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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Geysers, Falls and Paint Pots, Oh My!

Hi Blog!  Yellowstone has so many features that you can't see them all in one day.  Today we went to see the Midway Geiser Basin, Fairy Falls and the Lower Geyser Basin, home of the Fountain Paint Pot.

Our first stop was Midway Geiser Basin.  As we approached the basin, we could see the water from the hot springs spilling down into the Firehole River, leaving a mat of bright orange bacteria along its path.

The geysers weren't active, but there were lots of colorful pools, with large clouds of white and blue steam rising from them.

The colors of the bacterial growth around some of the pools were prismatic - hence the name of one of them:  "Prismatic Pool."  See how blue the water is itself, surrounded by bright oranges, purples and pinks:

The hotter the pool, the darker the blue and clearer the water:

After Midway Geiser Basin, we drove to the trailhead for the Fairy Falls hike.  It was 5 miles round trip.  The first part of the hike was through new growth lodgepole pines that had sprung up after the 1988 fire.  Fairy Falls spills water over the rim of hills around the geyser basin.

Here's Kathy, miming, "So Big!" in reaction to the height of the falls:

As we sat gazing up at the falls, we wondered what it must be like in winter.  Would it be frozen solid, would the ice pile up in strange shapes.  As you know, the Internet knows all.  We merely Googled Fairy Falls in winter - now behold the falls in all its frozen glory!

On our hike back from Fairy Falls, we passed the back side of the Midway Geyser Basin, and could see steam rising from the pools.  The vapor was so hot that it appeared blue, which contrasted beautifully with the pink-orange sinter field around the pool:

Our next stop was Fountain Paint Pot area, where we saw lots of mud pots, including this giant pool of bubbling grey goo.  Depending on the mineral content of the mud, it can appear any color from a grey to a pastel pink.  The Crow Indians used the pink mud to paint their tipis.

This sign reminded us of our time in China, where we saw signs reporting such important facts as, "Slipy Carefully," and, "The Tender Grass is Afraid of Your Trample."  We wondered how we could get wet, and then how that would cause us to walk slippery.

Spasm Geyser was the only geyser active in this area when we were there.  It spouted more or less continuously while we were there.  Fountain Geyser, which seems to be connected underground with Spasm Geyser, is said to be spectacular when it erupts.  We think we saw it from the road the other day as we were passing the area.  It spouted perhaps 100 feet into the air.

After Fountain Paint Pot, we stopped at the Nez Perce Picnic Area to have lunch and scout out our fishing spots along the Nez Perce River where it flows into the Firehole River.  As we walked down to the Firehole River, we ran across Ms. Elk going for a wade and munching on tender shoots:

We called it a day around 2:30 and hightailed it home before the tourist traffic got too heavy leaving the park.  Thunderstorms were predicted for this afternoon and we wanted to get back to camp before they hit.  However, the afternoon was still sunny around 5:00 pm, and we think maybe we'll go for a swim and make a campfire.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fishing the Madison River in Yellowstone

One of the things we've really wanted to do is to fish the mighty Yellowstone rivers:  the Madison, the Firehole, the Gibbon, the Nez Perce, the Yellowstone, the Lewis, the Snake.  We got a chance to fish the Snake River in the Grand Tetons a week or two ago.  Ranger Roy at Grant Village here in Yellowstone had recommended we focus in Yellowstone on the Madison River, and the Nez Perce and Gibbon where they enter the Firehole River.  A young fellow at Arrick's Fly Shop in West Yellowstone (the shop came highly recommended to us for its honesty and fair prices) pointed us to the fly patterns for these spots right now:  Royal Wulff, Tan Caddis, a stonefly, Pale Morning Dun, and - just to be safe, a generic nymph pattern.

Today was our first chance to fish in Yellowstone, and we chose the Madison River.  We had scouted the river yesterday when we drove down to see Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, so we knew which spot we wanted.  This section of the stream had endless big structure (huge boulders, fallen logs, big riffles, confluence with a creek, all within maybe 200 yards of stream.

We were up early at 5:30 am to get in and start fishing before the crowds arrived.  It was light, but the sun was very low and the temperature a brisk 44F as we got out of the truck.  Just after we arrived, some fishermen in another pickup truck sped in; but they looked us over and decided they didn't want to share the stream with us, so they reluctantly drove off to look for another spot.

We felt victorious, and this was a sign the fishing would be good today.  Here's Kathy with that "Fishland Security" look.  She's determined to bag her man - I mean fish.

