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Sunday, May 16 - Arrive Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Welcome to Yellowstone National Park!
NOTE: The photos linked in the text are just a sampling of the hundreds of pictures we will post in a separate Photo Gallery as soon as possible.
We fully expected to take only 45 minutes to reach the Snow Lodge, but we stopped at every single turnout there was along the entrance road. We don't expect to travel this road again, so we want to cover everything even though we are very tired and hungry at this point (it was after 5:00pm, but it doesn't get dark until 9:00pm).
The first stop was at a boardwalk (Two Ribbons Trail) through the forest burned in 1988 fires to show examples of how the new forest is growing on the old. It follows the Madison River. Taking the detour along Riverside Drive we were able to see herds of Elk and Bison across the river, a spectacular sight and we weren't even on the main road yet! It was almost as though they had planted the animals there to make for an exciting entrance.
Just when we thought we were clear to go, there was a bison standing in the center of the road. He wanted to cross the river using the bridge, and he did just that, ambling slowly in front of our car taking as much time as he wanted. The best part was that as we passed him he was just feet from the window so we were able to get a close-up of him. Ordinarily visitors are not allowed this close to the wildlife.
That was just the beginning of the bison encounters! They were along the roadside, grazing in the beautiful river valley, herding calves, wandering through the parking lots, and generally doing whatever they pleased oblivious to the cars and snapping cameras. We'd hate to see the traffic jam they would cause in the busy season. As it was the traffic only backed up perhaps ten deep, so it wasn't much of a delay.
We turned off several times to take in the spectacular vistas along the river. There was a bison with three calves around her playfully enjoying the late afternoon by the river. We saw squirrels everywhere, huge birds in the river, and mule deer at the water's edge. Across the river in a beautiful valley another huge herd of bison grazed. The calves are so cute!
The valley is surrounded by towering sheer cliffs that are the outer edge of the volcanic caldera created in the huge eruption that created Yellowstone. Another example of the talus we talked about earlier tumbled down right into the river from towering volcanic pinnacles, remnants of the crater walls that remain standing to this day.
We are a bit disappointed that huge portions of major thermal areas are closed to visitors at this time due to bear management. Also the Biscuit Geyser Basin is closed for reconstruction of the boardwalk. The information online said just the parking lot is closed, but the signs say "Area Closed". It is within hiking distance of Old Faithful's geyser basin, so we might wander over later in the week and check it out. However, the entire Fountain Flats drive and Firehole River drive are closed to visitors and these areas contain some of the most spectacular geysers in the park. We'll just have to come back some other time!
It took us nearly two hours to make the 45-minute drive to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge due to our sightseeing stops. So, we were VERY tired by the time we arrived. The Old Faithful area is very poorly signposted, so we had to go around the block a few times to find the entrance to the hotel. We found parking in the dirt lot off to the side, but it was closer to the back entrance of the lodge, so it worked out fine.
The Snow Lodge is the newest of Yellowstone's hotels, opened in 1999, but it was built in an appropriate style so it blends in well with the historic buildings in the vicinity. The interior is all rough-hewn beams and bear-carved iron light fixtures. The intent was to suggest walking through a forest. The upper balcony being the tree canopy and the many beams being the trees. The thing that mars this effect is the fluorescent light bulbs used in the iron chandeliers. It still looks nice, but not quite as charming as it was originally. A huge fireplace completes the lobby. The corridor leading the Obsidian Dining Room is full of an eclectic mix of comfortable rustic lodge furniture and old writing desks.
The man at the front desk greeted us with no waiting at all. He had some problems figuring out the computer system, so it ended up involving two other people, including the manager (who was very curt), to sort out. This caused a discussion of how ancient the system is here (the computers are still running the DOS operating system). Come on, we can't believe Xanterra isn't making a bundle off of these hotels at the ridiculous prices they are charging. We were given a map of the area around the hotel and the story of the Snow Lodge.
Once the check-in mess was sorted out we had a pleasant conversation with the two retirees running the front desk. Help is imported from all over the country for the season and put up in dorm-style facilities or they can bring their own RV to live in. Considering the low pay for these jobs, it is ridiculous that they are charged for their accommodations, even it is a reasonable amount.
Our room on the second floor (the lodge only has three floors) overlooks the back entrance where we came in and is conveniently at the top of the stairs from the lobby. There is also an elevator nearby.
OK, now we've read raves about this place being the absolute nicest place to stay in the park. Keep in mind the rate is over $200 per night including taxes. What you get for that is a bare-bones room with two double beds, a desk, one wooden chair, a microscopic bathroom with a toilet and shower in it, the sink in the entry corridor and some wooden hooks to hang your stuff on. Yes, there are some nice lighting fixtures, but they are bent and shabby, the carpet is thin and has no padding, the walls are paper thin, there is no A/C (we knew that), the decor is eclectic to say the least. Where the heck is all that money going? This place hasn't been updated since it was built by the looks of it. Honestly, it is a disgrace. We shudder to think what the older places are like. The Park Service should yank the monopoly away from Xanterra and let competition run its course. The system they have now sure isn't working. At least the room is relatively clean.
We went down and asked for a bellman to help with the luggage (there were signs all over the front desk saying that bell service is available, we weren't being demanding.) A nice young man was summoned to help us. We offered to drive the car up to the door, but he insisted on taking the cart out into the cinder parking lot to get the bags. We asked him if there was a better place to park and he said we were better off here than in the main parking lot. He also said that just a few days ago the snow was four feet deep in this area. Now there are just some piles of snow under the trees and at the corners of the buildings.
We were starving by this point, nearly 8:00pm, so we went down to the Obsidian Dining Room. Supposedly, this is the only really decent place to eat in the Old Faithful area, so we are kind of stuck with it. That or fast food and sandwiches. No reservations are taken during the summer season, so it is first-come, first-served. We felt like we were on a cruise, and not an upscale one, by the looks of the clientele.
The two hostesses at the podium were very pleasant and continued the trend of retirees running the place. We were given pagers and told it would be a 30-minute wait. We sat in the corridor on nice sofas and chairs, outside of the Firehole Lounge. The pager went off with a racket and then firmly said, "You're table is ready! Return to the hostess immediately!!" Geez, OK, get a grip.
We were seated at a tiny table in the corner, which was OK, but cramped. The room is somewhat attractive with custom iron chandeliers and such. However, they look as though a duster has never touched them and the myriad of mica-iron shades are askew in every direction. Doesn't anyone have any pride anymore?
Our server continued the retiree theme for the evening, but she was not only pleasant, but a lot of fun. We asked her to go party with us later (obviously kidding), but she said she was working late. She thought that suggestion was hilarious, so it broke the ice right away. All of the servers we could see were extraordinarily friendly and seemed like fun. This is quite the contrast apparently to the ones at the expensive, and poorly reviewed, Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. We asked the server if it really was all that bad and she said from what she hears, it is pretty bad. The servers are always complaining about their jobs and seem unhappy to be there and this is only the second week it has been open for the season.
