Yellowstone Caldera contains the most significant collection of
geothermal features on earth, including numerous hot springs,
bubbling mud-pools, fumaroles and of course the geysers for which
the park is most famous. Similar features can of course be found
in New Zealand, Kamchatka or Iceland, but in much lower numbers.
Hence, I decided to make a second visit to the park after a short
previous visit in 2000 during an extensive round-trip in the USA.
Whilst it is possible to fly to regional airports nearer to
Yellowstone, it was decided to fly to Denver and make a small
round-trip. This included an extensive period at Yellowstone, a
visit to Devils Tower which lies about a days drive to the East,
brief stops at nearby Badlands NP and Mt Rushmore, and finally,
after another day-long drive, a relaxing day in the Rocky
After arriving in the Denver and picking up the rental car, the
first night was spent in a road-side motel. After this, it was a
long drive to Grand Teton NP, which lies directly to he south of
Yellowstone. The next day was largely spent at Grand Teton, which
is famous for the range of mountains which has resulted from
uplifting of the landscape on the W side of the Teton fault,
together with subsidence of the E side, much of which is now
covered by lake Jackson. The range is rather Alpine in nature and
thus maybe not so spectacular to someone travelling from Munich,
yet it is unusual in the abruptness with which the range rises
from the surrounding area. A first (and only) Moose was also
sighted on this first day.
In the evening, Yellowstone was entered from the S and the park
was traversed until the N entrance near Mammoth Springs was
reached in the late evening. Fortunately, accommodation had been
reserved in the Motel Super 8 at Gardiner, since others arriving
without a reservation appeared to be having trouble finding
accommodation. Lodgings do exist in Yellowstone NP itself, but
most, especially the Old Faithful Inn apparently need to be booked
many months in advance. The fact that Gardiner was also booked out
in September was rather surprising although June and September are
supposedly becoming increasingly popular, in addition to the main
summer months when the park is overrun with visitors.
The next 2 days were spent at the huge Mammoth Hot Springs near
the N entrance, but also included a brief trip to the Norris
Geyser Basin which lies about 35km further South. Both lie in the
Norris-Mammoth subsidence zone which extends northwards away from
the Caldera Rim.
Mammoth Hot Springs do not contain any Geysers, yet contain many
hot springs which have led to colourful geothermal deposits
including several sinter terraces. Activity tends to shift with
time so that the terraces are in a continual state of change. The
terraces are the result of geothermal waters dissolving underlying
limestone formations and depositing these at the surface as the
waters evaporate. The colours of the terraces are influenced by
various bacteria and algae that live in the run-off waters of the
Norris Geyser Basin presently contains two large Geysers, neither
of which were active during the visit. When it erupts, Steamboat
Geyser is the tallest geyser worldwide active in recent times,
reaching heights of over 100 meters. Echinus geyser used to be
frequently active as is evident from the viewing platforms around
it but has been relatively infrequently active in recent years.
Smaller Geysers and pools could be observed, yet these are far
surpassed by the features within the Geyser Basins lying along the
Firehole River which was visited later. Hence, those with little
time could consider skipping this Basin.
Since the Western section of the Yellowstone loop road was closed,
the main Geyser areas could not easily be reached from the N of
the park. Relocation to the busy tourist town of West Yellowstone
was thus necessary via the E part of the loop road. Apart from the
lodges and campgrounds in the Park, W. Yellowstone, which lies
directly at the W. entrance of the park is the main location of
tourist accommodation for visitors. A variety of motels and lodges
are available and again many popular ones were already fully
booked. The E loop takes one past a number of interesting sites
including the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" with its two
impressive waterfalls, the Sulphur-Cauldron area which is a true
nasal pleasure to any sulphur-addict, the Mud-Volcano area with a
couple of rather dynamic springs and mud-pools, and finally the
West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shores of the vast Yellowstone
Lake. After these the drive takes one back NW-wards past the main
Geyser Basins which will be covered in much detail below since
they were initially just passed before being visited for the four
following days by commuting from W Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Canyon is carved deep into the weathered volcanic
deposits covering the park. Beautiful colours can be seen from the
Artists Point outlook
The sulphur Cauldron is one of the most acidic features in the
park due to the release of large amounts of hydrogen sulphide gas
into its waters. This part of the park is generally associated
with more intense degassing than those parts further W containing
the main geysers. The Cauldron contains two main pools, one of
which bubbles and froths more violently than the other and is
usually shrouded in pungent gases.