The stream was gorgeous.  Here's a view downstream.  You can see the clarity of the water and the freestone bottom, with lots of plant life.

Just as the sun hit the water, caddis and other mayflies just exploded all over the water.  The most common was a tan-grey number with similarly colored wings.  It had the color of the Caddis and the form of the Pale Morning Dun, but didn't quite match either of those patterns.  Luckily, we each had a fly in our own boxes that "matched the hatch" well enough to get some action.  There were so many flies in the air, and they were everywhere, so it was hard to call it just a "hatch."  They simply all arrived in droves with the sun, out of nowhere and everywhere --- much like the tourists that arrived a little later in the morning.

Other wildlife wandered about.  Just downstream of us, a herd of elk was grazing in a meadow through which the river ran.  On our stretch, a mother duck was leading her "duckies six" along the edge of the stream, fishing and showing them how to search for food:

After an hour or so, we took spots directly across the stream from each other, right where the truck was parked.  Here's Kathy starting her marathon attack on her half of the stream.  Note the look of utter concentration and the fine form her line has at it lays out there into the current:

Meanwhile, David fished the riffle in the foreground above, as well as the current from a tributary that entered the river directly behind the camera in the photo above.

Kathy was the first to strike gold.  Here she is, hauling in a pretty little 12" rainbow trout.  He gave her quite a fight until, on one leap, he jumped right into her net for her.

No sooner was Kathy getting her fly set to try again after that catch, than David struck gold with an energetic little 9" cutthroat trout.  David was too busy bagging the trout to take the photo.  Oh well, you just have to believe Yours Truly about that cutthroat.

We fished and we fished and we fished.  By the time we looked at our watches, we'd been in the stream for four hours, which is quite a long time for us.

Kathy said she knew it was time to quit because the tourists gawking and talking and taking photos were starting to get her irritated.  All morning while we fished, people would pull their cars into the pullout, jump out, come look at the stream, take a photo of either or both of us in our classic flyfishing poses, and then chat a bit, maybe take a photo of each other in front of the river, and hop back in their vehicle and leave.  Generally, we get it and it didn't bother us, but it can be distracting.

We agreed that, in any event, we'd had a full morning of fun and were ready to pack it in.  Even as we left the stream, the trout were still rising and slurping flies across the stream against the bank.  We'll leave some fish for the next guys.

By the time we left the stream it was 11:00 am.  As we drove back to the campground, we got a taste of how terrific is the traffic in Yellowstone around July 4.  Here's a photo of cars streaming into the park.

They were bumper to bumper and often at a standstill.  Any little hitch along the way stops everyone from the entrance station all the way in.  Thank goodness we were headed out of the park.   This resolved us to to always get as early a start as possible each day we enter the park.  Folks, a word to the wise should be sufficient.

Old Faithful and Friends

Hi Blog! Well, we put it off as long as we could.  We've been in the Yellowstone area now for over two weeks.  It's time to screw up our courage and face the crowds to visit Old Faithful.  We got a really early start on Friday, June 28th.  There was still plenty of room in the parking lot.  We got there just in time for the 9:33 a.m. spouting.

We joined the throng of tourist and took our seats on the benches outside the Visitor Center.  We were soon joined by a group of six Kiwis on a western driving tour.  We chatted a little bit before the show.  After the spouting, one Kiwi gent commented, "So is that it, then?"  They quickly left to finish their drive around the park.  Unfortunately, they missed the best parts of the Upper Geyser Basin.

What surprised us the most was how large the entire geyser basin really is.  It is so much more than just Old Faithful.  In fact, Old Faithful is not the largest or the most impressive geyser there.  It just happens to be the most predictable, so the entire tourist experience is built around it.

We pulled out our handy trail guide and began exploring.  We soon left the crowds behind as we hiked up the mountain on the far side of the Visitor Center to visit "Solitary Geyser."  While it did not spurt more than five feet in the air, it did so every five minutes - no 90-minute wait here.  From there, we hiked over to the Observation Point, were we got to look down upon old Faithful and the entire tourist compound.  We were just in time for the 11:05 a.m. show.  If you squint, you can see the hordes of tourists line up on the benches, just like we were at 9:30.

Coming down from the Observation Point, the trail/boardwalk took us along the Firehole River.  Some of the geysers spill right into the creek.

The entire valley is bubbling, boiling, steam and spurting.  Here some brightly colored algae have made a home just outside the "hot zone" of this hot spring.

Unfortunately, someone lost their baseball cap.