Wow, what a bizarre menu this place has! If anyone eats here more than twice they will have had almost everything that looks edible. Dave asked our server what she would order and she told him the best things are the sirloin, the bison tenderloin (the people at the next table leaned over and said it was delicious after she left), and a pasta dish with grilled chicken. The special for the evening was, get this, pulled bison over cheddar polenta. The server said it is so weird that she often "forgets" to mention it to people.
We ordered the corn bisque, a salad, the bison tenderloin and the bison short ribs. Other than the wonderful service, this place sucks! The soup had a wallpaper paste consistency and had maybe four kernels of corn in it. The rest was diced potatoes with the skin still on. It had no flavor at all until salt was added and that did, at least, make it edible. The salad was OK. The meat part of both meals was outstanding, couldn't be better in fact, and a large portion. Both were served over cold (not on purpose) garlic mashed potatoes that tasted like nothing. The vegetable was mostly pieces red bell peppers with a few chunks something else we have forgotten. They were hot though, so that's a plus.
When the server came by while we were eating to ask if everything was OK, we said it was. She looked shocked, so we asked if maybe she expected a different answer and she said that other servers keep saying their guests are not very happy. Looking around the room, we saw people seated, take a look at the menu, make a face and try to figure out what they were willing to eat. Honestly, the choices aren't that bad if you can get past what it is and the meat part was fantastic. However, many people are staying for more than one day, so if you won't eat bison or wild boar, what choices do you have after the first night? We're fairly adventurous eaters...at least we're willing to TRY something new...but the general public isn't. Why not cater to your clientele? Oh well, we digress.
There are a number of tasty-looking desserts on the menu, but only Dave had the huckleberry ice cream, which was fantastic. Too bad he didn't have it for dinner. All in all, it looks like it is going to be a long eight days in the food department.
Back at the room we attempted to get a cellular internet connection with no luck. We read somewhere that the Park Service recently concluded a study and determined that internet service would not have a detrimental effect on the park's environment. And how much did it cost to figure that out? I could have told them that for free. Of course, if it ever comes to the hotels it means Xanterra will have to open up their wallet, so don't hold your breath.
Bill started to take a shower and the plumbing made some horrible whining noises that didn't make it sound very happy. When he tried to adjust the shower head, the entire thing unscrewed from the wall. The water never did get hot, only barely warm. Fun, fun, fun!! We do expect the scenery will overshadow the accommodations, but we're sure missing the Hilton about now! Dave had slightly better luck a few hours later with the hot water, but the temperature varied between scalding hot and warm with no apparent pattern.
Monday, May 17 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Although it was too warm in the room overnight to suit us, it wasn't unbearable. The fan they provided in the closet makes enough white noise to drown out some of the talking from outside and it moves the air around well. A big problem with this place is that the entire hotel, including the rooms, smells like whatever is cooking in the restaurant kitchen. Last night it was bison, this morning it is bacon. We are located nowhere near the kitchen, by the way. We expected the noise from outside to be a problem because we have to leave the window open, but it didn't bother us at all.
We went down to the dining room for breakfast and found it mostly empty. Maybe our late arrival (10:00) had something to do with it, but we were sure happy there wasn't a wait. The breakfast menu offers most everything one expects or you can opt for the buffet. The woman at the table next to us was raving over the scones and the scrambled eggs du jour, but we choose French toast, two eggs, and bacon. The food was very good and a reasonable price, $7.95, for a hotel restaurant. The buffet option is $11.50. The service was very good, also.
We set out on foot for the the nearby temporary Visitor Center. A spectacular new center is supposed to open this summer. Currently it is housed in a manufactured building next to Old Faithful Inn. However, when we arrived at around 11:30am, it was under construction and closed. OK, so how exactly are we supposed to get the geyser predictions? We're getting really tired of the poor planning around here and we just arrived. On top of that, there are almost no signs directing people where to go for various features and the information provided by the Park Service is very limited.
There are boxes with trail maps available at major sites for $.50 on the honor system. The people ahead of us didn't have any change so they put in a dollar and told us we could take one on them. We went ahead and paid anyway figuring every penny they can get might help somehow. Dave did think to bring along copies of chapters from "Yellowstone Treasures", so the limited information isn't that big of a deal to us. We do think they need to put more effort into providing user-friendly maps and information for visitors though.
There is a wide boardwalk that encircles Old Faithful Geyser with two rows of benches for waiting between eruptions. The geyser erupts roughly every 70-90 minutes. You can predict the next show by how many people are gathered on the benches (or check the front desk at your hotel). We arrived about fifteen minutes before it started and had no problems finding a place to sit. We are so glad we didn't come here in the summer when every inch of space would be packed with tourists and screaming children. It isn't unpleasantly crowded at all, in fact, and we have seen only a handful of children.
The geyser erupted on schedule to gasps of excitement, religious experiences, and probably a few orgasms. Don't get us wrong, it is beautiful, but it isn't the most spectacular geyser in the park and it wasn't all that fantastic an example of what Old Faithful can do (we saw WAY better shows later in the day). Oh well, most people were thrilled and that's all that matters. Here is sequence of nine photos of the eruption: OF1, OF2, OF3, OF4, OF5, OF6, OF7, OF8, OF9.
We waited for the crowds to rush back to the hotels, shops, or car, and started following one of the geyser walks laid out in the information we brought with us. The trail guide we picked up here was only suitable for a quick visit and we wanted explanations of the various features and to know whether to wait around for something to happen (most often the answer to that is "no").
Our route took us around Old Faithful with the geyser on our left as we circled around the back. Behind the geyser one can find Chinese Spring (Click HERE to see a short video of Chinese Spring action) and Blue Star Spring, as well as spectacular views of the runoff from Geyser Hill across the Firehole River. Each geyser or spring is entirely different from the other. Some are blue and green or amber and blue, contained within their own pool. Others are orange with beautiful streams of bacterial mats running down the white sinter. You have to see it for yourself to really appreciate it.
Backtracking a bit, we crossed a footbridge over the Firehole River, a spectacular view around every forested corner. From here you have a choice of going left to Geyser Hill or you can take a trail up the hill to Observation Point. We chose the latter. It was a lot more difficult than we anticipated and we were quickly worn out. Not only are we out of shape, but the altitude is about 8,000 feet. We did make it up almost to the top for a photo over the geyser basin below.
