90,000 Miles to Me
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at Sunset

18,410 Miles • Yellowstone, Revisited

Back in Yellowstone, this time in the daylight.

The fires in Montana and Wyoming have finally calmed down, as well as most of the ones along the West Coast. I have likewise been dealing with my own internal fires over the last several weeks (see the previous three posts: one, two, and three), and have finally started feeling like things outside and inside have resolved enough to more-or-less carry on traveling.

I turned south from Bozeman, MT, to go through Yellowstone again, this time slower, to the Grand Tetons and into northern Utah. Yellowstone was still very smoky from the recent fire in the park, but that was slowly subsiding.

From the North Entrance, I drove by Mammoth Hot Springs and took the 7 mile unpaved Backtrail Plateau Drive. The aspens are turning golden.

It is boggling my mind that the season is far enough advanced that the leaves are turning colors. I am loosing track of time in this life.

I soon pulled off at a secluded picnic spot with no other visitors and took my first shower in exactly two weeks (this is the longest it’s been!) using my camp shower set up behind my van. It’s one of those bag things that you put in the windshield for hours to warm up and then hang to let the water come out the short hose on the bottom. I improvised a privacy curtain between the open back doors of the van. It feels soooo good to have clean hair again!

Around evening, I visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to watch the sun set. It wasn’t a great sunset view because of the haze from the smoke, but I still liked it. The photo at the top is from that sunset.

This is where Yellowstone National Park gets its name. The stone here looks much paler by daylight—a soft cream color—but at sunset it picks up a beautiful yellowish hue. By the way, asking two rangers at different visitor centers “Where is the yellow stone?” got me dumbfounded looks and being-patient-with-the-dimwit replies “You’re in it” before I got one to understand I was looking for the origin of the park’s name.

The columns and pillars jutting up all along the sides of the canyon were created from volcanic ash falling and compressing so much that it become stone, and then being worn down by erosion from the river water. Then water or ice would occasionally get inside fissures and crack the rock open, shearing off chunks from one side of the rock or the other, eventually leaving the columns we see today. The process is still continuing, carving the canyon deeper and wider every year.

And that river, the Yellowstone River, is flowing north, which is downhill from its high headwaters in the south Yellowstone area to the lower land in Montana and all the way north and down to Glacier National Park.

By night, the haze cleared enough for decent stargazing. I parked at lookout point for the night and stayed up (most of the night). I found it interesting that I wasn’t actually bored, yet felt like I should be bored. This is likely a habitual psychological response to having no external stimuli. I need to learn how to live in this new world. How to be “me” apart from entertainment.

Sunrise at the canyon was completely overcast, and I watched the waterfalls, rocks, and tourists taking pictures for a while as I drank my smoothie and then went to bed.

One of the two waterfalls that helped carve the canyon.

I’m surprised by the number of people who will walk the path up to Lookout Point, look at the canyon or the waterfall for 10 to 20 seconds, turn around in front of it to take a selfie or take turns taking photos of each other, look at the waterfall for another 10 to 20 seconds, and then walk back to the car. I have nothing against taking photos, but when it is primarily about taking photos, what is the point of coming all this way? I probably shouldn’t be surprised, as I’ve seen this all over. It just struck me particularly here. 

A little south, in Hayden Valley, a herd of bison captured my attention, as well as that of the many other tourists. I was lucky to get a spot at a pullout from which to watch them (and the people) for a few hours.

Where the buffalo roam.

It was so nice to not have any plans or other scheduling pressures, and to not feel like I needed to hurry on even if I didn’t have to, so I could just stop when something that interested me and spend as long as I felt like staying. I clearly remember the feeling, not too long ago, of needing to keep moving even when I had no particular schedule to keep.

As the bison graze, their saliva causes the grass to grow taller. 

A wild animal sighting, however, is enough that most people stop and stare, then take pictures, and then they stare some more. As with this herd of wild bison. Most vehicles dove by as slowly as possible, pulled over when they could, and some stayed quite a long time just watching and photographing and watching.

Some of the herd were slowly crossing the road, one to three at a time in long spaced out intervals, and the cars didn’t seem to mind the traffic backing up at times, as it gave them more time to stare when there was no parking. Many vehicles dawdled at or flat out ignored the ranger’s insistent waving instructions to keep driving so as not to hold up everyone else.

The large hump on the bison’s shoulders is a huge group of muscles that hold up their immensely heavy heads.

Here’s a short video of some of the buffalo. I enjoyed watching the grass rippling in the breeze almost as much as this cute calf. The dogs barking in the background are pets of the tourists in nearby RVs.

That night I spent at a pullout on Gull Point Drive. A ranger did stop to check if I was okay (and remind me there was no camping outside of campgrounds), but I was wide awake and had a clear plan for stargazing so he let me stay.

At 5 am, I moved a short ways to get a good view of the sunrise over Lake Yellowstone. I wanted to watch the sunrise properly, from absolute night to fully risen sun. Parking on the lake shore at 5 am, facing east, I watched the stars for more than an hour, trying to make out a constellation or two, before the stars nearest the horizon slowly became harder to see and the whole horizon began to lighten from the darkest blue-black to a dark gray.

Over the next hour, the gray slowly lightened and spread up from the horizon so that the entire sky was eventually included. Then the horizon began its slow progress from dark gray through shades to a pale, pastel gray haze fading up to the softest possible orangish yellow around the rim of the world.

The outlines of trees became softer and the mountains in the east slowly took form. Gentle ripples in the water became visible in pale gray tones and a pair of ducks—presumably, they were still difficult to make out—glided across the scene.

At last, when I had almost given up hope for a dramatic sunset due to the haze, a small sun peeked over the mountains and reflected in the waters below, a pale, pastel red, barely deserving of the name red, yet intense enough that I could feel it radiating that pale red at the world.

