After a wonderful couple of days hiking in Grand Teton National Park, we drove the full ten miles to its more famous cousin, Yellowstone. The first national park in the US – and second-largest outside Alaska – is one of the most visited in the country, and it showed. Tour buses, traffic jams and sky-high accommodation prices were quite a shock after the relative calm of its southern neighbour.
Despite the crowds, though,it wasn’t hard to see why Yellowstone is just so popular. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere with such incredible geographic diversity in a (relatively) small area. Bubbling pools, boiling mudpits and explosive geysers lay merely miles from tranquil meadows and waveless lakes. Deer gently grazed a few feet from steaming vents while bears hunted for fish in rivers only a few feet from the road.
I think it was the colours that amazed me the most. Certain kinds of bacteria and chemical reactions flourish in the extreme conditions found in thermal hotspots like Yellowstone, and with them come all manner of unusual colours and strange landscapes.
Apparently each colour can relate to a certain temperature range or chemical composition, and regularly changes over time. Pools, vents and geysers get larger or smaller, explode with huge force or dry up completely. It’s an unstable piece of the world, and what is visible on the surface only hints at the forces at work underneath.
Some parts of the park really don’t seem like they belong on Earth at all. Foul-smelling steam billows from fissures in the rock, hissing and roaring like the soundtrack to a horror film. I didn’t even know what the name of half of the colours were that I saw as I looked around.
Obviously we couldn’t possibly spend time in Yellowstone without visiting its most famous attraction, Old Faithful. Arriving around ten minutes before the scheduled eruption, the tension in the crowd grew palpable as the deadline approached. Suddenly water started to bubble and froth around the cone of geyser.
Oooooooooh went the crowd.
Seconds later a jet of water and steam shot dozens of metres into air, continuing to spray violently for several minutes.
Aaaaaaaaah went the crowd.
And with that, 900,000 more digital images sprang into existence.
While Old Faithful is by far the most well-known geyser in the area, it’s far from the only one. There are dozens of others nearby, and many more scattered throughout the rest of the park. As the sun started to go down in the evening we carried on exploring…
The following day we headed further north, away from the geyser basin and up towards Yellowstone Falls. Within a few miles the landscape changed completely. River gorges, forested hillsides and – obviously – a bunch of waterfalls abounded.
Of course, it wasn’t like we could get away from the steam entirely…
We even got to see several bison along the way. This guy wandered right up alongside the open car door – which I quietly closed. I’m not sure it would have made much difference if he’d taken a dislike to me, but it made me feel slightly safer at least…
Sitting on the porch of Roosevelt Cabins that evening, I sipped on my beer and reflected on a remarkable two days. While the crowds did take a little of the gloss off the experience at times, I got the impression there are still plenty of spots to get away from it all without too much effort if you want to.
Nature hadn’t quite finished with us yet, however.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, there was still one more sight to see.