A branch of the trail continues through the forest to Solitary Geyser. Since it is only .3 mile to the geyser, we took that trail. It wasn't a difficult walk going downhill rather than up and we quickly arrived at the geyser. Solitary Geyser was misused in the early days before the Park Service realized how harmful it was to tap the water for other uses. A pipe was attached to this spring to use for a bath at Old Faithful Village. This lowered the water level by three feet and turned the quiet spring into a perpetual geyser. Oops! Even though the pipe was removed many years ago and the water level restored, the geyser continues to erupt every 5-7 minutes, proving that once a feature is destroyed it is sometimes impossible to restore. However, it did provide a beautiful and approachable geyser for present-day tourists to enjoy.
The walk back down from this end of the trail was very easy. We re-joined the Geyser Hill boardwalk passing Aurum Geyser, Vault Geyser, Doublet Pool and Giantess Geyser in a clockwise walk around the loop. None of these geysers are spectacular in the way Old Faithful might be and whether or not they are active at any give time is purely luck of the draw. As with the springs, each geyser has unique features in and around its cone or crater. Some spray high in the air and others just boil inside a small raised crater. Many smell like sulfur, some just steam from deep below, others you can hear water boiling inside, but nothing shows at the surface. There are a few where the water completely drains, such as Anemone Geyser, then suddenly the pool re-fills, water swirling, until finally there is a small eruption and all of the water sucks back down the drain. Others churn continuously, draining and spouting, such as Pump Geyser. It really is fascinating.
We retraced our path a bit to see Plume Geyser, Beehive Geyser (this one erupted while we were watching Old Faithful earlier), The Lion Group of geysers with beautiful Heart Spring at its base, and Ear Spring that constantly boils along one edge.
Continuing down the hill toward the river from Geyser Hill are even more thermal features as well as amazing views of the river, Old Faithful, Old Faithful Inn, and the Black Sand Geyser Basin in the distance. There are innumerable geysers and cones lining the river banks and colorful streams stain the white banks a rainbow of bright colors.
We continued walking to Liberty Pool, Sawmill Geyser, and the spectacular grouping of Grand, Vent and Turban Geysers located in their own natural amphitheater. Grand is one of the most powerful geysers in the park and had finished an eruption just about thirty minutes prior to our arrival. It is predictable only to within a 4-hour span, but the geyser watcher there said it had started on the dot of the earliest predicted time. However, for an hour after the big eruption Vent Geyser on the left continues to spew steam and water at an angle from nearby the main vent while Turban Geyser plays to the right. Turban is so named because its crater is filled with formations that resemble white turbans.
We were really running on low by this point, both hungry and tired. We sat on a bench and watched the Grand group spout while reviving ourselves with some bottled orange juice we brought with us. At this point we decided we would save the rest of the geyser walk in this area for another day and turned back to cross the river toward the amazing formations we saw steaming on the other side.
On the way to the footbridge are Belgian Pool and other thermal features. Spasmodic Geyser was particularly fun to watch, spraying water and steam all over the place (Click HERE to watch a short video of the action). Some pools are less that two feet across, but there may be three within feet of one another, but each will be a different color. And, these are features not even notable enough to have official names! The views from the bridge are equally awe-inspiring. All along the river banks are streams of colorful mineral deposits, steaming fumaroles and geyser cones.
Across the bridge we arrived first at Crested Pool, a beautifully colored spring at the edge of the spectacular Castle Geyser with Tortoise Spring. This geyser is aptly named due to its crenellated cone formation that is quite tall and wide. In order to form such an enormous cone it would have to have been active for thousands of years. It was steaming and spitting water from the top of the cone.
At this point we joined a paved bike trail (formerly the Grand Loop Road) to head back toward the Old Faithful Inn. Adjacent to the Inn is an old Hamilton Store, the original concessionaire. It is a rustic old wooden structure currently being restored. It looks like it might reopen this summer, but that is pure speculation. It appears that they are trying to remove the layers of ugly reddish-brown paint that is obscuring the details in the natural log railings.
Old Faithful Inn was recently restored to its original grandeur. The gnarled beams used in its construction were gathered in the nearby forests. Rather than face the windows of the hotel toward the geyser, the designer orientated it so that guests arriving at the grand porte cochiere would see the geyser before them. In true fashion, Old Faithful was erupting as we walked up, just as the designer had intended.
Old Faithful Inn is always busy with tourists, so it isn't a relaxing place during the day. This being the off season there weren't busloads of people being dumped at the front door, so it was pleasant to explore the soaring lobby with its towering stone fireplace and gnarled wooden support beams. We are pleased to report that they didn't replace the many old fashioned bare light bulbs with fluorescents like they did at the Snow Lodge! It is still appropriately atmospheric inside.
There is a fancy dining room inside that requires reservations for dinner, but we have heard nothing but negative comments about it. Also, there is a cafeteria-style eatery, a deli, ice cream counter and a gift shop. We checked out the gift shop, but decided that since all of the hotels are run by the same company the same merchandise would be offered in our hotel, as well.
Making our way slowly past Old Faithful and toward the venerable Old Faithful Lodge, we circled past the construction site of the new Visitor Center. The design should really complement the area well. The roof has an interesting element using a wavy metal lower edge so that when the sun hits it, it appears as though the last snow is still melting off the roof. We expect it will really be quite a sight to behold and, of course, its towering back windows will perfectly frame Old Faithful.
The Old Faithful Lodge was originally a big, open recreation hall, but it has been repurposed to house a large cafeteria restaurant, lounge, snack counter, ice cream shop, and gift shop. There are no accommodations in the Lodge itself, but the registration desk for the decrepit cabins nearby is located here. We used the newly-refurbished restrooms and wished our room could be half that nice!
The Lodge sports another towering rock fireplace in the central lounge area and huge logs supporting vast windows facing the geyser. We stopped at the deli counter and purchased some pre-made croissant sandwiches, drinks and a big chocolate cookie. The young man at the counter was very friendly. Most of the food is reasonably priced under the circumstances. In other words, they aren't charging Disney prices.
We browsed the large gift shop and found several items to buy. We could have charged the bill to our room because Xanterra also runs the shops in the Lodge, but we made the huge mistake of using a credit card. The bazillion-year-old clerk, who was very nice, but clearly clueless with computers, accidentally charged us twice for one T-shirt. She was beside herself (she caught the error herself, we'll give her a lot of credit for that), and had to call over a supervisor. Without fail, the people who are in charge are obnoxious louts who treat the front-line staff like children. Maybe sometimes that is necessary, but never in front of the customers.
Anyway, the clerk was extremely apologetic and we assured her we don't mind (because we don't, it gives us something to talk about here!) However, it remains to be seen whether the credit will really appear on our statement. The computer printed out two refund receipts to the clerk's dismay, so maybe we'll come out ahead. By the way, the merchandise in the gift shops is also fairly priced. Embroidered souvenir T-shirts are less than $20 each and they had a pile of them on special that were two for $20. Can't beat that at a major tourist attraction.
