Sunday, April 19, 2015

Epic Day in Yellowstone: First Yellowstone Trip, 2015

Heart Pool, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park Opening Weekend 2015
Last week, I discovered that April 17th was opening day to automobiles in Yellowstone National Park.  Naturally I decided to go.  I have been jonesing for a Yellowstone trip ever since our last Yellowstone trip at the end of last season.  Yellowstone is my Zen, my addiction, my inspiration.  Our last Yellowstone trip had been in September 2014 and we climbed Specimen Ridge.  It was time to go again.  I decided I would go up no matter what the weather.  The Hot Chick and I made our plans.  We offered to our three sons who still live at home, but one was moving to an apartment yesterday, one was on a scout camp-out and the third, well, he didn't want to be the only kid.

Madison Junction, Old Friends, Parkitecture
The weather report suggested it was going to be cold and rainy in Yellowstone yesterday (Saturday, April 18th).  Normally, if the weatherman says it's going to be good weather it's 50/50.  If he says it's going to be nasty he's usually spot on.  I am happy to say that the weatherman was wrong in our favor yesterday.  It was a beautiful day, all day.

We left home at around ten o'clock with a bucket of the Hot Chick's incredible gluten free fried chicken.  The sky was clear, the temperature was a little brisk and as we drove across Island Park on our way to Yellowstone, we saw a beautiful bald eagle circling overhead.  As far as omens go, if you believe in that kind of thing, that was a good one.

We drove into West Yellowstone and first stopped by to visit some of our oldest and dearest friends, Jeff and Lisa Carter.  As we shot the bull a little, we came to the conclusion that all four of us needed to be in Yellowstone together.  They had things to do in town in the late afternoon, so we hatched a plan that we would go in separate cars to Madison Junction and then we'd leave their car there so we could drop them off in time and we could stick around in the park after.  It was a good plan.

I spent a great deal of time at Madison Junction as a teenager, mostly at night, mostly naked, and mostly in a hot pool there.  Our favorite thing to do in those days in Yellowstone was to sneak into the park late at night and skinnydip in the hot pools.  Madison Junction had the only legal hot pot for bathing in in those days.  I assume because it was so close to the campground and it had been going on for so long that the Rangers had to allow it to happen.  It was the only such place in the park.  We called it "The Trench."

It was always illegal to hot pot in Yellowstone, but in the old days, if the rangers we in the hot pot first no one got a ticket.  Today it's a $500 fine, a blot on your permanent federal record, a night in the Gardiner, Montana jail and a suspension of National Park privilege for a number of years.  It just got too danged expensive.  I only got caught once.  In fact Jeff was with me that time.  He only got caught once too.  Back then it was a fifty dollar fine and that was that.  I haven't checked to see if it's on my permanent federal record.

With all the time I had spent at Madison Junction, though there was one little side place I had never been.  That's where we stashed their car.  It is the information stand and amphitheatre turnoff.  There was a charming little building in the rustic craftsman style.  We loved the building and will go back later in the season when it's open to the public.  This was a photo op time as we prepared for the rest of the day.

Jeff, Lisa and Chimene the Hot Chick at the parkitecture.  I've known both Jeff and Lisa longer than I've known the Hot Chick

Jeff, Lisa and Me.


Monument to Steven Mather at Madison Junction

National Park Mountain

Bronze plaque at Madison Junction

Another picture of the parkitecture just because I liked it so much.

Back in the seventies and eighties, Yellowstone had a building boom.  That was when Grant Village came to be.  Madison Junction was supposed to be developed with a big hotel and a bunch of other amenities.  I don't know what happened, maybe the economy tanked, maybe there was a change in park governance, maybe Grant Village didn't end up the way they hoped it would, maybe a combination of all of these things, but the commercialization of Madison Junction never happened and I am glad.

Midway Geyser Basin and the River Otter
We ditched the Carters' vehicle at Madison Junction and all continued on.  We wanted to stop at Fountain Paint Pots, but the Park Service was replacing boardwalks and it was closed.  I always like seeing Fountain Paint Pots this time of year because the mudpots are more active and more liquid because of spring runoff and more water than it is later in the season.  So we had to settle for Midway Geyser Basin.

The last time we attempted to see Midway Geyser Basin in the middle of the season, we couldn't get a parking place.  Because of Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest thermal pool in the world and a mighty pretty one at that, it's a major stop for all the tour companies.  We have made a point of only stopping there in the early or late season so we have the place to ourselves now.

