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Published: April 1st 2012
A yellowstone black bear too close for comfort. I took this picture the only safe way possible, through my windshield.
Today was another long day of the best and worst of Yellowstone.
It started with the type of wildlife jam that knowledgeable visitors do NOT want to see.
A black bear
was sitting directly next to the road.
While it provides an unbeatable photograph (see Tourists in a Sacred Land
) it’s also incredibly dangerous
Anyone who gets out of their car runs a high risk of becoming the bear’s scratching post.
Rangers blocked the road until one arrived with a bull horn and scared the bear away.
After passing that incident, the road began to climb.
It ran along a ridge above Antelope Valley, one of the best grizzly bear habitats in the park.
People are prohibited
from entering the valley for that reason.
In the distance was a tall wide mountain with what looked like a chalet on top.
This is my first target for the day, Mount Washburn.
I soon reached the Chittenden Road
, the main route to the top.
The road is closed to cars, so it requires a long hike.
This hike is listed in most guidebooks next a description like “If you hike only one long trail
The Chittendon Road to the top of Mount Washburn in Yellowstone
in Yellowstone, and the weather is clear, make it this one.”
That was enough endorsement for me.
One word of caution: the road passes through active bear habitat
, so I make sure to check with rangers before hiking it.
The road runs up a ridge to the top of the mountain.
Except for a patch of pine forest, the entire route is exposed.
This causes a high risk of lightning strikes, dehydration, and sunburn.
Thankfully, the sky was completely clear, and I was prepared for the other two.
The road rises at a steady grade throughout.
The sides were covered in a carpet of wildflowers
in every color possible.
Near the top it passed large patches of snow.
The wildflowers are the appetizer, the summit is the feast.
After passing through the pine forest, the reason for the trail description becomes obvious.
The mountain has a nearly indescribable view
From the trail I could see only a portion of it, but it was more than enough.
Thanks to the thunderstorm the day before, the air was clear even by Yellowstone’s standards.
Mount Washburn wildflowers
Wildflowers along the Chittendon Road to Mount Washburn
The Beartooth Range was clear as glass to the north. Electric Peak
, in the far northwest corner of the park, could have been next door.
The Lamar Valley (see yesterday) stretched out below.
The pyramid of Pilot Peak (see yesterday) poked out on the horizon.
As I climbed the view just grew and grew.
One turn, where I stopped for water, gave a beautiful treat.
The gap between Mount Washburn and the next mountain over, which the main road passes through, is Chittenden Pass.
I had a clear view, framing a set of spiked peaks in the far distance.
Those peaks are Grand Teton
and its neighbors, almost a hundred miles away.
About two thirds of the way, the road reaches a ledge next to the pass.
This ledge gives the first view to the south.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was clearly visible, Hayden Valley
beyond it, then Lake Yellowstone
, and the Two Ocean Plateau
The Teton Range appeared in all its glory on the horizon.
The top is going to be nearly indescribable.
After some switchbacks, the
The central portion of the Yellowstone Caldera. The light green area is Hayden Valley, with the Yellowstone River running thorugh it. The mountains in the center are the other side of the caldera. The spiked peaks on the upper right are the Teton Range
road finally reaches the chalet.
The building is a fire tower.
The first floor is an observation deck.
Oddly enough, it has a payphone.
Mount Washburn is not the highest mountain in Yellowstone, but it is the highest that is centrally located.
The view from the deck, quite simply, is over three quarters of the entire park
It stretched from the Beartooth Range beyond the northern border to the Grand Tetons beyond the southern border, and from the Absaroka Range on the eastern border to the Gallatin Mountains beyond the western border.
The only part not in the view was the Beckler Corner
, which is hidden deep in a valley far to the southwest.
The Firehole Valley, which contains Old Faithful, was in the view.
The ranger on duty stated that with high powered binoculars people can watch geyser eruptions on days like this.
Thankfully, the observation deck has display panels that point out the major sights.
The top of Mount Washburn is one of the few places that people can see the Yellowstone Caldera
The Yellowstone region was created by the eruption of a huge
Yellowstone, looking southeast
View of Yellowstone National Park, looking southeast from Mount Washburn. The mountains are the Absaroka Range. The highest peak is Eagle Peak, the highest mountain in Yellowstone
volcano 600,000 years ago.
That same volcano now powers the geysers and other thermal features.
After it erupted, the volcano collapsed, creating a huge caldera in the middle of the region.
The caldera forms the center of the park.
