Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Yellowstone

Lower Falls, Yellowstone
Sylvan Lake
Yellowstone Lake and the remnants of the 1988 fire
Yellowstone River
Lower Falls from Uncle Tom's Trail
Yellowstone Grand Canyon below Lower Falls
Upper Falls, Yellowstone River
Yellowstone Grand Canyon
Bison in the bike lane
On the Boardwalk by the Prismatic Pool Midway Geyser Basin
The colour variations were stunning - Midway

Along the Fire Hole river

Blue Star Spring, Upper Geyser Basin

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Fire Hole River below the geyser basin

Old Geyser in midday gloom
Thermally active skies as well 
Old Faithful at dusk
Morning Glory Hole

Old Faithful at dawn

Fire Hole river
Abyss Pool, West Thumb
Lake Yellowstone and Black Pool at West Thumb Geyser Basin 
West Thumb Geyser Basin

Yellowstone had been the prime attraction for the trip, it was a place that our generation had venerated as children through cartoons and then as adults through TV programmes and magazines celebrating the world's first national park. Clearly many others had the same inclination so our foray into Yellowstone was time restricted by room availability: two nights were all that were available. There was little choice of accommodation, which was monopolised by Xanterra Park and Resorts Corporation.  It seemed that Yellowstone National Park had been franchised and this was reflected in the price and quality of facilities. We made an itinerary to take us westwards from Cody to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, driving up the Shoshone River to the Sylvan Pass and thereafter making an anticlockwise loop around the Yellowstone lake. This followed the Yellowstone river from Fishing Bridge up to its massive waterfalls into the grand canyon. We continued from via Norris and Madison stopping at the various geyser basins before reaching Old Faithful, where we were billeted for the night.

The forecast had been for cloud and rain and it looked ominous as we headed westwards through the rocky ramparts of the Shoshone with american eagles patrolling the river. We headed into the vast pine forests at the entrance of the NP just before the summit of the Sylvan pass at 8530 ft. The road then began to meander down to the impossibly attractive Sylvan Lake. Therafter we entered the dead forest overlooking the Lake, it had been devastated by the fires of 1988 when lightning strikes had sparked massive fires during a particularly dry summer.  National reserve forces had been mobilised to help control the fires. The views over the Lake were hazy and the promised views to Grand Teton were not on show. Yellowstone Lake at an altitude of 7733ft. sits in south east corner of a vast caldera formed less than a million years ago. There is extensive geo thermal activity on the bed of the lake but it is most visible in the various geyser basins to the north and west of the lake. Yellowstone has two thirds of the world's geysers, nowhere else is the earth's crust so vulnerable to magmatic forces.

We called in to the first visitor centre at Fishing Bridge and had a quick saunter along the lake shore. The Yellowstone river drains the lake from here and the famous  indigenous cutthroat trout were still in the majority despite the intrusion of rainbow trout in recent years. We drove up the river and stopped to see the first group of geo thermal activities - the mud volcanoes. The rains began whilst we were walking round and the downpour was so intense that all vehicles had to pull off the road.

It was not far to the Yellowstone Falls but still raining hard as we crossed the bridge and headed along the south rim drive to Artist Point. The massive car parks adjacent to the two waterfalls were empty of vehicles and covered in pools of water from the downpour. I was the only person foolish enough to attempt the descent of Old Tom's Trail which takes you to an overlook of the lower falls. It took about 25 minutes to go down and back but the views were worth a two day hike. It involved descending a muddy path and then 330 metal steps that had been bolted onto the rock face, the steps were extremely steep and slippy and there was no respite from the rain. On returning to the rim we continued for a couple of miles to Artist Point, this attraction had a herd of tour buses as well as a cavalcade of camper vans. Everyone seemed to have a plastic poncho and I was asked to act as photographer for several groups of poncho clad tourists, our goretex jackets seemed a bit too outdoorsy for this tourist trap

It was a spectacular viewing platform and the yellow and grey rocks and scree made it immediately evident why this place was called Yellowstone. Thoroughly soaked we continued to the nearby Canyon village which was like an out of town shopping mall. At least it provided some respite from the weather and the food was surprisingly good. We raced back across the tarmac to the car in another downpour and proceeded westwards to Norris geysers basin and walked out to the Artists Paintpots. It was a mile or so and there were few others bothering to make the visit. We continued along the  crystal clear Gibbon river and then walked round some of the various geyser basins. The rain was moderating but in the dull light the various mud pools, fumaroles and hot springs didn't have the impact that I had anticipated. The famous Prismatic Pool was just another shade of grey between the rising steam and the low cloud cover.

We arrived at the Old Faithful Lodge as the mass exit of day visitors were leaving. The lodge and nearby Inn are surrounded by huge car parks. Old Faitfhul geyser is 400 metres away surrounded by a wide concrete footpath that is a good half mile long. Adjacent to it is another visitor centre, a building that seemed to be short of investment, the video equipment was not working and the ranger lecture that we sat in on had all the vibrancy of a bear in hibernation. We watched the Old Faithful blow, timings are about every hour and a half but are not capable of accurate prediction. As a result crowds gather 15 minutes ahead of the best estimate and stay until Old Faithful obliges. In the dull evening light it was a bit of an anticlimax and the temperature was plummeting as August drew to a close. We returned to the hotel and sat in a refectory eating canteen food - our worst experience on the trip but it would be trumped in Duchnesse.

The next day we had a planned tour with a ranger. The weather had warded off most of the other clients and we had only a couple from Germany to share the ranger with. Her father was Scottish and had married a Texan. She had become a ranger and was totally committed to Yellowstone, having spent 15 seasons there. Her enthusiasm was infectious despite the rain and cold. We travelled to Madison, made a trip along the Fire Hole river, and visited the lower and middle geyser basins. We learnt a lot about the geology and the seasonal changes in Yellowstone. She explained the wildlife and it was surpring that the bison, wolves and some of the fish had all been introduced to the park from elsewhere. Although buffalos are pretty well everywhere and more dangerous than they look, bears and wolves are seldom seen except in the early spring The most interesting feature was the vast array micro-organisms called thermophiles, which make their homes in the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone. Although individually they are too small to be seen with the naked eye, the plant life around the pools is provides a rich source of organisms that are proving very important for medical research.

Yellowstone had been a strange experience, we arrived in a rare downpour, suffered two days of rain and cold, and the hotel was a disappointment. The roads were awash with traffic, nose to tail like Longleat but without the wild animals. Although the end of summer it was busy for the Labor Day weekend but most visitors seemed welded into their vehicles and unwilling to walk very far.  There was no stupendous mountain scenery as in Yosemite or Grand Teton and even the Yellowstone river grand canyon had none of the awesome splendour of the red sandstone canyons and monumentalism of Utah or Arizona. It was just a big and largely flat forest covered caldera where the crust of the earth was thinner than elsewhere and magma was exploiting every orifice to release its gases and superheat the water. Nevertheless we had never seen anything like this before and it lingers in the memory as an other worldly experience. With more days and more clement weather we would have been able to explore further and escape the maddening crowds, we achieved that to some extent by staying out late, rising early and walking further but it still felt too much of a tourist destination than the unique and bizarre wilderness that it is.

Pot of Gold at Old Faithful Geyser

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