We went out on the porch to eat and sat where we had a perfect view of Old Faithful. The sandwiches were edible, but that's about the best review we can give them. The cookie was OK. However, it did revive us enough that we waited for the next eruption about twenty minutes later. The people watching alone is worth the price of admission. We swear this is just like being on a mainstream cruise line. Everyone says hello when they pass you and the mostly older visitors are comical to watch. We have no idea how most of them even found their way here unless perhaps they arrived on a tour bus. Really, it is that bad. And who wears a black, dressy outfit and dangling earring to Yellowstone in the middle of the day? You'd be surprised how many do!
An odd thing we noticed today is that there are no trash cans anywhere. This must be due to the bears raiding the trash, but it means there is no place to throw away your food containers except in the occasional big trash bin. There aren't trash cans inside either, so we're not sure the bear explanation is completely accurate. On the other hand, we have been astounded that there is virtually no littering anywhere. We saw only one old cigarette butt along a trail today and that's it. Nothing along the boardwalks or around Old Faithful. With so many people coming through we'd expect some disrespect, but we're pleased to report nothing of the sort.
On the way back to the Snow Lodge, we passed by the temporary Visitor Center and it was open. OK, so what was the problem earlier? Oh well, Dave went in to check the geyser predictions, but they are only estimate for the next eruption, not forecast for the next day. We'll have to check again when we are going in that direction again. There are still huge piles of snow sitting around by the buildings in the area.
We napped briefly and recovered from our outing until finally wandering down to the Obsidian Dining Room at 8:00pm. The proposed wait tonight was forty-five minutes, but it was actually about 25 minutes. Our pager only vibrated tonight, it didn't yell at us. Considering that this is the off season, we shudder to think what the waiting time is in the summer. The main problem seems to be that guests from the Inn come over here because the dining room there is so awful. We heard two couples tonight say that was why they came and it was so much better here. How bad does it have to be that the Snow Lodge has better food?
Our server was very friendly and the food came out promptly, but it was far worse than what we had last time because we didn't choose the bison. The salmon was satisfactory and the flavorless garlic mashed potatoes were hot tonight, plus the vegetables were different and improved. The grilled chicken pasta dish was God-awful and barely edible, but since it was filling it went a long way. The Yellowstone Sundae for dessert saved the meal.
We might have figured out the reason why the service here is so much better than in the other restaurants. The manager was out helping the staff and seemed quite pleasant. She didn't badmouth them in front of guests and they seemed to like her. It makes a big difference when the staff likes and respects their superiors and the other locations should take note of that.
Nothing of note happened after dinner. We are both sunburned on the parts that were exposed today, so we'll have to be more cautious for the remainder of our stay. Thank goodness we were wearing hats or we'd probably be miserable.
Elephants seem to have moved in above us. We can't imagine how they can walk around so much since there is very little floor space in the rooms.
Tuesday, May 18 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
As usual, we went to the dining room for breakfast and found it nearly empty at 9:45am. The food was very good and the service was again friendly and efficient. So far we have no complaints about the staff, they have been uniformly pleasant and helpful. They're not always knowledgeable, but their courtesy far outweighs that. Most of them have only been here for about a week because this is the beginning of the season.
The weather today is overcast and cooler, probably in the high 50's. It looks like it might rain later, which was predicted before we arrived.
We decided to take a break from walking the geysers near Old Faithful today and set out in the SUV for West Thumb and maybe continue toward Canyon Junction if time permits. West Thumb is an explosion crater that filled with water to form a bay off of Lake Yellowstone. West Thumb Geyser Basin is the main attraction here.
Driving east from Old Faithful Village, we climbed into the nearby mountains. We didn't have any stops planned before reaching West Thumb, so we just pulled over whenever there was a sign or something that looked like we might be interested. The first of these was an overlook for the Kepler Cascades. The Firehole River plunges down a narrow gorge and creates a spectacular waterfall hundreds of feet high. The overlook hangs out over the gorge and looking straight down to the rushing river and jagged rocks below is quite an experience. If you are afraid of heights be sure to skip this one. The surrounding rocky forest is still mostly covered in a blanket of snow.
We crossed the Continental Divide twice on the way to West Thumb. The higher passes in the mountains, this one being over 8,000 feet, are still piled several feet deep with snow on the side of the road. We had to slog through the snow to read the interpretive display about the Divide. By the way, it isn't all that cold outside, it is in the mid 50's.
Next stop was a viewpoint for the very remote Shoshone Lake frozen in the distance. This lake can only be reached by hiking through the forest for several miles. We'll settle for the view from here, thank you very much.
Reaching the other side of the mountains and starting down the other side, there is a somewhat dangerous turnout for a Lake Panorama that shows visitors the entire valley containing the enormous Lake Yellowstone, still frozen, and the jagged mountains beyond. The fires of 1988 opened up this vista by removing the tall lodgepole pines that were blocking the view before. Thank you Mother Nature!
Shortly, we arrived at West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shores of frozen Lake Yellowstone. The views from here are spectacular to say the least. There were only a few other cars in the parking lot when we arrived, but several tour busses and school groups arrived too soon to suit us. More on that in a minute.
This geyser basin is more compact than the area around Old Faithful and only requires an hour or so to see everything. There is a nice double-loop boardwalk that covers everything. One of the oldest remaining ranger stations is located in the parking lot. It is used as a bookstore in the summer and a warming hut in the winter, but is closed at the moment.
There are no regularly erupting geysers here. It is more of a bubbling mud pot, spring, colorful pool kind of place. Apparently some of the large pools erupt in spectacular fountains from time to time, but we're talking decades between eruptions, not hours or days. And, they are totally unpredictable. The features change constantly depending on the water temperature.
We you first arrive on the loop, you overlook a large area called the Painted Pools. The color of the pools depends on the water supply, ground temperature, etc., so what you'll see on any given day is anybody's guess. Today they were subtly colored in light pastels. New features pop up without notice and there were two examples of this we saw today. One was a multi-hole bubbling mud pot with a branch caught up in it and the other was a milky white bubbling mud pot directly against the boardwalk.
Continuing to the right around the loop we came upon the Thumb Paint Pots, a colorful trio of bubbling mud and colored water. On a spur to the right are the interconnected pools called Seismograph and Bluebell Pools. Seismograph's temperature is above the boiling point, so the only bacteria that can survive are the orange and brown ones. Bluebell's water is cooler and is a blue-green color that flows through a small channel into Seismograph. The colorful runoff from the pair is quite spectacular.
