Published: April 2nd 2012July 10th 2011
Old Faithful and crowd
Every visitor to Yellowstone sees this sight, both the geyser and the crowd in front of it :)
Today I venture into the most popular and crowded part of Yellowstone, the geyser basins
In parts of it I felt like I was at a theme park, even more than yesterday (see March 21st
Thankfully, even here there are areas that attract relatively few people.
Everyone likes to see and talk about the big geysers
Veteran visitors prefer more obscure ones
, simply because so fewer people see them.
I spent my time wandering around finding what I could see.
I saw quite a lot. Geyser watching
is enhanced with background
Geysers come in two main types, cones and fountains.
A cone geyser erupts from a mound.
A fountain geyser erupts from a huge pool of water.
Both types contain a dissolved mineral called geyserite.
It slowly grows the mound of the former, and creates little nodules in the bottom of the pools of the latter.
Geysers have a time period between eruptions.
They have to, to recharge the steam that causes the eruption.
For some, the period remains relatively constant and eruptions can be predicted.
Others are completely random.
Beehive Geyser blows its top. The height is twice Old Faithful. Notice how everyone is standing on the left to avoid the spray :)
Highlights of the geyser basins included: Old Faithful
: This geyser is the most famous and popular in the world.
It is not the highest or the most frequent, or even the most regular, but it is the most frequent of the big geysers.
It is also incredibly predictable, to a time range of about ten minutes.
Hundreds of tourists hang out on the benches around the geyser day and night to see eruptions.
I took pictures of the tourists as well as the geyser.
I haven’t seen a crowd that big outside a theme park. Beehive
: This geyser is the ultimate cone geyser in the park.
The mound, which really does look like a beehive, sends the water blasts straight up.
Beehive is not predictable.
I was waiting for another geyser to go off when someone mentioned that the little geyser
next to Beehive was going.
I walked over there as quickly as I could.
That little geyser goes off roughly ten minutes before Beehive.
Beehive produced a huge 200 foot high plume of water that shot out of the mound in waves.
Grand Geyser shows its power. The plume on the left is Vent Geyser. I had to stand back from the benches to fit in the entire plume. Note the white trees behind, which have been coated with geyserite from previous eruptions.
Some of it blew on the boardwalk and people got soaked.
Grand Complex: This group of related geysers is the favorite of frequent visitors according to my guidebook.
It is certainly fun to watch.
It is predictable to within a four hour window, which strains the meaning of “predictable”.
The complex consists of six connected geysers.
The most noticeable one is a wide mound next to a big hole in the ground.
The wide mound is Turban
It goes off roughly every fifteen minutes, and shoots jets a few inches in the air.
On the other side of the big hole is a little geyser called Percolator
Water gurgles in the hole when it erupts, making it sound like a coffeemaker.
Percolator starts running roughly two hours before the main show starts.
Beyond Percolator is another mound called Rift
On the other side of Turban is yet another mound called Vent
Finally, the big hole is Grand
If the big hole looks like a big hole, nothing is happening any time soon.
When the hole looks like
Vent and Turban
Vent and Turban Geysers go crazy during an eruption of Grand Geyser (off to the right)
a big pool of water instead, the area has potential.
If Percolator is going, that potential increases.
When Turban goes off, it sends water into the pool next door.
When the pool is big enough, this water will trigger Grand.
Grand is the tallest geyser in the park that can be predicted.
Some bigger geysers, such as Steamboat
, make not erupt for decades.
When Grand goes, it produces enormous 200 foot high busts of water that look like a tall thin fan.
These are followed by more and more of them, up and down.
Grand also makes Rift, Turban, and Vent go nuts, so four separate geysers are going at once.
Grand is by far the biggest.
For us, Grand briefly stopped and then sent out a huge burst that looked like a bomb going off.
The geyser was a long wait, but what a payoff! Sawmill complex
: This group consists of six geysers which are connected underground.
Most only shoot water to two feet or so.
