Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone (1)

Length of stay: 8 days
Visited: September 2015

Highlights:

  • Upper Geyser Basin
  • Yellowstone Grand Canyon
  • Hike up Mt Washburn
  • Lamar Valley at dawn
  • Artemisia Geyser eruption

The first national park was established here in Yellowstone. Situated along much of northwestern Wyoming and parts of neighbouring Montana and Idaho, even over a hundred years ago there was a collective need to protect and preserve the abundant wildlife and many geothermal features surrounding the area. Today Yellowstone boasts of being one of the largest ecosystems in the Lower 48 to support a wide variety of animals – including many endangered species like the grizzly bear, gray wolf and American bison. Resting atop an active supervolcano, it is also home to half of the world’s geothermal features.

We were pretty excited to visit Yellowstone National Park as it combines some of our all-time favourite activities: camping, hiking, wildlife, and (above all) the magnificent wonders of geothermal activity. With its gurgling mud pots, bursts of steam and water gushing from the ground, colourful hot springs you’d think you were straight up on a different planet.

Below is a map of our 8 day camping adventure in Yellowstone. We drove through the Grand Teton National Park and entered at the southern entrance of Yellowstone and drove counterclockwise around the main road. Each colour corresponds to a specific day.

Day 1: Introduction to Geothermal Activity

We left Toronto at 7a.m. Two flights and five and a half hours later (including a visit to passport control – most likely because K’s picture looked like he had laser eyes), we arrived at Jackson Hole at 10:30a.m local time. We picked up our rental car, drove into Jackson for supplies, then started our adventure north towards Yellowstone National Park.

We passed through Grand Teton National Park home to the youngest mountain range in the Rocky Mountains. These massive jagged peaks loomed in the distance (as did those omniscient looking clouds) during our drive through the park. Along the way we stopped at the various viewpoints.

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Since we were driving to Yellowstone from the south, we paid a combined entrance fee of $50 for both national parks. Once we rolled into Yellowstone, we headed over to West Thumb Geyser Basin which contains some (mostly inactive) geysers and colourful hot springs. There are a series of boardwalks that weave their way in and around many of these geothermal features. It started to sprinkle within minutes of stepping foot onto the boardwalk. But luckily the showers were short-lived.

Afterwards we went on a short hike along the Yellowstone Lake Overlook (3km round trip). The only eventful part of the hike was when we saw a sign about hiking in bear country and whether we were prepared for a bear attack.

From there we checked into our campsite at Bridge Bay Campground for the rest of the evening. Due to its close proximity to the southern entrance of the park, Bridge Bay is one of the larger campgrounds in Yellowstone containing over 430 campsites. As such things are a bit more cramped and crowded. But we only planned to stay here one night. And this is probably a good thing because I’m sure our neighbours are going to lure a bunch of bears into the area. They were seriously debating about whether to put sausages in the shared bear bins. And to be fair, it is better that putting that stuff in your tent. But at the same time, you’re still likely to attract bears by putting smelly items in the bear bin – even if they can’t physically get at it. You lock that stuff in a cooler at least. Preferably in your car with the windows all rolled up.

Day 2: Yellowstone Grand Canyon

We’re early risers. And normally it pays off being the first to hit the scene. This morning was no exception. Along our way to Mud Volcano we  had our first bison sighting. Up close and personal. There were about six bison congregated near the side of the main road. We drove by super slowly so as not to run them over (although I’m sure we’d be the ones worse off in that scenario). And there were no other vehicles behind us so we didn’t feel pressure to be rushed or anything.

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The Mud Volcano area was pretty cool. There are some bubbling mud pots, hissing steam vents, and colourful hot springs in the area. We walked along a series of  boardwalks (it’s around a 1km loop around the area) and then waited around for the Ranger Program.

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The ranger described the Native American history of the area as well as the geothermal features and natural vegetation in more detail. Fun fact: Sour lake is as acidic as a car battery. The depth of the lake is currently unknown as all attempts to measure it have failed due to acid melting the equipment. And this is why we don’t stray from the boardwalk.

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From there drove through Hayden Valley on our way to the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. This valley is reputed to offer one of the best locations for wildlife viewing in the park. And we did see herds of bison, but they were pretty far in the valley. Dawn and dusk are reputed to be the best times to view the wildlife more up close and in action.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. This v-shaped canyon is approximately 40km long and provides a glimpse into the hydrothermal alteration that took place. The vibrant yellow, orange, red, and pink hues are a direct result of oxidation. But these colours are a result of the surrounding rocks containing iron (rather than sulfur).

