Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Land of Water and Fire

Have I said it before? If not, I say it now: Yellowstone National Park is huge.

While Wikipedia tells me it is only the seventh largest national park in the US [fun fact: five of the largest six, and the eighth largest are all in one single state - Alaska], it is about a million acres larger than Grand Canyon, the largest national park that we had visited before. So, it becomes extremely important to plan the sightseeing around the park because driving can be a real time consuming part of the day here. Thankfully, the Yellowstone map and guidebook that they provide at the entrance is pretty helpful and we had no trouble deciding what we would start our day with. After checking out of Roosevelt Lodge where we had arrived the previous night, we drove straight to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Before we move on to describing this wonderful place, let me briefly describe what Yellowstone National Park actually is, geologically. If you already know this, please bear with me.

Click to enlarge
Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a supervolcano, which I guess means something much larger than a regular volcano. This supervolcano has erupted at least three times in the past, the last time being 640,000 years ago. Now part of the park is inside the crater of the last eruption while the other part is right outside. This huge crater, which is known as a caldera, is marked with an oval on maps of Yellowstone. There is a large magma chamber right under Yellowstone and some scientists feel it is about to erupt again (while others disagree). Today, while the earth's crust is 20-30 miles thick at most places on the planet, it is only 3-5 miles thick in Yellowstone. This causes groundwater to come in contact with the hot magma beneath the crust, and then form hydrothermal features. These hydrothermal features can be of four types - hot springs, geysers, steam vents and mud pots. Mammoth Hot Springs, as evident from its name, belongs to the first category.

As we drove along the road that goes northwards from Roosevelt Lodge, Poulami pointed to a dazzling white formation on a hillside ahead of us, at a somewhat higher elevation. It soon became clear that the dazzling white formation was Mammoth Hot Springs, our first destination. After spending some time finding parking close to the springs, we finally stepped on to the boardwalk.

Mammoth Hot Springs as seen from the road

The boardwalk and a section of the ground that caved in

A portion of the hillside made of mineral deposits
Mammoth Hot Springs can be described as a barren hill with water cascading down different sides. At places, the water has formed puddles and pools. But the real interesting thing about this place is that all of this water is smoking hot and heavy with chemicals. The ground is either white or various shades of rusty brown. Once, there were trees on this barren landscape; now only their blackened skeletons bear testimony to the toxic ground and water. The hillside itself is formed of scale-like layers and some of these places could collapse anytime, leaving a gaping hole underneath. That is why, a wooden boardwalk and stairs have been provided for the tourists, and we aren't allowed to step on the ground. A closer look at the cascades revealed pretty coral-like formations created by deposits of calcium carbonate and other compounds. The water flowed slowly, but in the most amazing rippling pattern. The pools of stagnant water looked like an alien planet - a dead and poisonous world with dead trees and the air heavy with the foul odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulfide).

One of the cascades or terraces with continuous water flow

A close-up of the deposits under the flowing water

Another cascade

It rained a little while we were on the boardwalk and I had to put my film camera away. I was carrying my father's old Pentax MX 35mm film camera on this trip with black and white film on this trip, since we were traveling by our own car and had no need to travel light. However, the rain didn't last long and we could see and photograph the place to our heart's content.

Mammoth Hot Springs on B&W film

The village around Mammoth Hot Springs also holds the administrative headquarters of Yellowstone National Park, and so, the place is always crowded. We decided to grab some fast food for lunch to avoid waiting, but even the fast food place had a queue that had reached outside the door. We ended up having chicken sandwiches and ice cream for lunch. The elk herd from the previous evening was still walking around the village, attracting crowds of photographers everywhere they went. We ignored them and went into the visitors' center. There we pestered a ranger until she had told us all about the places to see, and marked the animal viewing areas on the map. Then we set out for Norris Geyser Basin.

The strange thing about Yellowstone is the variety of landscapes seen here. When you go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you see mountains. At Grand Canyon National Park, you see the canyon. At Badlands, you see the prairie. At Yellowstone, you see all of that, and more. As we started from Mammoth Hot Springs, we passed through a region of huge boulders perched precariously on the hillside, as if someone had thrown that mountain into a blender. Later, we passed by a mountain river down in a gorge, and then tree-covered hills descending into serene lakes. We guessed later that this variety was due to the multiple volcanic eruptions in the past. Every time Nature built something new, it got destroyed in the next eruption and Nature had to start afresh. But since the tectonic plate under Yellowstone is shifting over the magma chamber down below, the eruptions have not been in the same place, and parts of everything managed to survive.