From the top of Mount Washburn, the view shows that Yellowstone is surrounded by high mountains on all sides, but has virtually none in the middle.
The volcano is unbelievably large.
The scary thing is that scientists believe it will go off again
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
After the hike, I drove to the Canyon Village visitor’s center
I needed lunch if nothing else.
was built in the early 1960s, and looks like a rustic strip mall.
The visitor’s center is much newer.
It contains an exhibit on the natural history of Yellowstone and the volcano.
It also contains an incredibly detailed three dimensional map of the park.
After climbing Mount Washburn, the map looked strangely familiar, on a much smaller scale.
I spent the next part of the day exploring the centerpiece of this part of the park, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
I had to
Yellowstone, looking southwest
The view from Mount Washburn, looking southwest. The yellow gash is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The light green area behind it is part of Hayden Valley. Look for the white wisps on the far upper right, steam from a geyser eruption!
deal with my first instance of bad crowding in this region, because the area is a tourist magnet.
First up was the most famous viewpoint of the canyon, Artist Point
Practically every book ever published on Yellowstone includes a picture from this overlook, with good reason.
It’s absolutely beautiful.
The view is a striking canyon of yellow stone with a big waterfall at the end.
The real view is better than any picture.
The view provides a good place to test a guidebook.
Look up the origin of the name “Yellowstone”.
Most visitors, and some guidebooks, think the answer is obvious from the view.
This answer is wrong!
The park is named
for the region, which is named for the river.
The river was named by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (see Arch Madness
They, in turn, got it from French fur trappers, who got it from the Minnetaree Indians of what is now eastern Montana.
The “yellow stone” in question are the yellowish sandstone cliffs that line the river for hundreds of miles in that part of the state.
The fact that the Yellowstone
Yellowstone looking northwest
Yellowstone National Park looking northwest from Mount Washburn. The closer mountain is Bannock Peak, with the Gallatin Range behind it.
River passes through a canyon of yellow stone, in Yellowstone National Park, is simply an amazing coincidence!
Speaking of names, many people think “Artist Point” refers to Thomas Moran, who painted a famous painting
of the canyon with a similar view.
He made that painting at a nearby point which is now too dangerous to enter.
The artist who saw (and named) this point was early park photographer F. Jay Haynes, in 1883.
Lower Yellowstone Falls
After Artist’s Point, I wanted to get closer.
Only one place is available to do that, the Uncle Tom's trail
It’s named for an early park concessionaire who mapped out the route.
The trail starts by working down a ravine near the waterfall.
The ravine reaches the canyon wall, where it drops out of sight.
The trail drops with it, on a narrow and steep set of metal stairs.
The views are stupendous, with rock walls on one side and the yellow canyon on the other.
The brave can sit and look THROUGH the mesh stairs at the pine trees growing below.
The stairs drop and
Canyon Vistor Center park model
The model of the park in the Canyon Visitor Center, with Mount Washburn in the upper center. Does this view look at all familiar?
drop, over three hundred steps in all.
Personally, I looked away from the waterfall on the descent, to maximize the effect at the bottom.
I was passing people all the time, for this is one popular trail.
The stairs ends at a viewing platform about halfway to the bottom of the canyon.
The platform is close enough to the waterfall to reveal it in all its glory.
The waterfall in question is Lower Yellowstone Falls
Early explorers and tourists wrote more about this waterfall than any other in the park.
It’s a classic pour over falls where a wide river falls over a ledge into the canyon.
Like most pour over falls, the more water it has the better it looks.
Thanks to all the water in Yellowstone this time of year, the river was near flood stage.
I could clearly see that the water was a foot deep at the brink, which is rare indeed for this waterfall.
The waterfall threw off enough spray that the canyon walls near the falls were soaked, and water streamed down them in little rivulets.
What a sight!
Every visitor to the Canyon section of Yellowstone comes home with a picture like this, for good reason. Add me to that group :)
One of the truisms of canyon hiking is that anything which goes down must eventually come back up.
One of the rules of thumb is that the hike out will take twice as long as the hike in.
I sure felt it on the stairs on the return trip.
Upper Yellowstone Falls
The name “Lower Yellowstone Falls” implies that there is another waterfall upstream.
Sure enough, there is. Upper Yellowstone Falls
is roughly a third as high as its downstream counterpart.
The upper falls is best seen from the brink
The trail goes along the river for a bit, where the high water level was all too apparent.
It crashed into the rocky walls and gave off spray, which soaked the trail.