As the circle of light left the mountains below it, that pale red turned pink and then bright yellow. The sun rose in just a few minutes, as if in a hurry to compensate for its long absence, and a line of ducks crossed the path of the reflected sunlight in the water, happy for the new day.

Within half an hour, the yellow was gone and white light streamed from the sky, diffuse in the haze but already starting to warm me and the world, and I could clearly make out all the usual colors of the lake water, rocks, grasses and trees around the shoreline, the ducks and birds in and above the water, and a few other early risers driving around the shore.

After sunrise, I took a long nap and then visited Sulphur Cauldron and Dragon’s Mouth, with my camera plugged in to my laptop in my backpack. I probably looked strange with a white cord snaking out of my backpack to my phone, but that is the only way to use the phone now, as I don’t have another portable battery.

Sulphur Cauldron looks harmless enough compared to the more dramatic hydrothermal features in the park, but do not touch. It is so acidic that it will dissolve flesh.

These mud pots are all around this area of the park, and are created when acidic water or acidic gas melts the surrounding rock into the water, making mud.   

Dragon’s Mouth was named by a park visitor around 1912, probably because it is reminiscent of a sleeping dragon in a cave spurting out smoke with every exhale. The rumbling sounds are caused by steam and other gasses exploding through the water and crashing against the walls of the caverns inside.

The whole area around Dragon’s Mouth reminds me of a dangerous, acidic swampland that only the bravest warriors would dare traverse on a vital mission.

In the afternoon, I walked the 1/2 mile boardwalk trail around West Thumb Geyser Basin beside Yellowstone Lake.

In winter, the high elevation of Yellowstone Lake guarantees that the surface will turn into a thick layer of ice, except around the many geysers and hot springs in and around the norther part of the lake. These hydrothermal features generate enough hot water to melt holes in the ice that are sometimes as big as 100 feet across.

Just onshore, the standing pool of hot water in the background of the photo below overflows just enough to create this beautiful runoff area where the pool water flows directly into the lake.

The yellows, oranges, and reds are thermophiles, tiny microorganisms that live and thrive in the high temperatures of many of Yellowstone’s hot spots. Here is another view of that runoff area. Here you can see the steam rising up off of the water more clearly.

One of the smaller pools that captured my interest. The bubbles are not boiling water but gasses rising up from the rocks below.

As I contemplated my options for the night, I noticed Isa Lake alongside the road, covered in lily pads.

I didn’t expect to see lily pads next to conifers. I ate dinner there with the setting sun reflecting on the lake.

That night I parked at Old Faithful visitor center parking lot, walked around the geyser again for a few hours and then got a couple hours of anxious sleep, afraid of getting caught, in the wee hours of the morning.

The next day I watched Old Faithful erupt two more times, went through the visitor center again since it wasn’t as crowded this time, and napped long enough that there wasn’t much left of the day. This sleep deprivation thing is really getting to me.

They predict the geyser eruptions with electronic sensors that measure the temperature of the water underground, which is a reliable indicator of the pressure buildup and hence of when the next eruption will take place. Old Faithful got its name because it is especially consistent in its eruptions. Other geysers in the park have much larger windows of variability, sometimes by as much as several hours (or years).

The taller one on the left side (I think) is Old Faithful.

Yellowstone contains more than half of the world’s hydrothermal features and two thirds of the world’s geysers. The area is so active due to the frequent volcanic activity over the past two million years. In fact, the volcanic eruption that created the Yellowstone caldera was a thousand times larger than the eruption of Mount St. Helens. 

In the afternoon I drove north to the Upper Geyser Basin area to visit Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring, which is probably the most photographed bit of the entire park. They were beautiful, but my camera and laptop were both needing a charge so I only got two photos despite carrying the laptop in a backpack the whole way.

Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk-level view. It is so large, you have to hike up high above it to see the whole thing, and most of the iconic photos of its brilliant concentric colored rings are taken from airplanes.

There is a boardwalk that goes around Grand Prismatic Spring so people can get near it safely, since the water is hot enough to produce steam. I counted 12 hats and a shawl sprawled around the geyser and its runoff areas, just out of reach of their owners. The wind was strong, but hot thanks to the spring, and warmed me right up. It was too crowded to enjoy, however. Late afternoon was the wrong time of day to come here.

That night I was so desperate—constantly on the verge of tears—for a decent night’s sleep, that I went to Lewis Lake Campground, the only one that the reservation system was not certain was full, and conveniently the cheapest in the park. When I got there, however, it was full.

A single spot looked unoccupied, and I maneuvered into it, but it was part of the apparently-adjacent spot. The very friendly man there let me stay and share the site since the campground was full, and though I offered to share the cost, he graciously and firmly refused.

Though I promptly sacked out, I was worried all night about someone coming around and checking license plates and noticing that mine wasn’t on the registration, so I didn’t sleep very well. Still, even some sleep did me a lot of good.

In the morning I left early so as not to be accused of sharing a site (I understand why they have such rules, but I still think they are stupid, especially when there is nowhere else to go). I had breakfast overlooking Lewis Falls and the beautiful river it feeds into, did a few house-holdy chores, and left Yellowstone for the season by early afternoon.

The river below Lewis Falls. My pictures of the falls themselves didn’t turn out well.

Even shortly after Labor Day, the intensity of the crowds was significantly less than when I came here a month ago. There were still a lot of people, but nowhere near the crowds of early August, and there was just about always a parking spot to be found, even at the popular places.

There were some families with small children, a few obvious homeschoolers, but mostly retirees, young adults like me on their own Grand Adventures, and lots of international travelers who are not as constrained by our Memorial Day to Labor Day vacation timeframe.

I would still like to come here again, when I have a week or more and can pay for campground fees the entire time.