The rumors are true. Yellowstone National Park is in a league of its own.
I’m operating on the assumption that you have already heard a good deal about Yellowstone. For instance, you’ve heard that Yellowstone sits on top of an active supervolcano, and that the park boasts the highest concentration of geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles) in the world. You’ve probably even heard of the successful reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and the controversy surrounding it. You know about Old Faithful, and have probably seen pictures of Grand Prismatic Spring and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. So I won’t get too far into how visually captivating they are.
Instead I will try to focus on what I found surprising about America’s first national park.
Old Faithful: AKA The Showman
Old Faithful has been erupting nearly every 90 minutes since its naming in 1870. I had registered for a backcountry campsite at Mallard Lake (7/13/15), and the trailhead for the hike-in is accessed from the Old Faithful Visitor Center. I arrived around 6pm and decided to check out the next eruption before hitting the trail. There was a white board at the entrance of the visitor center which showed the next predicted eruption time to be 6:23 ±10 minutes. Old Faithful is a long standing attraction, and there was a wide semicircular observation walkway around Old Faithful at a radius of 200 feet. There are two rows of benches on the inside of the walkway and they were full by the time I arrived.
For the twenty minutes leading up to 6:23pm the geyser roiled and steamed inconsistently. At roughly two to four minute intervals it would aggressively billow steam for 15 seconds and then settle down back to its normal simmer. As 6:23 approached these bouts of activity began to include liquid water which gargled erratically between belches of steam. These episodes began happening with greater frequency and enthusiasm. Half of the spectators had their cameras continuously trained on the target, and the other half raised them quickly during the periods increased activity. People oOo’d and AHH’d climatically, but the geyser could not be bribed. Even though the episodes became longer and larger, the geyser returned to its suspenseful steady steam production between them. The suspenseful performance would have been the envy of Houdini. Then 6:23 came… and 6:23 went.
The impatience of the crowd grew, but when we witnessed the impatience of Old Faithful with itself, we were pacified.
And then ERUPTION! The flow rate ramped up over 15 seconds. It was a shorter in height and longer in duration than I expected. A third of the spectators had left before the performance was complete. I exited out the front door of the visitor center, and the whiteboard was updated “Next eruption predicted: 8:02pm ±10 minutes.”
Grand Prismatic Spring: AKA The Bashful Beauty
The Grand Prismatic Spring is huge – way bigger than I expected from pictures.
It’s about the size of a football field, and the brilliant colors are just as rich in person as they are in the pictures. The only problem is that it’s tough to view. There’s a boardwalk that runs parallel to the spring’s edge, but it’s set back 50 feet so the viewing angle is glancing. On top of that, the pool is constantly obscured by clouds of steam, and a clear view across its width only occurs when the wind is just right. If I were to do it over, I’d hike Fairy Falls trail through the modest mountains to the west. The trail looks down into the water from ~200 feet above. Because of this, the colors would be clearer and the size of the spring could be better appreciated.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go back and see it from there. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was calling.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: AKA The Life of the Party
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone has a serious name to live up to, and while it doesn’t make vast impression that The Grand Canyon makes, it does alright for itself. The waterfall into the canyon marks the end of tough rocky soil to the north and the beginning of softer, more easily eroded soil to the south. One of the rangers likened the canyon to a dissection of a geyser basin. The rock is orange, pink, and yellow, hence the name “Yellow-stone”. I hiked Uncle Tom’s Trail along the south rim of the canyon out to Artist Point, and I wasn’t the only one with that idea.
With a name like Artist Point, I should have expected the crowds would want to check it out, but I was still surprised. Bus after bus arrived, exploded, and quickly reassembled.
That brings up my last point of interest – the crowds.
Yellowstone is massive, and everybody drives everywhere. Traffic can get bad because drivers will slow or stop when they get to a good spot for wildlife. There is also road construction happening throughout the park, and sometimes traffic was restricted to a single lane which alternates direction. I tried to bike on some of the more traffic choked sections, but I didn’t feel safe.
Most drivers appeared distracted, and the roads don’t have any shoulder to bike on.
It’s the same old story, visitors get overly engaged in framing their pictures, and people get impatient when they think someone has cut the line-up. It’s easy for me to say this because I operate on a loose schedule, and I don’t have anyone else to worry about, but if you’re not prepared to experience crowds and traffic, you’re probably better off not trying to tackle Yellowstone.
People put so much effort in making it a memorable experience, they can accidentally overlook the importance of making good memories.