Friday, October 4, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: GeoThermal Features

If you were to ask almost anyone about "Yellowstone", and record the first thing they said, it would almost certainly be "Old Faithful!"

( Unless they said "Yogi and Boo-boo!", but perhaps that just dates me. )

There are many, many fascinating aspects to Yellowstone, but certainly the geothermal features (Hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, etc.) are a big part of the reason that people go to visit the park.

So on a bitterly cold Thursday in late September, we piled all of our warmest clothes into the car and set off to drive over snowy Craig Pass to visit the Upper Geyser Basin of the Firehole River.

That is, we went to go see Old Faithful ("now, that's a geyser!").

The nice thing about Old Faithful is that it is, for the time being, quite predictable, and the rangers had a nice sign up in the window telling us that we had about 45 minutes before the next eruption.

So we took a walk on the boardwalks around the nearby area, looking at the dozens and dozens of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, paint pots, and other bizarre features of the geothermal sort.

It takes a certain dedication and a certain fascination with the bizarre to want to do this, as the sulphurous odors, the tortured rock shapes, and the strange bacterial mats that line the edges of the volcanic vents are all disturbing.

It helped that it was lightly snowing, which both enchanted us and somehow made the entire "Dante's Inferno" aspect of it all not quite so intimidating.

Anyway, we saw Old Faithful erupt from the front row of the spectator area. In fact, it turned out that we were in the "splash zone", and with a few seconds I had actually pulled out my umbrella to shield us from the water that the geyser threw into the air in our direction!

Afterwards, we walked over to see the Old Faithful Inn, which is really worth the visit. The six story lobby of this amazing building is entirely built from local wood, and to climb up to the second or third floor mezzanine and gaze around at the various furnishings and works of art is most enjoyable.

We decided that we hadn't had enough walking yet, so we walked down past the Castle Geyser to see some of the other parts of the basin. Although it was quite chilly, it was dry enough, and we were warm enough, and the walk was really quite fine.

We arrived back at Old Faithful just in time for its next eruption. This time, we were a little bit farther away, and a little bit over to the side, and the entire experience was actually much better: we could see the geyser's plume much more clearly, and we didn't get soaked!

Although Old Faithful is the most famous geothermal wonder in the park, it's just one of thousands in the park. We left the Old Faithful area, climbed back in the car, and drove down the basin a ways to see the Grand Prismatic Spring, often described as the most beautiful geothermal object in the park.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the extremities of the weather, the Grand Prismatic Spring was completely cloaked in steam, and it was very hard to get a feel for its colorful beauty.

The other thing, I think, is that most pictures of the Grand Prismatic Spring are from a helicopter, not from ground level, which is somewhat misleading.

By now, the weather was moving in, and we didn't want to get stuck on the wrong side of Craig Pass, so up and over the pass we went, and on the east side we decided to stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is much smaller than the Old Faithful region, but which was really quite nice; I particularly enjoyed the curious geysers and hot springs that actually erupt from underneath Yellowstone Lake, just 10 feet or so offshore, giving a most peculiar effect as a result.

I also enjoyed Moose Falls, a small 30-foot waterfall which is fed by a hot springs so warm that crawfish live in its waters year round, leading to the name Crawfish Creek.

The next day, in the midst of much other activity, I prevailed upon my beloved to stop one more time, this time at the Mud Volcano section, which is close to Hayden Valley.

The Mud Volcano region was closed for a while this summer because of the Alum Fire, but happily that fire was no longer a problem and we were able to tour the entire area.

I liked the Mud Volcano region the best of the four areas we visited: it had a great variety of strange features and they were very entertaining. Best of all, it was very quiet compared to the hordes of people over by Old Faithful: no tour buses, no enormous gift shops, no thousand-car parking lots.

Mud Volcano has three particular features that I enjoyed:

  1. The "Dragon's Mouth", a steaming geyser that emerges from a watery cave at the base of a hill. As the water sloshes in and out of the cave, and the steam bellows and hisses, it is easy to imagine that there is actually a Dragon hiding just out of sight in that cave ...
  2. Churning Caldron, up at the top of the hill, was extremely active when we were there. The water was just frothing and roiling, with giant bubbles forcing a fountain of water several feet above the surface of the hot springs, giving you an instant image of the amazing power of the molten lava underground.
  3. And, of course, the Mud Volcano itself, which was belching and plopping and spritzing and generally making Big Muddy Spurts all over the place. Quite lively!
We never made it up to Norris, where the mighty Steamboat Geyser just erupted this summer after an 8 year hiatus.

And we never made it to Mammoth Hot Springs, to see the incredible travertine ledges.

But I definitely enjoyed my time visiting the strange and bizarre geothermal features found throughout Yellowstone National Park.

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