Since they are all connected, when one goes off more go off.
Down by the Riverside
Riverside Geyser erupts over the Firehole River. The geyser mound is the dark chair shape on the riverbank.
to see four separate geysers going at once.
They are all tiny, but the overall effect is dramatic. Riverside
: This geyser is located on the bank of the Firehole River, and eruptions break into little drops that fall in the water.
When the sun is right, those drops will produce a rainbow (which I didn’t get to see, sadly).
My guidebook calls it the prettiest of the big geysers.
Riverside is also the most regular, with a six and a half hour interval that has not changed in a century. Grotto
: This geyser has a huge and freakish cone that looks like a fountain from Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
The cone was formed by the geyser coating trees with geyserite, until they formed the mound.
This is the only geyser in the park that looks more interesting when it isn’t erupting. Anemone
: This little fountain geyser may be the most amusing in the park.
It shows the entire cycle in only seven minutes.
First, it looks like a conical hole in the ground with little knobs of geyserites on it.
The freakish cone of Grotto Geyser. I took this photo with camera zoom.
The hole hisses and fills with water.
The pool then explodes, roughly six times.
The water jets reach roughly three feet in height.
The pool then drains with a gurgling noise.
The geyser is very close to the trail, so the view is better than many big geysers.
Get too close and be soaked! Jewel Geyser
: This geyser is one of the highest of the frequent geysers.
It erupts every ten minutes or so, to a height of four feet.
As the name implies, it was pretty. Grand Prismatic Spring
: This spring is the largest hot spring in the park, and the fourth largest in the world.
It produces so much hot water that it supports a vast world of heat loving bacteria
, which surround the spring in large visible mats.
The mats clearly look organic, but like nothing else I have ever seen.
The spring is called Grand Prismatic because it contains every color
of the rainbow, in order.
Both red and orange come from bacteria mats.
Yellow comes from sulfur in the ground.
Green is yellow sulfur
Anemone Geyser fills with water and prepares to explode.
filtered through the blue water of the spring.
Blue, indigo, and violent come from the water of the spring filtering light from different depths.
Grand Prismatic is so large that getting a good picture requires effort
An old road, which used to be the main park road, runs next to a big hill behind the spring.
Hike the old road to the hill, where there are several obvious, steep, and very unofficial trails that climb to the top.
The view from here is very nice.
The old road also perfectly illustrates how crowded this part of Yellowstone gets, because finding parking at the trailhead was a real challenge. Crescent Pool
: This hot spring is the hottest in the entire park.
It is so hot that the temperature is above the boiling point of water at this altitude.
The entire pool boils and hisses.
Unfortunately, people have fallen in and been scalded to death instantly. Blue Star Spring
: This spring is filled with water with a remarkably deep blue color.
Seen from the front, the spring is star shaped.
The shape is
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring, from the hill overlook. Look at the people on the boadwalk to see how big it really is.
Seen from the side, it’s obvious that the spring is really round, and the star is formed by a thin crust on top.
This crust breaks easily.
About a decade ago, a bison stepped on that crust, fell in the spring, and was immediately killed.
The area smelled like beef stew for days afterward.
A bone is still visible in the deepest part of the spring.
Old Faithful is such a tourist magnet that the geyser is now surrounded by a huge complex of tourist facilities, two of which have become attractions themselves. Hamilton’s Store
is the oldest store in the park, built in 1897.
It has a beautiful façade made of knotted branches.
Inside, it contains a steel lunch counter that hasn’t changed in half a century.
This place is flashback to an earlier age of Yellowstone tourism.
Next door is the Yellowstone Inn
, designed by Robert Reamer in 1903.
The second oldest lodging
in the park, the Inn is the largest wooden building
in the world.
Its centerpiece is a seven level atrium surrounding a huge stone fireplace.
The famous front porch of Hamilton's Store near Old Faithful
The railings on every level are tree branches.
The floorboards and walls are old logs.
When people walk in, all they do is look up.
Visitor facilities stretch off from here, all also made of logs.
