Camping, Hiking, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Of Geysers & Waterfalls – Day 5: Mammoth Hot Springs, Undine Falls, Biscuit Basin, Mystic Falls, and Lower Geyser Basin

Day 5 – August 26, 2020

Early mornings in Yellowstone are special. The cool temperatures create a steam-filled landscape that just puts me in the most special mood. I’m not a morning person at all, but I became a morning person in Yellowstone. Today would have me driving from Madison up to Mammoth Hot Springs near the Montana border, and naturally I got an early start to beat the crowds, and because I knew I’d be stopping frequently for photos of the steaming landscape. Since the area around Tower Falls was closed, plans for this day would be a bit shortened, but that was fine as I could knock off Biscuit Basin and Fountain Paint Pots in the afternoon and evening. Another day of adventuring, full steam ahead!

Approaching Terrace Spring
Flying, ermm driving, through the clouds
Steam vent on the banks of the Gibbon River
Formation Hot Springs on the banks of the Gibbon River near the pulloff to the Monument Geyser Basin trailhead. I had noticed this the day before but was too tired to walk any extra to check it out.

I backtracked east towards Norris Geyser Basin, passing the places I had visited the previous day. At Norris I continued north on the Grand Loop Road, making stops when I fancied, including at Frying Pan Springs, Clearwater Springs, and Roaring Mountain. Pretty much if I saw a boardwalk heading off into the trees, I’d stop!

Gibbon Meadows
Gibbon River
Gibbon Meadows
Near Norris
A boardwalk leading into the woods, I must follow!
View from the Frying Pan Springs boardwalk
Frying Pan Springs
Nymph Lake – what a magical little spot!

Roaring Mountain is an interesting stop. This area of steam vents and fumaroles was apparently loud enough back in the 1880s that it earned its name due to the roaring you could hear. But due to the ever-changing geology of Yellowstone, it is quite quiet now. After stopping here both in the morning and afternoon, I think the morning is best as more of the steam is visible, but lighting is also challenging as you’re looking towards the sun.

Roaring Mountain
Roaring Mountain
Roaring Mountain
A little colorful formation at Roaring Mountain
Clearwater Springs
Clearwater Springs

Apparently, I also stop for geese. I didn’t visit Yellowstone for the wildlife – although super cool, because I live in Wyoming seeing these animals are not a rarity for me. However, I spent a significant amount of time photographing the geese below…. I’ll blame the thermal waters!

The last goose photo for now, I swear!
Back on the road and happy to have clearer skies so I could see the mountains as I headed north. This is Electric Peak.

I turned off to see the Sheepeater Cliffs by the Gardner River, which is a cliff of impressive basalt formations, much like the Gerðuberg cliffs in Iceland. The lighting wasn’t the best, but it still was a nice stop (I’m a basalt nerd, what can I say? I need a bumper sticker that says “Will brake for basalt!”). This basalt is part of the Swan Lake Flat Basalt and is dated to about 500,000 years old

Basalt along the Gardner River
Sheepeater Cliffs reminded me a lot of the Gerðuberg cliffs on Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland. This trip really taught me the similarities between Wyoming and Iceland, though on the surface there doesn’t seem to be many – geologically there are!
Close up of the hexagonal basalt of Sheepeater Cliffs

The next stop came fast as I stopped at a pull off at Swan Lake Flat that had a panoramic view of the Gallatin Range. I was also hit with a barrage of cell phone notifications as my phone picked up service for the first time in 12 or so hours (for those who are curious, the Mammoth area has excellent 4G LTE service, at least for Verizon customers – I don’t know if this is a blessing or a curse).

A nice sign lets you know what you are looking at.
Antler Peak, 10063 feet / 3067 meters
Electric Peak – 10969 feet / 3343 meters. I see this, and all I want to do is stand on the top!
Bunsen Peak and Mr. Fozzy. Yes, the same Bunsen as in the Bunsen burner. But, Robert Bunsen pioneered a lot of volcanic geyser research in Iceland that was then applied to Yellowstone’s geysers. I had planned to hike to the top, but I overdid it with my hiking plans so I skipped it for now.
Electric & Thistle

First waterfall of the day was next, Rustic Falls. This is a quick highway stop right before descending through Golden Gate towards Mammoth Hot Springs.