The hotter the water, the bluer it is.  In some cases, the water is so hot it exceeds the boiling point.

Here is the Sawmill Geyser showing her stuff.  We got to see her go off a number of times, since it only takes about five minutes between spouts.

Each pool, spring or geyser is different.  The color depends a lot on the temperature of the water, the mineral content and the amount of algae that can grow.

The Grotto Geyser is thousands of years old.  It's cone was once much large, but a build-up of pressure caused it to blow one side away, leaving a grotto-like feature.

After wandering all around the basin, it was time to tie on the feedbag.  We stopped at the historic Old Faithful Inn.  We were unable to climb all the way to the Crow's Nest, since an earthquake in 1959 damaged a number of the support beams.

After lunch, we joined the hotel guests on the second floor balcony and watch another eruption of Old Faithful.  Having seen it go off now three times, it was time to head for home.  However, we forgot one small detail.  Everyone else had the same idea.  Most tourists arrive in time for an Old Faithful eruption, watch the eruption, then leave.  The parking lot reminded us a lot like trying to leave the parking lot after a Phillies Game.  Luckily, we were parked in such a way that we only needed to make right turns to get back to our campground.

We would advise anyone wishing to see Old Faithful to go as early in the morning as possible and wait to leave until everyone else has.

Ok, check that off the Bucket List.

Backpack to Shoshone Lake and Geyser Basin

On June 22-24, we set out on another backpack.  This time we explored the portion of Yellowstone around the north shore of Shoshone Lake.  Ranger Roy at Grant Village suggested we spend two nights on the shore of the lake, and take the intervening day to hike to the Shoshone Geyser Basin and back.  This proved to be an excellent suggestion, and we had a very enjoyable trip.

The hike into Shoshone Lake is 3 miles from the trailhead on the road to Old Faithful.  To get to it, we had to cross the Continental Divide - not once - but twice.  We parked the truck and started down along DeLacy Creek.  Once we got in about half a mile, the creek flowed out into a gigantic stream valley.  We weren't sure whether it was formed by glacier, or by the stream, or by Shoshone Lake having covered it - or all three - but the meadow spread out before us almost down to the Lake itself:

The day was a bit chilly and cloudy, as you can see from Kathy's dress at lunchtime on the lakeshore:

However, the cloudy weather didn't prevent us from seeing some inspiring views of the Red Mountains southeast of and across the lake:

Our campsite was another 5 miles from our first contact with the lakeshore.  Because of the threat of rain, we put up a tarp over our cooking site immediately:

Our campsite rested on a bluff over the lake, with great panoramic views.  We even had our own private beach.  Here's a photo looking down from the campsite at Kathy as she pumps and filters water on the beach:

All set up and cooking dinner, we relaxed with cups of hot soup and our feet in comfy crocs, looking out over our domain:

The next morning dawned so foggy that we initially couldn't see the lake below our campsite.  Gradually, the fog cleared and we could begin to see the near shore through the mist:

As the mist lifted further, it provided some beautiful effects on the lake:

Here again is a photo of our private beach in the morning light as the mist slowly departed:

The far shore finally came into view, as the purplish haze lifted, and one friendly loon (a male, who we saw throughout our stay, sometimes with his mate) that was taking wing as this photo was snapped:

After breakfast this second day, we headed the four miles to Shoshone Geyser Basin.  It didn't disappoint!  This geyser basin has all of the types of geothermal features that are available to tourists along the road in Yellowstone and at the Upper Geyser Basin where Old Faithful is located; but we had this huge geothermal valley all to ourselves!  We weren't kept away from the features, and in some cases our trail marched right alongside a mudpot, hot spring, fumarole or geyser.  Here's Kathy trying not to fall into a super-heated hot spring:

This is a view of the valley, with the beautiful, meandering Shoshone Creek winding through the geothermal maze.  Some of the hot springs fumed up and emptied into the creek:

This was a most striking purple-and-orange hot spring, the water as clear as could be.  Its colors contrasted beautifully with the greens of the grass and trees around it:

This was our favorite geyser in the basin.  We're not sure of its name, but we called it, "Old Reliable," because it would spout about every 5-10 minutes.

