YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, PT. 1
Where is the mouse.....where is the gosh darn mouse!!
Crossing into Yellowstone from the Tetons was exciting. This was the pinnacle park we had been building up to. The West. The first (technically) National Park established under the NPS, and the park that seemed to be everyone's favorite. We had relatively high expectations.
Our first few days, however, we eased into exploring this massive area. Day one we secured our permits for an overnight trip on Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake including our boat inspection. Since we had to drive to Bridge Bay anyway, we popped off at Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb for our first geothermal experience.
The boardwalk at West Thumb was super neat. This feature was not that crowded, and it was our first introduction to the geothermal oddities present within Yellowstone. The pools were such beautiful colors, they were almost inviting, minus the sulfur smell. That smell got to us by the end of our time here, but at first it was novel.
My favorite feature here was the fish pot. This is a now dormant geyser cone at the edge of Yellowstone lake where it is said people who lived on the lands before the park was created used to fish from the lake and boil the fish on the line in the waters of the geyser pool. Until someone got horribly burned. In fact there were tons of stories of people bursting through the thin crust of the land and being severely burned. This constant reminder that the whole park was actually a huge caldera made hiking near water features and off trail a bit nerve wracking.
Another feature that served as a reminder that this whole park is actually a volcano was our outings on Lewis Lake. We camped at Lewis Lake campground for our first four nights so that we could do an overnight kayak to Shoshone lake. For the first time, we decided to back out of an excursion half way through. Here is why.
The plan was to kayak across Lewis Lake, portage half a mile up stream on the shallow creek connecting the two lakes, and camp along the banks of Shoshone Lake for one or two nights as we explored during the day. Packed and fully committed to the trip, we started paddling on Lewis Lake around 9am. While we were packing the kayaks, we were already being swarmed by clouds of mosquitoes, so getting out on the water was a relief.
Until we saw the horizon line.
Off in the distance, moving fast towards us was a dark mass of clouds. No problem, we thought, we will just pull over and wait for the rain to pass us if that's what happens. Paddling across the lake we enjoyed skirting the shoreline and looking to wildlife (which we saw a cinnamon black bear family.) The ominous clouds were growing ever closer, now we could hear the pop and rumble of thunder and lightening, and it was right over where we were headed. Shit.
We pulled over at the shoreline when it started to sprinkle on us, got out of the boats and practiced some more “hey bear!”'s, and quickly became covered in mosquitoes again. Our twitch and pace dance came in handy here.
It's fine, everything's fine. We'll just walk out in the water a little ways and have some lunch while we wait out the storm, we thought.
So I started walking down the shoreline in ankle deep water until I walked past what I thought was a small creek outlet and it was hot. Like hot tub hot. And it was a sensation I wasn't expecting, so my body told my brain that it was so cold it burned, because up until this point we had only encountered cold water. On second inspection, it was actually almost boiling. I didn't get scalded, but further up the little creek it got hotter. It was bizarre.
As we stood in the lake eating lunch and waving off mosquitoes, we talked about what our actual objective was for the next 48 hours. We were moderately curious what Shoshone lake looked like, but you don't really get any elevation gain to 'view' the land around. There was a 14 mile round trip hike along the shore that went out to a small geyser basin, but we had already decided we weren't interested in that. We are already camping, everyday, all day, so the allure of getting 'away from it all' didn't really apply. The only difference was backpack camping rather than car camping. Ok, but was that it?
We realized we would get to the campsite around 3pm, and with the horrible mosquitoes, we would just be sitting in our tiny net tent like the first night on the green river. Been there, done that. So, what was our point? We decided we actually were not excited for this one-nighter at all, and were just as happy spending the day out on the main lake fishing, and then returning to our trailer. It was hard to admit we didn't want to continue. Like, really hard. I felt like I was being lazy, or not tough enough. But realistically, why do an excursion if you are not enjoying it? Just to say you did it? That is stupid. And that was our conclusion.
