Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Evening in the Park

Our trip to Yellowstone National Park began late in the afternoon. We planned to stop for the night at a Wyoming hotel and then complete the drive the next morning. A huge bus full of foreign tourists appeared to have similar plans, arriving at the hotel just minutes before us and overwhelming the poor desk clerks that were probably expecting a lazy evening.

By the middle of the following afternoon, we were driving in through Yellowstone's east entrance road. For late June, it seemed like there was a surprising amount of snow still scattered about. The forest was scarred by past fires, but with stands of young trees starting over against the road. Yellowstone Lake came up soon on the left, sprawling, beautiful, and framed by the distant mountains.

When we came upon a steaming patch of ground along the shore line, we made our first stop. Not that you can't find that sort of thing all over Yellowstone, of course, but knowing that didn't make it any less cool to see for the first time. We snapped some pictures, briefly stretched our legs, and then headed on in to our campsite.

There are several campgrounds all over Yellowstone (and inns and lodges too). You can camp in a variety of situations, from places that have bathrooms with showers and electricity to places that have pit toilets -- it all depends on what experience you're up for and where in the vast park you'd like to be. But we picked our spot, Bridge Bay Campground, for another reason: availability on the days we'd planned to be there. (Tip for Yellowstone: unless you want to stay in a nearby town like Cody and drive into Yellowstone every day, book a campsite well in advance.) Bridge Bay had bathrooms with drinkable water and dishwashing stations, but it didn't offer much seclusion. It was basically an open field with tents thrown up everywhere. Around the corner was the marina, but sadly we'd left our boat not-yet-purchased.

We put our tent up quickly, and with several hours of sunlight still to go, we headed out and do something with our evening. We decided to head for the Upper Geyser Basin to cross the big one off the list right away: Old Faithful.

You could just barely see the famous geyser erupting over the tops of the trees as we were pulling up, which left us about 70 minutes before we could really get a good look. But that was fine, giving us a chance to walk the pathway through the basin to see the many other geysers and springs in the area. None was doing much more than sputtering as we walked through, but there was plenty to see all the same. With every few steps, there was something new and beautiful, from the crystal clear Blue Star Spring...

to the "that's probably not the meaning they meant" Depression Geyser:

Areas like the Upper Geyser Basin (and more spots we would visit over the next couple of days) are simply the most alien environment I've ever visited. Even scuba diving in the ocean -- certainly a wildly different ecosystem unlike any you'll find above the water -- things still generally feel alive. But the geyser basin feels like a stark wasteland. Looks are deceiving, of course. You'll occasionally find tiny fish in the springs, and animal tracks through the basin (and then there's all kinds of things going on at the microscopic level), but those are details that are easily missed in the overall picture: white flats marked with rust-colored stains, accented with the occasional dead tree. Still, there is an odd beauty in it.

After making a circuit through most of the area, we came back around to the signature geyser, Old Faithful, with maybe 20 minutes to find a seat and wait. It's neither the largest nor most regularly predictable geyser in Yellowstone, but has the right mix of those two elements to give it fame. We ooed and ahhed along with hundreds of other spectators.

We then abandoned our plans to cook at the campsite that night, opting instead to get something at the nearby cafe. Still, that didn't stop us from starting a campfire later that night to gaze into hypnotically for a while before bed. The next day would be our biggest and busiest of the trip.

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