Second Stop—Yellowstone National Park, continued

A Yellowstone lodging suggestion: make a reservation MONTHS early for the main historic lodge at Old Faithful. It’s much more interesting than the Grant Village lodge. Nothing against GV, but the room was akin to a cheap hotel for triple the money. It was fine, clean, comfortable, had free coffee, no TV, and the oddest part—shower only. No bathtub. The point of visiting a National Park though is NOT to hang in a hotel, so in all the state of the lodging is of little consequence. And it does put walls between you and the grizzlies, if there happens to be grizzlies.

A bit of park explanation: the main road in Yellowstone, Grand Loop Road, is as described—one grand loop around the park, with a dissecting road through the middle. Most of the popular features are just off of the main road, with less visited sights further out on hiking trails throughout. One good way to organize a visit would be to plan for two full days, top half loop sights in one day, bottom half loop the other. This way you’d also have time to leave behind the car and go for a hike or two. One full day is enough to drive the complete loop around the park, but doesn’t leave much time to hike to further away attractions.

There is just so much to write about in Yellowstone, I had to edit. For help in narrowing focus I asked Marie about her top three memories—those are the points I’ll highlight. {Perhaps with one or two more thrown in, bracketed. If you want to pretend I did a lot more editing that I really did, skip over the bracketed parts. That wouldn’t do justice to the park though.} Stops are noted in order driving Grand Loop Road clockwise starting at Grant Village in the south of the park.

{First stop, Upper Geyser Basin. This is the most popular attraction in the park. Why? This is where the main lodge is, and a little thing you may have heard of before, the storied geyser called Old Faithful. In truth, Old Faithful is just one part of Upper Geyser Basin—there’s so much more going on. About ¼ of all the geysers in the world are concentrated in this basin. Approximately 25 geysers combine with springs and fumaroles to make this a couple-hour stop. Check the board in the visitor center first to see estimated eruption times for the various somewhat predictable geysers, then head out to see what you can. The walk around the basin is boardwalk, making it easily traversible and therefor crowded. If you like avoiding large crowds as I do, morning is the best time to visit. Old Faithful—and this is only my opinion, folks—is really one of the less interesting parts of this area. It’s storied because of its predictability and the fact it erupts approximately once an hour, so lots of people have the opportunity to see it. The other geysers in the basin are either less frequent or less predictable, or both, so they’re lesser known.}

{If you get the chance to see Grand geyser erupt, please do so! Old Faithful (above) just goes straight up. Grand is multi-tiered.}

{Castle geyser (below) is an interesting formation even when it’s not erupting.}

{We also had the luck to see Beehive geyser spouting—which happens only every 7 hours to days, unpredictably. More to note: the large amounts of microbes that can live in heated waters…go see the springs to see what I mean.}

Along with marveling at all the microbes (hint: they’re colorful) please take a moment to stop and marvel at the entirety of Upper Geyser Basin, with all of the vents releasing pressure from the earth, and ponder the fact that you’re standing on top of a super volcano. Exponentially larger than Mt. St. Helens. And is possibly thousands of years overdue for an eruption. A good vantage point to ponder this aspect of life’s fragility is from the top of the Observation Point Trail: not a terribly difficult or long hike, and you get to see one of the lesser-visited geysers along the way.}

{Also to do in this area: check out the lodge. It’s historic and full of stones and tree branches. And, have some ice cream.}

Marie’s First: the sulfur smell and steam bath at Grand Prismatic Spring.
I’ve touched on this previously—sulfur smells are everywhere volcanic features are. The Grand Prismatic Spring area is one of those places. Having previously shared my opinion of Old Faithful with you, I shall do it again, but in the positive this time. THIS is my favorite amazing interesting thing to see in the park. Have you seen those overhead photographs of large rainbow-colored pools? Grand Prismatic. And if you’ve seen those pictures, you’re probably thinking the colors have been touched up. But they have not. Microbes are just that colorful! The steam rising off the pools is too—look closely; it really does change from yellow to orange to red, and on, as it reflects the color of the pool beneath. Be warned though, walking around these springs is like walking through a steamy sauna. If you’re caring about your hairstyle, you may want to get over that.

{Go see any of the paint pots. Really. These I can only describe as funny burping mud. You will laugh at them, and I don’t think they mind. They will laugh with you.}

{Driving along on one flat plain, roadsigns appeared suddenly that noted a considerable speed limit drop. This was confusing, as the road was flat and straight and in no way treacherous. The only sign of possible touchy landscape was the rock outcropping coming up. Indeed, just past that rock wall, the landscape changed instantly: the road was two feet from a steep cliff plummeting into the river that seemed thousands of feet below. And, the road was also now very curvy. Proving that TIP #4 ON A ROADTRIP is applicable in multiple settings: pay attention to road signs.}

{Stop also at Mammoth Hot Springs, an area adjacent to one of the villages in the north of the park. The springs themselves have two vantage points, from the top and the bottom, it is a drive between the two. The top affords a mighty nice view of travertine terraces spanning an impressive area of cliff. These terraces are formed by hot water being forced up through ancient limestone sea beds, so when the water breaks the surface and flows down the mountainside, it leaves calcium deposits from the limestone behind, forming the fantastic steppes and pools and terraces that are constantly growing. Take some time up here then venture to the lower springs area.}

{At one point on the drive out of the upper spring area, we were on a side road that was barely wider than my civic, barely paved, and had an excellent really steep area. This was fun to drive.}

