Our second day of vacation was actually the first day in the park. We headed out from Rand Creek Ranch early in the morning with the plan to spend the entire day exploring the park and hitting all the “major” attractions. We wanted to get an overview of the entire geothermal areas, with return trips later in the week to those features of greatest interest.
While there are a number of restaurants within the park, those tend to be loud and crowded. When you’ve traveled this far to communion with nature, packing picnic lunches is really the way to go. There are no shortages of picnic grounds throughout the park – plenty of tables and know waiting.
Drive from Cody to East Gate along the Shoshone River
The Shoshone River is a 100-mile long river, with headwaters in the Absaroka Range within the Shoshone National Forest in northern Wyoming. The river ends when it merges with the Big Horn River near Lovell, Wyoming. Near Cody, the river runs through a volcanic region of active fumaroles known as Colter’s Hell. Early maps of this area named the river Stinking Water River. The name was changed in 1901 due to popular demand. West of Cody, the river is impounded in a canon by the Buffalo Bill Dam. Traveling west from Cody, the river offers an array of unique rock formations.
Drive from the East Gate to Mud Volcano
The drive from the east gate of Yellowstone National Park up to Mud Volcano takes you across Fishing Bridge through Pelican Valley. The bridge got its name in 1902 when it once served as a popular spot for angling and crowds of fisherman would inundate this small fishing hole, popular for cutthroat trout. Fishing near the bridge is now limited to “catch and release” recreation. Just beyond Fishing Bridge, the road forks. To the north, toward Hayden Valley, often there are long lines of cars as Bison can often be found meandering up and down the roadway. To the south is Lake Village. The cabins near Lake Village once accommodations for the less affluent visitors to the park. Today these cabins are popular with visitors seeking a rugged experience in Yellowstone without actually sleeping on the ground. The nearby Yellowstone Lake Hotel itself was erected by Pacific Railroad in 1891. In 1903 the hotel was transformed from a railroad structure to a destination hotel fitting of Yellowstone’s early popularity with discerning travelers.
Exploring Mud Volcano area of Hayden Valley
The Mud Volcano thermal area is made up primarily of hot springs and fumaroles. It’s a short 6 mile drive north of Fishing Bridge Junction. The Sulphur Cauldron, just across the road from the Mud Volcano Parking area, is one of the most acidic feathers in the park with a pH of battery acid. When the Washburn Expedition and the Hayden Survey group first came upon Mud Volcano during the early 1870s, both groups reported hearing the sounds “resembling the reports of distant artillery” for several miles before arriving at the Mud Volcano. At that time the volcano exploded with mud from its hillside alcove. Today the area has quieted but still remains a bubbling, seething spring. Some of the more noted features are the Black Dragon’s Cauldron, Sour Lake, Mud Cauldron and Dragon’s Mouth Springs.
Porcelain Basin within the Norris Geyser Basin
Porcelain Basin is so named for the milky color mineral deposits in the area. The whitish-colored mineral is siliceous sinter, also know as geyserite. This is brought to the surface by hot water and then collects on the ground as the water spreads over the flat basin. The settled geyserite sometimes resembles big white sheets of ground covering. Within the larger Norris Geyser Basin, Porcelain Basin is the fastest changing area. These changes are in part due to the collection of geyserite. As the mineral collects around a hot spring or geyser, it’s prone to accumulating around the vent. Eventually, enough geyserite builds up that the opening is covered, causing the hot water to pressurize beneath it. That water may flow underneath the ground finding another weak area to surface. If there isn’t another opening, however, the pressure will build and build until it blows a new hole in the old vent.
Back Basin within the Norris Geyser Basin
The hottest of Yellowstone’s geothermal features are the steam vents or fumaroles. These vents are usually found on the hillsides or higher ground, above the basin’s water supply. Tucked away in the Norris Geyser’s back basin is Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser. Unlike Old Faithful, it is nearly impossible to predict when Steamboat may next erupt. During major eruptions, Steamboat can shoot water more than 300 feet into the air. Cistern Springs and Steamboat Geyser are linked together underground by a common water supply. During major eruptions of Steamboat, the water in Cistern Spring’s drains away. The entire Norris Basin is in constant flux and the surrounding Lodgepole Pines have been slowly dying due to a flood of silica rich water since 1965. While the forest retreats in some area, in others that have diminished thermal activity, the pine thrives.
Gibbon River and Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls is on the Gibbon River in northwestern Yellowstone Park is about midway between Norris Geyser Basin and Madison Junction. The falls has a gradual drop of approximately 84 feet as the river falls off the Northern Escarpment into the Yellowstone Caldera. The falls themselves are nearly 5 miles upstream from the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers at the Madison Junction on the Grand Loop Road. When the Washburn and Hayden parties traveled through the Firehole and Gibbon River basins in the 1870s, the Gibbon River above Gibbon Falls was barren of fish, the falls being a natural barrier to upstream migration. Unlike the Yellowstone drainage, the upper Gibbon was isolated from any connection to drainages on the Pacific slope. The absence of fish was overcome in 1890 when the first Rainbow trout were introduced into the river above the falls. The falls themselves were first described by William Henry Jackson during the second Hayden geological survey of the area in 1872. By 1895, a road brought travelers near the falls, on the opposite side of the river from where it runs today. According to Haram Chittender, a visitor to the area in 1918, “The road hangs on the side of the cliff far above it, and affords a lovely view of the forest-covered valley below”.
Spending Time with an Elk
While it’s not difficult to spot an elk high on the hills of Hayden Valley or wandering the streets of Mammoth at the northern most point of the park, it is a grand treat to have an elk up close near a heavily traveled road. At first this male was hidden deep in the brush, happily grazing while ignoring all the attention from motorists that had stopped to get a better look. After a while he decided he’d had enough attention, making his way up the embankment and past the cars to disappear up the other side.
Hayden Valley and the End of Our Day
Hayden Valley is centrally located within Yellowstone National Park. It is the first place to go to see wildlife in Yellowstone. At the very least, the valley is home to several Bison Herds. In the evening, coyotes can be heard along the stream that meandered through the valley. In the distant, higher up the slopes of nearby hills, elk herds graze. The valley is broad with waterfowl swimming in the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone River is the only large river in the lower 48 states that still flows freely without the impediment of dams. The valley is noted for its convenient roadside turnouts, some with scenic overlooks that allow panoramic views of the valley floor below. The valley was once filled with water by an arm of Yellowstone Lake. Then some 13,000 years ago the valley itself was carved by a retreating glacial. Today Hayden Valley is marshy and has little encroachment of trees. Often early in the morning and early evening, visitors to the park can be found on the surrounding hills, seated comfortably in camp chairs, high-powered scopes at the ready in the hopes of spotting a grizzly moving down from the treeline into the valley or perhaps a wolf hunting almost hidden in the sagebrush. Often visitors unfamiliar with wolves mistake the coyotes for the allusive hunters.
And so ends our first day in Yellowstone . . . time to return to Rand Creek Ranch and watch the night sky. Our hosts, Joel and Crystal, will have a campfire ready. We’ll roast marshmallows with our neighbors and swap stories of our adventures of the day. Perfect.