We signed up to do this because we have been enjoying kayak camping, but this particular one didn't bring anything new, specifically unique, or exciting to the table. We accepted this decision and gave ourselves time to 'grieve' about it, but after an hour, we just moved on and really enjoyed the day fishing in various coves throughout Lewis Lake and letting the storms pass by with no worries.
The fishing was fun, but frustrating for me. These trout know people, know bait, and just didn't care about our crappy flies we were tossing. Eric caught one, and I had a few bites, but towards the end, I was a bit annoyed. Did I mention I am terrible at fishing? Let's just say the saying “its not about the destination, its about the journey” never resonated with me for this hobby. It is totally about catching a fish and winning.
Oh well, we had an overall great day anyway, and were happy to get back to our main camp in the evening. Minus we still had to unpack our backpacking stuff. One-nighters are just as much work as a full week of backpacking in my opinion, and in the future, we both agreed that we should only plan two nights or more to make all the packing worth while.
After we had our fill of fishing on Lewis Lake, we left a few days later to change campgrounds. On our way out, we saw a porcupine (my first one) crossing the road, and it was huge! (and cute.) It was the height of summer, so we knew it would be tough to get a site at Norris campground, but we thought 'ok if we get there by 5:30 in the morning, we should be fine!'
We pulled into the campground at around 5:45am and there was a line of campers already snaking along the parking lot. This was different then how the other campground worked, but sure, why not have every single campground IN THE SAME PARK operate differently....makes total since. God damned government gets its reputation somehow I guess :: facepalm::
Being immediately turned around by the volunteer who had to be on traffic control already, we raged together at the inefficiencies and poor planning in parks as we continued up to Indian Creek campground in hopes of securing a site for the next few days. Of course, this one operated completely different from either of the other two, but whatever. Site secured by 9am, we were exhausted and still a little mad.
At least they still have first come first served sites. I would still take this mayhem over all reservation campgrounds. I have vented about this before in the Great Sand Dunes blog if your curious.
Over the next four days we explored the main geothermal attractions such as Norris, Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Fairy Falls, all the basins, paint pots, geysers, springs, falls, pools and cliffs imaginable. Honestly, it became a bit tedious towards the last few areas. It started with 'WOW', 'INCREDIBLE', 'MINDBLOWING' and slowly digressed into 'huh, cool' and 'yup, there's more mud bubbles.' I know this sounds snobbish, dismissive and ungrateful, but it seems to happen to anyone who has the time to see every feature in the park.
Truly, Yellowstone is massive, and holds so many bizarre, sometimes uncomfortable, ugly, otherworldly, grand in every since of the word, amazing features that it is understandable to become a bit numb after the fifteenth viewing of a geothermal pool.
Also, it was beyond exhausting dealing with the waves and waves of people on the boardwalks and trails surround each highlight. We talked with a lot of people as we explored these areas, tourists, rangers, people who lived in the area, returning volunteers, wildlife enthusiasts, researches etc. This gave us a lot of information, good and bad, about living and working (for me) in this area. We had already decided it didn't draw us, but even more so after taking in so many opinions.
We did talk with a really nice family from Livingston, Washington for a while, and it gave us a bit of hope that we can still travel if we have kids. These guys were very cool, husband was a ski patroller and wife was bar tender, and we even liked their two boys, which never happens. The conversation was refreshing, and nice to hear that long term travel with family wasn't impossible (they were on a three month RV trip with grandma too!) They recommended a few places to check out in Washington state, and we got even more excited for our continued travels. However, we soon became peopled out after these few days,but it was totally worth it to see just about every feature listed on the map. Who knows when one will strike you just right.
That happened for us a Great Fountain Geyser specifically. Even though it was one of the last areas explored, and we were burnt out, we drove Firehole Lake Drive the first time and passed the parking for this specific geyser only to drive by this alluring point of interest with regret of not stopping. On our second drive around later that day, we got parking and walked over to the viewing platform right as it started to erupt and it was incredible. The small pools surrounding the main geyser were reflecting the dusty blue sky at late afternoon, and the mist of the fountain created a calming haze the slightly obscured the surrounding grasslands. It was fascinating. Everyone who was present all shared the same look towards each other, like we had all seen a UFO and no one else would believe it. Even though this event happens throughout the park at various intervals, each eruption was spectacular and unique. We felt very lucky to be there and it oddly brought us together with the other visitors lucky to be there at that very same moment.
