Camping, Cycling, Hiking, Hot Springs, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Waterfalls, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Caldera Tales – Day 2: Osprey Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, & Artists Paintpots

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

Dawn at Slough Creek. No badger in sight.

September 7th, 2021

I have never smoked anything in my life, but I woke up feeling as if I (assumingely) smoked cigarette after cigarette all night long. The air quality was stupidly awful, and I rubbed my dry, scratchy eyes as I said good morning to a new day. My lungs burned, and I was short of breath just sitting still (I eyed the inhaler, but decided I didn’t need it quite yet). If I was at home, I would not go outside and would stay sealed up in house where the air is safer to breathe as asthmatic when the air quality was this bad. But alas, that just could not happen when there was exploring to be done!

My early start was good due to my new found love of kettle lakes (aka stopping suddenly for photos) and an incredible amount of bison determined to make the morning drive slow going (or was that the tourists with New York plates?!). My first main destination would be the Bunsen Peak Trailhead, where I’d jump on my bicycle to help shorten the hike down to Osprey Falls. But there’s always the other things in between, so I also stopped for Undine Falls and took the opportunity to drive Upper Terrace Drive without the traffic madness that would descend on the Mammoth area in a few hours.

Kettle lake!!!
Slough Creek Campground is located north of the highway a couple of miles on a gravel road.
I hope this photo helps capture how bad the smoke conditions were!!! So so so BAD at the northern end of the park this trip.
I stopped quickly at the Yellowstone River. Note the hydrothermal activity on the riverbanks!
Sunrise at Tower-Roosevelt Junction
Oh, sorry, sir… let me stop my car for you since you’re a British Fluffy Cow and commute on the wrong side of the road…
Too early for a bison jam, but here we are!
This guy seemed like he had a rough night, just staring off as the cars drove past him.
The smoke was so thick that Undine Falls, which is NOT far in distance from the overlook, was hazy and not clear.
I love this wall at Undine Falls to sit on!
Undine Falls is on Lava Creek
My favorite roadside basalt!
I touchy the basalt!
Approaching Mammoth and seeing the travertine terraces in the distance

I didn’t explore the upper terraces much during my trip in 2020 due to the crowds and lack of parking, so I took the chance to take a quick peek while the place was empty, stopping at the overlook at the Main Terrace before continuing on the one-way drive. I had the road completely to myself, which was awesome as I did a lot of shooting from my driver’s window, and Fozzy could enjoy the whoops and corners a bit too 😉

A map of the upper terrace area
I believe this is New Blue Spring
Mammoth is an area to stay on the boardwalks! It helps protect you, and most importantly, the terraces!
Crazy how that tree can continue to grow there!
If it weren’t for the trees, perhaps this would be a photo from Venus or some other steaming planet or moon?
Fozzy posing next to Prospect Terrace (and my bike, too!)
Prospect Terrace
If there is something to do, it is take abstract closeups on thermophilic microbial life

I have a degree in microbiology, and while my concentration was on the human pathogenic microbes, I appreciate ALL bacteria… especially those that can grow and thrive in conditions that humans cannot. Therefore, I really REALLY get nerdy about bacterial mats and colonizations of travertine. No apologies for the following series of photos! (Honestly, if I could do it all over again, I would’ve double majored in microbiology and geology, and focused on extremophiles living in geothermal environments!)

The strands of whatever are so cool!
Orange Mound. Fresh travertine is white as it hasn’t been colonized by microbes yet. I should do a comparison with my photo of this terrace taken in 2020!
Fozzy, bike, and Angel Terrace. If you’re new here, I take a lot of photos of my car. I’m still waiting for Subaru to call me up to shoot some cool ads for them 😛 I suppose I could add Niner to the list now… look at where I took my bike, Niner!
Angel Terrace without the Subaru in the way

After the Upper Terrace Drive, it was just jaunt up to the trailhead, with a quick stop to take some photos of Rustic Falls from a new perspective. There was some road construction going on, but luckily it had not started yet (going back to Mammoth I had to wait in some traffic, but I found it not so bad as they have such a short weather window to repair roads in Yellowstone so summer it is, and you just have to be understanding!)