After lingering an hour or two and having lunch at the geyser basin, we hiked the 4 miles back to our campsite in time for dinner and a beautiful sunset.  We woke to a crisp, clear morning.  As we packed up our camp and set off through the forest back to the trailhead, the sun through the trees made the grass glow like phosphorescent lime:

The hike home was amply rewarding with beautiful blues in the Shoshone Lake waters and the skies above it.  We ran into numerous day-hikers coming in for lunch at the lake, and spoke briefly with a ranger and two trail crew members who were in to clear fallen timber from the trail because it hadn't yet been cleared this year.  Although the ranger mentioned that a black bear had been frequenting the eastern shores of the lake, we hadn't been on that side and we reported to the ranger that we saw no evidence of bear other than some paw prints and possible grubbing sites along the northern shore.

The rest of our hike was an easy walk in the woods back to the truck.

Cycling Grassy Lake Road

On June 21, we took it a little slower and decided to take a bicycle ride along Grassy Lake Road, which follows the Snake River west from our campground at Flagg Ranch, into Grand Teton National Park.  We pedalled to Glade Creek Trailhead, where a trail leads out into the backcountry and the mountains.

Here's Kathy at the trailhead.  You can see large sections of the landscape behind her have burned, but young conifers are growing up to replace them:

This photo is the opposite direction and is of David with the large plain of the Snake and Lewis Rivers behind him.  Again note the remains of burned old growth and the new trees sprouting up in their stead:

Forest fires haven't burned a very large percentage of the area.  The vast majority of the river plain is decorated with older, stately fir trees.  Here's Kathy pedalling along the road through another meadow circled in firs:

We stopped a couple times to look at the Snake River.  Here David rests on the rocky beach with the Grand Tetons in the background to the south:

Touring South Yellowstone

On June 20, after our 3-day backpack to Paintbrush Canyon and Leigh Lake, we decided to be tourists for a day in South Yellowstone.  Our destination was West Thumb Geyser Basin and some of the features near Fishing Bridge.

West Thumb Geyser Basin overlooks Yellowstone Lake, which is the largest lake at high elevation in North America.  The Absaroka Mountains can be seen to the east across the lake.  The geyser basin pours an average of 3,100 gallons of hot water into the lake every day, but even with that the lake's average summer temperature is only 47F.  Here is a photo of the lake, looking across the geyser basin:

There are four types of geothermal features in the park:  geysers, which are jets of water coming out of the ground due to pressure of gas (usually carbon dioxide bubbles), or heat, or both; fumaroles, which are vents of steam and other gases; hot springs, which are springs of heated water - often bubbling with carbon dioxide and other gases; and mud pots, which are wet mudholes through which steam and gases escape from underground.  Most of the basins in Yellowstone feature all four types.

Here is a hot spring:

The colored materials in and around a geothermal feature are usually provided by bacteria and other microbes that thrive in hot water.  However, if, as above, the water is clear, the water is so hot that no life can survive in it.  Often such pools are superheated above normal boiling point.  The blue color is due to refraction of sunlight:  the water absorbs all light except the blue you see.

Here is a pool that is super-hot where the water rises into it, but cools at the edges sufficiently to support  life:

Some geysers and other geothermal features exist on the lake bottom.  This is a geyser near the shore of Yellowstone Lake:

Animals are attracted to the warmth of the ground and the warm steam emanating from it - especially in colder months.  This elk cow decided to take a stroll through the basin in midday, seemingly without a care for the humans observing her:

After the West Thumb Geyser Basin, we drove up to Mud Volcano, which has a number of other unusual geothermal features.  On the way, we ran into a "bison jam," which is a traffic jam caused by bison near the road.  Tourists are just about as dumb as the animals, and they will all herd up, blocking the road while they pile out of their cars to photograph the animals.  This fellow didn't seem to care about the hooplah:

Kathy took the bison jam as an opportunity to climb a hill and photograph the herd as it was grazing down near the Yellowstone River:

At Mud Volcano, David inspects the guide to the features while something fumes beyond him:

Here is Mud Volcano itself, temporarily quiescent:

After Mud Volcano, we drove down to Fishing Bridge, which crosses the Yellowstone River below Yellowstone Lake.  Here is a photo looking north up the river from the bridge, toward the lake and the mountains beyond:

Traditionally, visitors were permitted to fish from the bridge, and very frequently, the bridge would be so jammed with fisherpeople, that they would be elbow to elbow, tangling their lines in the water below.  Some decades ago, the park prohibited fishing from the bridge, and it now is simply an attraction for the visitors who drive or walk across it, heading from the center of Yellowstone toward the East Entrance and Cody, Wyoming beyond.

As we headed back to the South Entrance and our campground, we came across another jam - this one an elk jam.  We caught a snapshot of a male elk, all antler proud, with visitors and a ranger milling about in the foreground.  That jam only slowed us down for about 5 minutes.