Another feature I didn't know what to expect in the age of over saturated photos was Grand Prismatic Spring. Surely the colors couldn't be as vibrant as the internet makes it out to be, could it?
Yes, it can.
Going in we expected a muted but still impressive microbial kaleidoscope. But hiking to the now official overlook (used to be a quazi-legal social trail), and seeing our first glimpse of the pool, we were amazed at how vibrant it is in person. In an age where most of our exposure to beautiful outdoor areas are crafted, edited, staged, and transformed to show a rare moment in time for a setting, it was shocking (really, shocking) to see in person exactly the same image you would see when you google 'photography of prismatic spring'. It was like looking at a real life national geographic photograph, except slightly at an angle because we were not in a helicopter. Though, if I had a ton of money, I would totally view Yellowstone from a helicopter. It would better show the hugeness of these crazy breaks in the earth's crust.
But yes, Grand Prismatic was indeed grand. The tendrils of the spring reached out into desolate scorched crust, with burned trees still standing in it's wake. And the colors expressed from the thermal gradient was like seeing the visible color spectrum displayed by a collection of micro biomes. When we walked the boardwalk loop through the spring, it was the closest I felt to walking on another planet. But a highly publicized and touristy planet because there were a million other people there with me.
I also have to discuss the other highlight that was a madhouse. The famed Old Faithful. I actually remember doing a class presentation on Yellowstone, featuring Old Faithful in my display, and thinking as a kid 'I will probably never see this, it is all the way in Wyoming!' Haha, 7 year old Natalie! We did it!
We knew this particular area was going to be outdoor Disney Part II, and it was. However, thanks to an older gentleman who told us about the bar on the second floor of the Inn, we had three different viewing experiences of this headliner. The first viewing was typical. We filed into the bleachers surrounding the geyser in a half-moon formation along with a few hundred other people over a 30 minute period. We sat and listened to an interp ranger talk about the reliability of the geyser, and the different eruptions it could have while we waited in anticipation for 'the show.' The whole crowd responded in simultaneous ohhs and ahhs as the initial spurts started to go off. When the main eruption shot into the air, the crowd cheered and soon dispersed after the height of the water column dropped. It was exactly what we expected, so no disappointment there. We had about 45 minutes before the next show, so we went into the Old Faithful Inn to explore the historic landmark for a bit. While walking around we stumbled onto one of our favorite discoveries of this park; The Bath House.
The historic Old Faithful Inn is the largest log structure in the world, is exemplary for architecture, and still offers some of the original lodging options in their basic rooms. These rooms have 1-3 beds and a vanity sink, but bathrooms are shared down the hall. That means, we came across the shared bathroom area, which included un-timed showers and a bathhouse. Since we were planning on going to the paid camp showers ($4 for 8 minutes) later that day, we decided to run down and get our toiletries and shower for free instead. Then, because we could, we snagged a private bath room and relaxed in a large, hot bath before viewing the geyser one more time. We grabbed a gin and tonic from the second floor bar, snagged a seat on the deck, and felt very different as the next eruption occurred. Clean, with drink in hand, among other lodge visitors who look like regular humans. Did they know we live outside?? It was a lovely afternoon of odd normalcy.
Also, Old Faithful was beautiful, again.
The third viewing was just for Eric. We returned to the Inn later in the following week for another shower (once a week baby!) and while I was taking my sweet time, Eric walked around the various balconies throughout the hotel. He happened to be on one between the new rooms and the rustic portion of the Inn when Old Faithful went off right in front of him with no one else around. He claims that was his favorite spot of them all. Ill have to see it next time.
Click here for Yellowstone National Park PART TWO!