Day 4 – August 25, 2020
Today was the day that taught me early mornings are the key to a more enjoyable Yellowstone experience. I’m not talking about extreme early mornings, but getting to places at 7:30am greatly increases the positive visitor experience!
I packed up and headed out of Canyon Campground with a mug of tea and my camera ready. First destination, after stopping to let Mr. Bison walk on by, was South Rim Drive. Here you can see stunning views of both the Upper and Lower Falls. I gathered up my stuff to see Upper Falls and then hoof to it down Uncle Tom’s Trail, but sadly Uncle Tom’s was closed. That left me with the short drive to Artist Point, which is one of the most photographed areas in the park if you ask me.
Luckily my early morning (it was 7:30am, not too early) meant I got to spend some solitude looking out over the Grand Canyon, with steaming thermal features on the walls, and the Lower Falls in the distance. I sipped my tea and took photos as the sun rose higher in the sky and the lighting changed. By the time I left about 8am, the crowds had thickened, and my solitude was ending.
I headed out towards Norris Geyser Basin, but the trip took longer because I kept finding things to stop at. Yellowstone is filled with small hidden gems that the masses overlook as they hurry from major sight to major sight. I drove the one way loop for the Virginia Cascade and stopped at the “Blowdown,” which I must admit I only stopped at because I saw a boardwalk leading into the woods (because that sounds like the start of a good horror movie – she followed the lonely boardwalk into the dense forest…). The Blowdown actually ended up being pretty unique to see, as my photo captions will describe below.
Upon pulling into parking at Norris Geyser Basin (which luckily still had plenty of spots – by the time I was done exploring, cars were having to circle the parking lot for spots, or had to park out on the highway and walk in), I noted the sign that my vehicle could be harmed by the minerals from Steamboat Geyser. Hmm. Then I noticed park rangers pulling on car covers, and other vehicles with towels and blankets over the glass and painted parts. So I love my car, so this heightened my concern, so I approached a park ranger who promptly told me if I cared about my paint, I probably shouldn’t park in the lot, as we were in the eruption window for Steamboat. I froze, debating if I should move my car. She then explained I was in the better parking spot, as the trees would block some of the mineral water. I decided to risk it… sorry Mr. Fozzy.
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most acidic geyser basin in Yellowstone, which parts of can be visited and are connected by boardwalks (for all that is holy, stay on the boardwalks in this area, a man was boiled alive in 2016 in this area because he strayed from the boardwalk hoping to go hot potting, and they couldn’t recover his body as the acidic waters dissolved his body in Recess Spring). There is a visitor’s center and museum (currently closed in 2020) and bookstore (which handed up pre-stamped papers with the passport stamp for all the stamp junkies like myself). As always, I tried to photograph everything that I could, so sorry not sorry for all the photos in this post.
Norris Geyser Basin lies outside of the Yellowstone Caldera by a few miles, and is believe to be about 150,000 years old, making it the oldest geothermal basin in Yellowstone (the last eruption of the caldera took place 160,000 years ago). The basin displays “seasonal disturbances,” which is an unusual feature, so the area can look different at different times of year. Three faults also meet here. And, to boot, a record temperature for Yellowstone was measured here at 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet below the surface. So much geology, so little time!
I’ve thought of this several times over the course of my trip thus far, but can you imagine being the first humans to stumble upon Yellowstone?! What a frightening discovery! The early white explorers were often not believed when they returned home with stories of Yellowstone, and I completely understand why!
Porcelain Basin explored, I turned my sights to the Back Basin. The Porcelain and Back Basins are all part of the same thermal system, they just separate things due to the loops boardwalks.
Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest geyser, but can be very unpredictable, going quiet for decades and then erupting again. There was quite a crowd camped out, waiting for the next eruption… literally, people practically camp out waiting for it (geysers have some hardcore enthusiasts, which is a total retirement goal of mine now!). Though it would’ve been lovely to see, I didn’t have days to spend sitting on the boardwalk. Turns out, Steamboat would erupt the next day – luckily for my car’s paint, ha!
Whew, what an amazing 2.6 mile walk! I grabbed my passport stamp from the bookshop, made my way through the crowded parking lot filled with cars circuling trying to find a spot, and headed out. My geothermal dreams weren’t over yet, as just down the road was Chocolate Pots, an oft ignored roadside thermal feature on the banks of the Gibbon River. I don’t believe it is marked, but it is on Google Maps, and there is a large pull out where you can safely park.
