Monday, September 28, 2009

Vacation 2009: Day 2

We again rise bright and early. Wow last night was hot! We expected it to be real cold (all sources say weather here is highly unpredictable and it may even snow) and got new down sleep bags and pads. Guess what, I don't think the temperature even got close to freezing. We initially had two bags zipped together for warmth, but soon abandoned that idea. And I still couldn't go to sleep until I fully unzipped my bag and slept directly on my pad, using the bag as a quilt.

The morning air in the woods is clear and crisp and immediately wakes us up fully. We first take the scenic drive by Jenny Lake. The road goes through the woods and past Jenny Lake, giving us the opportunity to stop and watch the first sun light hit the tetons. We also see a cow moose grazing near the roadside, but don't get a chance to take any good pictures of her.

The south entrance of Yellowstone is just 8 miles north of Grand Teton. Unfortunately the road in between is undergoing some heavy construction and has been reduced to a bumpy dirt road. Not only that, a long stretch of the road only allows one-way traffic at a time, so we have to stop and wait for our turn. The drive is still pleasant because of the scenery. Some aspen leaves have turned yellow. It's a bright, vibrant yellow and contrasts very well with the leaves that remain green. Patches of some red grass complete the color pallete.

I have high hopes of spotting some wild animals along the way, but have no luck till we stop at the entrance to Yellowstone. Entering Yellowstone got my hopes high again. I expect to see herds of bisons for which Yellowstone is famous for. But I get disappointed again. The first wild animal we see in Yellowstone is an elk cow in the parking lot of Grant Village, some 20 miles after entering the park. But again the scenery more than makes up for it. The road follows the snake river for the most park and the grass by the river is just starting to turn into its full fall glory, with a spectrum of color ranging from green to yellow to red covering the riverside.

We quickly check into the campsite (the only reserved campsite of the whole trip) and head for Old Faithful. Old Faithful is probably the most famous landmark of Yellowstone. It's known for its predicatable eruptions and upon arrival we find out that it's only minutes before it's next eruption. Yay!

Old Faithful is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, with hundreds of other geysers, hot springs, and steam holes. Upon arrival we immediately notice this is different from any other parks we've been to. Steams! Steams are coming out of the ground everywhere, you'd think the whole place is on fire. (BTW, a huge wild fire in 1988 burned 1/3 of the park and I think these steams must have played role. People probably just ignored the initial smokes from the fire, confusing them with the steams.) Around Old Faithful are benches and they are all taken now. This is the most crowded area in Yellowstone and feels more like an amusement park than a national park. (Days after returning from the trip I watch Colbert interviewing Ken Burns, maker of the documentary "The National Parks, America's Best Idea". Burns says "... if we hadn't make Yellowstone a national park, it'd be turned into Geyser World", to which Colbert relies "Have you been to Yellowstone? It is Geyser World". I think I agree with Colbert on this one.)

I have to mention the boardwalks in Yellowstone. They are very well maintained and cover all major geo-thermal areas. They keep tourists from stepping on the unstable grounds in these areas, where seemingly solid surface could be just a thin crust covering a pot of boiling water.

Shortly after we find a spot and ready our camera the eruption begins, right on the minute of the predicted 11:28 eruption time! Impressive. I wish people could be as punctual as this geyser. The eruption only lasts a couple minutes but it's a fantastic show of what a super-sized tea pot can do. This makes me tend to believe that some Indian probably had invented the steam engine long before Watt did. As the Old Faithful eruption dies down, we notice another geyser several hundred meters away uphill is erupting, too. We later find out it's the Lions Geyser. From this distance it looks even bigger than Old Faithful. But by the time we take pictures it has died down, too. Here's a tip for future visitors: prioritize Old Faithful lower than any other geysers. If you see another geyser erupting, run to catch it. You'll always get a chance to see Old Faithful as it's the most predictable.

After a quick sandwich lunch we set out to explore the rest of the basin. We first take the small loop trail of Geyser Hill. It's a small area with high concentration of various geothermal features. The ground has been colored by sulfur and other minerals in the water. The water itself appears to have different colors because of various micro-organisms living in the pool. The whole scene is so foreign to what we are used to see it could be from another planet. Geysers don't erupt that often. Most of the time they just bubble, give out steam, or squirt a little bit of water. The Lions Geyser erupts again and this time we are much closer. But the eruption is also much smaller than before, probably just an aftermath of the last one. Just as we are about to move on from Geyser Hill, a lady with a notepad in hand informs us that the Plumes Geyser is about to erupt. She's either a scientist or a maniac geyser watcher, since her notepad has hand-written records of all eruptions of all the geysers around. She also tells us about the Grand Geyser down the way. It's far less predictable compared to Old Faithful, with a 4-hour window for the next eruption. "but even if you had to wait the whole 4 hours to see it, you'd think it's worth it". I don't think we have 4 hours to spend waiting around. We'll just have to try our luck. The Plumes does erupt exactly when the lady says it will. This geyser is quite fun. It's not a big one. But it erupts for 10 seconds, then stops for 10, then erupts again, and repeats 4-5 times.
the Plumesnow you see it
now you don'tnow you see it again
now it's gone

