|Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin area|
To prepare for the trip, I consulted several books, including the wonderful Yellowstone Treasures and Photographing Yellowstone National Park, and discussed plans with both my wife Beth and with her godmother Joy, who have visited the park before. Yellowstone is a huge park at nearly 3500 square miles and offers many different attractions--from mountain valleys to river canyons to wildlife large and small--but what I was most interested in were its geothermal features.
|Old Faithful in its initial phase of eruption|
The hotspot beneath the Yellowstone Supervolcano provided the massive basalt flows of the Snake River plain to the west, having erupted repeatedly over the past 18 million years or so, with recent eruptive activity occurring roughly every 650,000 years (last time forming the current Yellowstone Caldera--gulp--about 640,000 years ago). Though scientists are not particularly concerned about the prospects of a new eruption--such fears are more the fodder of apocalyptic sensationalism--within the past decade there was a brief period of significant rise of the magma dome beneath the park which drove many of its geothermal features into frenzied activity, even for a short period necessitating the closure of public access to the Norris Geyser Basin.
In all my reading about the park's geothermal activity and the few nature documentaries I'd watched which focused on the same (and not, say, on the park's wolves and other wildlife), I had built up something of an image of Hell in my mind's eye, with suffocating clouds of sulfurous steam bubbling from every fissure in the earth itself and scalding ponds of boiling, acidic mud ready to ingest the unwary explorer.
|Boiling sulfurous lakes in the Sulfur Cauldron--with a pH lower than that of stomach acid|
|Travertine in Mammoth Hot Springs|
Located outside the boundaries of the Yellowstone Caldera, the travertine and the hot springs which fuel their deposition are nonetheless fueled by the heat of the Norris Geyser Basin many miles to the south: a fault line connects the areas geologically, allowing superheated, acidic water to travel north through limestone-laden rock. Calcium carbonate thus dissolved from the fault makes its way to the terraces, where it precipitates out with the springwater and results in an ever-changing landscape as the terraces grow at a rate of up to several inches a year.
Between the sulfurous fumes ("What a wonderful smell you've discovered," to quote Han Solo) and the altitude of around 8000 feet above sea level, the hike up to the top of the travertine terraces had me stopping to pant and catch my breath several times--in fact, I often felt like I wouldn't actually be able to catch my breath given the thinness of the atmosphere and its rank quality.
Driving farther south into the park, I next stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone's hottest and most active geothermal region. Rangers closed the basin to public access in 2003 when many of the geothermal features superheated and began bellowing constant streams of steam and the ground itself became dangerously hot. Though again open to the public today, the Norris basin sees the most thermal activity, with its major geysers (including the world's tallest, Steamboat Geyser) completely unpredictable and many of its hot springs and fumaroles changing rapidly.
|Colorful runoff from Steamboat Geyser|
The air in the Norris basin hangs heavy with moisture venting from all across the ground, laden with an almost-indescribable stench carrying undertones of burned matches and tinges of rotten eggs, and every shift of the wind threatens to engulf hikers in rank clouds from the ever-present geysers and fumaroles. I actually got used to the smell a lot more quickly than I had anticipated, though, and it is certainly a part of the atmosphere (no pun intended) of the volcanic land inextricable from the bubbling pools and steaming geyser mouths. I hate to think of celebrity chef Emeril in this context or quote him at any time, but hey, "you need smell-o-vision" to really capture the full experience of Yellowstone's geothermal features.
During my hike around the back basin, I really wished I had my nephew Iain along. He's at that age where young boys are sure they're going to grow up to be vulcanologists (or perhaps paleontologists--dinosaurs and volcanoes seem inextricably linked in the eyes of five-year-olds)--and here I was, walking alongside what arguably he'd see as real, live volcanoes in action. Beyond the sights and smells, the sound of the park around me, too, was something that photos, no matter how many thousands of words they stand in for, really cannot do justice to. Depending on the particular feature nearest-by, there can be low growls, hissing, bubbling, rumbling... well, all manner of the sorts of things you'd expect to hear from such a hot, strained environment. I attempted to record several videos with my cell phone, but a bug in the particular software resulted in many extraneous crackles in the audio which weren't present at the actual site.