Artists’ Paint Pots, a glorious hill of bubbling mud pots and geysers was the next stop. This is a popular stop, and the parking lot is small so I think I had to do about three or four laps before I was able to snag an open parking spot. Ahhh, the joys of Yellowstone at peak hours! Nevertheless, I was soon on my way to all the bubbling mud goodness! Seriously, mud pots are some of my favorite things ever in the world!
As I walked back to my car at Artist Paint Pots, I realized I couldn’t see my car keys in the usual pocket of the small bag I carried. Anxiety heightened as I checked the pocket again again, and then the pockets of my shorts. I hustled to Fozzy, peering in his windows to see if I could see my keys on the seat. Then I checked under the car. I frantically told the guy parked next to me what was going on. I walked to the bathroom. I turned around. Arghhh. Then I checked by bag again… Turns out I put then in a different pocket of my bag than normal, but whew, what panic! There’s no cell service here and my other spare key was 8 hours away. That could’ve been a disaster.
I was only back in the car a short while before arriving at the trailhead for Monument Geyser Basin. This is a short hike, but crazy steep, which makes it seem like a lot more than two miles. Because I had cut out a hike from this morning’s itinerary, I felt like I had to do something, so off I set.
Monument Geyser Basin offered great views, but I found to be kind of underwhelming in terms of the actual thermal features. You couldn’t get close to the features (understandably as they didn’t build boardwalks up here and thin crust is always a danger in thermal areas), and it’s not a highly active thermal area. Still good if you’re looking to get away from crowds (I think I shared the area with six others) and want to get in your stair climbing for the day, or want to see some spectacular views of the surrounding area and mountains.
I ate a roadside sandwich, and then continued on. As I drove west the stops continued coming, with Beryl Springs, Gibbon Falls, and Terrace Springs all coming up quickly. Beryl Spring I feel like couldn’t get any closer to the highway if it tried, so it was an easy stop to make.
Gibbon Falls is a very popular stop, and has a large parking lot, and is created by the Gibbon River flowing over a wall of the Yellowstone Caldera. There’s an upper view point, but walking a bit down to the lower viewpoint is well worth it, and is much easier to take photos from. Fifth waterfall of the day, and it was a good one! (At least I can count the waterfalls I chase, the geysers and hot springs are hopeless to keep track of!)
I was edging closer to my campground, but I had to stop at the little known Terrace Springs. None of the springs appear to be named, and there was one other car in the parking lot. A small boardwalk went around a couple of springs. Not a whole lot to see, but you know, gotta chase all the hot springs!
My home for the next three nights was the Madison Campground. This is a large campground, but I found it wasn’t too bad – campers policed other campers in terms of noise and what not. Bears frequent the area since it is right on the Madison River, so I got the rundown about bear precautions at check in. I preferred the surroundings of Canyon better with the trees, but Madison is so perfectly located to many places (and does have that mighty nice river next to it). I found my assigned site (#E184), which wasn’t in the tent only area so I was mixed in with camp trailers, and took to setting up my tent and cooking some food.
I got a bit bored of sitting around my campsite after dinner, so I decided I could check out some stuff in the Lower Geyser Basin since it was close. First I drove Firehole Canyon Drive, stopping to take some photos of Firehole Falls. One of the two legal swimming spots in Yellowstone is located here on the Firehole River, but they had the swimming spots closed for COVID reasons (which… I don’t get. Crowd 500 people around Old Faithful and that’s okay, but can’t have two dozen in a thermal river?? Also the campgrounds had their shower facilities closed… because hygiene isn’t important during a pandemic, and you can’t use portable showers at your campsite because of attracting grizzlies…)
Since I had daylight left and nothing else to do, I continued south, and turned onto the Firehole Lake Drive, another one way loop that takes you to some awesome geothermal features. My mood perked up, and once again the sunroof was opened, wind blowing my hair around, and I had a huge smile. I mean, how often can I get a photo of Fozzy with a geyser in the background, or a pretty blue hot spring?! Also, since it was evening, there was not a lot of traffic so I was able to have some peace and quiet, unlike in other areas.
Because I still didn’t want to go back to the campsite, I ended up driving all the way south to Old Faithful. Here I had cell service, so I used the opportunity to call my parents while I sat at Old Faithful watching a bison with dozens of others. I had just missed an eruption, but I hung out for awhile, enjoying some cell service and grabbing some photos. I decided I didn’t want to wait the 90 minutes to catch Old Faithful at sunset, as I had this whole geyser basin on the itinerary in two days, so I grabbed some gas (which was reasonably priced, much to my surprise for being in a remote national park and all) and headed back to my campsite.
Whew, what a day of scalding hot water sprinkled with a couple of waterfalls! Another early bedtime awaited me with an early wake up.