A stunning view of the lake's shoreline is up next with amazing vistas for as far as the eye can see. There are submerged hot springs and geysers at the edge of the lake that keep the water from freezing year 'round. Unnamed, but nonetheless spectacular small springs are wherever you look in the area. Unfortunately, there is also an example of the beautifully colored spring that was ruined because people threw trash into it. It is now an ugly brown color.
The most famous feature at West Thumb is Fishing Cone set just a few feet off shore. When the lake water is higher it is surrounded by water or even submerged. In earlier years, fishermen would stand on the cone and dip their just-caught fish into the boiling water to cook. The water can be heard boiling out of sight inside the cone. The practice was stopped when someone fell into the water and was severely burned.
The white deposits on the hillsides are stained with colorful runoff from the springs above. Continuing on along the shore you'll see Big Cone Geyser and another beautiful panorama along the icy shoreline.
Turning back inland and up the slope is the large Black Pool. It used to really be black, but rising water temperature killed off the bacteria and currently it is a beautiful blue. This pool and Abyss Pool erupted in huge fountains several years ago and occasionally still do, so the plumbing changes are constantly adjusting the colors of each feature. The edges of the pools are beautiful in their own right.
We passed a trio of unnamed dry springs right next to the boardwalk that displayed a delicate lacework of mineral deposits. Boiling water could be heard deep down in the funnels. There are some true geysers here, but as already mentioned, they rarely erupt. The Twin Geysers were spitting water and steam today.
At this point Dave got his kicks for the day. A group of little boys from a church tour was throwing large chunks of snow and ice into the thermal pools. Not only is this illegal, but it can cause the features to erupt and damage them permanently. When the chaperone said hello to us as we passed, we politely informed her that there is a $5,000 fine for throwing anything into the thermal features. She just about wet her pants. Those kids stopped tossing ice so quickly it could make your head spin. Score one for discipline!
Other features abound with exotic names like Blue Funnel Pool, Ephydra Spring, Perforated Pool, Percolating Spring (you can't see the water, but it sounds like a percolator), Ledge Spring, Surging Spring with its constantly pulsating water supply, and Collapsing Pool.
Back on the road again, we turned north toward the Canyon area. We drove through a newly-burned part of the forest that looked like it happened this winter. All of the snow was melted in the blackened area while snow remained where the trees were still green. No wonder people freaked out after they saw Yellowstone after the huge 1988 fires! It must have been heartbreaking. Of course, now we know it will grow back even better than before.
We stopped at a vantage point to see Pumice Point, a small finger of land ending in a pile of volcanic rocks jutting into the frozen lake. There are so many beautiful panoramas to see along the shoreline that it is difficult to get any mileage because we're always stopping to gaze in awe.
In a few minutes we arrived at the turnoff for Lake Village. None of the services here are open yet, but they should start opening by next weekend. First up on the right is the historic Lake Ranger Station, now closed. A new visitor center is under construction and appears ready to open later this summer. What everyone comes here for is the spectacular panoramic view from the historic Lake Hotel out over Lake Yellowstone. The hotel is the oldest remaining accommodation in the park and is said to be the most elegant. Back in the day rich people would come and stay for the entire season. Now, of course, everyone is welcome if they can get a reservation! There are also cute yellow cabins out back for the budget conscious. We prefer our location because there are more things to see and do within walking distance. It would be necessary to drive everywhere from the Lake Hotel.
Back on the main highway headed north again, we turned off on the east entrance road to see the historic Fishing Bridge. In the recent past, people would line the walkway on each side of the roadway to catch fish swimming up stream to spawn. It finally occurred to someone in the late 1970's that this was decimating the fish population and consequently affecting the bears, so fishing is no longer allowed here.
Again headed north, we stopped at LeHardy's Rapids and took the snowy boardwalk down to the river's edge to see the amazing rapids up close and in person. The river flows through a deep canyon here and the views are spectacular in every direction.
A bit further up the road we came upon a scene of Bison grazing among the thermal features along the river. It is so nice to be here in the off season when we don't have to share a scene like this with anyone else. The animals could care less if there are people watching them as long as they keep their distance.
At this point, we decided we would not make it all the way to the Grand Canyon area today, so our last major site for today would be the Mud Volcano Area. Honestly, from the description we didn't expect much, but boy were we surprised. The whole area smells heavily of sulfur, steams rises from every crevice and the humidity is oppressive.
The parking lot is surrounded by these features, so you don't even have to get out of the car to get the full effect. In fact, the super-heated steam has formed steaming holes right IN the parking lot. Directly adjacent to the parking area is the enormous Mud Cauldron. This was originally a powerful geyser, but at some point it exploded and blasted out the entire hillside, ending up in its current state, a boiling, muddy lake.
Unfortunately, the back country loop of this area to some other features is closed due to the danger of bears in the area, but there was still plenty to see. Turning onto the boardwalk, there is the sizzling expanse of Sour Lake, a stinking, seething puddle of bubbling mud and bacteria. In the picture posted here it appears that the surface is being hit by falling rain, but in fact it was not raining at all. The water is constantly in motion from gasses rising from the mud. The entire surface literally sizzles.
The biggest feature is the Mud Volcano itself. An enormous steam explosion blew out an entire hillside (in the picture, those trees on the ridge are 50' tall lodgepole pines, not shrubs!) It pulses muddy, smelly water from several sources at the base of the cliff (Click HERE to see a short video of the action). The whole spectacle is complete with loud gurgling and splashing noises.
In the near distance we could see a plume of steam rising from around a turn in the hillside. This is the famous Dragon's Mouth Spring. A more appropriate name we couldn't think of! It surges with muddy water while spewing steam from its cavern. A deep thumping sound caused by expanding steam deep within rumbles the earth all around it. Looking closely at the cavern we would see many different colors caused by varying temperatures and bacteria thriving there. The surging runoff channel revealed a bright orange coating every time the water receded (Click HERE to see a short video...please note the video is sideways, sorry, we're new at using the camera for videos!)
Across the parking lot is another huge, seething explosion crater, Sulfur Spring. At the bottom various vents hiss and sizzle while spitting water and steam, plus the aforementioned sulfur. The wooden railing was stained black by the poisonous gasses constantly being emitted (Click HERE for a short video). Early tourists described the area as, "Most repulsive and terrifying." They're not kidding!
It began to rain heavily at this point (around 3:30PM) and we were tired and hungry. So, we decided to save the canyon for another day and started to re-trace our route south. We decided to turn on the east entrance road and over the Fishing Bridge to see what might be in that direction.
The road follows the shoreline of Lake Yellowstone, so scenic vistas abound. There is Indian Pond created by a steam explosion in the ancient past, Marys Bay, another water-filled crater, and a large thermal feature that spews steam loudly from the cliff down to the lake, Steamboat Point. A thermal spring immediately off shore was keeping a large circle of water free of ice.
