USA, Yellowstone National Park

  September/Oktober 2009 

Richard Roscoe

in deutsch


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 Mountains NP.

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.

 Liberty Cap, Hot Spring Deposit, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone   Palette Spring, Travertine Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

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 springs.


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone    Main Terrace, Travertine Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Cleopatra Terrace, Travertine Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone   Orange Spring Mound, Hot Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Main Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone   Main Terrace, Travertine Stalactites, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

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.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone    Main Terrace, Travertine Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

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

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, View from Artists Point

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.

Sulfur Caldron (which one), Acidic Hot Spring, Yellowstone   Bubbles on Surface of Sulfur Caldron, Acidic Hot Spring, Yellowstone

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 visit

Mud Volcano, Mud Volcano Area, Yellowstone   Dragons Mouth Spring, Mud Volcano Area, Yellowstone   Devils Tower National Monument, Laccolith, Phonolite Porphyry Columns,

Churning Caldron, Hot Spring, Mud Volcano Area, Yellowstone   Churning Caldron, Hot Spring, Mud Volcano Area, Yellowstone

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.

West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone  

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 favorite geyser.

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.

 Castle Geyser, Eruption with Rainbow, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Grotto Geyser Erupting, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Daisy Geyser Erupting, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

Riverside Geyser Erupting, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Old Faithful Geyser Erupting, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Sawmill Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

Chromatic Pool, Hot Spring, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Grand Geyser Erupting, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Morning Glory Pool, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone 

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.

Jewel Geyser, Biscuit Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Cliff Geyser Erupting, Black Sand Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

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.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Sinter Terrace, Grand Prismatic Spring, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

Steam Rising from Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Excelsior Geyser Overflow into Firehole River, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

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.

Great Fountain Geyser Erupting, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   White Dome Geyser Erupting, Rainbow, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Clepsydra Geyser, Fountain Paint Pot Area, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

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.

Lone Star Geyser Eruption, Geyserite Cone, Third Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone   Sulfur Caldron (which one), Acidic Hot Spring, Yellowstone

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 nearby lodge.

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.

Devils Tower National Monument, Laccolith, Phonolite Porphyry Columns, Not Basalt   Devils Tower National Monument, Laccolith, Phonolite Porphyry Columns, Not Basalt   Devils Tower National Monument, Red Sandstone, Spearfish Formation 

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.

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, Cynomys Ludovicianus, Wyoming, USA     

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 available.

More images and a more scientific analysis of the main destinations of the trip can be found on under the sections Yellowstone and Devils Tower.

by Richard Roscoe


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