The trail will eventually lead to Morning Glory Pool, famous for its vibrant colors. On the way we'll pass numerous geysers and pools. Among them the Grand Geyser attracts most tourists. Although the geyser lady says it's worth the possible 4-hour wait, and the people who are already waiting around it apparently agree, we decide to move on and, if we are lucky, see its eruption on our way back. Each geyser and hot spring pool we pass are unique in its own way, but the Morning Glory Pool, at the end of the trail, is definitely worth the hike. Its shape resembles that of a morning glory. Its colors are beyond my words, I won't even try.
the Morning Glory

We pass the Grand Geyser again on our way back, and wait for 10 minutes but finally give up. And just as we are stepping away, it starts! It reaches its full glory almost instantaneously. Compared to Old Faithful, this one is taller, wider, just way grander. As the big one is going, some smaller geysers next to it starts to erupt, too. Seen from where we stand, the water and steams cover half the sky, seemingly reaching up and connecting with the clouds. And it just keeps going, lasting about 10 minutes with more or less the same ferocity!
this guy's determined to wait for the Grand!

One our way back to the car we also pass the Castle Geyser, which doesn't show us much more than a couple steams. But we think we are already quite lucky for catching the Grand. It's also at this point that we realize we've got a little sunburned. I got a "raccoon tan" thanks to my sunglasses.
crested pool
the Castle Geyser

Out next stop is the Midway Geyser Basin, where the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring are located. Although this area is much smaller than the Old Faithful area, these two places make it a must-go. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the subject of so many photos and postcards. It's best viewed from the air because on the ground, the steam blocks the view and keeps you from seeing the full spectrum of its colors. It's also big so you can see the whole of it standing so close to it. Next time we should try to see it from a higher ground, maybe from the trail behind it. The Excelsior Geyser Grater is a different story. It used to be a geyser, then one day some 100 years ago, it exploded, leaving this big crater with this unbelievably blue water. Unlike the Grand Prismatic, it's just one color. But the color is magical, enchanting, even. You'd be able to just stare at it for hours and you'd feel you have accomplished something. It's really impossible to describe. You just have to be there and see it. The Excelsior also gives out vast amounts of steam. It's like an outdoor sauna, with rotten egg smell, of couse.
water running from Excelsior to the Firehole river

also in midway geyser basin, but forgot its name.
a flower blooming next to the hot springs!
a bug actually lives in this water!
At this point we both feel we've seen enough geysers and hot springs. But there are even more to see. The Firehole Lake Drive takes us past Great Fountain and White Dome geysers. We can only imagine what the eruptions look like, though, as neither is ready to give a show. The Fountain Paint Pot is also interesting in that it's a pot of boiling mud with a pinkish hue!
the firehole lake
the Fountain Paint Pot

Now we are pretty close to Madison but there doesn't seem to be anything quite interesting there, so we turn back taking the Firehole Canyon Drive. It passes a pretty nice swimming hole, but we are not ready to get wet today, as it's a bit cold for swimming. We also make a stop at Fountain Flat Drive in an attempt to spot some wild life. Nothing but a small blue bird. Till now we've only seen an elk (in a parking lot) and two bisons (walking mid-hill while we drive by) in Yellowstone. Is this the park known for its abundance of wildlife? Where are the bisons that's supposedly blocking the roads? Are we even going to see a bear?
the swimming hole on firehole river. there are two girls in bikinis behind the tree. use your x-ray vision or imagination :)

no luck seeing wildlife, and the rain clouds are closing in!

Out luck improves as we head back to camp, when traffic stops for a big bull elk crossing the road. We'll see more elks before we reach camp. But I can see elks in my "home park" of Yosemite. Please, show me something I haven't seen before.

It's getting dark when we reach camp, and about to rain. We quickly cook and setup tent, then have to eat in the van because it's raining. It's been such a long day and we still haven't seen much of wildlife. Maybe we used up all our luck to see the Grand. Well, that's worth it. Hope we got better luck tomorrow.

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