My goal for each Yellowstone trip is to see something I have never seen before.  I had already seen the parkitecture at Madison Junction so that requirement had been fulfilled.  Yellowstone is always full of surprises though and as we crossed the bridge into the geyser basin, Jeff and I were pointing out one of the places we used to skinnydip and the Hot Chick spotted a river otter.  I had never seen an otter in the wild before.  That was incredibly cool.

We used to skinnydip in the river here, right where the hot water spills into the Firehole.

River otter skinnydipping where we used to.  I don't think the otter will be fined though

Bacterial mat or strange fungus near the skinnydipping spot

In the winter, Jeff is a snow coach guide.  He knows more about Yellowstone than anyone I know.  I'm pretty sure he knows more about the park than all but the oldest rangers.  He's fun to go to Yellowstone with.  He told us about a feature called a Thermal Kame.

A thermal kame is one of the five hydrothermal features in Yellowstone.  The five types of thermal features are:  Hot springs, geysers, mudpots, steam vents and thermal kames.  I'm not sure I completely understand a thermal kame, but it seems to be a feature that is created by a combination of thermal activity and ice age glaciers.  Twin Buttes and Mary Mountain in the Fountain Paintpots/Midway Geyser Basin complex are such features.  For the record, Jeff and I were arrested for hot potting in the shadow of Mary Mountain back in about 1980.

**Update:  Jeff texted me and said that the fifth type of thermal feature in Yellowstone is a chimney where superheated air shoots up.  No water.  Apparently, the superheated air coming up from the chimney caused the glaciers to melt and deposit their stuff around the chimney.  That deposition is the Kame.  I think I got that right.

Twin Buttes, as they are called now have been called the Mae West Mountains and more recently the Marilyn Monroe Mountains.  It's a mystery to me.

Twin Buttes, aka the Mae West Mountains, aka the Marilyn Monroe Mountains

Opal Pool, normally one of the prettiest pools in Midway Geyser Basin curiously free of water right now.  Jeff says it is rare but not unheard of for this pool

Jeff brought a thermal scanner from one of the guide companies in West Yellowstone and measured the heat coming from many of the thermal features.  Jeff has always been a scientist.  He's a true renaissance man.  On his last day of guiding last season, he spotted some cougar tracks in the bacterial mat of Midway Geyser Basin.  They were still there when we walked through.

After we finished at Midway, we stopped along the side of the road to an unmarked turnout that Jeff knew about.  It was a scenic overlook above the Firehole River where Flood Geyser flows into it.  It was very pretty.  While we were sitting there, Flood Geyser erupted and we saw the colors of Grand Prismatic Spring reflecting up through the steam.  More stuff I had never seen!

Cougar tracks in the bacterial mat at Midway Geyser Basin

Geyserite being formed

For some reason this makes me thing of Australia

More geyserite

The colors of the bacteria are cool here

...and here

Jeff in scientist mode

Obligatory first bison of the year photo

Primordial sludge.  Oh, alright it's just algae

More bison


Colors of Grand Prismatic Spring reflecting up through the steam

Flood Geyser in mid eruption

Upper Geyser Basin and the Ephydridae Fly
Next we headed to the Upper Geyser Basin.  Jeff looked at his phone app which predicts Yellowstone's five most predictable geysers and declared that we had about forty minutes before Old Faithful was going to erupt.  We parked and walked around parts of the Upper Geyser Basin we rarely visit.  We saw Crested Pool that has an average temperature of 199˚ Fahrenheit.  Jeff took a heat reading but I don't remember what it was.  In 1970 a little boy fell into Crested Pool and died.

Shortly after seeing Crested Pool and a few other features, we saw Old Faithful erupt from a different direction than I have ever seen it from before.  It was a picture perfect eruption.  The wind was just right and the water and steam drifted just like in the post cards.

Jeff and Lisa had to head back to West Yellowstone for a family thing and we made our way back to the car.  Jeff pointed out some flies that were hovering around the bacterial mat and told us about them.  They are the Ephydridae Fly.  Brine fly.  He said they were the oldest known insect and that every order of insect traces their lineage through them.  Winter, spring, summer, fall, the brine flies hang around the geyser basins.  They are and important creature.

