Geysers. Bison. Bears. Crowds. Traffic.
These are likely the five words most commonly associated with Yellowstone National Park. The first three have quite the appeal. The following two, not so much.
As the mecca of American National Parks, Yellowstone attracts more than just grungy outdoor junkies — it’s gotta be a bucket list item for anyone in the world that’s seen photos in a picture book or on the web.
When my wife and I set out on a pilgrimage to Yellowstone this past summer, I should have been more excited. It was hard to get past Yellowstone’s reputation for traffic jams and Disneyland-esque hordes of screaming children.
Yet my muted excitement went beyond the fear of crowds, I had severely underrated pretty much everything that makes Yellowstone special.
Yes, it was silly, especially when you consider this: my geology nerdiness reaches near astronomical levels compared to the average American.
But somehow I was not overflowing with joy to visit the Yellowstone Caldera (aka “supervolcano”) — the most infamous geologic site in North America. A land where piping hot magma remains so close to the topsoil that lakes boil and groundwater is superheated and tossed skyward.
However, there’s another wrinkle here: beyond my geology nerd credentials, I’m also a mountain nerd.
Just the thought of dangerously tall mountains with sheer cliffs flanked by dark forests and unbelievably gorgeous waterfalls makes my heart flutter. My summer vacation fantasies invariably revolve around hiking camping around or on top of the world’s most impressive alpine specimens.
Perhaps that was another reason why I underrated Yellowstone: it’s a series of forested plateaus and rolling hills with no impressive peaks beyond the remote and rugged Absaroka Range on the park’s eastern boundary.
As we drove into the park via the west entrance, my wife riding shotgun, there was little to indicate that my expectations were unfounded. As the two-lane blacktop wound its way effortlessly through a shallow canyon of dried-out lodgepole pine, even my wife commented, “Yellowstone isn’t that pretty.”
Little did we know that Yellowstone’s geothermal wonderland was about to light a fire under my luke-warm expectations.
Who Knew that Geysers Would be So Neat?
Standing beside a roadside geyser spewing a column of steam from a boiling pool, I turned to my wife and said, “Whoa! This is crazy!”
“Isn’t it?” my wife responded, half smirking.
My nonchalant attitude was shifting toward excitement. And while I was having this epiphany, my wife knew I was going to love this stuff all along.
In my defense, I don’t know what could have prepared me for my first experiences with Yellowstone’s geothermal features. These screaming hot pools blowing steam and supercharged water are nothing like anything we see in our day to day lives.
Before visiting Yellowstone, I had only see boiling water through the means of human technology: usually a pot of water on a hot stove. Manmade heat made by a manmade appliance applied to a manmade pot in order to push the H2O above 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Regardless of my enthusiasm for the outdoors, my mind is still a product of the 21st-century experience. To witness a steaming geyser was the reverse experience of an isolated-from-civilization tribe of Amazonian hunter-gatherers first encounter with a piece of modern technology.
Here was my first inclination: this geyser should be a manmade water fountain — maybe an addition to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas or a Jurassic Park exhibit at Universal Studios — instead of a naturally occurring feature at Yellowstone National Park.
It was then I realized exactly why Yellowstone was preserved as the world’s first National Park. Geyser basins are other-worldly, with literally no point of comparison beyond an actively erupting volcano. Yellowstone contains one-half of all the world’s geysers.
I had only seen one geyser, but now I was hooked. I wanted more.
The walk through the forest to Artists’ Paintpots is short but ominous. One of many areas that fell victim to the park’s infamous 1988 wildfires, this stretch of lodgepole pine is sometimes thick with overly dense new growth, other times still barren with the skeletons of dead lodgepole stoically guarding their ravaged motherland.
As we approached the foot of Paintpot Hill, clouds of hot steam wafted through the trees and dissipated into the atmosphere. Beneath our feet, the dirt pathway morphed into a boardwalk.
Why a boardwalk? To walk directly on the thermal landscape is a dangerous proposition for the uninitiated, and also damaging to a place that is even more fragile than deadly. An elevated boardwalk protects us and the landscapes as we explore.
The walkway crossed over a small, shallow and scalding-hot creek. It’s near-boiling surface evaporated into sporadic waves of shape-shifting fog, lit gold but the late-day sun.
The creek’s source appeared directly before us: a series of torrid, translucent pools. Each fed by a hotspring submerged below. Each with their own steam plume radiating skyward. Each full to the brim and overflowing onto the surrounding landscape, contributing a tiny brook to combine with the other tiny brooks and become a larger river. A river still hot and steaming, its water only moments removed from the sultry springs.
The boardwalk took us up a series of wooden staircases, ascending the base of the nearby hillside. Perched on a cleft in the hillside sat the bizarre mud pits known as the Artist’s Paintpots.
What’s a paintpot? A hotspring overrun with mud. What’s so special about that? It splatters mud like a child playing in the yard after a rainstorm.
The muck traps the heat as it rises from below, slowly building a pressurized bubble that slings mud into the air as it bursts to the surface. Their behavior is outrageous and fascinating, spitting globs of mud skyward every few moments, much to the delight of bystanders.
Out of all the cool stuff we saw in Yellowstone, the paintpots were my wife’s favorite.
Not too far from the Artists’ Paintpots is one of the largest thermal areas in Yellowstone, the Norris Geyser Basin. We arrived just before sundown, so we only saw about one-third of the basin before nightfall, but what we managed to get was phenomenal.
Another boardwalk took us out through the lodgepole pine, this time a healthier looking bunch. Reading off a trailside map, we set our sights on Steamboat Geyser — one of the larger geysers in the area.
Of course, the geysers don’t erupt superheated water most of the time — they’re usually just simmering and making steam. But as luck would have it, we arrived just as Steamboat was beginning a small eruption.
This eruption of water was hard to discern at first. A twenty-foot tall steam column drew most of the eye’s attention while a spout of boiling water no taller than an adult human rumbled out of the geyser’s vent. The forested hillside beyond the geyser glowed red from the setting sun on the opposite horizon, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere.
We snapped photos as the steam whipped in the wind, in awe of the scalding liquid raging from Yellowstone’s fiery underbelly until the eruption calmed.
Another minute down the boardwalk was Cistern Spring, a thirty foot wide pale blue hotspring surrounded by a cemetery of lodgepole skeletons. Here, a solitary whitetail deer hopped through the snags.
We now walked into the sun, just moments before it dipped below the horizon. The horizontal sunlight set aglow the thermal steam. As the sun dropped behind a stand of trees, shafts of lights sliced between the branches and into the fog to create a radiant starburst in the mist.
We came to a T in the boardwalk, and much to our surprise, a nearby geyser began its eruption. Vixen Geyser, the maps call it. Unlike the wide, steady stream of Steamboat, this geyser shot up slender but erratic bursts of water.
As a smaller geyser, the boardwalk swung close enough for passers-by to catch the spray of Vixen’s warm mist. We approached cautiously as a couple of other tourists edged their way around the geyser’s eruption.
As we watched the show side by side with another family, a gentleman turned to me and said, “I was just standing there taking a picture when it started shooting water at me!”
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones taken by surprise.
My wife continued down the boardwalk, but I was taken aback by something else. Just like at the paintpots, the basin’s numerous hotsprings feed a larger stream. Here, the idyllic waters of Tantalus Creek swept back and forth across a shallow valley on a lazy glide out through the forested hills while the clear sky radiated bright yellow.
After another jaunt through the forest, the boardwalk soon opened to an expansive view of another thermal area, Porcelain Basin. Sunset turned to dusk, with a gradient of pastel blues and purples painted on the western sky as the Black Growler blew out a massive discharge.
As day slipped away toward nightfall, we left the Norris Geysers with smiles.
As Yellowstone rookies, we had no choice but to see Old Faithful in the flesh. The most reliable and consistent of the park’s larger geysers, it was sure to draw quite the crowd. Watching the show with a mob of hundreds or thousands of others was not our preference, but after the wow factor of the previous day’s thermal explorations, we were just excited to see more waterworks. Old Faithful was guaranteed to throw out more water than anything we’d seen so far.
As luck would have it, the weather would act as natural crowd control.
Under cloudy skies, we rolled into the vast assemblage of parking lots forming a wide, partial ring to the south of Old Faithful. While the previous day was cloud free, a storm front pushed in from the west overnight. The dark gray underbellies of cumulonimbus offered a subtle warning of imminent rain.
While a handful of SUVs and sedans circled like vultures in search of parking spot close to the action, we took one further out. An extra few hundred yards worth of walking never hurt anyone. After crossing a dozen lines of parked cars and past a trio of yurts, we stepped onto a sidewalk that led through a thicket of lodgepole and onto the Old Faithful viewing platform.
A crowd had already started to form on the 300-yard long crescent-shaped boardwalk, but we detoured over to the nearby Visitor Center to check on the time of the next eruption. With forty-five minutes to spare until blast off, I bought a copy of Death in Yellowstone in the bookstore before we headed out for the show.
Like so many other busy National Park wonders — sunset at Grand Canyon’s Mather Point or Delicate Arch in Arches National Park for instance — an air of festivity encompassed the throng congregated on the Old Faithful boardwalk. That is until a light drizzle fell from the overcast sky.
Most of the crowd wore t-shirts and shorts, with nary an umbrella to be found. Three-quarters of the group — hundreds of people — scurried to the shelter of the nearby lodges and their porches.
Despite the ominous skies, we left our rain gear in the car, but instead of vacating our spot, I ran back to retrieve a rain jacket and umbrella. When I returned, Old Faithful still patiently waited for the right moment to blow off its steam.
As we sat on the bench under our umbrella with just a few dozen folks around us, we were grateful the drizzle cleared out the congestion. My wife already started to record a video on her iPhone to ensure that she captured the geyser’s eruption in its entirety.
For the first fifteen minutes, we dutifully waited on the bench as a small trail of steam emanated from the geyser’s vent. All of a sudden, the thin flow expanded to a healthy plume of fog as Old Faithful surged back to life.
In the stormy gloom, we thought it hard to see the difference between the water expelled from the vent and the steam it created. Only with a squint could I make out the streamlined texture of boiling water strewn 40 feet above the earth. At times the breeze blew up and whipped the steam away from the vent which allowed a more definite sighting of the geyser’s torrid spray.
The crowd oohed and awed at the spectacle as geology, hydrology, and atmosphere danced in its hourly performance. Once again, it felt like something of a theme park— like at Sea World where the orcas perform a few shows throughout the day — but here the show is operated by mother nature and it runs day and night, rain or shine.
Old Faithful’s act will not stop its relentless performance schedule until an earthquake breaks the underground plumbing, or the Yellowstone Caldera blows its top for real.
After just of few minutes of glory, the eruption dwindled just as fluidly as it started. Mother nature closed the spigot, the water fountain disappeared, and the steam plume receded back its lazy resting posture.
Within moments of Old Faithful’s anticlimactic curtain drop, the audience dispersed. We got swept right along in the bustle, off to look for gifts for my Mom and see more of the sights, as another mob passed us in to await the next show.
West Thumb is “small” knob-shaped arm of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high altitude lake in North America. On its western shoreline sits a gentle hillside known as the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Here, steam wafts into the sky from boiling pools as expansive views of the lake’s blue waters extend for miles until meeting the high peaks of the distant Absaroka Range. No other thermal area in Yellowstone has a more stunning backdrop.
Of all the geyser basins in the park, this was the one I anticipated the most.
We arrived at the West Thumb trailhead at the busiest time of day. Despite a jam-packed parking lot, we snagged a spot as a few visitors trickled out and vacated their spaces. We anticipated large crowds out on the boardwalk, but once again dark skies threatened rain.
As we stepped out of the car, thunder rumbled in the distance. This time we made sure to grab the rain gear.
A few moments later, as we drifted out onto the boardwalk, the bottom fell out of the sky in a heavy downpour. My wife under her umbrella and I in my rain jacket, we continued out into the basin as dozens upon dozens of tourists rushed by us in the other direction. We were now among a handful of visitors on a boardwalk that was bustling with activity only a few minutes before.
Swollen raindrops pounded everything in sight. As we walked the path between deep-blue hotsprings and the expanse of Yellowstone Lake, the once calm waters danced vigorously with pock-marked ripples. The shimmer of golden sunlight reflected off the rough waters of the lake’s surface as a narrow strip of blue sky and puffy clouds opened far to the east.
The downpour relented into a light drizzle. My wife and I turned to each other and smiled.
We were in awe of nature’s beauty and power. To walk among the eerily beautiful geothermal springs and far-reaching vistas under the unpredictable and dynamic force of a midday thunderstorm was inspiring and overwhelming. To have it almost all to ourselves was a blessing.
As we stood in the rain and looked out across the West Thumb, we noticed streaks in the lakewater, lighter in color than the rest of its surface. Their source: the outflow from the hotsprings as it poured off the hillside into the lake.
During this small break in the storm, people started to wander back down from the parking lot, but then came another wave of rain. The drizzle accelerated back into a downpour. The crowd dissipated again before it could reassemble.
As we continued our stroll, we passed the Fishing Cone and a couple other hotsprings submerged on a shallow platform just under the lake’s surface. A nearby sign told us that once upon a time (before NPS regulations) fisherman would plunge their catch (still on the line) into these hotsprings and cook the fish right then and there.
Just a few yards away, steam radiated from a deep-blue hotspring named the Black Pool. Here, the boardwalk took us on an uphill left-hand turn over a sloping ledge that collects the hotspring’s runoff.
To our surprise and delight, the outflow contained a bright orange-yellow buildup that looked like a cross between a wide stream of hot lava and a tattoo artist’s interpretation of the sun and its rays.
It was a mind-boggling scene that looked especially alien as a large mass of fog blew off the Black Pool and enveloped everything before us except the orange-yellow ledge and the boardwalk under our feet.
This nuclear-yellow buildup was neither lava nor toxic sludge, but a colony of algae that lives in the consistently warm waters that billow out of the springs. Quite the sight to see, it adds another layer of out-of-this-world eye candy to the Yellowstone experience.
As we approached the lip of the Black Pool itself, we realized cold rain interacting with the warm water created steam in quantities much larger than normal. As the droplets continued to strike the pool, a constant stream of fog condensed on its surfaced and floated gracefully skyward.
We watched in fascination, especially as the fog’s dance was met by a westerly breeze that took the lead in a rhythmic waltz. Like a figure skater caught in a carry lift by her partner, the fog rode in an elegant glide along the top of the water while rising gracefully into the atmosphere.
Instead of a grandstand of spectators to watch the performance, it was just my wife and I. An audience of two standing in reverence as the Black Pool put on a personalized interpretation of Black Swan.
The rain petered off again as we wandered the last stretch of boardwalk back to the parking lot. A trio of turquoise pools in the meadow was cause for one last pause and reflection. Earth’s elements had combined before us in spectacular fashion, we lucky to be there to see it, rewarded for our patience and tenacity. But as the crowds inevitably pushed back out into the basin, it was time for us to move on.
Like many of the icons of our National Parks, the view of Lower Yellowstone Falls via Artist’s Point was made famous in part by photographer Ansel Adams.
His famous black and white capture would only be considered an average snapshot by today’s standards but was the utmost inspiration for myself to go see it and photograph it in person. Of all the times I’d seen it in photos, Ansel’s original was the one that remained at the top of my mind.
And while I previously underestimated the wonder of Yellowstone’s thermal features, the Lower Falls was right up my alley and unwavering from its perch atop my to-do list.
We arrived just before sundown. After an afternoon spent fighting traffic in many a parking lot, we were happy to see just a few cars parked, and a few others driving away.
Not thirty yards down the asphalt path, a sheer drop into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone greeted us. The canyon walls were a mix of ragged, vertical faces of yellow rhyolite bedrock and stands of lodgepole pine clinging precipitously to the edge of the deep chasm.
Seven hundred feet below, the cold waters of the Yellowstone River churned through rapids and charged swiftly through its narrow channel.
The pathway took us down a couple small sets of stairs. We glanced to the left only to be stunned by a view of the Lower Falls itself framed between the evergreens.
A few steps further, the forest opened to a more expansive view of the falls. Dusk settled over the canyon, the clear western sky still a bright yellow but slowly fading to pink.
My wife settled for a spot on a bench to enjoy the vista while I climbed up another flight of stairs to the main viewing platform.
From this natural highpoint, a 270-degree view of the canyon suggests the falls are but a single instrument playing a solo over a talented orchestra of dramatic scenery.
Where the Yellowstone River careens over the Lower Falls marks the highest volume flow over a major waterfall in the Rocky Mountains. The waterfall is nearly one mile distant from Artist’s Point, yet the awe-inducing energy of tumbling water and mist is no less powerful from this vantage.
Below the falls, the Yellowstone snakes back and forth through the canyon bottom with the power of a racecar and the grace of a wild stallion.
Yes, the Yellowstone is truly a mountain river. It is not wide and lazy like the Mississippi of Mark Twain country. It is narrow and steep and gallops relentlessly through a riverbed trapped between soaring cliffs.
These wild blue waters rush past Artist’s Point and continue eastward through the V-shaped gulch. From here, the canyon only gets deeper as the Yellowstone knifes its way downhill toward the gravitational center of our planet.
Despite being a photographic icon, there was not much of crowd up on the platform. A few families came and went, but I was the only photographer serious enough to post up with a tripod. After experiencing tripod crowds at other National Park icons, it was relaxing to have such a casual atmosphere at one of Ansel’s great masterpieces.
As the light dimmed toward twilight, we began the short walk back, but I found it hard to pull myself away from the vista. Thankfully, my wife is patient when I stop mid-stride and say, “Just one more shot.”
Like many of the other sights witnessed during our 36 hours in the park, that view of the Yellowstone River ripping gracefully through its canyon will be etched in my mind forever.