The Inn nearly burned down
during the catastrophic fires in 1988.
It was saved through a combination of dedication and luck.
The luck part is that the Inn is surrounded by a huge parking lot on one side and the geyser basin on the other, forming a natural fire break.
The dedication part is the rangers, employees, and volunteers who sat on the roofs throughout dousing every flying ember.
Current visitors are in their debt.
After the geyser basins, I had a drive.
After the geyser basins, I had a drive.
First up was another waterfall, the Kepler Cascades
They drop through a narrow ravine near the road.
Like every other waterfall in Yellowstone, they were high and fun.
Next up was yet another rite of passage on this trip.
I crossed the Continental Divide
by car for the first
Old Faithful Inn
The central lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, one of the most famous National Park lodges
Books talk about the Continental Divide endlessly, so it feels like a huge thing.
The Divide is a drainage divide, separating water which drains to the Atlantic from that which drains to the Pacific.
People like to call it “the roof of North America”, which makes it seem like a nearly impassible barrier.
Unfortunately, the Divide is usually underwhelming in real life.
Mountain passes on the Divide look just like mountain passes elsewhere, and they can be much less impressive than many (South Pass, used by the Oregon Trail (see June 21st
) was so wide people barely noticed it).
What I want to see is water actually dividing on the Continental Divide, and very few places provide this.
Thankfully, one of them is right next to the road in Yellowstone. Isa Lake
is a narrow and shallow pond that sits in a pass on the Divide.
Water drips out of both ends, one little stream heading to each ocean.
In a geographic joke, the Divide makes a fishhook shape in this area, so water heading to the Pacific flows EAST from the lake and vice versa.
Isa Lake, on the continental divide in Yellowstone
After crossing the Divide, the road drops into a valley.
The low sun shining on the trees made the view particularly dramatic.
I felt like I was somewhere important, heading into the west (even though I was driving east!).
The road eventually reached a viewpoint of the entire valley, with a distant blue lake at the end surrounded by pine trees.
The lake is Shoshone Lake
, the largest lake in the US south of Alaska that can’t be reached by road.
The road passed through the valley and started to climb again.
Soon enough, it ran through a more traditional Continental Divide crossing, one completely unremarkable except for the sign.
The west will need to wait :)
On the way down from the ridge, the road gave a huge view of my final destination for the night.
It showed an enormous lake with snow capped mountains behind it.
This is Lake Yellowstone
, the largest alpine lake in the United States.
The lake is so cold that people who fall in freeze to death in less than an hour.
The view, like many in Yellowstone, is irresistible.
This is the only view of Shoshone Lake from a road. The lake is the thin blue line in the center of the photo.
Please remember to pull over first!
I spent the night at the Grant Village Campground
Grant Village itself is the least liked of all the built up areas in the park.
Ecologists hate it because it is located near several important trout streams used by bears.
Conservationists hate it because the lake is gradually eroding the beachfront.
Everyone else hates it because it is likely the ugliest complex
in any national park.
To get an idea of how this place appears, start with a tacky time share resort found near a ski slope or beach.
One that was built mainly to make a quick buck, and looks it.
Place that resort in the middle of one of the grandest natural landscapes on earth and that is Grant Village.
The park service has tried to disguise things by planting pine trees in front of most of the buildings, but the architecture still shows through.
I nearly threw up.
Thankfully, the assault on good taste does not carry over to the campground.
It is the only one located directly on the lake, and those that
Lake Yellowstone sunset
Sunset over Lake Yellowstone, seen from outside the Lake House.
reserve early enough can get a campsite with a lakefront view.
I managed to get one.
I couldn’t resist sticking a hand in the water, which was cold as heck.
I had dinner tonight at the Lake House Restaurant
, which sits directly on the shore of Lake Yellowstone.
The view shows a vast blue lake surrounded by trees.
I saw sunset just before dinner, which was pretty special.
Sadly, the food does not equal the view and is expensive to boot.