Castle Geyser

Crested Pool

Jeff taking a measurement of Crested Pool

I saw a reflection.  Couldn't resist


Beginning of the eruption (Old Faithful)




Can't get enough of this

These are only six of the thirty or so shots I took

Random cool pool

Looks like brains.  Made my inner zombie hungry

Rocks in the process of being formed

Bacterial mat

Ephydridae flies  (The little blue things)

First wildflowers of the season, I think they are sub-alpine buttercups

I love ravens.  I'm told they can live fifty years

And they pose really well

Gibbon Falls, Wolf, and Coyote 
We dropped Jeff and Lisa at their car at Madison Junction, but we hadn't had enough of our Yellowstone adventure.  We decided to continue on to Gibbon Falls and see where that took us.  Gibbon Falls is a roadside waterfall with an 84 foot drop.  It's on the Gibbon River between Madison Junction and Norris.  Closer to Madison.  In the old days, there was a pull off with about thirty parking places for cars.  It was always busy and there was no buffer between the road and the people.  A few years ago, the Park Service decided to make this a better and safer venue.  They added a parking area above the brink of the falls and made a protected walkway along the length of the falls and about a thousand feet of river below.  There are places all along the walkway for great photo ops on this waterfall.  This may be the second most photographed waterfall in Yellowstone, after Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  It's quite impressive.

Brink of Gibbon Falls

First view

Better view

straight on view

 We decided to head home after this, but wanted to see Mesa Falls in the light on the way home.  As we approached Madison Junction we saw a car stopped and a couple were observing a grey wolf.  It was a long way away and only appears as a dot in the photo.  We watched it with our binoculars though and it was for sure a wolf.

After the wolf, we turned for home at Madison Junction and spotted a coyote near Seven Mile Bridge.  That was a cool sight.  We saw two of the three species of wild dog in the park.

There is a wolf in this picture


Bison Think They Own the Place
As we were headed out of the park, there was a traffic jam of sorts.  There were only a few cars because there weren't that many people in the park on Saturday.  Nevertheless we were at a dead stop.  I got out to see what it was, and there was a bison herd blocking the road.  About seventy animals.  Now, I grew up around Yellowstone and have visited the park hundreds of times.  I usually don't stop for bison or elk.  They are just too plentiful and we don't get excited by them too much.  If we happen to come across them on a trail we'll photograph them, but normally we don't stop for bison.

This time, however it was pretty epic.  All at once, the herd began to move and they moved right next to our car.  I was back in the car at this point, by the way and began taking pictures of them.  I could have reached out and touched at least two dozen of them.  That's how close they were.  I decided not to, because my Dad once did that and a bison kicked his car.  That's a big animal to make mad at you.  Even then, one of the bison got agitated right by our car and turned around.  He very nearly stuck his head in the window of the car.  It wouldn't have fit, by the way.  He was so close that I had to jerk out of the way to miss him hitting me.  It was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.  We think a bison behind him accidentally hooked him.  It wasn't us.  We were doing what we were supposed to.  The bison walked along both sides of the car.  It was spectacular.

The bison herd on the march

Here they come

I could have touched this one

The one that looked like it would attack

We thought it was going to charge right here

After the bison and coyote, we headed back to West Yellowstone.  I took a small detour because a trailguide had said there was a place near West Yellowstone that moose frequent.  I didn't see any moose, although I did see a moose track.  I did see a couple of very agitated Canada geese and a majestic bald eagle though.

Two very agitated Canada geese.  

The bald eagle

I took about thirty pictures of this bird.

This was one of the best

Mesa Falls and the Moose
We headed home through Island Park, Idaho and took the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway just before Harriman State Park.  This was the third time we attempted to see Mesa Falls this year.  Valentines Day, Easter and then yesterday.  Three times the charm.

After the falls, we stopped for a view of the Tetons and on our way down Warm River Canyon we saw a pretty nice moose.

Upper Mesa Falls

Rock formation below Upper Mesa Falls

Lower Mesa Falls

A couple of turkey vultures at Lower Mesa Falls

The Teton Range from the scenic overlook

The Moose

We left the house at ten o'clock in the morning and were back by about eight-thirty that night.  We know how to see a whole lot of Yellowstone in a short amount of time.  We had a great visit in Yellowstone that was made sweeter by spending our time with old friends.  The only question I have now is, "When do I get to go back?"