Trip To Yellowstone

21 August 2011

Reflecting Pool
Two stones reflected a in pool near the Lamar Valley

My girlfriend and I recently spent a few days in Yellowstone. I had heard about how beautiful it is, but it still blew me away. It seemed like there was something interesting around every corner, but the highlights of the trip had to be the geysers, the geothermal pools, and the Lamar valley. Unsurprisingly, I took a lot of pictures.

You can see all of them on flickr.

Geysers & Pools

Daisy geyser erupts
Daisy geyser erupts in a large plume every few hours

Yellowstone is home to over 200 geysers and thousands more thermal features. All of them owe their existence to the Yellowstone hotspot: an area where the Earth’s crust is exceptionally thin. A few miles below tourists’ feet, superheated and highly pressurized water seethes. Like any system under too much pressure, all that water eventually finds a way out. Some of it escapes in the form of geyser eruptions. Some forms the multicolored pools and travertines that characterize the geyser basins and Mammoth hot springs.

Exploding geysers are one of Yellowstone’s most iconic features. Old Faithful is the most well known, but crowded. A collection of thermal features including beautiful colored pools and geysers — the Upper Geyser Basin — surrounds it. Some geysers erupt more predictably than others, but you shouldn’t set your watch by any of them. I ended up waiting for nearly an hour before Daisy finally went up. Two other geysers and small pools are linked to Daisy; when it erupts they stop bubbling and drain away. Until they refill, the geyser can not go off again.

While the geysers are spectacular to see, the bacterial pools seem to be from another planet. Many of the thermal pools are actually ex–geysers that blew themselves out in a violent eruption. Instead of erupting, they provide a steady flow of hot water to form these multicolored displays. Each strata of color is the result of temperature changes. Different species of thermophiles thrive in specific temperature ranges. The well–defined color borders exist when one thermophile can no longer thrive and another takes over.

Morning Glory pool in the Upper Geyser Basin
The Morning Glory Pool is one of Yellowstone’s most iconic landmarks. Its colors vary through the year. Here you can clearly see red, orange, yellow, and green strata. This photo does not do justice to its size or brilliance.
Morning Glory closeup
A closeup of a small stream at Morning Glory pool. The orange and green bacteria are evident here.
Morning Glory closeup
The deepest part of Morning Glory holds some of the hottest water and thus the green and blue bacteria.

Not all of the pools have the technicolor treatment of Morning Glory. As the water temperature increases blue thermophiles flourish. The hottest pools are crystal clear and amazingly still. Transparent though it is, the water is rich in minerals. The most obvious is sulfur, immediately evident by its rotten egg smell. Calcium carbonate and other mineral deposits form at the edges of the pools in a white outline. Geysers slowly build mineral cones — frequently geyserite or Calcium carbonate — that make them look like miniature volcanoes. This is not too far from reality; the Yellowstone hotspot is responsible for volcanoes across the northwest United States.

Castle Geyser, also in the Upper Geyser Basin, is a mere quarter of a mile away from Old Faithful at the entrance to the Upper Geyser Basin. Tragically, most visitors never venture away from the major attractions. According to my tour book, less than 10% of visitors ever leave the boardwalks and established paths near major attractions; it’s their loss. Castle Geyser, named so because its cone resembles a castle, was not erupting while we were there, but it had a healthy head of steam. A small pool bubbles behind the red moat. Runoff flows in to the cooler red areas where bacteria multiply.

Castle Geyser
The large geyserite cone in the right of this picture formed over many centuries. Cone growth rates are estimated to be on the order of one inch per century.
A small blue pool
A translucent blue pool in the Upper Geyser Basin. Note the mineral build around it.
A closeup of the pool edge
You can clearly see the mineral edge to this pool and the deep blue color of the water.

Geysers come and go unpredictably as volcanic activity wanes and waxes. Volcanic eruptions in Alaska can temporarily change the pattern of a geyser in Yellowstone. Earthquakes imperceptible to humans walking around can subtly change how water moves below the surface. Some geysers lie dormant for decades only to erupt again without warning. Sometimes new geysers make themselves known with an explosion and jet of steam. When they do, it can be the end for any vegetation in the area. Most of my pictures show a bald, cracked landscape — not the lush plains and forests that dominate the rest of the park. The minerals that geysers deposit are fatal to trees and other plants. Calcium clogs the water transport mechanisms in trees eventually killing the tree. In the process, the tree turns a brilliant white from the base up as it draws more and more calcium into itself.