Glen Creek flows over erosion-resistant Huckleberry Ridge Tuff to form Rustic Falls.
Rustic Falls
Golden Gate with Mt. Everts in the smokey background
Driving through the Hoodoos

I’m happy I got to Mammoth Hot Springs early, as it meant parking was easy and the boardwalks were not too crowded. Sadly, I think Mammoth was one of the more underwhelming parts of Yellowstone for me, but that could be because I’ve spent a lot of time with the travertine in Thermopolis. It is still very cool, still worth going to… just not my favorite. I still look a million photos, sorry not sorry. Oh hell, okay, Mammoth is super cool. Yellowstone is fantastic, even when I had a not-favorite part, it’s still amazing.

Mammoth Hot Springs has been forming for thousands of years, and like much of Yellowstone, is always changing. Travertine forms from mineral springs that are saturated with dissolved calcium carbonate. As the mineral water rises up and out of the ground, it deposits the calcium carbonate as limestone travertine. I read that travertine builds up “fast” in geology terms, something like 8 inches a year!

Car parked, snack grabbed, and off I went to explore the Lower Terrace. (Don’t forget to grab the trail guide for $1!)

Map of Terraces
Looking up towards Mound Terrace
Minerva Terrace
Palette Spring
Minerva Terrace
Do you see the face, too? Mound Terrace
So weird, honestly!
New Blue Spring
Cleopatra Terrace
Palette Spring
Palette Spring

I had parked pretty far up, so I decided to move my car closer to the lowest bits of the Lower Terraces, snagging one of the last spots in the lot (the crowds come fast once they come).

Heading towards Liberty Cap and Palette Terrace/Spring
Liberty Cap, which is now inactive and stands 37 feet.
I couldn’t help myself, LOL!
Opal Terrace across the road, seen from Liberty Cap
Palette Spring
The colorful colors come from thermophiles that grow on the travertine, with different colors representing different species that prefer unique temperature niches
Okay, Palette Spring is like super cool!
Devil’s Thumb
So so so weird
Fresh travertine is a brilliant white color

The Lower Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs wrapped up, I decided to journey north to the 45th Parallel, which marks the halfway point between the Equator and North Pole. On the way there I had to drive by the closed Boiling River, which made me so sad. I discussed this in earlier blogs, but I still didn’t find it logical Boiling River and Firehole River were closed, but you could otherwise shove a ton of tourists close together in other locations. I debated going to the park entrance/exit to see the Roosevelt Arch, but that would’ve meant getting in line to enter again, so I decided against that idea for this trip

As I came back into Mammoth I decided I wanted some real coffee (my instant camping coffee wasn’t hacking it), so I decided to check out the general store/gift shop. To my utter happiness, they were serving up huckleberry ice cream, so I treated myself to a couple of scoops and a large coffee (and a few souvenir magnets). I also stopped by and grabbed my passport stamp from the park ranger (who passed out pre-stamped pieces of paper).

I’m all about the huckleberry ice cream at 10am!

Ice cream and coffee in my system, it was time to head east and chase more waterfalls, the first being Undine Falls. Undine Falls is on Lava Creek, and involves basalt which means two of my favorite things in one place! I spent a decent amount of time here enjoying the falls and the sunshine.

Undine Falls
Closer look at Undine Falls
The 700,000 year old basalt formations of Undine Falls

The next waterfall would involve a short 1- mile roundtrip hike from a trailhead right off the highway. I eagerly set out through the gorgeous meadow towards Wraith Falls…

Wraith Falls trail map
The short walk had some amazing views

…I never thought I could be disappointed by a waterfall.

But I was. Maybe Wraith Falls is better in the earlier months when runoff on Lupine Creek is higher, or maybe when the sun isn’t ill positioned, but I almost laughed at how underwhelming it was when I arrived. At least there were a few raspberries for me to eat!