The nearby Mud Volcano area hosts several hot springs and mud pots
including Dragons Mouth Spring which churns away in a cave, Mud
Volcano, and Churning Cauldron, which was highly active during the
West Thumb Basin is a relatively quiet Basin with few outstanding
features. Nevertheless, it has several colorful pools and most
notably is the site of fishing-cone. This cone which hosts a hot
spring lies within the lake and became famous since it was once
possible to stand on the cone fishing, after which the catch could
be hung directly into the hot spring to cook it.
The main Geyser Basins in Yellowstone lie along an about 10km
stretch of road. Before starting ones visit, it is advisable to
enter the visitor center in order to write down the predicted
eruption times of the main predictable geysers so one can arrange
ones visit to see these erupting. Generally, approximate eruption
times are provided for Old Faithful, Castle, Grand, Riverside,
Daisy and Great Fountain Geysers. Old Faithful was erupting about
every 90 min during this visit but Castle, for example erupts
approximately every 14 hours, with a range of from about 12-16.
Hence, exact planning is impossible and patience is required. In
fact, no prediction was available at all for Castle on the first
day, since it had displayed a minor eruption which tends to
disrupt its usual cycle. This was bad news since Castle is my
In between viewing of the major geysers one has numerous smaller
ones that one may see erupting (indeed a couple erupt continuously
or at least several times every hour), along with a variety of
beautiful hot springs. The following images will be arranged by
area to give an overview of some of the highlights of the site.
The Upper Geyser Basin is the main attraction at Yellowstone. Many
visitors congregate to watch the relatively frequent eruptions of
Old Faithful, yet the area has a huge amount of geothermal
features to offer. Castle Geyser has a huge cone, testimony to its
great age, and long eruptions occur followed by an even longer
steam phase. Grand Geyser has more pulses than Old Faithful and
can be watched from much closer. Riverside Geyser erupts from a
cone on the banks of Firehole River. Numerous other Geysers such
as Daisy, Grotto, Beehive, Lion Group, Plume or Sawmill could be
observed during the visit and a number of further Geysers could
have been observed with a bit of luck and given more time.
Further, numerous springs, of which Chromatic Pool and Morning
Glory Pool are the most outstanding could be seen.
One can walk northwards through Upper Geyser Basin to reach
Biscuit Basin (which is also accessible by car) and this again
contains several pools and most notably the small but rather
beautiful Jewel Geyser which was observed in eruption.
Black Sand Basin is also located near the Upper Geyser Basin and
includes again several steaming pools, but also Cliff Geyser.
Midway Geyser Basin is located further N and is best known for the
huge and colorful Grand Prismatic Spring. This is however mostly
shrouded in steam and its true beauty is only apparent from aerial
photographs which I was unable to make. The Basin also contains
the Excelsior Geyser Crater from which huge volumes of hot water
cascade into the nearby Firehole River.
The Lower Geyser Basin encompassing the Fountain Paint Pot area
and the nearby features along Firehole Lake are also well worth a
visit. The FPP area includes a pinkish bubbling mud-pool and
several Hot Springs and Geysers, including the permanently active
Spasm Geyser. Along the Firehole Lake Drive one finds Great
Fountain Geyser which erupts about every 12 hours in a series of
pulses which can cover a period of over half an hour, reaching
heights of up to 60 meters. Further, the large cone of frequently
active White Dome Geyser is found along the roadside.
Apart from the geysers at these main sites, there is also an
interesting geyser which can be reached by about an hours walk off
the main road a couple of km to the SE of the Upper Geyser Basin.