Upper Yellowstone falls was downright violent.
A huge volume of water reached the lip of the gorge, and just poured over.
When it hit bottom, it gave off boiling jets of water, along with tons of spray.
The scene looked like a huge geyser going off.
I’ve never seen so much energy in the bottom of a waterfall.
Uncle Tom's Trail
A tiny portion of the steep stair climb disguised as Uncle Tom's Trail.
The spray filled the ravine, producing a rainbow at the top.
Few people who visit the two waterfalls realize that there is a third close by. Crystal Falls
drops over a hundred feet from a hanging valley into the canyon between Upper and Lower Falls.
A short trail from the same parking lot as the Uncle Tom’s trail provides a view.
Like every other waterfall in the region, it was high and roaring.
Anywhere else, it would be a major waterfall.
Sadly, in this area it was a mere footnote.
Although hiking in this area felt like a theme park from the crowds, this is a very different type of park.
I noticed a number of signs on the road marking closed trails.
I happened to know the reason from a paper in Cody.
Two days earlier, one of those trails was the scene of the first fatal bear attack
in Yellowstone in almost two decades.
In the old days, that would have meant death for the bear.
These days, it means the humans need to leave the bear alone
Rangers kept the short trails into
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, from the Uncle Tom's Trail. Look at the pine trees next to the brink to get the scale of this waterfall. Also note the streams on the lower right, condensation from the spray running down the canyon wall.
the canyon open because humans in large numbers scare grizzlies enough that they keep away.
Yellowstone may feel as safe as home, so it’s important to remember it isn’t
My next site on this long day was yet another waterfall, Virginia Cascades
The source of the name is worth noting.
An early park manager, Charles Gibson, wanted to name the waterfall after his wife.
Park Service rules at the time prohibited naming things after relatives, so he officially named it after the state of Virginia (wink, wink).
Getting to this waterfall requires driving a narrow one way road through a canyon.
When it was first built, this road was the main method of getting to Canyon Village.
Hiram Chittenden, who designed it, called it the most dangerous road in the park.
The road has a perfect view of the waterfall, a long slide.
At this high water level it was big and beautiful.
One nasty note: The only place to photograph the waterfall is directly from the road.
Pause for the seconds it takes to get the picture, and move on so others have the chance as
Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River from the brink. Note the water jets in the center of the photo, and the rainbow on the upper right.
Artist Paint Pots
Next up was my second thermal feature in the park, the Artist Paint Pots
I found this one a little disappointing.
I should have realized what would happen in advance.
A paint pot is a muddy pit
containing particular minerals.
Just enough hot water boils through the pit that the soil becomes a sea of bubbly mud.
Paint pots often throw globs of mud into the air, and are a real delight to watch.
The Artist Paint Pots are noted for their wide range of colors, due to different minerals in each pit.
The problem with paint pots is that they need just the right balance of water and soil to create the effect.
Too much water and they become muddy hot springs instead.
Yellowstone had so much water coursing through the area that every one of the Artist Paint Pots, with one exception, had done just that.
Instead of a collection of colorful bubbling mud pits, I found a collection of colorful hissing hot pools.
They were certainly nice, but not what I was expecting.
The exception was a grey
Virginia Cascade, taking from an opening in the trees along the road. Remember to stop long enough to get the picture, but no longer!
paint pot located at the very top of the hillside.
This one was exactly as advertised, throwing mud
like an acrobat.
People were laughing as they watched it go.
Some of the globs hit the boardwalk.
Here it is, late in the season:
The paint pots have a companion spouter, a type of geyser that goes all the time.
This one is called Blood Geyser.
Most spouters are only a few inches high, and this one fit the bill.
The final site for the day was yet another waterfall, Gibbon Falls
The waterfall appears where the Gibbon River falls over a lava flow.
The waterfall is a series of steep cascades.
At this water level they were wide and full.
One part hit a boulder causing a rooster tail.
The waterfall is right next to the road, so it gets busy.
I spent the night in Madison Campground
To truly experience Yellowstone, one must sleep in its wilderness.
The campground was in a sea of pine trees next to a
Grey Artist Paint Pot
The only Arist Paint Pot that was still a mud pot when I visited. Look for the little bubbles, where mud will soon be thrown.
The scene matched the stereotype view of camping in a National Park (contrast this with Welcome to the Geology Freakshow
To get a permit, one must sign a form listing the rules for storing food to keep away bears.
Thankfully, none showed up tonight.
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