The parking attendant at Rustic Falls. It was squawking at the bison holding up traffic.
A new view for me of Rustic Falls from the upper parking lot
Rustic Falls is on Glen Creek

At the Bunsen Peak Trailhead I readied my bike and pack, and had a nice chat with a gentleman who was going to the falls and then to the top of Bunsen Peak before setting out. Though the double track trail ascends from the parking lot, it was an easy ride on my gravel bike (definitely not a “mountain bike only trail” but I’m not sure I would’ve done it on a road bike either), and I was thankful to see the miles fly by that otherwise would’ve taken quite a long time to walk. This bike/hike is about nine miles as an out and back (you can make it longer by heading up to the summit of Bunsen Peak, but bikes are not allowed on that trail).

At the trailhead about to get started. There was a bear warning posting, which lead me to analyzing how fast I could sprint (that’s what the power meter is for, right?) and if I tried to use bear spray while riding, the probability of myself accidentally spraying my face if I tried to sprint while doing so. Also, I wonder what bears think of loud free hubs of my Stans wheelset?!
Leaving the trailhead
Bunsen Peak, which is named after Robert Bunsen. You guessed it, the same Bunsen as the Bunsen Burner… however, he gets the nod in Yellowstone not for his laboratory equipment, but his pioneering research on volcanic geyser theories in Iceland which were applied to Yellowstone’s geysers.
Ugh, I shouldn’t have been exercising in air like this!
On the right hand side as you come down a rather steep, loose hill there will be a small sign pointing to the junction to Osprey Falls. This larger sign is where you’ll want to stash any bicycles and prepare for the craziness descent on foot ahead.

I stashed my bike in the trees, locking it to one, ditching my cycling shoes and helmet with the bike (which lead to the occasional thought of “what if someone takes my shoes?!” as I was hiking). I brought my trail running shoes in my pack which I changed into. Hiking poles probably would’ve been nice for the steep, sometimes loose, descent, but I survived. I probably didn’t need to wear cycling shoes, but I’m an addict to being clipped in, so there you have it.

Well hidden, eh?
The trail is relatively flat at the beginning as you cross along the top of the cliff you’ll shortly begin to climb down.
Sheepeater Canyon is a basalt lover’s delight
*insert squealing happy noises over this basalt formation*
The trail down to Osprey Falls is narrow singletrack and hugs the hill with significant exposure.
Finally close to the Gardner River with the sound of the falls!
There Heidi goes, petting all the moss again…
I excitingly said four letter words when this view appeared!

Osprey Falls is just… wow. Really no words (except swear words apparently). It is just such a magical place. I say every waterfall is my favorite, but legit Osprey Falls is in the top of my list. If I had a choice, I would’ve never left that spot. I took my time, finding the perfect rock to create a comfy spot for photos, a snack, and just spending time in solitude with the thundering falls on the Gardner River. (I did get over thirty minutes to myself in this spot, another bonus of an early start, not to mention great lighting for photos!)

Osprey Falls
Wide angle view of Osprey Falls and the amazing rock formations of Sheepeater Canyon
A silky view
I walked down a bit further from my sitting spot
Little me, big waterfall!
So… I ate tuna fish for the time ever about a month before this trip! And suddenly I became all about eating tuna fish in scenic locations. This chipotle style is spicy!

I could not stay forever, so I sadly bid my new favorite waterfall goodbye, and started the steep hike out of Sheepeater Canyon. I am happy I got an early start as I could not imagine doing the climb in the heat of the day! Near the top I ran into the gentleman I had to talked to at the trailhead, and he asked about my Spot device and we enjoyed a nice chat before we continued on our separate ways. I was happy to see my bike (and shoes!) where I left it, and began the ride back. The first hill heading back is a beast, and I grunted up it on the bike, thankful for the mostly downhill miles on the rest of the way.

Off my feet, back on my bike! And, nobody and no bear stole my shoes, lol!