Calcified trees near the Upper Geyser Basin
When geysers show up, it can be bad news for the flora. As trees absorb the minerals that lace the water it starts to clog their circulatory system. Eventually, they die and remain stark white mineralized reminders of what has been. This was not a great shot; unfortunately I found myself at the Upper Basin with the sun directly overhead.

Just north of the Upper Geyser Basin is the Midway Geyser Basin which is home to the Grand Prismatic Pool. Less brilliant than Morning Glory, the Grand Prismatic Pool imparts its cotton–candy colors to the copious steam that rises from it. Several other large pools steam and bubble nearby. These pools are less colorful and less active — no eruptions here — than those at the Upper Basin, but they are much bigger. Most people will only see their nearly flourescent blue in chlorinated hotel pools. If not for the steam, some of these would not look out of place at a Vegas resort. The smell of sulfur at the Midway Basin is a constant reminder that a dip in these pools would not be very refreshing.

Colored steam rises off the Grand Prismatic Pool
Red and blue steam rises at the Midway Geyser Basin; the colors are reflected from the Grand Prismatic Pool
A perfectly blue pool in the Midway Geyser Basin
Steam rises from this hot, blue pool.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Not to be confused with a similarly named attraction in the American southwest, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone carves its way through the park. Unless you stick to one area of the park, it would be nearly impossible to miss the canyon. It is enormous. The Yellowstone river flows through the bottom, 1,200 feet below most observation points. The canyon is three quarters of a mile from edge to edge at its widest. We did not have time to explore the back country trail that leads around it, but we did get to see parts of it on my way from geyser country to the Lamar valley.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Yellowstone river flows through a lush section of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Observing this majestic piece of natural beauty is a mandatory Yellowstone experience.

The Lamar Valley & Assorted Wildlife

We spent our last day and half in the Lamar Valley hoping to spot a grizzly or maybe a wolf. Lamar is in the northeast corner of Yellowstone and is the most remote and undeveloped area of the park. There are no lodges or hotels. The nearest flush toilet is an hour’s drive away. Camping is limited to a small number of sites and does not take reservations. We grabbed the last site at Slough Creek and set off in search of wildlife. Little did I know that we had pitched the tent a mere 50 feet from a black bear’s morning walk.

It would be nigh impossible to visit the Lamar valley and not see some wildlife. Mule deer and bison abound along the roads. The bison seem tame — kind of like big scruffy cows — but there must some reason that the park puts up warning about bison at every camp site. Bison (Bison bison bison) despite their formal name are frequently conflated with the European buffalo. Nevertheless, they are an icon of the American west.

An adult bison grazes
An adult bison grazes ten feet off of the road. Bison–related traffic jams are de rigeur in Yellowstone despite park rules. Fortunately, they provide an excellent opportunity for photos.
A calf begs for milk
A young calf tries to get milk while its mother scratches her head.
A marmot off the trail near Roosevelt lodge
I’m not positive, but I think this is a marmot. It was foraging on the side of a trail near Roosevelt lodge.

Besides bison, I saw elk, mule deer, and butterflies. The easiest way to spot wildlife in Lamar is to drive around the valley until you find a group of cars stopped beside the road. Odds are it will be fishers or wildlife watchers. We pulled over to investigate one group of cars but it turned out to be fishers. As we pulled away, I saw something move near the top of a dead tree. We parked the car again and walked out towards what turned out to a female osprey with two juveniles! It was a great find.

Another interesting discovery was a killdeer jumping around in the Mammoth Hot Springs. I was surprised because the water is hot and sulfurous with little vegetation nearby. The killdeer seemed to be looking for food but I don’t know what it would have found. There didn’t even seem to be insects.

A killdeer
A killdeer forages in Mammoth Hot Springs.

By far the most exciting wildlife sighting we had was one that broke every rule of bear safety. On my last day in the park, I woke up early to search for wolves and made my breakfast. As I was walking over to use the bathroom, my girlfriend started shouting and waving at me. I finally realized that she was gesturing up the hill I was walking towards at a black bear ripping a log apart! I ran back to grab my camera. Trying not to become a statistic, I kept my distance and took the best shots I could. Apparently this bear comes through every morning around the same time.

There are a lot of places in the world I’d like to see, but if I find myself in Yellowstone again sometime soon I won’t be disappointed. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the park, I cannot recommend it enough. All of this pictures here and plenty more are on my flickr page.

A killdeer
A black bear examines a dead tree.

I shot these images with a Canon 60D, Canon EF-S 17-55
f/2.8 IS, and Canon EF 100-400L f/4.5-5.6 IS in Yellowstone National
Park in July 2011.

All of these images are licensed under
a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license
. All
content is copyright 2011 Reid Gilman. Please email me if you want copies
of these pictures without copyright markers.