Into The Witch’s Cauldron – Yellowstone, WY
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
MacBeth (Shakespeare, circa 1606)
We’d thrown ourselves directly into the witch’s cauldron, and I wasn’t just talking about the boiling earth around us. A vast plain spread out before us, grass swaying golden in the mid-morning light. In the distance steam clouds rose in grand mushrooms, dancing and rising like ancient smoke signals from the ground. A herd of bison wondered slowly over the image, munching, playing, fighting as bison do. It would all be rather picture perfect apart from one gut-wrenching thing. We were stuck in a 5-mile traffic jam of idling cars and we were not moving…AT ALL! And this was OFF-season, in September!!
I could hear the witches cackling with laughter in the background…
To understand how deeply this scene affects us you have to understand our history. We lived in the Bay Area during the tech boom of the 2000’s. Our flat was in San Francisco and our jobs in San Jose, which meant we commuted ~55 miles each way in some of the worst traffic in the country. Sometimes it would take two and a half hours to get home, and we would be stuck for miles in masses of cars that inched along in agonizing slowness. After 5 years we vowed never to subject ourselves to that kind of horror again, and we never have…until now. This Yellowstone traffic jam was our version of a living nightmare, and rather than sit around for hours we simply turned the car around drove the other way.
Thankfully we had a back-up destination in mind, and once we managed to get there and fight ourselves to a parking spot, I have to admit we were quite impressed.
THIS was the cauldron we’d come to see! The scene before us was a furious, moving, living artists palette. Bold brush strokes of pinks, emerald greens, sea blues and burgundy reds swirled in intricate patterns across the valley. A geyser erupted to our left, spurting boiling water ~40 feet into the air. Pools bubbled in a angry fury to our right, sending steam and heat in thick waves through the air, at times obscuring our view and plunging us into a dense fog. A strong smell of sulfur permeated the air. If it weren’t so darn pretty you’d think we’d landed in the depths of hell.
This is what it looks like when you’re sitting on a thin crust on top of an enormous hotspot of molten MAGMA.
Yellowstone is Americas oldest national park. Established in 1872, it covers a mind-boggling 2,219,791 acres (8,983.18 km2) and extends into 3 states (WY, MT, ID). It’ s centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent which, should it ever blow, would create an ash cloud capable of covering most of the United States. Thankfully it hasn’t blown big-time in ~640,000 years, but standing ontop of it does give you pause for thought.
In the meantime the valley boils away, releasing its pressure in measured doses of bubbles, hot pools and geysers that erupt up to 350 feet high. It’s estimated there are over 10,000 thermal features in the valley, the most concentrated on earth, of which only a minor portion are visible from the official trails. And the crowds LOVE it!
We discovered very quickly (after the first day) that the only way to avoid the madness on the West side is to enter the park before 7:30 am and be home around noon. Early morning the steam from the pools is particularly intense (not good for photography), but you can capture wildlife in relative peace on the way in, get to your pools for mid-morning light (you need the sun high in the sky to capture the best colors) and then sneak back out by-passing the 3-5 mile “Bison jams” that form every single day on the southbound route between Madison and Old Faithful. This also kept our outings to around 4 hours so we could get back to doggie who cannot go anywhere interesting in the park.
You’d need MONTHS to see everything in Yellowstone and we were only here a few short days, so we kept our exploration focused on the key thermal features in the western section (from north to south):
1/ Norris Geyser Basin and Artists Paint Pots
These two thermal areas are both north of the junction at Madison and can easily be seen in one outing. Norris Geyser is the hottest and most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone and offers 2 1/4 miles (3.6 km) of trails. While you’re here make sure to see Emerald Spring Pool and Porcelain Basin.
Artists Paint Pots is a smaller area just a few miles south and an easy 1.1 miles (1.8 km) trail will take you around ~50 little springs, pools and bubbling mud pots. Cute and colorful.
3/ Midway Geyser Basin
This area just south of the Madison junction, commonly known as “Hell’s Half Acre” is all about Grand Prismatic Spring IMHO, the largest thermal pool in the U.S. (and the third largest in the world). It’s so large in fact (~370 feet in diameter) that the only way to really see it is from above. So, once you’ve admired the edges of the pool from the Boardwalk, drive back to the trailhead for Fairy Falls, hike around a mile in and then take the very clear but unmarked trail up the hill opposite the spring. It’s a steep, crazy scramble (I had a height panic attack and got stuck there for 20 mins before I could get calm enough to come back down), but the views are incredible.
- Midway Geyser Basin Info -> Click HERE
4/ Biscuit Basin
Just south of Midway is a smaller set of thermals called Biscuit Basin. The star of the show here is undoubtedly Sapphire Pool, a beautiful blue beauty who bubbles along at around 180F. No one seems to go here early AM, so if you arrive before ~8:30 you can have it all to yourself.
- Biscuit Basin Info -> Click HERE
5/ Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
Anyone who’s ever heard of Yellowstone has heard of Old Faithful, the geyser that erupts with timed regularity (or sort of, anyway) near the beautiful wooden Old Faithful Inn. You can time the eruptions on this handy dandy website, and then just come early to beat the crowds. After you’ve seen her blow plan to spend a few hours walking the basin to catch other geysers and see the pools. We saw Beehive Geyser erupt (a fabulously intense geyser that shot up 200 feet) as well as Riverside Geyser (a smaller, but ~20-minute long eruption). Our favorite pools were Belgian Pool (renamed in 1929 after a visitor from Belgium fell in and..ermmm…died) and Morning Glory (the colors..wow!!!). All in all we walked just over 5 miles (~8 km) here.
- Geyser Eruption Time Website -> Click HERE
- Key Features of Upper Geyser Basin -> Click HERE
- Detailed Map of Upper Geyser Basin -> Click HERE
6/ Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
This is actually outside the National Park in the town of West Yellowstone, but is well worth the $11.50 fee to see. It’s a well-managed non profit with a small population of bears, wolves and raptors all of which cannot (for whatever reason) survive on their own in the wild. Although I’m not usually a fan of these things, the enclosures here were well done, the information thorough and it’s awe-inspiring to see these creatures up close.
- Grizzly & Wolf Center Info -> Click HERE
Oh and on top of all this, we even managed to be social!! When we drove into camp our RV friends Alex and Ellen were unexpectedly here, so we had a wonderful reunion with them. One day later we hooked up with Becky, a lovely young solo RVer (Interstellar Orchard) who’s been working for the summer here in Yellowstone. She runs an excellent blog, has even written a book (Solo Full-time RVing On A Budget: Go Small, Go Now) and tipped us off to two prime in-town establishments -> the Slippery Otter (lovely little bar with a fabulous beer-list), and the Mexican bus Las Palmitas (yummy Mexican food!). Then, just to top it off Amy and Rod, fulltime RVers who run the superb website gopetfriendly.com drove into camp and we got to spend several lovely evenings with them too! If you ever need travel tips for your paws, definitely check them out.
Phew! A mere few days here and it feels like weeks!! Overall I loved the photography in Yellowstone, but the vast distances (everything here is FAR), the crazy, insane crowds (even off-season!) and the fact that we had to leave doggie at home means that we probably won’t be back here for a while. We are boiled and well-done. The witches will have to wait until we’re older to eat us up.SPONSORED LINK:
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