Midway Geyser Basin

Bison grazing on the side of the road

We got up the next morning and I went down to the snack bar to get some bottles of orange juice and get an update on Old Faithful times. The rooms don't have TV or internet, though Susan had access to the internet via her iPhone. We ate some chocolate chip muffins she had made for the trip, which made for a pretty good light breakfast. Old Faithful wasn't due to erupt for another hour or so and it turns out that even though we were staying right next to it and it goes off every 100 minutes, the first time we saw it the day before would be the only eruption we saw.

Opal pool

We went back up to the Biscuit Basin to see some of the features that Susan had missed the night before. After that we saw a bison grazing right next to a turnout, so we stopped and took pictures from the car (we were closer than 25 yards, but the road was closer than 25 yards, so it seemed like it would be okay). A couple of birds, including a brown-headed cow bird flitted around his mouth, I guess eating bugs that might get stirred up by the grazing. He never looked up at us, just kept eating. There is a ton of grass out at this time of the year and I imagine the bison are pretty hungry from winter. They are shedding their thick winter fur, so they look awful, but still pretty spectacular. They are very big.

Grand Prismatic Spring is an amazing feature, a big version of the Opal Pool

Our next stop was the Midway Geyser Basin (see map), which has one of the most spectacular features, the Grand Prismatic Spring, a large hot spring pool with colorful orange bacteria around the blue center (see view from space). There were a couple of buses of Chinese tourists which made this stop a little hectic. They would take pictures of everything and seemed kind of rude, though it was just a big group. Still got some decent pictures, but the best view of the Grand Prismatic is from a hillside behind the area. We didn't have time to hike that trail and get up to the top of the hill, but that is definitely something I'd like to do.

Artist Paint Pots

Proof we were there (and it was very cold)

We stopped again at an overlook of Gibbon Canyon. It had some nice cascades, but we were getting some freezing rain here. Took a picture of a particularly fat raven hopping along in this area.

Fat Raven at Gibbon Canyon

We drove further up to Artist Paint Pots, which I was looking forward to because it has mudpots, bubbling pools of mud. From the parking area you have to walk about a third of a mile and then walk up the side of a hill on boardwalks to see a few different features. In addition to some hot pools, we found a mudpot that was a lot of fun to watch. Hard to get a good picture, but I took some video that captures the effect. There was also a good view of some of the pools below as well as the surrounding area and distance snow-topped mountains. We saw another mountain bluebird here. These bluebirds have a light blue (maybe gray) chest instead of the usual orange that bluebirds have, so they look completely blue.

Artist paint pots with colorful pools and a gushing hot spring

After leaving this area, we came along a couple of cars stopped in the road (you aren't supposed to stop in the road, instead you are supposed to pull off at turnouts to see wildlife; seeing a car pulled off is usually a good sign there is something interesting there). Looking ahead of the stopped vehicles, we could see a bison standing in the middle of the road walking towards us. I couldn't see anything, so I was reading about some nearby feature from the guide book, but Susan wasn't listening because she could see the bison was getting closer. I looked up and the bison was right in front of us.

Close encounter with a buffalo just outside of the car

I gave the camera to Susan as the bison walked up to front bumper of the Prius, but the only picture she got was of the bison as it passed the driver's side window (which she had closed as the bison got uncomfortably close). It seemed to tower above the car, then moseyed on away. I think the road traced a good pass between two fields, so maybe it's the best path for bison. People were behaving and not getting out of their cars. More people are hurt by bison than bears, but that's probably because there are way, way more bison than bears. Plus the bison seem pretty harmless and aren't afraid of people.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Elk near the hot springs

We were getting pretty hungry, so we headed up to Mammoth Hot Springs without any additional stops. Mammoth Hot Springs was the original headquarters of the Army when it ran the park, so there are some historic buildings there as well as a lodge, gift shops, restaurants, and the springs. We parked near one of the old army buildings and picked up a brochure about the historic area, then walked over to the nearby grill for lunch. For dessert we had ice cream. One scoop was $3.00, but two scoops were only $3.60, so most people were getting two scoops, but the scoops were really big. We got one scoop of chocolate and one of huckleberry. The huckleberry tasted kind of like grape (they are more similar to blueberries) to me and Susan didn't care for it, but it was decent (and I still got to eat some of the chocolate!).

Another elk near the hot springs

After lunch and a stop at a gift shop, we headed up to the hot springs, but a guy said if we wanted to see elk we should walk up this path that he was coming down. We walked up the path and saw some elk within a few hundred feet. They were coming down from the hill to eat grass along the creek. There were all does, but didn't seem overly worried about us, encroaching on the 25 yard buffer and affording some great pictures. There were a dozen or more people taking pictures eventually, including some Chinese tourists who would pose in front of the elk.

Bluebird near the hot springs. Mountain bluebirds are all blue.