Lone Star Geyser erupts from a beautiful cone about every 3 hours.
Unfortunately clouds pulled in before the eruption started during
this visit, so the images were somewhat spoiled by that since
there is nothing better than a clear blue sky as a background for
a shot of an erupting geyser.
It would have been possible to spend much longer in Yellowstone,
maybe also investigating some of the sites slightly more off the
beaten track. The visit is unlikely to be my last. Indeed, there
are many geyser enthusiasts that return to the park every year to
observe the geysers. Nevertheless, after a total of 6 days in the
park, it was time to head East to the next highlight. Progress was
once again slow since it appears that driving licenses are easy to
come by in the US and numerous slow drivers held up huge convoys
of cars on the mountain roads, unwilling or unable to drive even
close to the speed limit or to pull off the road to allow others
to pass. This was actually a continuous annoyance during the trip.
It should however be noted that driving carefully is important due
to the wildlife. One Bison was actually killed during the time of
our trip by a driver who apparently didn't see it. One does wonder
what this driver can see if he cannot see a Bison !
Anyway, after about 10 hours on the road one finally got a
nighttime view of a starlit Devils Tower before pulling in at a
Devils Tower is a huge body of solidified magma which formed
characteristic largely hexagonal columns as it cooled many
millions of years ago. It is thought that the magma never reached
the surface, and that the solidified body has gradually been
exposed from the surrounding softer sedimentary rocks by the
process of erosion. About 350m of the tower have been exposed to
date and the erosion process gradually continues. Many probably
have seen the Tower in the Spielberg Movie "Close Encounters of
the Third Kind" where it forms the main setting. The name Devils
Tower appears to be a result of mistranslation of a Lakota Indian
term, yet a more appropriate name is difficult to conceive for
this weird geological feature. The correct name is "Mato Tipila"
(translating to Bear Tower), and is based on the myth that the
tower was formed when the Great Spirit raised the ground
underneath some Indian Girls that were being chased by a bear in
order to save them. The columnar structure was attributed to
scratch marks from the bears claws as it tried to climb the tower.
Whilst the Tower was the main feature, the nearby colony of
Black-Tailed Prarie Dogs was also a highlight. More prarie dogs
were also seen the next day when a visit was made to Badlands
National Park. This was somewhat disappointing since I have seen
similar and more spectacular landscapes elsewhere in the US and
the light just didnt seem to work out for the perfect shot. On the
following day a long drive to Estes Park next to the Rocky
Mountains NP near Denver was scheduled. On the way, a stop was
made at Mt Rushmore. Whilst initially surprised by the small size
of the heads (they always appear somewhat larger on pictures but
are actually only about 20 meters high) and annoyed by the
extortionate parking fee of 10 USD (difficult to believe that its
non-profit-making), I must admit that the site is certainly worth
a visit as the setting is actually beautiful and essentially
unique, although a sculpture of a native American on Horseback is
presently being carved in a nearby mountain.
The Rocky Mountain NP was less spectacular than anticipated since
although rising to quite high altitude, most of the mountains were
far less "rocky" than had been expected. Nevertheless, the park is
a nice place to visit a relatively unspoiled mountainous landscape
and for spending time hiking, enjoying the clear air or observing
the local wildlife. This includes the Elks that were in the
breeding season at the time of our visit.
The weather was generally good during the trip and most people we
encountered were very friendly, including the staff at Denver
airport which is by far the most friendly at any US airport I have
travelled through. Also, the availability of good food (apart from
proper yoghurt - incidentally, fat-free yoghurt will not stop you
getting fat if you eat tons of steak and fries !) appears to have
increased in the US in recent years. Hence, this was a somewhat
luxurious and enjoyable contrast to the usual freezing ones butt
off whilst eating stale bread on the top of some remote volcano.
All accommodation was booked within 1 week of setting off, showing
that travelling in this area at short notice is generally possible
in mid-September, although many first-choice places were no longer