Friday, July 10, 2009

A Day in Our Life at Yellowstone

Mile 6,000

July 6-10, 2009

We are spending four nights and five or six days in Yellowstone National Park, a place with spotty cell phone coverage, no WiFi hotspots, no radio stations, no televisions, and no telephones in the rooms. In other words, there is very little to disturb or distract us from putting our full attention to experiencing the joys of Yellowstone.

There is no place else on earth like it. Yellowstone has more geothermal activity than all other places on our planet put together. It is an active volcano. Early explorers, fur trappers and gold miners who saw its geysers and steam vents, its brightly colored thermal pools and otherworldly landscapes told stories of their discoveries, but their observations were written off as delusions of drink, mad hallucinations of men away from civilization too long, or just plain tall tales.

Finally, in 1870 the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories sent out an expedition to sort fact from fiction. Their official account was so incredible that Congress voted to set aside 2.1 million acres to form Yellowstone National Park in 1872. It was a remarkable moment in our history. For the first time, our government acted to preserve a landscape from being developed or sold, rather than trying to settle the land and profit from its resources.

People have been flocking to Yellowstone to see its wonders ever since. We can't seem to get our fill of all the pleasures and treasures of Yellowstone. This is how we are spending today:

7:50—We have just vacated our "Frontier Cabin" at Old Faithful Lodge, our car is packed, we have checked the latest estimate for Old Faithful's next eruption (8:25), and we are in line for our morning coffee and pastry at the Lodge. We bolt our pastries, and carry our coffee with us on the trail. Our goal is to climb up the mountain behind the Lodge to an overlook where we can get an aerial shot of the geyser. But, we will have to walk quickly to make it. Between the elevation (around 7,300 feet), the climb (+200 feet in the last half mile), and our swift pace while attempting to talk and guzzle our coffee, we are panting heavily by 8:15, but we catch our breath enough to hold our cameras steady by the time Old Faithful erupts, on schedule.

This is our third set of Old Faithful eruption pictures—the first was while we watched from rocking chairs on the porch of the Lodge, the second from bleacher seats around the geyser perimeter.

There is a ranger on staff whose sole job is to predict the time of the next eruption of Old Faithful. He measures the height, force, and length of time of each eruption and then predicts the time of the next one, based on some complicated formula taking those factors (and maybe others) into account. Within five minutes of the end of one eruption, the predicted time of the next one is displayed all over the park (accurate within plus or minus ten minutes). The average time between Old Faithful eruptions is 90 minutes.

8:30—We dash down the mountain, taking pictures of wild flowers to identify later as we go, check out of the Lodge, and go to the famous Old Faithful Inn next door to catch the 9:00 tour of this grand old hotel. It is built in a rustic style, with lodge pole pine logs used for walls and as supports for the rough plank terrace levels lining the 7-story lobby. A massive stone fireplace built using local volcanic rock is a warm centerpiece for the lobby.

We agree that rustic as our cabin here was, we are glad not to have stayed at the lodge, where most of the rooms use a bath down the hall. The lodge room we see during our tour is charming, with log walls and a cozy window seat, but it is so tiny we would be climbing over our luggage to get to the bed, and the only places to hang clothes are hooks on the wall, occupied by the bathrobes they give you to wear when you run down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night. We have the best of both worlds here--stay in a cabin, and walk over to the Inn to enjoy the public spaces.

10:00—Buy sandwiches for a picnic later, hop in the car, and drive to a trailhead near Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest of the park's geothermal springs. We were entranced by this spring when we saw it yesterday—today we are going to hike in a mile or so on a trail at the foot of a nearby mountain, then find a way to climb above the spring to get an overhead shot.

At ground level, the steam rises off the spring in a rainbow of hues—oranges and pinks at the edges, then blues and greens around the middle of the spring. Yesterday, as we neared the spring and saw its brilliant orange edges and its deep blue water, a cool wind was blowing gustily, and we were caught in an endless eddy of hot steam and cool wind whirling round and round us. The rejuvenating effect was much better than any of our spa treatments back in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Today, we are too far away from the spring to feel its warmth, but we can see the eddying of its rainbow colored steam from afar. As expected, we find paths up the mountain forged by others seeking this view, and we haul up our equipment, take lots of photos, make our way back down, and hike back to the car.

11:50—We are sitting on the second floor terrace of the Old Faithful Inn, eating our picnic lunch while looking out over Old Faithful and other geysers in the world's largest geyser field. Old Faithful erupts at 12:10, and we get even more pictures.

12:30—We leave Old Faithful and the geyser basin around it for an entirely new landscape, in Yellowstone's Canyon Village area. The 54 mile drive will take us six hours because:

  • We stop to watch spawning cut-throat trout desperately trying to swim upstream against the raging whitewater of the Yellowstone River.

  • We stop at the Mud Volcano area for a quick look at some bubbling mudpots, notice a ranger-led walk nearby, and get sucked into a fascinating hour-long geography and geology lesson as we tour these muddy pools filled with sulfuric acid as strong as a car battery, exhaling the aroma of rotten eggs as their bubbles pop.

  • We see ducks floating on Yellowstone Lake, the largest high altitude lake in the world, and we stop for a closer look. I think they are Barrow's Goldeneyes, birds new to my life list. Before I can claim them for certain, I need to see them a little bit better to check the patches on their cheeks. Dick gets out his telephoto lens, which is far more powerful than my binoculars, sets up his tripod and camera, gets some photos, and I confirm from the photo display that we are looking at a life bird. (Yippee!)

  • We stop to read every roadside exhibit.

  • We make frequent photo op stops (although we no longer stop for deer or bison).

  • We stop at the marina to look at the boats.

  • When we get to the canyon area, we take the scenic road to Canyon Village, rather than the direct route. We make frequent stops to peer down into the deep chasm and admire the colors of the rock (yellows, pinks, reds, orange, black and white), and the power of the dramatic waterfalls and whitewater rushing through the canyon below.

  • I see another life bird, a Red Crossbill, sitting high in a pine tree below—which makes it eye level for us. Dick dashes to the car for his super lens and shoots off some spectacular photos of this bright finchy bird with its unusual bill, perfectly adapted for prying open pine cones to eat their seeds.
    6:30--We check into our Canyon Village cabin, which we only reserved yesterday (nothing acceptable was available the day before when we checked). To our delight, we find we have one of the half dozen nicest cabins here—it has a picture window looking out over the forest (not that this matters much, since we are out of our room a little after 7 a.m. the next day, and not back in it again until almost dark).

6:40—We go straight to dinner, after determining that our room exceeds expectations, not even bothering to unpack anything from the car first. There is a 45 minute wait, they tell us, but we are seated in 20 minutes. As seems to be the case almost everywhere we have been in this state, the menu is heavy on beef and bison entrees. In honor of the cut-throat we watched valiantly swimming upstream earlier today, I dine on trout (farm-raised, no doubt).

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