After that we walked back down to the car and drove further up to the North entrance at Gardiner, Montana. The road follows the Gardner River and is pretty intense in this area, even though this is the only entrance that is open year round to cars. Gardiner itself is very touristy, but we got gas and stopped in an overpriced gift shop there anyway. Then we stopped by the Yellowstone Association store which had some bookstore type of stuff with entreaties to support them. I walked over to the Roosevelt Arch at the entrance and took a few pictures, but rain was starting to come down. I also got a picture of a tumbleweed that was blowing around near the entrance.

Magpie Susan at the Post Office Roosevelt Arch
Pronghorn on a mountainside

We headed back into the park and noticed some pronghorn antelopes up on a very steep hillside above the road that some people had stopped to see. We took pictures, but the antelopes were pretty far away. It was amazing to watch them pick their way along the slope. This is an area where bighorn sheep are sometimes spotted, but these had smaller horns. I thought they could be mountain goats which are not native and compete with the bighorn sheep, but after looking at some pictures they seem to be pronghorn.

Devil's Thumb and Palette Spring at Mammoth Hot Springs

From there we continued back to Mammoth and the hot springs. These hot springs have water that carries calcium carbonate which then falls out of solution as the water cools and causes these really amazing terraces of travertine. They can be pure white or colored with orange bacteria, green algae, or yellow sulfur. As time goes by the flow of the water changes or dries up entirely so there are a lot of old terraces which seem to be very fragile and fall apart. We got some great looks at Palette Spring near Devil's Thumb with some pure white terraces that looked like wedding cake, but a lot of the other parts seemed to be dry.

Minerva Terrace

We then drove up to another parking spot and walked the boardwalks past the dry Jupiter Terrace to the impressive Minerva Terrace which has a lot of colors and is flowing. After that we drove the upper terrace drive and pretty much all of that is dry and disappointing.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Basalt columns of Sheepeater Cliff

I wasn't sure if Dunraven Pass was still open, so instead of trying to go over to Tower Roosevelt, we retraced our way back towards Norris where we could cut over to the Canyon area. The road passes through Golden Gate, where a bridge hugs the cliff side at one point and then continues into an area of tilted white rocks called the Hoodoos. There is a turnout there that we should have taken because that area is very cool looking. Further south, we stopped at Sheepeater Cliff. This cliff consists of basalt columns, a formation that occurs as basalt lava cools, forming a honeycomb of rock columns. Devil's Tower in Wyoming is a spectacular example of this kind of formation, but Sheepeater Cliff still is pretty neat.

Marmot at Sheepeater Cliff

There were a couple of marmots wandering around the rocks at the bottom, including one that posed for a picture. After Norris we cut across the park. A lot of this plateau area was burned in 1988 and we didn't take a one way parallel road called Virginia Cascades which one book said sometimes has moose and follows the Gibbon River through a canyon. I will have to get that next time because it had to be more interesting. We never did see a moose in Yellowstone (or bear or wolf or coyote).

Lower Falls of Grand Canyon
of the Yellowstone
Lower Falls again Looking down the canyon

We wanted to check out the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before the sun set, so we skipped the lodge and went to the north rim of the canyon. It is more impressive than the pictures, but still not all that attractive. The lower falls are still pretty good. We made a couple of stops along the north rim to get pictures from different vantage points. Next we planned on stopping at the Canyon Lodge dining room for dinner, but it hadn't opened for the season yet and the lodge looked like it was undergoing a major renovation. We had a couple of snacks with us and headed down to Lake Yellowstone 20 miles away through Hayden Valley which is supposed to be a great spot for spotting wildlife, especially at dusk. So the timing seemed pretty good. Just down from the South Rim turnoff, we saw an elk with big antlers just lying on the hillside. Can't be easy to sleep with that thing on your head.

Bull Elk near the Grand Canyon

The Hayden Valley is really pretty, mostly grasslands, following the Yellowstone River. While it looked like a great place to see wildlife, we mostly just saw some Canadian geese and maybe a few bison in the distance.

We also made a couple of stops at a neat thermal area called Mud Volcano, though the eponymous volcano no longer exists. There were some stinky pools and vents. Also just before we got to that point was an area with a pool nearly as acidic as battery acid, bubbling, and stinking of sulfur. The bubbles aren't evidence of boiling, but are usually just carbon dioxide or other gases that have worked their way up. When we got back to the car it smelled like sulfur too.

Lake Yellowstone, looking South towards the Grand Tetons

The next possibility for dinner was the Lake Lodge, but it is pretty formal and I was in a t-shirt, so we continued on towards West Thumb along the shore of Lake Yellowstone. The sun was setting, but shining on mountains in the distance on the other side of the lake. It made for a great scene, but it was too dark to really capture it. There didn't seem to be any food in West Thumb (it seems like their grill closed at 8 PM), so we drove a little bit down the south entrance road towards Grant Village and got to the dining room there just before they were closing (actually 9:20 and they close at 10:00). This is a modern wooden structure that looks over the lake, though it was too dark to see much and we were seated in a corner without a view. The food here was some of the best we had. Susan had done all the driving so far (over 100 miles, never over 45 mph), so I drove the rest of the way home, getting back to Old Faithful Inn after an epic day at around 11 PM.