Wraith Falls

Done with Wraith Falls (quite the quick adventure…), I set back to Mammoth, braking suddenly for basalt on the side of the road!

Oooo, I touch the basalt!!!
The roadside basalt I slammed on the brakes for!
Cool views as I descended back towards Mammoth

It was time to head back towards Madison, but not before swinging through the Upper Terrace Drive, a one-way route that tours through Upper Terraces. The first little bit was an absolute zoo, but traffic thinned considerably shortly in and I had other features to myself. Funny how that works!

View towards Main Terrace from Upper Terrace Drive
New Highland Terrace
Orange Spring Mound, which has a small parking lot
Closeup of Orange Spring Mound
Tangerine Spring not looking so tangerine
How that plant is growing there I have no idea!
White Elephant Back Terrace
Angel Terrace, which gives me a very apocalyptic feel

Heading back south, I took the super short one-way road through the Hoodoos, an area with massive 60,000 year old travertine blocks that tumbled off of Terrace Mountain sometime after the last glaciation. These are not proper hoodoos, but still a fantastic area nonetheless.

The one-way detour through the Hoodoos
What a fine, massive block of travertine!
Another view of Bunsen Peak
I made another quick stop at Roaring Mountain. It looks less dramatic in midday sun
Oh no, not another goose photo!

I arrived back to my campsite at Madison Campground in early afternoon (about 1:30), and took to making myself lunch, and relaxing a bit in my hammock. My dear hammock… which earned me a “naughty note” from the rangers as I had left it up all day unattended. Whoops! When I first saw the note I was worried I had done something wrong with bear precautions or accidentally left something in my tent, but nope, it was my hammock. Lesson learned!

First time making mac n’ cheese using condensed milk, and it worked out great! No worries about keeping milk fresh while camping.
Soaking up the sun and getting in some reading

Late afternoon I decided to head down to Biscuit Basin to hike to Mystic Falls, which I had planned for the following day before I realized how crowded my itinerary was. I had plenty of daylight left, so time for some geysers and my fourth waterfall of the day! Biscuit Basin is about three miles north of Old Faithful and is part of the Upper Geyser Basin. It was named as such because Sapphire Pool use to be surrounded by deposits that looked like biscuits.

Interesting side note, a family was swimming in the Firehole River at Biscuit Basin when I arrived… ummm, what???? Tourons…

Basic map of Biscuit Basin at the parking lot
Black Opal Pool
Black Diamond Pool
Sapphire Pool, which use to be surrounded by biscuit-like deposits. However, following the 1959 earthquake, Sapphire Pool began erupting and all the biscuits blasted away, aside from a handful you can see in the photos.
Yep, Sapphire Pool is one of my favorites!
Jewell Geyser in non-erupting form
Shell Spring. A child fell in and died here in the 1930s.
Silver Globe in the foreground, Acova Spring in the background
Acova Spring
West Geyser… what a boring name!
Someone asked if I wanted my photo taken when I was taking a selfie… so here’s me and West Geyser!

I turned off the boardwalk and headed towards Mystic Falls. There’s two options – a 2.5 mile out and back and a 4 mile loop. I opted for the out and back, skipping the overlook, since I was still nursing some sore legs and blistered toes. The well-signed trail follows the Little Firehole River through new growth forests that were burned in 1988.

Heading towards Mystic Falls

Okay, I have a new waterfall for my favorites list! Mystic Falls is just magical (and even geothermal)!! The sun was not in an ideal location for photos, so I imagine the morning hours are better, but whatever… wonderful waterfall! I scrambled down the steep bank to a rock on the side of the river and just sat back and enjoyed the view. Even better, I was nearly alone the entire time (thank you late afternoon thin crowds).

Mystic Falls
Trying my best shooting into the late day sun at Mystic Falls
Mystic Falls
Mystic Falls. I was proud of myself of being able to use a neutral density filter with no tripod, using only a firm hold and a rock to steady the long exposure. Not perfect, but better than nothing!