|Gnome face in the Porcelain Geyser Basin area|
|Runoff from Echinus Geyser|
Note that weather conditions can play a large role in what you'll see in the Norris Geyser Basin; for example, on the dreary Friday when I first hiked through the area, temperatures were in the low 50s and at times I experienced rain, sleet, and even snow, all of which led to huge clouds of steam condensing in the air above the basin's geothermal features. In the Porcelain Basin, I could only see several of the geysers intermittently, even in the warmest temperatures of the afternoon, due to the fog-like clouds of steam, and I stood at the edge of the boardwalk waiting for the wind to shift just so to disperse the vapors enough to snap a photo or two. The next day, a relatively clear Saturday, found the exact same features clear and quite visible beneath the noon sun after the morning chill had boiled away. Likewise, photographers interested in the rainbow hues of the various thermal pools and springs need the sun to be high in the sky and unobstructed to really penetrate and illuminate up the depths.
|Colorful runoff from Pinwheel Geyser in the Porcelain Basin area--the green is produced by algae and cyanobacteria which thrive in the cooler temperatures several feet away from the vent itself|
Incidentally, Verderber is right about the crowds; although it was afternoon and a prime time for visitors to be out and about, I had plenty of time to myself with the Artist Paint Pots to take photos and even a bit of video (again, noisy due to an issue with my phone). The reason most likely has to do with the hike, which from the parking lot climbs some steep staircases and winds about a mile back into the paint pots themselves--it's not a difficult hike, per se, but unlike the Fountain Paint Pots, these features are not located right off the main park road and do require a bit more work to reach.
|Acidic mud bubbles in the Artist Paint Pots|
There's a saying about the best laid plans, I believe, and mine were a bit upset by noisy kids tromping up and down the wooden stairs and balcony outside the hotel room. Well, that and the fact that I had neglected to include the transit time from my hotel in West Yellowstone to Madison Junction inside the park, leaving me a good half an hour short on time--the sun was already coming up by the time I reached the Old Faithful area still a good 25 minutes or so away from Yellowstone Lake. Given the skies were still fairly white Saturday at daybreak, I didn't miss out on much anyway, I suppose--and I made the strategic decision to U-turn back to Biscuit Basin, a broad, steam-filled area I'd passed between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.
|Ghost of a lodgepole pine in one of Biscuit Basin's hot springs|
I will note that when the morning temperatures are close to or a bit below freezing, the boardwalks can be treacherously slick with frost--so be careful! I could tell exactly where the ground was hot as those stretches of boardwalk were ice-free and merely damp, but downwind of any of the steaming pools over cooler stretches of ground made for very slow-going walking to avoid taking a nasty tumble.
|Runoff into the Ironspring River from the Black Sand Basin|
One thing to note about Yellowstone and its inevitable summer crowds: mornings are the best time to visit the park. While most people are still snug in their beds or at the most up and having a bite of breakfast, you can be exploring with at least a couple of hours largely to yourself. I was the only person in Biscuit Basin that morning, and there was only one other vehicle parked at Black Sand Basin (presumably attracted by the eruption of Cliffside Geyser). An added plus is that pre-dawn and the immediate hour or so afterwards are the best times of day to spot a lot of the park's wildlife and without the inconvenience of lengthy traffic backups seen closer to dusk as the day's visitors slow down to spy the bison who will be out for dinner at that time of day.
I need to pause for a moment to observe that when out in Nature, people either seem to speak in low whispers (as if inside some sacred site--which I suppose they indeed are), or to shout at full volume when "talking" to the person standing two feet away? Several times during my trip, I overheard one side of a conversation in Mandarin from over a hundred feet away, as if the women speaking were like those self-important businessmen you overhear on planes or in airport lounges, virtually shouting into their cell phones about some big mega-deal in the works. I encountered several other Asian tourists--Japanese and Korean by their language--and took photos for little groups and couples interested in posing before this or that geothermal feature, and all spoke in that same reverent indoors voice; the shouting seemed limited to Chinese speakers. The Chinese women I work with are rather soft-spoken--but the men do say that it is not atypical for there to be "loud" Chinese women demanding that every sight be seen (or announcing they're not getting out of the car into all that icky mud, no way). I just don't know.
|Mountain Bluebird patiently waiting for the eruption of Old Faithful|
Sure enough, at about ten after nine, the steam output of Old Faithful suddenly began to ratchet up (see prior photo in this entry, above, for that rising steam column), and in moment a vast shaft of boiling white blasted dozens of feet into the skies, to be seen nude only a few seconds before wrapping itself in a cloak of steam for the remainder of the eruption--an eruption brief enough to give the rangers their first estimate of the day, setting the time for the subsequent blast a mere 65 minutes in the future.
