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12th June 2010

Yellowstone Park: Bison Drive to Canyon, Mud Volcano and West Thumb Geyser Basin

Panoramic View of Canyon from Lookout Point on the North Rim      (please use scroll bar)

Panoramic View of Yellowstone Lake      (please use scroll bar)

Bison Drive
    I set off in the morning to visit the Canyon, a 12 mile drive. The drive took me one and a half hours. The problem was a herd of bison had decided to take the same route and also take the easy way via the road. The animals were not interested in leaving the road since there was densely packed trees on either side, and they were obviously looking for greener pastures. It was a tedious slow crawl, and it must have been worse for oncoming traffic since they had to sit tight while the herd moved around them. Eventually cars and RVs ahead started to move to one side of the road effectively allowing the herd to stick to the other side, though individual bison would obstinately walk down the middle of the road. But by edging the herd to one side, we were able in dribs and drabs to overtake the beasts.
    The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River expresses the park's complex geologic history in dramatic colours and shapes. Puffs of steam mark hydrothermal features in the canyon's walls. The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River add to the grandeur of this unique natural treasure. Scientists believe the canyon was formed after the volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago, and after the subsequent Canyon Rhyolite lava flow, which occurred approximately 484,000 years ago. Hydrothermal activity altered and weakened the lava, making the rocks softer. The Yellowstone River began eroding these rocks downstream near Tower Fall; the erosion continued upstream to Lower Falls. The 93m Lower Falls may have formed because it flows over volcanic rock more resistant to erosion than downstream rocks, which are hydrothermally altered. The 33m Upper Falls flows over similar rocks. The multi-hued rocks of the canyon result from the hydrothermally altered rhyolite and sediments. There are two rims to the canyon: the North Rim and the South Rim.

Canyon South Rim

Upper Falls
Lower Falls - the Specks on the Ledge
to the Right of the Brink are People
    I decided to explore the South Rim first. Crossing Chittenden Bridge brought me up to Uncle Tom's Point where I parked the van. The roar of the Falls filled the air, even though they were not yet in sight. It was only a short walk to an observation point overlooking the Upper Falls. Fortunately I arrived there before a bus disgorged 50 or so American tourists, who flooded the area for their quick 10 second snap sessions. To access the Lower Falls observation point was a different matter. A paved incline and more than 300 steps lead me 150m down into the canyon. Down there I could see and feel the power of the Falls. These Falls were three times the height of Niagara Falls. Snow still clung in huge drifts to the sides of the canyon near the Falls, the sun never shone down there. The climb back up from the Lower Falls was lung breaking, but it had been worth it.
View from Artist Point
    I wanted to visit Artist Point further down the canyon next. I could have driven down, but I decided I needed to stretch my legs and lungs again, and walked the windy 1.5 mile South Rim Trail. This provided me with several vantage points along the way, and a chance to exchange comments about the views with fellow walkers. The view from Artist Point looking back up to the Lower Falls was stunning. A 19th century artist named Thomas Moran painted the scene, looking back to the Falls, from this point. Before making his final famous painting, he made numerous sketches, and alledgely wept over the lack of colours in his palette. After surveys were made of the area, they were sent to Congress, together with any paintings that might have been made. The painting that Moran did from this point was hung on Congress walls, and swung the balance to turning the whole area into a National Park.
    Rather than walk back the way I came, I struck out into the woods along a longer trail that took me to Lily Pad Lake, aptly named, and then picked up a trail to Clear Lake. These trails were off the beaten track for most tourists, so I had them all to myself. Between the two lakes, I came across many examples of hydrothermal activity: fumaroles, hot springs and mud geysers. It was at one of these that I came across two young men who were Canyon Rangers. They had just been moving the safety markers at the edges of a fumarole. They had a bag full of instruments with them, which I thought they were using to determine where the ground was safe to walk on. They informed me that the data they used was gathered from thermal imaging equipment that was flown over the hydrothermaly active areas. I joked with them about the bison driving experience I had undergone earlier. They said there had been a grisly bear jam in another part of the park that morning, a mother and her two cubs decided to take a stroll down the road. All part and parcel in the park.
    I continued my hike, with the ground eventually giving way to upland meadows which were severely waterlogged in places. The exercise did me good, and I was ready to tackle the North Rim.