I don’t know how long I sat there, but it was a long time. Before heading back, I decided to hike a bit further up on the trail, which gave me a different, and more complete look at the multitiered falls. I was also able to see the steaming hydrothermal features on the banks of the falls a bit better, too.

Mystic Falls from a higher viewpoint

Back to Biscuit Basin I headed, finishing the boardwalk loop and then heading across the highway to explore the trail to Artemisia Geyser. This trail actually goes all the way to Old Faithful, and if I had the legs in me, I think I would’ve at least explored Morning Glory Pool and Riverside Geyser, but alas, the legs were tired and I still wanted to get to Fountain Paint Pots before calling it a night.

Smoke from the Lonestar Fire was visible from Biscuit Basin
Seaweed Spring?
Boardwalk dreams
Jewell Geyser is a frequent erupter with 7-10 minute intervals
West Mustard Spring
East Mustard Spring
Black Pearl Geyster surrounded by some fantastic moss
Back to Sapphire Pool which I was obsessed with. I just wanted to touch the blue waters as they didn’t see real. Naturally, I didn’t since the water is nearly boiling.
Sapphire Pool
A selfie with my thermal muse of the day
A view of some of the remaining biscuits of Sapphire Pool
Jewell Geyser erupting again
Black Diamond Pool again
I’m not a bird-knowledgable person, but captured this guy flying overhead
Salt & Pepper Geyser on the banks of the Firehole River. It appeared in 2006.
Rusty Geyser
Rusty Geyser
As you head towards Artemisia Geyser after crossing the highway, there’s this highly detailed sign of the entire Upper Geyser Basin
Cauliflower Geyser
Mirror Pool
Sprite Pool… named after the soda? Not sure, but I can see how it kind of looks like a can of Sprite!
Pinto Spring with Gem Pool in background
Gem Pool
Artemisia Geyser
Atomizer Geyser cones that sit behind Artemisia Geyser
Artemisia Geyser
I really like this sign for some reason.
Goldfinger East Pool and Goldfinger Geyser. Steam from Island Geyser can be seen in the background.

One more stop to round out my day – the Lower Geyser Basin and Fountain Paint Pot. For the science geeks out there, let’s take a moment to celebrate the Lower Geyser Basin, as this is where Thermus aquaticus was discovered, and if you know, you know what that means for DNA laboratory processes.

Signage for Fountain Paint Pot area
Just not compatible with life sometimes…
Silex Pool. The highway is quite close, as you can see.
Fountain Paint pot… which can only mean one thing… bubbling mud, my favorite!!!
I took several hundred photos of the bubbling mud… no lie!

Oh man bubbling mud makes me so happy!!

Red Spouter. This is a rather new feature of Yellowstone, appearing after the 1959 earthquake. Depending on time of year, it’s either watery, muddy, or just a dry fumarole
Leather Pool
Volcanic Tableland. The trail guide explains all this geology quite well, from the fracturing of the crust that formed the Gallatin Range (the mountains in the back), to volcanic eruptions and the formation fo the caldera rim, to glaciers that capped the area.

Fountain Paint Pot isn’t all about bubbling mud, and there are several active geysers in the northwest area of the boardwalk. Fountain Geyser is the namesake, but it didn’t erupted while I was visited (I was hopeful since Jet Geyser sometimes erupts before Fountain, and I saw Jet… but alas, no luck for me).

Clepsydra Geyser continually erupts
Clepsydra Geyser
Jet Geyser erupting
New Bellefontaine Geyser
Clepsydra Geyser
My heart was happy with all the geyser activity!
Dead lodgepole pines with their silica “bobby socks”

A long day of exploring done, finally it was time to return to my campsite, cook up some dinner, and relax. I did take a small walk down to the Madison River before it got too dark, and then was out asleep quickly in my tent.

Always gotta post up my meals! Double dipping on the pasta today.
The Madison River, the moon, and National Park Mountain
What a great spot right next to my campground!

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