The road between Mammoth and Norris is undergoing some heavy construction at the moment and the traffic moved slowly. When we reached Norris, we had to circle around the parking lot twice before we could find a spot. But finally, we were ready to descend into Porcelain Basin.

The Norris Geyser Basin has the most number of hydrothermal features of any place on earth. The Porcelain Basin is a large flat area dotted with steam vents and hot springs, covered with a milky white mineral deposit and crisscrossed by flows of mineral-laden water that are vividly coloured by bacteria and algae. Trunks of long-dead trees scattered around the plain indicated that although the ground was not fit for survival now, it wasn't always that way. The ground here is unstable as well and so a narrow winding boardwalk goes all over the basin. We went down steps into the basin, passing close to a steam vent spewing thick white steam into the air.

Steam vent at Norris Geyser Basin
Steam vents or fumeroles are the hottest among the hydrothermal features. They have lots of heat, but very little water to cool them down. Whatever little water can trickle down into them, turns to steam instantly. A fumerole looks like a hole in the ground with steam coming out. There were fumeroles all around this place and we could see columns of steam rising from the distant hillsides like smoke from chimneys. We walked the length of the boardwalk and came back to where we started. On the way, we saw several small geysers and hot pools.

Porcelain Basin
After coming back on top, we took another short hike to a geyser called the Steamboat Geyser. We passed a boiling pond of emerald-green water on the way that had so much hydrogen sulfide-laden vapor bubbling out of it that it was difficult to stand there. It left our throats and nasal passages feeling funny even after we had left the area.

All that steam smells like rotten eggs

Our next stop was a place called Artist Paintpots. This is also a hydrothermal basin like Norris, with scattered turquoise hot pools, steam vents and dead trees. The new thing that we saw here was a boiling mud pot. Large bubbles were forming and bursting in a small pool of thick mud with satisfying pops. The consistency of the mud was so smooth, and the popping sounds were so soothing that it seemed we could just stand there and watch it for hours. Poulami said she also felt an urge to touch and feel the mud. Thankfully, it was surrounded by a railing, presumably to suppress such urges. The sun was also getting lower in the sky and it was overcast anyway. So we decided to move to our next destination.
Artists' Paintpots

Boiling mud pot
Our next destination was supposed to be Grand Prismatic Spring, but we decided to push that to the next day as it was getting late and we were hungry. We did stop at a small hot pool though, and photographed its incredibly beautiful aquamarine water surrounded by bright rust-coloured deposits. The blue color is due to minerals and the red colour due to the presence of microorganisms. There were lots of dead trees everywhere.

Hot pool
Finally, we were ready to go to our hotel for the night - the Grant Village Lodge. It wasn't very close, but we eventually reached the place. Just before reaching Grant Village, we had one last experience for the day, or so we thought at the time. We saw half a dozen cars stopped at the side of the road and their riders roaming outside, looking at the forest with their cameras and binoculars, so we followed suit. But there was nothing to be seen except for two elk and an indignant man claiming confidently that he saw a bear vanishing into the woods. Some people were going into the woods to see the bear, but it was nearly dark at this time and we didn't want to follow any real or imaginary bear into the woods at dusk. As a matter of fact, we wouldn't have followed a bear into the woods even in broad daylight. So we returned to our car and drove to the hotel.

Grant Village Lodge has a check-in desk that is a block away from the rooms (which are in different buildings named after different animals; ours was Elk Lodge). It is also a block away from the Grant Village Restaurant where we planned to have our dinner. It was 8:45 and the restaurant closed at 10:00, so we decided to have dinner first and then go to our room. However, the restaurant had a wait time of thirty to forty minutes, so we decided to go to the lodge first, take our bags up to our room, and then come back. After a long day filled with hikes and a fast food lunch, we were looking forward to a satisfying dinner to end our first full day in Yellowstone.

Or so we thought at the time.

(To be continued...)

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