Our slow-motion travel style has us spending almost three weeks (20 nights) in Yellowstone National Park, camping in several different locations within this gigantic and diverse park. Our initial stay was 6 nights in the Madison Campground, about 15 miles into the park from the West Yellowstone entrance and within relatively close proximity to the park’s main thermal features. Our site fortuitously provided plenty of solar generation opportunities, and the campground itself is situated alongside the lovely Madison River.
During this part of our stay, we focused on the area in the southwestern portion of the park from Norris and Madison through West Thumb in the south, which includes Old Faithful and some of the other most recognizable destinations in the park. As a result, our first week in the park featured many, many visits to landscapes that were made weird and otherworldly by the presence of super-hot springs.
Thermal Features Galore
During our visit to the Museum of the Rockies we learned that single-celled organisms were the only form of life on earth for billions of years. This Age of Algae dominates the geological record, while human time is a mere blink of an eye and the age of dinosaurs is maybe a good long yawn. Yet despite their ancient lineage, the single-celled creatures became a ready food source as soon as more complex creatures evolved (e.g., organisms with two cells, or even a few more). The primitive life forms eventually retreated to the least hospitable places on earth, where their predators could not follow, and found a way to survive. And that’s how the descendants of the very earliest life forms on the planet ended up populating the hot, acidic waters of the thermal features found in Yellowstone, and creating the splashes of browns, reds, oranges, and yellows that paint many of the features. It’s remarkable that, after billions of years, our highly evolved species can be amazed and delighted by the colorful tableaus created by our most primitive ancestors. Beauty can truly come from all things.
Of course, what creates the environment where these ancient life forms can flourish is a mass of seething magma sitting just a few miles below the surface, super-heating water that is forced up through cracks in the earth. In some cases the water bubbles up into pools that are hot but relatively still. In other cases, the water is hurled out of the earth violently and explosively, in geyser eruptions. In still other cases, the hot water dissolves rock into muddy clay that bubbles and boils. The variety of features is quite astonishing, particularly since so many of them exist in close proximity.
All of these thermal features are just reminders that here at Yellowstone we are sitting atop a supervolcano that’s eventually going to erupt in spectacular fashion, as it has done several times in the past, utterly obliterating vast areas of land. The thought is slightly unsettling, but we took our cues from the bison and other wildlife wandering around the park. Like the totally unconcerned bison we saw lounging next to Old Faithful on our first morning in the park, we elected to remain calm despite the possibility of total destruction at any moment. Instead, we enjoyed seeing the variety of mind-bending thermal features that make an otherwise typical mountain landscape so strange and unique.
We were also intrigued to see that there is something of a geyser fan club here at Yellowstone, and the members seem to operate like birdwatchers intent on completing their life list. Many of the geysers have inconsistent or long eruption windows (like a 2-3 hour window for the next likely eruption). There were quite a few people who brought chairs and settled in with crossword puzzles and other entertainment, apparently content to wait whatever time was needed to see the big event and mark it off their checklist. You have to admire the hardy souls that waited patiently at Steamboat Geyser, for which the eruption window is measured in days and not just hours!
Our goal in coming to Yellowstone after Labor Day weekend was to make our visit somewhat late in the season, when, in theory, kids would be back in school and summer vacationers would have returned home. When I was able to get reservations to camp in the park starting September 1 – the Saturday of Labor Day weekend – I was pretty excited. As it turned out, coming into the park on that day was not one of my better ideas, at least judging by our one hour wait to get in through the west entrance gate. All four entry lanes were going at full speed, yet we still waited in traffic for miles. This was a taste of things to come, at least during the high periods of the day. Behold, a montage of horrors:
We took the sage advice of our buddies at Chapter 3 Travels and visited the main tourist spots early in the morning, then headed off for hikes during the middle of the day when park crowds were the heaviest. This did the trick of mostly keeping us away from the madness, with only a few exceptions. This strategy presented two related challenges, however. First, since temperatures were below freezing almost every night we spent at Madison, getting out of the house at 7 a.m. meant bundling up with lots of layers, only to peel them off as the days warmed up to 70 degrees. When leaving the house with an outside temperature of 28 degrees, a typical morning outfit for me included hiking pants, wool socks, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a fleece, a shell, a hat, and gloves. Ken was bundled up much the same, except that he still doesn’t believe in wearing long pants. By the time we returned home from our day’s adventures, we were each wearing our inner-most T-shirts and carrying a big pile of winter gear.
The second, and related, issue is that when the temperatures were so cold, the warm water in the thermal pools really generated a lot of steam — to the point where, in some places, it was impossible to actually see the pools / geysers / mudpots under the billowing clouds of steam. Plus there was the hazard of frost covering the boardwalks. But it did make for some moody and atmospheric photos! We ended up being happy with our approach, but realized that there is no fool-proof way to visit Yellowstone’s popular thermal features and completely escape the crowds.
Hiking to Freedom (From Crowds)
In contrast, it turned out to be pretty easy to avoid the crowds once we left the weird and wonderful thermal features. Apparently relatively few visitors to the thermal areas are interested in Yellowstone’s clear mountain lakes, rushing rivers, picturesque waterfalls, broad flood plains, and rugged mountains. We were happy to get out on the trails and record some miles hiking while taking in the lovely scenery. Amazingly, the trails in the extremely busy thermal area are generally very short, not at all strenuous, scenic, and largely deserted.
The trail to this waterfall leads directly from the boardwalk surrounding the Biscuit Basin thermal pools, relatively close to Old Faithful. The walk out to the waterfall is only 1.3 miles each way, and leads along a stream and up through a dramatic valley to an impressive waterfall. Number of people seen on the 0.3 miles of boardwalk: Too many to count. Number of people seen on the 1 mile of trail after the boardwalk: Maybe a dozen.
Clocking in at around 6 miles round trip, this is one of the longer trails in the thermal basin, but it is very level and easy to hike. Seeing the 200 foot high ribbon-style waterfall was a nice reward after wandering through pine forest.
DeLacy Creek to Shoshone Lake
We chose this trail following a tip from Ken’s cousin, and loved the relaxing 6-mile round trip hike to the shore of the largest back-country lake in the park. The forest, meadow, and lake vistas were lovely, and we even encountered a cute and friendly fox along the trail. Number of other hikers: Around 10.
Yellowstone Lake Overlook
It’s a little ridiculous to claim that a walk of merely 0.75 miles to an overlook counts as a hike, but it met the criteria of giving us scenic views and almost no companions. The views went on for miles over Lake Yellowstone to the distant Absaroka Mountains, and we saw exactly 4 other people on the trail, despite lingering at the top to take in the scenery and enjoy some rare internet connectivity.
Next up: We relocate to the northern section of the park and change our focus to wildlife and more great scenery.