentum to make it to the top of the section of the trail. It is at this particular point, as we struggle not to tumble backwards down the hill, that I finally give in and tell my husband "I told you so"--sometime I just can't stop myself. Once we are safely--if a bit sorer--back in the car, though, I decide my husband was right; the steep hike was ultimately worth it for such a unique experience. (Please don't tell him--I'll never hear the end of it.)
After a short car ride, we reach the next stop on our drive, Lookout Point. Lookout Point proves to have the best head-on views of Lower Falls. We are significantly closer here than we were at Artist Point. However, we are certainly nowhere near as close to the waterfall as we just were at the Brink! We can just barely make out the viewing platform we were standing on above the waterfall from here.
After Lookout Point is Grandview Point. There are no waterfall panoramas at Grandview Point, but the unique, sawtooth rock formations here make up for the lack of water views. We even get to see an (I believe) osprey nest balanced out on a rock in the midst of the canyon. While there is definitely movement within, we can't quite make out what is nestled inside from our perch above.
Finally, about 2/3 of the way through the North Rim Drive, we reach the turn-off for Inspiration Point. Inspiration Point is situated on a no-outlet, two-way road off of the one-way North Rim Drive. The spot is known for its unique palate of colorful rocks. The upper 2.5 miles of the canyon are the most colorful section (per a sign on the trail), and that more than proves true when we get out to the walkway along this section of the canyon. Pink, orange, and red hues are dramatically splashed across the rocks below. The colors are mainly the result of thousands of years of hot spring activity in combination with iron compounds. But regardless of their origin, the canyon walls look as if someone has taken a paintbrush to them. Photographs don't even truly do the colors justice.
We wander the rim trail along Inspiration Point, taking in the view from every angle and watching the river continue its slow cut through the solid canyon rock below. Looking at this vast chasm, it's amazing to think that something at simple as water played such a large role in the carving of a canyon this immense. Whether it be erupting geysers, boiling hot springs, cascading waterfalls or rushing rivers, the awesome power of water has certainly been on full display during our travels through Yellowstone today.
After a long morning of hiking and sightseeing, we're starving. For lunch, we head to the only area in the general vicinity with food--Canyon Lodge. The campus doesn't offer a ton of choices, but we settle on the Canyon Lodge Eatery. The food is served cafeteria style, but you can customize most of your selections. The first section we encounter in the eatery is dedicated to homestyle type food, but we decide to see what other options they may have before making a final decision. Shortly past that, we find a window serving freshly made woks and decide this is a perfect option after our less than healthy breakfast choice. We are given the option to select a base (garlic noodles or jasmine rice), a protein or two (chicken, beef, or tofu), mixed vegetables and choice of sauce and toppings. The food is simple but tasty, and we top our meal off with a cone from the Canyon Lodge Ice Creamery before getting back out on the road.
The next leg of our trip is the road that dissects the Grand Loop Road in half, essentially creating the Lower and Upper Loops. This stretch of road, connecting Canyon Village to Norris, is 12 miles and takes about 30 mins in the car. There's not a ton to see along this route, but we're fine with just relaxing for a few minutes after such a busy morning.
After we hit Norris, we make the turn south to Madison, traversing the same route we traveled yesterday on our way into Yellowstone. Since we already saw the main attractions along this stretch of road (Norris Geyser Basin and Artist Paint Pots) yesterday, we opt to continue driving for the 30 minutes (14 miles) it takes to reach Madison without stopping.
When we get past Madison, though, we slow down to visit some of this area's many sights. Yesterday, tired from a long day of traveling and beginning to lose daylight, we flew through the 16 mile stretch of road between Madison and Old Faithful. Today, though, we will hit three major sights we skipped yesterday. In the Lower Geyser Basin, we will visit Fountain Paint Pots and Firehole Lake Drive, and in the Midway Geyser Basin, we will examine the Grand Prismatic Spring (both up close from the boardwalk and from above at the viewing platform off Fairy Falls Trailhead).
