It’s hard to leave Utah. Yes, that probably sounds crazy to those of you who don’t live here, but it’s true. The abundance of great trails, attainable peaks, red rock canyons and high alpine lakes make the Beehive State a hikers’ paradise. But this summer me and a friend, Skip, broke the mold and made the trip to Yellowstone. On our first day, the decision was completely justified, as what we experienced surpassed all of our lofty expectations.
We hit the road for the 5+ hour drive from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone, MT. Shelter was found at the crowded Rainbow Point campground on the shores of Hegben Lake. Some frisbee and exploration passed the hours until bed, and we even got to sample one of the infamous early evening lighting storms and subsequent downpour.
We rose early, broke camp and headed into the park. Yellowstone at last! Skip had been planning a visit for the better part of 8 years, while I had waited just a measly 5. Right off the bat we began the “Yellowstone Experience;” in just the first 10 miles we spotted two deer, a swan, and two bald eagles perched high atop lodgepole pines on the far bank of the Madison River. We arrived at Madison Campground and quickly set up our tents and gobbled down lunch. It was time to see the sights!
First up: Old Faithful. Of course, this is the most “touristy” thing to do in the park, but trust me, you do not want to miss it. The drive to Old Faithful was gorgeous; we spotted thermal features that sent steam high into the air on distant hills. We could see crowds of people walking the boardwalks around these strange areas and our anticipation skyrocketed. The parking lot was a sea of RVs, motorcycles and fully loaded SUVs. We made our was through the masses to the Visitor Center and checked the next eruption time. There was over an hour to spare before the big blast.
Skip and I decided to take a stroll around the main loop of boardwalk that lined the Lower Geyser Basin. It was a barrage of incredible sights and smells. Yes, the smell of these areas left one of the most lasting impressions: almost every feature emitted the unmistakable stink of sulfur. We laughed as the younger viewers held their noses and screwed up their faces to avoid the strong scent. I was dazzled by the array of features: pools that looked like Caribbean ocean water plunged down as far as the eye could see; some of these pools bubbled and churned with water near the boiling point. Geysers cones rose up from the fragile earth without a hint of the violence their next explosion would bring. The ground itself was alive; microorganisms turned the earth a brilliant shade of orange around many of these features. We stopped at Anenome Geyser and watched its’ cycle. Every 7 minutes the empty hole in the ground would fill to the brim, begin bubbling, explode in a 6 foot high burst, then promptly drain like the flush of a toilet. We had to watch this one a few times. Simply incredible!
After ambling around the Lower Basin for a while, it was time for the area’s namesake to do its thing. We crowded in with the 100s of others to watch Old Faithful blow its top. It erupted almost to the minute of the predicted time, spewing water 90 feet into the air. It wasn’t the life changing moment I hoped it might be, but it was nonetheless pretty impressive. With Old Faithful off our checklist, we headed back the way we came, making stops at almost every parking lot to explore the numerous features hidden nearby.
More pools of azure blues ringed with mysterious orange and yellow soils greeted us. We were blasted with waves of heat and steam and plenty of that delicious sulfur smell. When we toured the Fountain Paint Pot area, we discovered some new and even wilder features: paint pots and fumaroles. Paint pots, or mud pots, are areas were the superheated water clashes with thick soil. The result is a soupy mud mixture that bubbles with some of the coolest sound effects I’ve yet to year. Fumaroles are gashes in the earth that were once geysers; no longer filled with water, the fumaroles simply blast steam through their vents. It was strange to see a site I normally associate with city streets coming to life in the middle of the wilderness. Every time we asked “How the hell did this occur?” we reminded ourselves that we were walking around on the crust of the world’s largest volcano. That seemed to be a reasonable explanation for everything we saw.
We headed back to camp tired but amazed from our first day in the park. After dinner it seemed foolish to waste the remaining sunlight, so we made one final foray to a thermal site. Artist Paint Pots was uncrowded and just a short hike, but packed a big punch. We hiked amongst steaming streams and pools before making our way up a steep hillside. At the top we were treated to the finest showing of mud pots we had seen all day. We lingered near them for some time, listening to the ridiculously funny sounds they made. It was a great way to cap off the first day.
We had a lot more planned for our time in the park, but our first day had provided nothing short of total amazement. I have never seen a landscape so alien as the geyser basins of Yellowstone; it seemed that every corner we turned held something new and strange. It was quite the introduction to our country’s first National Park, and set the tone perfectly for the rest of our adventure.