Continuing eastward, on the side opposite the lake some bison were enjoying an anonymous thermal vent where year-round grass and warm temperatures are available to them.
Our last stop before turning around was the Lake Butte Viewpoint atop a towering peak adjacent to the lake. The forests around here had been burned sometime in the past few years because only tiny saplings had begun to emerge. The hillsides in every direction look like the bristles of a giant brush. With the slopes still coated with snow it was quite a sight. When we got out the the car, the couple in the next vehicle pointed out a grouse next to the trees who was posing for pictures. When we approached he puffed out his red neck and made a low grunting sound, but didn't seem concerned about us at all.
On the way back to the Grand Loop Road, we stopped to take in the vista over Pelican Creek. This marshy, meandering stretch of water is prime ground for grizzly bears, but we didn't see any today.
It rained off an on during the hour or so it took us to get back to the Snow Lodge. We were totally exhausted by this time. It isn't just that we are wimps, but we're not getting enough sleep and the food is starting to get to us. We did manage to fill up on gasoline for our next outing before returning to the hotel.
Neither of us could stomach the thought of eating in the dining room again, so we went instead to the Geyser Grill. This is a fast food place on the geyser-facing end of the Snow Lodge. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner until 7:00pm, but it is very limited. Although it is attached to the hotel, you have to go through a convoluted maze of doors to get into it and even then you end up in the back corner of the dining area.
As usual, the service was VERY friendly and helpful. We ordered burgers, some chicken soup, drinks and an apple turnover (think McDonald's when they were still deep fried). The turnover wasn't ready with the rest of the meal, but the girl at the counter brought it out to us later. She was very pleasant and offered to get us anything else we might want. The food was OK, but nothing to write home about. It was about on a par with Carl's Jr. and was reasonably priced. However, the place was slow when we were there. Everything is cooked to order in a very disorganized way (what else is new around here?), so we'd hate to see what sort of chaos ensues when there is a line of customers waiting.
The decor in the grill is cute with big canoes full of whimsical wooden bears standing in as chandeliers. The trim around the top of the ceiling has cutouts of various local animals. It is a bit dingy and worn, but it is clean and the food was fairly decent. We are thinking of trying the cafeteria in the Old Faithful Lodge next time.
Wednesday, May 19 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
We were up earlier than usual today for no particular reason. The weather is much cooler than it has been since we arrived. It varied between 40 and 48 most of the day. It is overcast also, but it never rained on us.
Breakfast in the nearly empty dining room was good, as usual. We have the same thing every day because nothing else sounds all that interesting and what we do order is very good (French toast with bacon and eggs).
We were on the road toward the Canyon area by 11:00am. The drive to Canyon Village from Old Faithful takes a little over an hour if you don't stop. We had already covered everything up to the Mud Volcano, so we didn't make any stops for about fifty minutes.
Right after the Mud Volcano we found the Sulfur Cauldron on the opposite side of the road adjacent to the river. We didn't expect much because the guide books just sort of tossed it in as an aside, but what we saw was astounding. First off, there was a big steaming hole right in the parking lot that appeared fairly recently. Across the river were several steaming mounds and the entire area reeked of stinging sulfur fumes.
Looking over the edge down into the steaming abyss was like stepping back to the age of the dinosaurs. Huge bubbling, hissing pools of yellow, sulfur tinted water boiled below. The information sign says that the water is so acidic it is just below battery acid! One of the smaller pools churned and spewed yellow water into the river. Another huge pond bubbled furiously in several places while sending up clouds of acrid steam. Beyond this was a huge mounded mud pot making plopping sounds as it churned up its acidic brew. The whole scene was like a horror movie. Click HERE to view a brief video (The yellow color of the area does not show up in the video).
From here we drove north toward the Canyon area, passing through the beautiful Hayden Valley, formerly the lakebed of a much larger Yellowstone Lake.
The first of many wonderful view points at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is on the South Rim at Uncle Tom's Point. There is a trail that leads to the bottom of the canyon, but we were blocked by snow and fallen trees and couldn't make it very far down the trail. Other people were turning back also, but later we saw someone down on the platform from the other side of the canyon. When we saw the steep metal stairway to the bottom we were glad we didn't make it!
There was a busload of geriatric tourists having lunch all over the place by the viewpoint for the Lower Falls. This was a very poor choice for a lunch spot because there is only one available bathroom at this location. The line was twenty deep by the time we returned to the parking lot. Of course, they all had to eat lunch all over the areas where other tourists wanted to stand to see the view while none of them were even looking at it.
We drove to the end of the road on the South Rim to Artist's Point. This is an apt name if ever there was one! The views of the canyon from here are astounding. Every color of the rainbow is represented in the layers of rocks in the sheer cliffs leading to the bottom. Huge waterfalls tumble from the canyon in the distance. All of Yellowstone is volcanic, so the layers were formed by various eruptions. The water found the path of least resistance and eroded the softer lavas while waterfalls tumble over the ones more resistant to erosion. There are no words to describe the beauty of this place. Here are a few more photos from the viewpoint: Artist's Point 1, Artist's Point 2, Artist's Point 3, Artist's Point 4. Unfortunately, all of the trails to various waterfalls and other features in the area are closed due to snow and ice. Even more unfortunate for some people is that all of the large restroom facilities are closed, leaving only one pit toilet in the parking lot.
Driving over to the North Rim provides more ever-changing views of the canyon. There are several viewpoints along the way that give visitors various vantage points to look down on the river below and the waterfalls. Since words cannot describe the beauty, we won't try. Here is a sampling of photos from the different areas:
On the way to Inspiration Point we passed a the huge Glacial Boulder. This boulder doesn't belong here. It was moved by glaciers from many miles north in Montana and dropped here when the glacier receded.
Nearby is Canyon Village with its brand new Visitor Education Center. We checked out the exhibits inside that explain the creation of Yellowstone. Upstairs there are books and files to be used for research. The facility looks very attractive and one hopes the Old Faithful Center is this nice (which it appears it will be).
After looking at the visitor center we browsed the shops and found a few things to buy. We hadn't been in the other concessionaire's shops before today, so we wanted to see if they had anything different. They had some interesting locally-made wines and other food items, so we stocked up on a few of those, plus some souvenir items. After shopping we revived ourselves with ice cream from the stand inside the huge grocery/souvenir/tackle/sporting goods/soda fountain building. The employees here are as friendly as those at the Xanterra facilities, but they did say that they aren't looking forward to the arrival of the hordes of screaming children in a couple of weeks.
It was around 3:00pm by now, but after snacking we were ready to continue driving from Canyon Junction to Norris. There isn't much to see except scenery on this route because almost every side road is still snowed in and closed to vehicles. It is only about 17 miles from Canyon to Norris Junction, so we made the trip quickly enough with just a few brief stops along the way to look at scenery. No wildlife was spotted in the area of dense new-growth forests.