I quickly changed out of my chamois and took a quick “bath” with a wipe at the trailhead, flagged a waiting couple over to nab my parking spot at the full trailhead, and set out back to Mammoth to stop at the visitor center and to buy some ice to refresh the cooler (the service station had blocks of ice vs cubed!).

The exhibits at the visitor center are open! Spoiler alert: this was the only bear of my trip!
Passport stamps, check! I’m running out of room in the Rocky Mountain region, so I’m stamping on cardstock that I can then cut out and paste over the silly regional stamp sections.

Since it was early in the day, I took a quick stop to see the terraces before leaving Mammoth. The boardwalk to Palette Spring was closed off, which I think was due to a bull elk that was hanging around there. I took the chance to call my parents while I had cell service, and roll my eyes at an entire family that thought walking on the boardwalk wasn’t necessary for them. Mammoth was very peopley, so I decided it was time to get out of there, and head south. Travertine is cool, but I had other new adventures to chase!

Devils Thumb and Palette Spring
Palette Spring
Yep, still so weird!
New year, same pose. I still can’t be mature about Liberty Cap.

I wanted to see Tukuarika Falls near Sheepeater Cliffs (which I cannot get enough basalt in my life anyways, so even without a waterfall I’d be making a stop). I had no idea this picnic area would be so crowded, but I secured a parking spot, and took off on the short 1-mile round trip to the falls along the Gardner River. This short walk is well worth it, especially in the fall months as the willows blaze yellow and orange.

Sheepeater Cliffs
Cross section of basalt
Beautiful scenes along the Gardner River! And even better, the smoky conditions lifted a bit as I headed south!
Tukuarika Falls on the Gardner River. Not a huge waterfall, but a waterfall nonetheless.
What a perfect scene!
I took the chance to stand in the river and soak my tired feet!

Now it was time to begin my search for roadside thermal features I missed on my first trip. Tourists typically pull over for wildlife…. me not so much. You’ll see me jaunting down the road with my camera, in search of a brilliant blue pool of boiling water. I must admit, I get a silly satisfaction when people driving slow down to see what I’m looking at and get frustrated when it is not an animal. But it’s a brilliant blue thermal pool, y’all!!!!! I was quite pleased on how trained my eyes were to catch geysers and pools off in the distance on this trip!

Clearwater Springs has a small wheelchair accessible boardwalk, and will forever sound like the name a desert retirement community to me.
Clearwater Springs is a small thermal site by Obsidian Creek. I better like it in the morning hours with softer lighting and steam, like how I saw it in 2020.
Obsidian Creek
Semi-Centennial Geyser. This spring erupted in 1922 up to 300 feet high, but once it merged with Obsidian Creek, it ceased all geyser activity. It is considered the northernmost geyser in the park.
Closer look at the brilliant green waters of Semi-Centennial Geyser
Obsidian Creek is just the most fantastic green color!
I made the quickest stop ever at Roaring Mountain for this fumarole photo before continuing on.
Bijah Spring. For some reason this quiet spring made this trip’s “most wanted list,” so I was quite excited when I spotted it from the highway. I had to park down the road a little bit at a pull out and walk back up to capture my photos. I didn’t include a photo, but I’d advise not just parking off the side of the road (which you shouldn’t do anyways) due to thermal activity really close to the road (by really close I mean literally next to it).
Frying Pan Springs sizzles like a frying pan! Sadly I got here the same time as a large group, and they insisted on loudly talking instead of listening to the frying pan noises, so I only stayed long enough to grab a couple of photos.
Not the type of frying pan I’d like to eat out of, personally.
I made a quick stop at the Norris Geyser Basin overlook, and had a chuckle with some other travelers about the lack overlook we had thanks to the trees!
One of my faves, Beryl Spring with its incredibly noisy fumarole, GGCGNN073. Did you know the sinter around Beryl Spring has a noteworthy concentration of gold in it?! Ohhh and look at those blue skies!!!!
Eventually I’ll recreate my 1991 photo pose taken here at Beryl Spring (my mom still has the tee shirt I was wearing!). Until then… it’s another selfie!