{In my previous visit five years ago, at the lower springs area there existed a walkway leading from the base of the springs up the hill. In present day, that walkway has been ripped out and the ground is now covered by mineral deposits a few feet thick, a testament to the fact that the hot springs are growing everyday, with every drop of water that rolls down the terraces. The mineral deposits & terraces, by the way, look like gnoche on layer cakes.}

{Also a feature of National Parks—Ranger talks! For the nerdier among us. Do join in on a talk if you have the time. Rangers love what they do and generally want to share their knowledge in an effort to get others to appreciate the majesty of the parks. Ranger Dave gave a talk about mineral deposits at the lower springs. Sounds fun, right? It was. Really. But we were ultimately distracted by a yuppie-lookin’ dude, wearing chino shorts, loose flowing short-sleeved tommybahama type shirt, fancy man sandals, and an accessory completely out of place with his outfit: a can of bear mace strapped to his belt. Mammoth is a constantly highly populated area, this tends to scare away wildlife (other than ground squirrels, who want all of your food all of the time). Any typical visitor to the park who hops out of their cars long enough to take the typical tourist pics ten feet away from the parking lots are IN LITTLE TO NO DANGER OF EVER SEEING A BEAR, MUCH LESS BEING ATTACKED BY ONE. Not that I’m making an assumption on this guy based on his outfit. But, we can agree I hope that it was odd his one accessory was bear mace. Not something like, oh, a hat or bottle of water.}

{Obligatory gift shop stop happened here: my quest to get a decal from each park, Marie’s quest to get a sticker from each park, and Marie also picked up a little stuffed bison toy for her boyfriend’s daughter… (Hi Lauren!). The bison was quickly named Daisy, appointed our mascot, given a home on the Civic’s dashboard for the rest of the trip, and appointed the duty of warding off bad weather and bad traffic.}

{Couple of other stops of note on the way around the loop… petrified tree and Tower Falls. In the early days of the park there were three petrified trees, but that was before the realization that some delicate park features needed to be protected from the increasing amount of visitors. Early visitors would chip off bits of the petrified trees to keep as souvenirs, so now what remains is half of one tree. That tree today is behind a locked iron gate.}

{Past Tower Falls, we had one more planned stop, Sleeping Dragon cave. Then, back to the lodge while still light so we could grill a decent meal down by the lakeshore…grand plans which we hadn’t managed the night before, so this was really a thing to look forward to.}

Marie’s Second: The bear signs. I’ve already talked about those somewhat.

{Here’s a thing about Yellowstone: it is the only national park with a fully functioning ecosystem. This means there are a lot of animals. And the animals go wherever they want, that’s part of the purpose and the draw of the parks. You, the human inside your strange metal horse, are the interloper. The animals don’t care what roads are for, and the park staff does not keep them out of the road. I applaud this; it’s how it should be. But sometimes it can get annoying to the point of humorous. Which brings us to…}

…Marie’s Third: Bison rush hour, just south of the Grand Canyon. Bison herds are large and move slowly, animal by animal, from grazing area to grazing area. When roads bisect grazing areas, animal traffic jams form when the herd is on the move. Yellowstone bison are used to cars and they DO NOT CARE that the roads are there for driving on. They DO NOT CARE that when they stand in the middle of roads; they block all traffic for miles. They just stare at you, sometimes only inches away, and chew on grass. Then they grunt and move slowly another five feet, just enough so you can get around them. But then ten feet up the road there’s another bison, hanging out, blocking traffic again.

TIP #5 ON A ROADTRIP: employ city driving tactics when driving in a bison herd.

Here’s where it’s nice to have a small car, other than getting the 40mpg highway—the Civic can fit around bison on the road, just like driving around obstacles in a city. Trucks and campers are too large & unwieldy to skirt around animals without hitting them, so those drivers can only sit there, wait for the bison to move completely off the road, and think back wistfully to the time they had smaller cars. If only more people drove smaller more efficient cars…

The city driving tactic of pulling up as close to the car in front of you as possible to not let anyone else in the flow of traffic serves purpose here also, other than being a selfish driver. It doesn’t leave room for bison to walk in front of your car and stop for as long as it bloody well cares to.

TIP #6 ON A ROADTRIP: Just because the bison look calm, DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR WHEN CLOSE TO THEM.

They’re wild. And dangerous. And really big. Taller than my car, if I remember correctly from when one was walking about 10 inches from my car window. I’m guessing there would be more damage to my car than to the bison if one decided to tussle.

One adorable thing we witnessed while sitting in the bison jam for over an hour: the big ol’ man bison, rolling around upside down in a dirt pile. Huge animal, dirt pile fun.

{Finally, after skirting the last bison and leaving the camper behind me in the dust, we made it to the last stop. By now it was almost completely dark outside, but half of the draw of Sleeping Dragon cave is the sounds, so we didn’t miss out on too much in the low light. By some geothermic magic, it honestly sounds like a dragon is inside a cave surrounded by a large pool of water, breathing loudly and snorting. (Supposedly. If you’ve heard an actual dragon sleeping, would you be so kind as to visit this cave to confirm?) Water splashing and steam hissing out of the cave opening only adds to this illusion. It’s awesome.}

Then back to the car back to the lodge room where it was past nine and dark and we didn’t feel like making dinner so I blamed the bison then had a piece of bread and a piece of cheese and we went over the plan for the next day and went to sleep. No delicious dinner this night.

As for what the rest of Grant Village looks like, I still don’t know. Can someone fill me in? I know the lodge room and the post office across the street and the gas pump, that’s it.

All of the bear hints will pay off. I swear. Next, in Idaho.

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