Upon reaching Norris, we drove into the parking lot of the Norris Geyser Basin, but decided it would take way too long to see anything of note. We'll come back here another day when we have more time.
Heading back south toward Madison Junction, we stopped at some colorful springs along the Gibbon River that weren't even marked with signs. We have no idea what they are, but since there is an old stone wall here it must have been an attraction at some point in the past. We thought it was pretty impressive with a mound of various colors right along the river. There were several orange-colored small springs in the same area.
The next stop was at a turnoff for the Artist's Paint Pots. We were just stopping at whatever we came across at this point, so we didn't really know what to expect. The feature is a 1/3 mile walk through new-growth forests to a spectacular hillside hot spring area. New springs pop up willy nilly without notice as evidenced by the muddy trail on the hillside where springs leak from every crack. On the flats as you approach are many different colored steaming pools, some tiny with their own little moss gardens, other milky blue surrounded by rust-red mud flats. Other pools sport white crusted rings. The bacteria matted runoff was very interesting with feathery filaments waving in the boiling hot waters.
A major feature of this area is a huge gushing, steaming hot spring at the base of the hill. Its blue pool is above the boiling point at this elevation. Click HERE to see a short video. There are some small rust-colored pools also. Up on the hillside is a huge bubbling mud pot in various pastels that plops mud as far as the boardwalk. Click HERE for a short video.
Continuing our drive south, we entered the construction zone that causes 30-minute delays during the day and closure at night. They are replacing the bridge at Beryl Spring and building a bypass road and new bridge along the Gibbon River. We stopped just past the Beryl Spring bridge to view a beautiful moss garden growing along the river in the warmth of a hot spring at the base of the hill. If you look carefully enough you will find things like this almost everywhere in the park, not just at the major marked locations.
After passing through the construction zone where the road has been completely removed, we stopped briefly at Tuff Cliff. The whitish layer in the cliff above is a layer of volcanic ash that was exploded from the crater and overlain by later lava flows.
Next down the road was a turnoff for Terrace Spring. This is a series of hot springs starting with two smaller pools at the top that drain into the much larger Terrace Spring and its huge lake-sized pool below near the road. In the heat of the protected small springs, little yellow wildflowers are blooming. In the runoff from a tiny spring below the upper pools, more little flowers bloom along the stream in their own micro-climate.
After passing Madison Junction where we had arrived from the West Entrance Road on our first day, we took the side road down Firehole Canyon Drive. This road was the original Grand Loop Road route until it was moved to its present position many years ago. This scenic road follows the rushing Firehole River passing towering volcanic cliffs and the beautiful Firehole Falls before returning to the main road.
It was about 7:00pm by now, much later than we are usually still out on the road. It doesn't get dark around here until 9:30pm or so, but it was very cold, around 45 degrees and windy, so we weren't up for much more touring. Luckily for us, most of the area on both sides of the road is closed for bear management, so Fountain Flats Road and thermal features nearby are off limits until after Memorial Day.
No matter, the Fountain Paint Pots area was open, so we checked those off our list. First up along the boardwalk here is an area of dead pines that are being petrified by the minerals in the runoff water from beautiful Celestine Pool. Colorful bacterial mats line the banks to the right and flow from Silex Spring. Up the hill are the Fountain Paint Pots themselves, a large bubbling mud pot in various shades of pink and white. Several smaller features bubble and hiss in the circle. A loudly hissing Fumarole (Click HERE to see a video) greets you at the top of the hill adjacent to the Red Spouter that suddenly appeared after a large earthquake. Near the roadway is Leather Pool that is the color of leather in proper lighting.
Continuing down the back of the hill are several geysers. Jet Geyser and Twig Geyser were both active when we arrived. Jet stopped steaming while Clepsydra kept spouting in all directions. Information says that when this happens an eruption of the huge Fountain Geyser may occur within a few hours, but it was way too cold and windy to wait for that to happen. At the moment, Fountain was just a huge steaming hole in the ground. For as far as the eye can see in every direction from here is a vast wasteland of geyser sinter and steaming hot springs.
It was WAY freezing by the time we made it back to the SUV. We never knew what the point was for heated seats until tonight. We pressed on past Biscuit Basin, also closed, but this time for reconstruction of the boardwalk. Annoying, but we still have plenty to see.
Finally back at Old Faithful Snow Lodge at around 7:30pm, we cleaned up and forced ourselves to go to the Obsidian Dining Room again. There was no waiting tonight, in fact, the room was nearly empty. An employee from the Inn said it is booked up for next weekend, but that means it isn't currently full. The Snow Lodge is very quiet tonight. We ordered the Wild Boar and the Bison Tenderloin. They were both served (as is everything on the menu) with the flavorless, although hot tonight, garlic mashed potatoes and a revolting ratatouille that didn't complement the meat at all. The bison wasn't as tender as it was the first night, but the boar was very good with a sweetish sauce over it. Dessert was the best part again, but the same dessert was presented completely differently tonight. Service was friendly and efficient as usual.
We're hoping it is at least slightly warmer tomorrow, but we're not counting on it.
Thursday, May 20 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Warmer weather did not materialize, in fact it is very cold, pouring rain and windy. Doesn't sound like we'll make it very far today, but we'll try to see something nearby.
Breakfast in the nearly-empty dining room was the same as usual. The food is really getting tedious, but at least the breakfasts are good. We went back and forth trying to decide whether or not to attempt to drive to Mammoth Hot Springs at the far northern end of the park. We'd have to traverse the construction zone again where they have completely removed the pavement. The rain continued as we were trying to figure out what to do.
We stopped by to ask at the front desk if they had the weather report. The woman there pointed out a printed weather report on the desk, then asked where we were planning to go. When she found out we were headed to Mammoth, she offered to call the hotel there and ask what the weather was like. Turned out that it is raining there also and it is supposed to snow, so we kissed off that adventure for another day.
We gathered our stuff and bundled up as best we could. On the way to the car the rain turned to sleet, not a good sign for driving. Luckily that didn't last long, so we struck out for two nearby features we skipped on the way in, Black Sand Basin and the Midway Geyser Basin. We could have walked to Black Sand if we were really ambitious, but this was a good excuse to drive to the parking lot instead.
Black Sand Basin is about a mile or so north of Old Faithful Village, so it didn't take long to get there. In spite of the freezing cold rain, people were out and about like nothing was happening, shivering along the boardwalk in shorts and a sweatshirt. We were freezing in heavy jackets over sweaters! Plus it was raining. What the heck were these people thinking?
This thermal area is home to mostly large, colorful hot spring pools and springs. We hit the boardwalk, first coming across some hissing fumaroles and springs. The quiet spring began to spurt water furiously a few seconds later. An unnamed new spring had popped up directly against the walkway that was full of milky white-blue water. You know the feature is new because the grass is still growing next to it.