There are a number of viewpoints and hiking trails in the area. We first stopped at Artist Point which boasts of providing an unparalleled view of all the colours of Yellowstone Grand Canyon. We then “hiked” Uncle Tom’s Trail. I use this term loosely as it was less so hiking and more so stair climbing (328 steps to be exact). And just in case we didn’t get enough opportunities to view inside the canyon, we also hiked along the trail to the Brink of the Lower Falls and to Red Rock Point. These trails involved hiking down (and then back up) a series of steep switchbacks. But the paths were mostly paved and the lookout points at the end of the trail provided sweeping views into the Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

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On the way to Canyon Campground, we stopped at some of the other viewpoints along the Yellowstone Grand Canyon – like Inspiration Point, Lookout Point, and Glacial Boulder, all of which required little hiking.

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Day 3: Mount Washburn and Tower Falls

We woke up bright and early to scale Mount Washburn (10.2 km round trip). At an elevation of 10,243 feet (3,122m), this hike is no joke. There are actually two trails up Mount Washburn – one from Dunraven (which is 2km longer, but goes through more wooded areas) and the other from Chittenden. We opted for the Dunraven trail as it is the more popular route and would provide more shelter from the sun (and wind). The hike was strenuous, but we like to attribute being so out of breath to the elevation. Along our hike we saw some grouse along the trail and bighorn sheep near the peak.

On the summit there is a lookout station complete with an observation deck on the second floor. We took advantage of the opportunity of being able to soak in the views while being sheltered from the wind. We also took this opportunity to eat a snack before completing the roundtrip back to our car.

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After our hike, we drove down to Tower Fall Campground to secure a campsite and set up our tent. There are 31 sites that are administered on a first-come first-served basis. By the time we hit the scene there were only a handful left. But we managed to find a particularly nice site off to the back that provided decent privacy and shade cover. After setting up our tent we ate a quick lunch at the picnic table and chatted with our neighbour Larry.

From there we drove to Tower Fall where there’s a short hike down a series of switchbacks to a viewing platform. We also checked out Calcite Springs – an area rich with yellow and white hues from oxidation, and this “famous” petrified tree – an ancient tree in the Specimen Ridge area that has been preserved thanks to a series of volcanic eruptions over 50 millions years ago that covered the area in ash and mud.

There is more evidence of Yellowstone’s volcanic past scattered around the Tower Junction area. There are a series of massive basalt columns overtop the Calcite Springs area and along part of the road.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon driving through Lamar Valley to see more of the abundant wildlife in the park. As with Hayden Valley, many of the bison were pretty deep in the valley and we couldn’t really get a good view of the wildlife. We agreed to return at dawn.

In the evening we attended a Ranger Program on Bear Awareness at our campground. The park ranger, Mark, was AMAZING. He even gave everyone in the audience a special pin with a grizzly bear on it. We felt much safer and at ease with being in bear country after learning more about the grizzlers and how to respond during an encounter. It was also comforting to learn that there have been only eight grizzler attacks that resulted in fatalities in the history of Yellowstone National Park (i.e. in nearly 150 years)– and five of those could have been prevented if they attended the Bear Awareness program.

Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs

We woke up even earlier than normal to drive through Lamar Valley at dawn in hopes of seeing more wildlife. And our efforts were quick to pay off. Many of the bison were congregated near the side of the road. Since we were the only car around we didn’t have to worry about holding up traffic. Or worse. Being stuck behind a bunch of cars while they are in prime viewing location of the wildlife. We also spotted some pronghorn and a fox along our drive through the valley.

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From there we ventured over to Mammoth Hot Springs.  These terraces were created over thousands of years by the constant overflowing of hot water which eventually left behind these calcium carbonate deposits. This hot spring complex features the largest known carbonate-depositing spring in the world. But many of its hot springs are drying up/ have already dried up. The spring vent that feeds the Mammoth Spring shifted recently after a minor earthquake cutting off its major source of water.

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We walked along a series of boardwalk along the Main Terraces and drove along the one-way road to see the Upper Terraces.

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Afterwards we hiked up Bunsen Peak (6.7km roundtrip). It’s at a lower elevation (8,564 ft or 2,610m) than Mount Washburn, but it’s a much steeper climb. We were definitely a huffin’ and a puffin’ by the top we reached the top. It’s the elevation! The summit provided sweeping views into Yellowstone’s valley.

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Once we made our return journey back to the car we backtracked to the Mammoth Visitor’s Center and enrolled in the Junior Ranger Program (I have to get that badge – especially since one of them has a grizzly bear on it). This turned out to be a good call as there were a large number of elk hanging around on the lawns outside.

Since we still had a few hours of daylight left we then hit up the Norris Geyser Basin. It is the hottest geyser basin in Yellowstone and also super colourful. The world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser, is located here. Don’t piss your pants with excitement. Steamboat’s eruptions are spontaneous and infrequent. And its last eruption was nearly a year ago.

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We checked into Madison Campground which will be our home base for the next three nights as it is centrally located near a bunch of points of interest.