Traveling south from Madison, the first stop we encounter is Fountain Paint Pot. Fountain Paint Pot houses the full gamut of thermal features, but it's named for the mud "paint" pots that can be found bubbling here. As at most of Yellowstone's most popular thermal sites, there is an easy 1/2 mile boardwalk that takes us through a loop encircling the major points of interest. Along the way, we encounter fumaroles, paint pots, springs, and even an erupting geyser.
My favorite sight from an aesthetic perspective is definitely Silex Spring. The colors are just phenomenal. The crystal clear aquamarine pool gives way to swirls of rust and deep red tinted mud along its borders. The colorful outskirts of the spring contain the deepest reds I've yet to encounter in the park, and that's really saying something after the rainbow palate we've encountered today.
Photos: Fountain Paint Pot (Left: Near Silex Spring; Center: A Fountain Paint Pot; Right: Fumarole)
If Silex Spring is my favorite in terms of aesthetics, though, Clepsydra Geyser is definitely my favorite in terms of activity. Clepsydra Geyser has pretty much been in a state of constant eruption since a 1959 earthquake in Yellowstone, and today is no exception. The geyser spews a constant stream of steaming water up into the air. It's crazy to think that there is so much pressure built up beneath our feet that water can be propelled against gravity continuously at such force for 50 years and counting. It almost makes you want to take a few extra steps back.
Shortly after Fountain Paint Pot, we find the one-way entrance into Firehole Lake Drive. Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way road that travels an M-shaped 3 mile path, popping back out onto the Grand Loop Road about a mile north of where you start it (back near Fountain Paint Pot). It features several interesting geysers, to include Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser. Interestingly, when not erupting, White Dome Geyser is significantly more compelling to look at, but if we were to wait around for a Great Fountain Geyser eruption (which only occurs about twice a day), we would find it's 75 to over 200 ft. eruption significantly more engrossing than White Dome Geyser's own very narrow, 30 ft. high eruption.
Photos: Firehole Lake Drive (Left: White Dome Geyser; Right: Great Fountain Geyser)
After Firehole Lake Drive, we continue to travel south on the Grand Loop Road, and soon, we encounter the Midway Geyser Basin where the Grand Prismatic Spring is located. The Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's most photographed thermal feature. Its colors are simply stunning. The famous spring graces the cover of guidebooks, postcards, and tourism brochures. I have been eagerly anticipating our visit here since well before our trip's departure.
On our walk to the spring, we cross a bridge over the Firehole River. The bridge is situated below the Excelsior Pool (formerly a geyser), and we stop to watch the pool's runoff rushing down the hill and into the river. When we get to the top of the hill and see the actual pool, I'm surprised at its size. With its blue lagoon feel and mysterious, fog-like steaming surface, Excelsior Pool would be an attraction in itself if it weren't dwarfed by one of the park's most famous sights right next-door.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's Largest Hot Spring at 320 ft. in diameter and over 120 ft. deep [source NPS]. It can be viewed up-close from along the Midway Geyser Basin's 1/2 mile boardwalk. Stepping off the boardwalk is strictly permitted, so we can only view the spring up close from along the one side of the ring the boardwalk skirts. Our view is more than spectacular, though. As we approach the spring, I can just make out an ethereal teal color through the steam. As we get closer to the pool, it feels as if we are on another planet. The reds rimming the outer portions of the spring and oranges followed by yellows as we get closer to its center are the result of the heat loving thermophiles (bacteria) I've mentioned previously. From outside to center, the spring changes from red to deep blue, traveling across the spectrum of a prism's bright colors.
Photos: Midway Geyser Basin (Left: Excelsior Pool; Right: Boardwalk to Grand Prismatic Spring)
After we've taken in the spring from below, we have one final stop on today's itinerary. When my husband added the Brink of the Lower Falls hike to our itinerary earlier, I warned him about this last stop. I didn't care if we could barely walk by the time we got here, we were doing the 2 mile hike (roundtrip) to the viewing platform at the Fairy Falls Trailhead.