Canyon North Rim

Vicious Currents Feeding Upper Falls
    I stopped off to get a view of the brink of the Upper Falls and the waters twisting and colliding through a series of sharp bends before rushing pell-mell over the brink, before moving on to get a view of the brink of the Lower Falls. The walk down to the Lower Falls observation point involved a drop of 180m! The view and noise at the brink was breath taking; 37,417 gallons per second of water plunging 93m over the Falls. A French film crew was also at the observation point, and they had a boom that stretched about 7m across the rushing waters, with the camera rotating so as to follow the waters rushing to the brink and then topple over into the abyss.
    After I got my breath back from the climb, I headed down to Lookout Point to get a different view of the Lower Falls, and then further on again to Inspiration Point to get a perspective of the canyon as a whole.
And Over the Lower Falls it Goes
Lower Falls from Lookout Point
Rich Colours down the Canyon

Mud Volcano

Black Dragon's Caldron
    My next port of call after the Canyon was the Mud Volcano area. This was a location full of turbulent pools of hot, muddy water; hillsides strewn with trees cooked by the steam; strange odours; and a bizarre landscape. Mud Volcano is close to one of the major vents from which lava flowed after the eruption 640,000 years ago. The fascinating and mysterious mud features found here are some of the most acidic in the park. This acidity plays a part in making them different from most hot springs and geysers. Hydrogen sulphide gas is present deep in the earth at Mud Volcano. Some microorganisms use this gas as an energy source. They help convert the gas to sulphuric acid, which breaks down rock to wet clay mud. Hydrogen sulfide, steam, carbon dioxide, and other gases explode through the layers of mud in dramatic or delightful ways.
    In contrast, the more alkaline waters in most of Yellowstone's geyser basins react with underground rock to line subsurface cracks and fissures with silica, creating the natural "plumbing" systems of geysers and hot springs.
Grizzly Fumarole

    I took a look and smell first of the Sulphur Caldron. This was bubbling away with gusto, and the colours made it quite pretty. However, looks can be deceptive; the liquid was mainly sulphuric acid.
    I wandered around the various sized and multi-hued pools, geysers and plopping mounds of mud with fanciful names such as: Mud Geyser, Mud Volcano, Mud Caldron, Sizzling Basin, Churning Caldron, Black Dragon's Caldron, Sour Lake and Grizzly Fumarole. All had their individual charm, belching steam and sulphur dioxide. As the steam wafted past me it was as if I had been instantly placed in the steam room of a health club, full of individuals who had been eating baked bean curries the night before. Then as I passed out of the steam cloud, the drop in temperature as the icy breeze struck was very noticeable. The colours and sounds of each mud bearing site was extensive.
    I was very aware of the large number of dead trees on the hillside surrounding the mud spas (indeed I came across similar sightings elsewhere in the park). In 1978 a series of smaller earthquakes had really shaken the ground up in that particular locality, but the trees stood their ground. However, the seismic activity had allowed colossal amounts of steam to percolate up through the soil, raising the soil temperature to 96 degrees C, effectively cooking the roots. The trees succumbed to this onslaught and died one by one.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Hot Springs by the Lake
    From the Mud Volcano, I headed down to West Thumb Geyser Basin. The Basin overlooks Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at high elevation in North America. The West Thumb part of Yellowstone Lake derives its name because on a map it resembles a large thumb print tenuously joined to the much larger Yellowstone Lake. West Thumb Lake is no tiddler either; 14 miles wide and 20 miles long. The surface of the lake hints at what exists below. Surveys of the lake bottom in the 1990s documented hot springs and hydrothermal vents just offshore in West Thumb. Scientists believe West Thumb Lake was created by a huge volcanic explosion, and the thumb print covers the area that was blown out by the explosion.
    The Geyser Basin contained a collection of hot springs, many very clear and beautifully coloured, and muddy fumaroles of paint box colourings. Antelope were wandering among these wonders; I couldn't work out why since there was no food there for them. And all this was right next to the lake. The vent cones from some fumaroles of centuries gone by were even in the lake, some submerged. Steam wafted up from all this, it was as if the beach was on fire.
Coloured Mud Pools
Colourful Effects of Microorganisms
Coloured Hot Spring
Black Pool
    I met a couple of young English women in their twenties, who were also traveling around. They had been down in Australia, and then flown across to California and had covered a lot of the sights that I will be visiting further south. They would be heading up into Canada too. I assured them their American visas would get them into Canada and back, which relieved them. When they were recently in Death Valley, the temperature was 116 degrees F at night. Crumbs, what would it be like when I got there. They were struggling with the cold at this altitude. We shared a few stories and went our separate ways.
    By this time I was becoming blas� about hot springs, fumaroles and mud geysers. It was time to call it a day, so I began the long drive back up to the campsite. As I drove, where ever I looked, I could see steam rising out of the landscape, like a 1001 campfires. The drive back took me over the Continental Divide twice. These were high passes, and the surrounding forests were full of snow. The height here was almost one third of the height of Mount Everest. The journey took me through wide expansive, grassy plains, usually with large herds of bison grazing in them. I began to wonder why I bothered visiting the National Bison Range back in Montana. I was by now blas� about bison too. I passed some of the sites I would be visiting the following day, still crammed with tourists.
    I eventually got back to the campsite. I was a bit whacked, I had done a fair amount of walking today. I needed a shower but this campsite doesn't have such luxuries. Tea was a couple of apples. There was just time to type up some notes before the light failed. My fellow campers must have thought I was mad, I was still typing away at midnight the previous night in the van. There again the site was pitch black, they must all have gone to bed to escape the intense cold.
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Last updated 16.6.2010