Wheeling Solo on the Road: Yellowstone, WY

After another good night’s sleep, I started the two-hour drive north from Victor, ID to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It was a mellow drive, and while I didn’t have massive mountains nearby to keep me company, I (once again) had plenty of wheat. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like these wheat fields. They go on forever, as far as the eye can see. And someone has to harvest all that acreage! It really is beautiful; a patchwork of amber mixed in with some green crops and recently tilled plots that make the rolling hills look like a big quilt. It was absolutely beautiful.

Before I entered Yellowstone at the end of my drive, I didn’t really know what to expect. I mean, I knew Old Faithful was in there somewhere, and maybe some mountains, rivers, and large mammals. But I’m glad I had few expectations because it makes very discovery a surprise.

The main loop road through Yellowstone is a figure eight, and since I had already driven two hours, my plan was just to do the southern loop before heading to my hotel. The western part of the southern loop is jam packed with great sights, and I had to be choosy about where to stop and make the effort of unloading (and later reloading) my scooter. My first stop was the Fountain Paint Pots. This was my first exposure to how incredibly alien the scenery in Yellowstone could become. But before I get to that, let me explain a bit more about the park.

Yellowstone essentially sits on top of a huge supervolcano. It’s the result of a collapsed caldera from God knows how many hundreds of millions of years ago, so many miles down there’s a river of molten rock that fuels constant geothermal activity across the park. There are constant reminders of this feature because there is steam billowing from what seems like every square inch of the park’s almost 3,500 square miles. There are geysers large and small spewing boiling water either constantly or periodically, fumaroles (which are steaming vents), and “ponds” that are filled with acidic and sulphuric water and are also constantly steaming. It lends an otherworldly characteristic to a park that might otherwise be lumped into the “alpine fir and mountain” category.

So going into the FPP area, I was totally blown away by the rich glacial blue of the “ponds” and the corresponding rust orange of the bacteria growing around them. The mineral flats are a salty bleached white in the midst of the alpine green of the lodgepole trees and the amber of the surrounding plains. The FPP are partly named because they have a “pot” wth bubbling mud that looks like (and probably is a lot like) grayish clay. There is also a good-sized geyser just off the (accessible) wood walkway that wraps around all the things to see there.

After spending a good hour at this site (and getting help from some nice strangers from NC with putting my scooter in the car), it was time to head to Old Faithful! I stopped at a few pullouts on the way and drove through some crowded parking lots, and unfortunately had to pass up an excursion at the Midway Geysers and prismatic springs to save some energy.My arrival at Old Faithful was a bit of a shock. I expected it to be like most of the other sites I had been to or passed by so far–a large parking lot with a lot of people milling around. I had no idea that basically a small town had been constructed all the way around this one geyser. There were two hotels, a large and very modern visitors’ center with a theater, a gas station, several large shops, and at least one restaurant. As for Old Faithful itself…well, the name is a bit misleading. The time between eruptions can vary from every 40 to every 126 minutes. When they do predict a time for the next eruption, it comes with a plus-or-minus 10 minute caveat. The initial eruption is actually pretty impressive. I can’t estimate how high (I’m sure you can look it up), but it’s at least 50-60 feet. However, that height is only maintained for30 seconds or so. After that it drops to about 10 feet, then quits after about a minute–even though I was told twice the eruptions last between 3-5 minutes. Oh, well.

The real treat in the Old Faithful area actually wasn’t that geyser itself; it was Geyser Hill above it and the mile-long loop that circled around at least a dozen smaller geysers, fumaroles, and ponds. Many of these erupted while I was right in front of them! The colors were incredible, and the steam from geysers was absolutely everywhere. I spent probably three hours total just in this area, and it was time well spent. This wrapped up my first day in Yellowstone, and I was already looking forward to what the next day would have in store.

The ride into the park the next morning was definitely hazy due to smoke from local fires, but the views were good enough for decent photos. I pulled out at a few stops to take photos from my car on my way to Mammoth Springs; this route was definitely less scenic and interesting than the southwest side. However, the steaming springs in Mammoth and just south of it are some of the most fascinating geological formations I’ve ever seen. A combination of mineral white and rust orange, they’re a series of layered terraces with water flowing over them from the bubbling/steaming springs at the top of the plateau. I’m doing a terrible job describing it, so hopefully these photos will help a little bit.

Getting to the springs was going to be a no-go. The walkways are all wooden ramps and stairs like a scaffold wrapped all around the formations. The parking lot was crazy, so I did the best I could from as close as I could get.

After Mammoth, my next planned stop was Canyon Village and the loops along the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.” It was a long drive, and mostly unremarkable. What is fascinating about Yellowstone is how quickly the scenery changes from alpine to high desert to grassy plain and back again. On this stretch, I saw some very stark reminders of the 1988 fire that destroyed almost 800,000 acres and caused the park to close for the first time in its history. A full 36 percent of Yellowstone was affected by the fire, which was made obvious by the millions of dead lodgepole pines strewn like match sticks across mountainsides. It was also strange to see the spires of burned pines among the much smaller new growth of pines below them. Fire is necessary in forests; pine cones can’t spit out their seeds until the heat causes them to crack open. However, the 1988 fires were unprecedented and disastrous; the evidence of that was everywhere, as were signs of life and regeneration.

My next stop was pretty amazing. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and canyonlands across Arizona and Utah so this one wasn’t earth shattering, but it was still impressive. It has a double waterfall (upper and lower), then a canyon-length view at the end of the loop. It was crowded at every lookout and I was tired after a long day of driving, so once again I did the best I could photo-wise.

The drive back was pleasant; no more smoke, clear skies, winding roads, and peaceful plains. Overall, I saw one herd of bison, four solo bison in fields, one male elk wading in a river, and two female elk(s?) dining roadside. Not bad, considering I spent most of the time in my car and in busy places. The best times for wildlife viewing are at dawn and dusk–two times I was not in the park–and the best places on hikes, for which I’m not exactly suited. Hey, I was just happy to see any animals in their natural habitat and not in a zoo!


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