On my limited schedule, I only had time to see so many things and thus walked away from a boardwalk loop around the Upper Geyser Basin--saving it for an occasion when I can return and share the wonders of Yellowstone with my wife Beth. Although I'd been awake for nearly 6 hours, it wasn't even 10:00am yet, and I finally turned for my original morning destination in the West Thumb Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake--the largest lake at this altitude of over 8000 feet above sea level. The tourists had already begun to arrive in force, so I had to be quick in navigating the boardwalks and easing into position to capture the photos I wanted, like one of Fishing Cone where brave folks would once catch fish from the lake, then drop the hapless fish into the cone--voila, parboiled fish, coming up!
|Fishing Cone in Yellowstone Lake|
The terrain changes quite significantly on the climb up from Yellowstone Lake toward Canyon Junction, with less obvious thermal activity (aside from the Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldron area, that is) and more open alpine meadows along the Yellowstone River floodplain. Along the drive, I stopped several times to watch as bison frolicked and tussled.
|Lower Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point|
Two sets of cataracts drop through the canyon, the Upper and Lower Falls. The Lower Falls are actually the higher of the two in terms of drop, plunging nearly twice the height of Niagra Falls at 308 feet. The one-way scenic loop from Canyon Village follows the edge of the canyon and offers several vantages, with the most famous and perhaps most beautiful being Artist Point.
Artist Point is certainly a fantastically inspirational spot to simply stand and take in the awe of Nature, though be forewarned that you'll be sharing that view with plenty of other people with the same mission at hand. When the sun strikes the golden cliffs of the canyon, it's a glorious sight unlike anything I think I've seen anywhere else on earth.
After my stops along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I headed back across the plateau to Norris Junction for another go at the geysers and hot springs of the Norris Basin under the day's better light. By then the altitude and my several miles of hiking were taking a toll on my body, but I really wanted to get a chance to see the unique geothermal sites under blue skies and with some sun illuminating the depths of the pools.
|One of the thermal pools of the Norris Geyser Basin bubbling away|
I was a bit surprised that the back basin loop wasn't more crowded on a pleasantly-sunny Saturday afternoon, and I got a kick out of a couple of people stopping me to ask if I was a "professional." Given the proliferation of quality DSLR cameras and more and more people realizing that the higher-quality the lens the better the chance to take quality images, I saw many hikers out with thousand-dollar Canon "L" lenses like mine--maybe something about my poise and the big carbon fiber tripod I lugged around stood apart?
After a return to Norris, I headed for one of the few remaining highlights every visitor to Yellowstone must see: the Grand Prismatic Spring, an image which is almost as iconic as that of Old Faithful erupting. From the boardwalk leading up from the Firehole River and along several large-scale thermal features, Grand Prismatic Spring isn't really that much to see: some colorful bacterial mats and runoff, a bunch of steam, and hints of the blues and greens at its heart. To get the big picture, so to speak, requires either overflight (an expensive and somewhat risky endeavor--a small plane crashed due to abrupt changes in lift due to all the thermal currents in the air while passing over the Grand Prismatic Spring several years ago), or else a hike off-trail up one of the two ridges overlooking the spring. I must confess, though, that I did not have the energy to undertake another couple of miles of hiking on this trip--well, I did want to save something to experience with Beth when the two of us make a shared visit to the park some day!
|Silica-rich waters give this pool near Artist Paint Pots an opalescent sheen|
|Biscuit Basin "sunrise"|
Although my visit had been brief and not really long enough to enjoy every single spectacle that Yellowstone had to offer, I was exhausted and ready to head home, too--and to start planning a return trip for the wintertime to see the park in a completely different light.