Friday, September 23, 2011

Yellowstone: America's Dryer Vent

Hey, all--

I just made a rather hasty exit from Yellowstone National Park this morning, and I'm currently sitting in my car poaching wi-fi from the Colter Bay Lodge in Grand Teton. Yellowstone and Grand Teton are basically adjacent, so there was no driving-and-hotel break between parks this time.

Yellowstone was a frustrating experience right from the get-go. I'd planned to make the short drive from my hotel in Bozeman, arrive at a campground, and have a leisurely day while I decided where to head in the back country. But when I got to the park at about 11:30 a.m., ALL the nearby campgrounds were already full to capacity.

Unable to find a spot at a campground, I picked a back country campsite less than a 5-mile walk from the road. I just needed a place to sit down, plan the rest of my visit, have dinner, and sleep. I got a permit for a site about an hour's walk out, and hiked in only to find a not-very-well-kept site where I was absolutely alone. It was my first time completely alone in the wilderness since I started this trip, and wouldn't be the last.

This was the pattern I had at Yellowstone. The front country was a complete clusterfuck, and the back country seemed like an afterthought. And I know I can't blame the park, but I also had the first stretch of bad weather while I was in Yellowstone. I still saw some cool stuff, but in general, it was a disappointment.

The park is arranged so that almost everything worth seeing is on the main roads. They form a giant figure-8 through the park, connecting the big hotels to the major thermal areas and prime wildlife-viewing areas. And since I spent entire days stuck on the roads either trying to get a campground or trying to find a trail head or generally trying to get from one place to another, I ended up doing what everybody else does--creeping through traffic jams and gawking at things through the windows.

Literally every mile or so was what I came to call an "animal jam." This is a spot where people pull onto the shoulder, slow way down, or even just stop right in the middle of the road to look at wildlife.

There are always people wandering across the road with giant telephoto-lens cameras or telescopes, staring and pointing. Sometimes, it was obvious what they were looking at.

The antelope stood there for like a minute. I kept waiting for it to shave its head and attack the photographers with an umbrella, but alas.
 But a lot of times, you'd slow down, look in the direction they were pointing, and see... nothing. I swear to god, half the animal jams happened when one person either caught a glimpse of something or just thought he did, pulled over, and then everybody else said, "Hey, that dude's pulled over! He must have seen something! Let's pull over, too!"

On the other hand, I can't deny that I saw the vast majority of the wildlife from my car.

It is undeniably comical to watch such a huge animal lie down and roll around in the dust.
Bison were everywhere, and they do not give a fuck. They hang out near and on the road whenever they want to. On my last night in the park, I was driving back to camp just after sunset when a huge bull bison appeared on the shoulder. Thinking he wanted to cross, I stopped and waited. He proceeded to step into the road and start strolling along his way, right in the middle of my lane. I had to follow him at casual-bison pace for like three or four minutes, hazards on, before he decided to amble away.

I also saw from the car elk, antelope, and, miraculously, one wolf. (The wolf was hobbling on three legs; later that evening, I barely heard one mournful howl, way off in the distance, and it made me sad. But the next ranger I talked to said the wolf was a regular in the area and had been lame for years.)

I guess I can't complain, since bison, antelope, elk, and wolves were my "goal animals" to see in this park. But I feel sort of rude gawking at animals from my car, not to mention annoyed at traffic when I was trying to get somewhere. It felt like trying to go to Starbucks when Brittney Spears and a mob of paparazzi show up. Sure, it's neat to see Brittney Spears, and you probably end up popping a couple of pictures yourself, but oh that poor girl and also give me damn coffee already.

The other things to see from your car are the thermal features. Unfortunately, many of the days I set aside to see geysers, mud pots, and hot springs turned up cold and rainy. When you add all the mist and steam from the thermal features themselves, I couldn't see a whole lot.

Just about every 4 feet, they warn you not to step on, poke, or throw stuff into the thermal features. Which makes it obvious that people are constantly stepping on, poking, and throwing stuff into the thermal features.
It's the sister looking on in helpless terror that really makes this work for me.
My typical view of a Yellowstone geyser.
... reality.
And of course, I went to Old Faithful. I figured a cold, rainy Tuesday morning would at least be uncrowded.

SPOT IT: Seltzor! (I didn't even notice until I uploaded the picture.)
People started heading back to their cars before the geyser even finished erupting
Eventually, I figured out that sunset was the best time to see the thermal features. The steam plus a moody sky make for great photographs, and people have mostly cleared out for the evenings.

Dusk reflected in the delicate formations of a mineral-rich hot spring

These are from Norris Geyser Basin, a less-visited but lovely thermal area near a campground.

I wondered more than once whether all the steam in the air contributed to the crappy weather.

From afar, thermal areas look like post-nuclear wastelands.
Steam vents have an intimidating/thrilling bass roar.
Sign reads: Blue Mud Steam Vent. And it totally is!
It matches my eyes! *blink blink*
Something in this water made it glow eerily.
Weird/icky mineral formation
Algae feeding off the minerals and warm water

One of the many geysers with a nearby informational plaque describing past spectacular eruptions and the sheer unpredictability of future eruptions. This makes everyone stand and stare at the still pool, waiting for a spectacular eruption at any moment. I decided that if I ever have a chance to name a geyser, it'll be "Waitforit Geyser."
And more thermal stuff:

Mammoth Hot Spring
Mud pots make really amusing Pit-of-Eternal-Stench farty sounds. Coincidentally, all of the thermal features reek of sulphur.
Volcanic stack formations around the rim of the caldera.

Bacterial mats with what I think are bison tracks
A steam vent on a clear, but very cold, day.
NEXT UPDATE: My hikes and back country adventures.

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