A few years ago, the park service built a viewing platform over the Grand Prismatic Spring about a mile into the Fairy Falls Trail. I've read that it's hands-down the best spot to view the spring from; so we are not missing this stop. We park our car in the trail's busy lot and head out on our last hike of the day. The bad news is the way to the viewing platform is mostly uphill. The good news is this means the walk back to the car will be downhill!
The Grand Prismatic Spring is immense, bigger than a football field. From up close, you can't fully appreciate its size, only making out bits and pieces through the steam rising off the pool. The colors are surreal, and catching a glimpse of the spring from the boardwalk is special, but nothing tops the view from above. We can truly take in the entirety of this massive spring and its rainbow rings.
Our final sight of the day checked off the list, we're ready to head back to our hotel for some down time. Luckily, we're relatively close to our destination. We only have a five mile drive left to complete before we're back at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. We decide to take a quick shower and head over to the Old Faithful Inn across the way for a much deserved beer.
Photos: Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
On our walk over to the Old Faithful Inn, we pass by the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. We have had a fairly long day at this point, so we decide to skip visiting the inside, but it sounds like a great spot to learn more about the region. Per the NPS website, "[it] features exhibits on Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features, life in these extreme environments, the volcano beneath Yellowstone, and ongoing scientific research in one of the greatest living laboratories on earth."
When we get over to the Old Faithful Inn, we learn that Old Faithful is facing imminent eruption (6:32pm). Twelve hours after witnessing this morning's eruption, we literally find that we have come full circle in our day's itinerary. We make it out onto the the viewing platform shortly before the geyser breaches the air. It's just as spectacular--if significantly more crowded--the second time around.
After the eruption, we go up to the Old Faithful Inn's second floor observation deck to relax. This is a popular spot from which to view an Old Faithful Eruption, but since one just occurred, the deck is fairly quiet. They are serving local brews right at the entrance to the deck, so we are able to kill two birds with one stone. Selecting a beer and an empty bench up front, we bask in the gorgeous weather--there's not a cloud in the sky. We kick back, take in the peaceful atmosphere, and drink in the view--and the beer.
Photos: Old Faithful Inn (Left: Lobby; Center: Observation Deck; Right: View from the Observation Deck)
A bit later, we decide to check out the Bear Pit Lounge downstairs for a change in atmosphere and another drink before dinner. It's a cozy little bar with a few tables adjoining the main dining room. Everywhere in the park serves local draft beer and spirits (WY, MT & ID) which I love. We always try to sample local food and drink when we have the option. This time, I choose a hefeweizen from Montana and my husband an IPA from the same state.
We have reservations for the dining room again tonight, but after last night's dinner, we decide maybe a change is in order. The lounge's food menu isn't large (Caesar salad, hot wings, hummus, and 3 sandwich choices served with French fries), but a sandwich and French fries sound just fine for dinner after a long day. So, I walk across the lobby to let the hostess organizing the dining room wait know that we will not be needing our reservation this evening.
For dinner, we choose two sandwiches to share: the smoked bison bratwurst which comes with caramelized onions on a pretzel bun and the bison burger (cooked medium well--no choice) which comes topped with caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato on a parmesan black pepper roll. Since I have an extreme hatred for onions, we get those on the side (my husband says they're delicious). Both are a bit well done for our taste, but they have a good flavor, and the house-made sweet and spicy ketchup that comes with the fries is delicious.
After dinner, we relax in the lobby for a bit and decide to call it an early night. I can't believe all of the amazing sights we've managed to pack into one day. Yellowstone's Lower Loop Road may quite possibly top my list of most ground covered in a single day. We've managed to hike over 12 miles and visit everything from geysers to canyons to boiling mud pits to rainbow springs to everything in between. I'm sad to be leaving the Old Faithful area for the last time tomorrow, but we still have so much to see. I don't even know how that's possible after all of the sites we've visited today (and yesterday). Tomorrow, we're off to Grand Tetons National Park and Jackson Hole for the night, and I can't wait to see what's in store for us there!
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins