A Day in Yellowstone

September 19, 2010 - 9:25 pm No Comments

Before setting off, we worked out a plan for the day. The main roads of Yellowstone are shaped like a figure eight, so there’s no way to avoid backtracking if you want to see the whole park. It’s kind of a pain.

We drove into the park and found a giant elk waiting for us in the parking lot. A ranger worked frantically to keep warning cones up in a circle about 200 feet from the animal, warning people to stay back and running around to reposition them every time the elk took a step in any given direction.

Bugling Elk

Every few minutes, the elk would stoop his head and make a loud, dinosaur-like sound that was something between a squeal and a groan. Turns out that this is called “bugling,” and elks do it to mark their territory and attract females.

Due to some faulty map-reading and a wrong turn, we didn’t get to the Lamar Valley for wildlife watching. Not a big deal, since it seemed like the Lamar Valley was on fire. Smoke filled the air, and many of the smaller roads and trails were closed.

Morning Mountain Sunshine

Smoky Drive Through Yellowstone

We came across a herd of bison on the side of the road. These animals are huge, and they’re not shy. While we drove slowly, I gingerly leaned out the window to take pictures.

Roadside Bison

Stoic Bison

Skipping the Lamar Valley meant that we arrived at Mt. Washburn earlier than scheduled. The sky was perfectly clear, and the air was cool and crisp. At 10,243 feet, Mt. Washburn is the highest point in park. The hike to the top climbs 1,491 feet from parking lot and took us about two hours. I’m not a hardcore hiker like Stef, and that’s about as much as I can handle. Clicking noises and conversation all the way up kept any bears away.

Stef on Mount Washburn

From the cold and windy top of Mt. Washburn, we could see the extent of the forest fire. Turns out that Yellowstone fires are given specific names, and this particular one was called the “Antelope Fire.” Literature in the lookout tower said that it was caused by a lightning strike and now covered 600 acres. Rangers were working to control it.

Forest Fires in the Lamar Valley

Lookout Tower on Mount Washburn

The Top of Mount Washburn

Shadow Monster

Path on Mount Washburn

The Mt. Washburn hike was moderately scenic. Aside from a few angry crickets that attacked Stef, we didn’t see any wildlife. If Mt. Washburn is the best hike in the park, then this is not a good park for hiking.

In contrast to Glacier National Park, the trees of Yellowstone are almost exclusively evergreen. Things are greener, but it also means that things are more monochromatic. Photographically, it’s a little less interesting.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to geysers and hot springs. Our first stop was the Norris Geyser Basin, a windy, stinky moonscape with ribbons of color.

A wooden walkway takes you past geysers that are oozing, spurting, bubbling, erupting, splashing, leaking, steaming, gushing, trickling, and simmering. Geysers that aren’t doing anything are really quite boring. Baseball caps blown off the heads of unsuspecting tourists litter the basin. In the cold breeze, the warm steam from the geysers feels good, but the pungent smell of rotten eggs means that you can only stand in it for a moment.

Pinwheel Geyser

Porcelain Basin

Porcelain Spring

Porcelain Pools

Geyser on the Firehole River

Bacterial Mat

Artist Paint Pots

Shallows of Firehole River

By far, the most colorful and active feature was Grand Prismatic Spring. Because steam filled the air, it was hard to appreciate its true size.

Bridge Over the Bacterial Mats at Grand Prismatic Spring

Orange Bacterial Mat of Grand Prismatic Spring

Orange Bacterial Mat of Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior Geyser Runoff

Excelsior Geyser Runoff

We arrived at Old Faithful as the sun was setting, just in time to watch it erupt. Pretty cool. The eruption is surprisingly quiet, sounding a bit like a waterfall from a distance.

Old Faithful at Dusk

We went back to see another eruption under the stars. Just enough ambient moonlight and illumination from inside the Old Faithful Inn to see the eruption.

Old Faithful at Night

As the most popular attraction in Yellowstone, Old Faithful is quite commercialized, with three overpriced lodges, a giant visitor center, and huge parking lots all around it. For dinner, Stef and I treated ourselves to a luxurious meal at one of the lodge restaurants. Stef’s wild boar was porky, tough, and seasoned a bit too sweet for me. I had lamb.

Night. We needed a place to sleep. We wanted a room at one of the lodges, but they were all booked. We are 20 miles away from the nearest campgrounds. They’re probably full, anyway. What can we do? We know it’s against the rules, but Stef and I have decided to sleep in our car in the Old Faithful Inn parking lot. It’s cheap, it cuts a lot if driving out, and it gives us a great starting point tomorrow morning.

We’re right by the front door of the lodge. Stef thinks that park rangers are less likely to check a car that is parked so conspicuously. I hope we don’t get busted.

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