I opted to stop at Artists Paintpots later in the day, and headed straight to my campground for the next three nights at Madison Junction. Madison is nicely located (aside from the junction being a traffic nightmare in the evenings), especially if chasing thermal springs and geysers are your thing as it is close to the geyser basins at Old Faithful, Midway, and Lower. I settled into my campsite, G252, early. I learned this year that personal showering devices are allowed as long as you collect all the wastewater and dispose of it in the campground sink or toilet (I wish I would’ve known this last year), so I used my Rinse Kit to wash my hair and collected all the water in a huge plastic tub I used to organize items in my car. I knew I would have to to go eight days without a proper shower, but I’m the type that if I can have clean hair, I feel clean in general. Then I finished setting up my tent and just relaxing and resting after the morning’s hike out of Osprey Falls.

Madison Campground Site #G252. The downfall is the site is small and very close to your neighbors, including their fire pit. Looking back, I wish I would’ve reserved a large tent site versus the small tent site for a bit more distance from others (and their fires). Also my tent was nearly maxing out the tent pad when I properly staked out my rainfly.
Surprise treasure left in my campsite’s bear box!

Once late afternoon hit, I headed east. First I stopped at Tuff Cliff, where I was completely alone even thought the road was packed. Being a geology nerd pays off, I get sights to myself!

I’ll let this photo of the sign do the explaining about Tuff Cliff!
Tuff Cliff has a picnic area at its base
That’s a mighty fine welded tuff!

Gibbon Falls was next. I had to stop here, even briefly, because it is a waterfall, and you know me with waterfalls! And this waterfall drops over the caldera rim, and I also love volcanoes!

Gibbon Falls from the upper viewpoint
I’m pretty sure I took this exact photo last year. Several times this trip I had to stop myself from taking identical photos of something I photographed last year.
I loved seeing autumn peeking through the summer heat!
That’s a caldera rim back there!

Last up was a stop at Artists Paintpots, which can be oh so crowded. Luckily I scored a parking spot easily and didn’t have to deal with the craziness of peak hours. Last year during my trip I had a scare with my car keys here where I thought I had lost them and had one of the most panicked moments of my life, so I carefully stashed them (and checked five times over that they were really zipped securely in my pocket), and then grabbed the Adventure Dinos and set out. Because every nearly-40 year old should hike with toy dinosaurs.

I switched it up this year and tackled the loop clockwise, which meant my eyes caught stuff I didn’t see last year.

Blood Geyser
The Adventure Dinos are barely tall enough to see over the handrails. Here they are admiring Blood Geyser
Flash Spring with Blood Geyser in the background
The view from Paintpot Hill
I told them they shouldn’t climb up on the handrails, but Mr. Allosaurus has sharp teeth…
GAPNN037 hot spring cluster (most features at Artists Paintpots are unnamed)
Moss!!
GAPNN014
GAPNN048. You can often hear a deep thumping here.
A wee little volcano!!! I would’ve loved to have found a way to pose the dinos here, but alas… thermal area.
Ooooo bubbling mud!
The big paintpots that sit up on the hill and that are the main attraction. In the drier months, like early September, activity isn’t as much due to low water content.
The lower water content didn’t mean I couldn’t take a million photos of burping mud, though!
GAPNN007
GAPNN011 look like a yummy frosted cake or something.
One last look at the perpetually spouting Blood Geyser

Finally it was back to my campsite for dinner and preparing for the next day, which would involve one of my longest hikes ever. Clothes were laid out, snacks assembled, Garmin watch charged!

Knorr Pasta Sides are amazing for quick camping meals! And it is almost like watching a mud pot as you watch the pot boil! I spiced up their beef stroganoff offering with scallions and meatballs.
Time for relaxing and reading up on geysers in T. Scott Bryan’s fantastic book, Geysers of Yellowstone!

2 thoughts on “Caldera Tales – Day 2: Osprey Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, & Artists Paintpots”

  1. OMG! I am blown away at all of these photos. I had a trip planned to visit that area before covid swept over the world, and I will certainly make it there when things are safer. Every picture is lovely, thanks for sharing!

    Like

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