In the evening we attended the evening Ranger Program and learned about the history of the gray wolves at Yellowstone (and in the United States). It was super upsetting to hear about how by the end of the 1920s almost all the gray wolves were killed off in the United States. They were later reintroduced back into the wild, including Yellowstone in 1995 to combat the overpopulation of elk and habitat destruction due to overgrazing, but their populations are still vulnerable.

Day 5: Hot Springs and Mud Pots and Geysers (Oh My!)

What better way to start the day than watch some gurgling, bubbling mud pots?! We drove to Artists Paint Pots and walked along the short trail around some colourful hot springs.

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The mud pots at the top of the hill were dynamite. Perhaps the rain from last night helped fuel them. Either way, they were too hot to quit.

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Along the way to Monument Geyser Basin we made a detour at Beryl Spring, Terrace Spring and Gibbon Falls. All these viewpoints required minimal hiking from the road turnouts.

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We were saving our energy for our hike up to the Monument Geyser Basin. Key word being “up”. You may be thinking to yourself, “it’s a 3km hike (roundtrip), how hard can it be?”.  Especially since you start the hike off strolling through a nice path through the forest alongside the Gibbon river. But then the trail takes a steep turn up. And that steep turn up turns into the rest of the hike.

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We were feeling pretty exhausted by the time we finished our hike so we decided to drive along Firehole Drive and along the Lower Geyser Basin. We checked out the list of predicted geyser eruptions at the Visitors Centre near our campground earlier in the morning. Since Great Fountain Geyser was within the 2-hour window of its predicted eruption, we decided to wait around for the show. Besides, this gave us an opportunity to take a break and eat some lunch. It was worth the wait. Great Fountain Geyser erupts every 9 to 15 hours for 45 – 60 minutes to heights ranging from 70 to 200 feet (22 to 66m). Its eruption was like a 45 minute firework show of hot water and steam. As an added bonus, a neighbouring geyser (White Dome Geyser) erupted a few minutes prior to Great Fountain.

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After taking an extended lunch break we headed over to Midway Geyser Basin, famous for its colourful Grand Prismatic Spring. It is the largest hot spring in all of Yellowstone and is noted for its colouration that resemble a rainbow. Based on the wind direction we were unable to take any clear pictures to capture its magnificent wonder. But there are a series of other colourful hot springs in this geyser basin as well.

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Afterwards we went for a hike up to Fairy Falls (8.3km roundtrip). The trail itself was easy enough. The path was gravel and fairly level, but not particularly scenic. The first kilometre or so of the trail was insanely busy here as it offers a better view of the Grand Prismatic Spring. But afterwards, the trail was pretty deserted. Fairy Falls itself was quite nice. But the real treat was the short hike afterwards leading up to Imperial Geyser.

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When we returned to our car we called it a day and drove back to our campsite. We made some dinner by the fire  and then waited around for the evening Ranger Program. It covered the “Lost Stories” of Yellowstone, including a story of Harry Yount who is considered to the first ranger (unofficially) of Yellowstone (and all national parks in the United States).

Day 6: Upper Geyser Basin

We spent most of our day around the Upper Geyser Basin which features the highest concentration of geysers in Yellowstone (and in the world). We started off at the Visitor’s Centre to write down the estimated geyser predictions. We’re glad we printed a map of the area ahead of time so we could strategically plan our path according to the geyser eruption times.

Old Faithful is one of the most predictable geysers in the world. And it’s located right outside the Visitor’s Centre. So we figured what better way to start our “geyser hunting” expedition than by watching its eruption. Right on time. Old Faithful erupts every 44 to 125 minutes for a period of a minute and a half to up to 5 minutes to heights of 106 to 184 feet (30 to 55m).

Our day consisted of watching geysers erupt and meandering around a large collection of hot springs and colourful pools in the area in between eruptions. Although prediction times are provided, they are often in an interval ranging anyway from 30 minutes to upwards of several hours.

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We waited for about 45 minutes for Daisy Geyser to erupt. It is one of the most predictable geysers in Yellowstone and erupts to heights of around 75 feet (24m) every 110 to 240 minutes for 3.5 minutes.

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We wandered around the boardwalks a bit before heading over to the seating area for Grand Geyser. This fountain geyser erupts every 7 to 15 hours for a period of 8 – 12 minutes and reaches a height of around 160 feet (48m). Along with its neighbouring Vent Geyser and Turban Geyser, these three geysers form the Grand Group. Grand’s eruption is typically triggered by Turban Geyser and Vent Geyser’s eruptions.

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We also watched Sawmill Geyser and Tardy Geyser erupt. Both these geysers are unpredictable and we just happened to be strolling along the boardwalk near them when they erupted.

We finished our walk along the boardwalk up at the Morning Glory Pool – arguably the most famous hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin. This hot spring was named after a flower that shared the same hue as this pool. That is until a bunch of tourists threw pennies and rocks into it. Over time the colours changed.  And also the pool’s temperature declined. Possibly from all the trash that was thrown in that could have clogged part of its heat source.

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After finishing up the lower portion of the Upper Geyser Basin we headed back to our campsite for dinner. We decided to skip the evening Ranger Program to go to bed earlier since we were feeling pretty tired. It turned out to be a good call because some crazy wild thunderstorm system rolled in around 9:30p.m. Our tent took a beating with all the wind and rain, but we managed to stay completely dry. Not that we were concerned or anything. Our tent has survived worse (see our travels to Iceland).

Day 7: Upper Geyser Basin Part II

We returned to the Old Faithful Visitor’s Centre for day two of the Upper Geyser Basin. But first things first, we turned in our completed Junior Ranger booklet to receive our badge. And since we completed everything in the booklet (rather than just the activities for our age range) we got to pick which of the three badges we wanted. We had the choice between one with a geyser erupting, a grizzly bear, or a bison. Obviously we choose the badge with the grizzler. Duh.

We headed back to the car and drove towards the Lewis Falls Campground to secure a campsite for the next two nights. This turned out to be our favourite campsite that we camped at in Yellowstone as it was extremely private. Along the way we stopped at Lew Falls.

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After setting up our tent and sleeping area we headed back to the car and drove over to Fountain Paint Pots, which features a collection of bubbling and gurgling mud pots. These weren’t nearly as impressive as the ones at Artist Paint Pots, but we still enjoyed watching the bubbling and oozing mud.

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There are a number of colourful hot springs in the Fountain Paint Pots area as well.

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Afterwards we headed over to Biscuit Basin which feature a collection of even more geothermal features.

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Biscuit Basin is located at the northern part of the Upper Geyser Basin – the section that we were unable to finish yesterday. This part of the area was less developed. There were no boardwalks and sometimes it was unclear where the actual path was. It was well worth the effort and kinda fun stumbling around in search of signs for geothermal activity.

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While we were wandering around, we came across a group of “geyser hunters” who were waiting for Artemisia Geyser to erupt. These people were legit. They knew which signs to look for to indicate whether geysers are about to erupt. They even have walkie talkies and log books to coordinate with each other. These guys looked like they knew what they were doing, so we decided to wait with them. Some of them even brought their own chairs. Talk about dedication. We decided to wait around with them since it looked like they knew what they were doing. Artemisia Geyser is rather unpredictable and erupts anywhere from every 9 hours to 31 hours. So imagine our surprise when it erupted after waiting for about 45 minutes. And the best part about its eruption is that the ground beneath starts to shake just before water shoots up from its pool. The whole ordeal lasted about 30 minutes. It was awesome.

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At this point it was getting late so we decided to return to our campsite for the remainder of the evening.

Day 8: Upper Geyser Basin Part III

Last night was wild. Three separate thunderstorm systems rolled in over various points throughout the night. And it looked like there was more in store when we rolled out of bed. We had initially planned to hike to Lone Star Geyser, but decided to just stay around Upper Geyser Basin in case the weather turned nasty. Plus there were a number of geysers we had yet to watch erupt.

We checked in at the Old Faithful Visitor’s Centre again to write down the geyser prediction times. We figured out our game plan on what to watch and when before heading out to catch Old Faithful’s eruption. Afterwards we headed over to Castle Geyser. It erupts every 10 to 12 hours for a period of 15-20 minutes and reaches heights of up to 75 feet (24m). As an added bonus Grand Geyser started erupting near the tail end of Castle’s eruption.

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Afterwards we wandered over to Riverside Geyser and didn’t have long to wait for it to erupt. Located next to Firehole River, this geyser erupts every 5 and a half hours to 7 hours for up to 20 minutes to a height of 75 feet (24m).

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At this point we had checked off all the predictable geysers from our list. As we were circling back along the boardwalk to the parking lot we saw a number of geyser hunters lining up along the edge at Oblong Geyser. This worked out well before in the past so we sat down and joined them. We waited around for maybe 30 minutes or so for it to erupt. Its eruption was brief – only a few minutes, and it reached a height of around 25 feet (8m). It just doesn’t get old.

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Since we had some more time to kill this afternoon we went back to Midway Geyser. We didn’t stay long as the crowds of people were unbearable. Instead we headed over to Kepler Falls.

We retired to our campsite at a reasonable time as we’d be flying out tomorrow. At 6:30a.m. And since it rained practically every night we’ve been here, we decided to just sleep in our car. That way, we wouldn’t have to worry about take our tent down in the rain. And in the dark. Probably not the best decision ever.

We spent as much time around the fire in the evening until we started to get chilly. We then snuggled into our sleeping bags inside the car and tried to get some shut-eye. All the while dreaming and reminiscing of our wonderful time spent in Yellowstone.

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L & K

2 thoughts on “Yellowstone National Park

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