As the boardwalk crosses Iron Creek, you come face to face with Cliff Geyser, a geyser with a basin so perfect we both thought it looked like something Disney plopped down in one of their rides. It sprayed water for several minutes until eventually turning into nothing more than a steaming hole in the ground.
Continuing along the boardwalk are many small, unnamed features such as bubbling clear hot springs, colorful pools, and some areas warmed by underground springs that supported blooming wildflowers. As with most thermal areas, there are stretches of colorful bacterial mats running down to the creek. It is amazing that so many different colors of mats and pools are right next to one another. The different colors depend upon the temperature of the water as well as mineral content, acidity, etc. Did we mention that it is really cold out here? Windy, too. Just wanted you to know that we are out and about even though we are suffering.
The boardwalk loop passes Green Spring, Rainbow Pool with its myriad of colors in the water and along the edges, Emerald Pool named for its color, and otherworldly Sunset Lake. The runoff and edges of Sunset Lake look like the swirling surface of Jupiter. Small funnel-shaped pools are attached to the edges of the pool and the water boils as steam clouds rise. The steam was a good way to keep warm except it kept fogging up the camera lens.
Most of the pools in this area are so large they won't fit in a camera shot, so that gives you an idea of the scope of the features. However, our next stop turned out to have some even larger waterworks. However, not all of the features are large, some are just popping to the surface right along the boardwalk. Tiny springs bubble everywhere you look.
Back in the parking lot, one of the huge black ravens we see all over the place was prancing around right next to us. We saw two of these brave birds chasing down a hawk yesterday. On the short road out from the parking lot, we stopped to take a look at Opalescent Pool and Spouter Geyser. The pool is named, obviously, for its resemblance to the gem. We don't know if the geyser is aptly named or not because its crater was dry, but the intricate geyserite formations inside were a sight to behold even without the water.
Driving north on the Grand Loop Road, we passed through the Biscuit Basin area that is currently closed while they rebuild the boardwalk. When we first arrived and found so many large areas closed for various reasons, we were afraid we would run out of things to do. That is not the case at all! We still have several major areas we haven't even touched yet. Unfortunately, one of the largest geysers is within the closed area, Great Fountain Geyser.
There are only a few features here, but they are all ENORMOUS. To reach the first attraction you cross a log bridge over the Firehole River. To the left of the bridge is a voluminous runoff channel that flows from Excelsior Geyser's crater. Over 4,000 gallons an hour flow from this geyser, more than Old Faithful puts out in a year. The geyser is nothing more than a gigantic bubbling crater full of crystal blue water now. Its eruptions were so powerful that they blew out rocks and the surrounding sinter buildup from Grand Prismatic Spring above it. This revealed the layers of buried bacterial mats and sinter. Grand Prismatic must have been flowing for thousands of years to build up such a thick layer of deposits. The scope of Excelsior's crater is hard to grasp in the thick steam that it emits, but take our word for it that it is huge. It must have been quite a spectacle before its power destroyed the plumbing system to support it. Even so, water continues to gush forth in enormous quantity.
Along the boardwalk we came to Turquoise Pool and Opal Pool, both named for their resemblance to the gemstones. They are both larger than the pools we have seen elsewhere, but the granddaddy of them all is just at the top of the hill.
As already mentioned, Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the park, is enormous. It is impossible to see the true beauty of its centuries old mini-terraces and the swirling orange rays of its bacteria mats from the ground. Check out the satellite view on Google Earth for a good overview of this giant. Graceful, primeval mats of colorful bacteria and mineral deposits combine to make fantastical designs on the spring's huge mound. From the air, the spring shows off its clear blue center surrounded by what look like the rays of the sun twisting off in every direction. An enormous volume of water flows out of this spring, down the mound into Excelsior's crater, and out into the Firehole River. All of the hot water from this and other thermal areas keeps the Firehole River warm enough that it never freezes, even far downstream.
By this time, around 1:00pm, we were cold, freezing and wet, so we decided to head back to Old Faithful and maybe walk some of the features we haven't covered yet if the weather improves. On the way we passed this sign and were amused. It was closed for bear management, which just may be appropriate.
We stopped by the hotel to freshen up and never made it out again. We had to wait for a few minutes while the maid finished cleaning our room, so we sat on the mezzanine directly off of the hallway to our room. Dave sneezed a couple of times and the clerk at the reception desk below called up to ask if she could bring him some tissues. Then she inquired whether he was sick or just had allergies because she would give him some cold medicine if he needed it. Didn't we say these people are friendly? And just for the record, we are both sneezing from allergies, only the food is making us sick.
The weather did clear up, but it never got above 40 degrees and remained very windy until after sundown. We weren't feeling well and wanted to nap and mostly stay near the bathroom. The food here is so terrible that even taking an Imodium with meals doesn't keep it from begging to get out. We're not sure if it is some sort of spice, MSG, or poor food handling, but the meals really do a number on both of us.
Eventually we needed to venture out for food again, like it or not, so we decided to give the cafeteria at the Old Faithful Lodge a shot. We did look at the menu for the Old Faithful Dining Room and we can see why nobody likes it. It was freezing on the walk over to the Lodge, but the twilight view of Old Faithful was atmospheric. If it weren't so damn cold we'd stay out and wait for the next eruption, but we're not quite up for that tonight.
Old Faithful Lodge is a historic old building that has been here since time began. It houses food outlets, a gift shop, and a beautiful stone fireplace we mentioned earlier. The registration desk for the decrepit cabins out back is also in the Lodge, but there are no rooms in the lodge itself.
The parts of the lodge we saw before are appropriately improved, but the cafeteria and its attached dining room are a hideous throwback to thoughtless remodeling of the 1970's. The beautiful log walls and beamed ceiling were poorly covered with tacky wood paneling. An inappropriate acoustical tile drop ceiling and the ugliest brass wagon wheel chandeliers complete the atrocious decor. We can't imagine what the designer was thinking. This entire space should be gutted and restored to its original design as soon as possible.
The cafeteria section you have to pass through to get to the dining room is even worse. It is a low-ceiling space with ugly stainless steel, school-cafeteria counters. Get Disney in here to theme this place! There are four stations to collect food on a tray...salads and desserts (why are these first???), hot entrees, hot sandwiches, and beverages. Down the center are glass cases of beer, packaged sandwiches and racks of chips (Ice cream and such is sold at shops in the other part of the lodge and they look fine).
A foreign couple was checking out with three beers in hand. The clerk informed them that only one alcoholic beverage may be purchased per person, per transaction. In other words, you can have more than one, but you have to go through the line over and over to get them. We're all for limiting the alcohol consumption in the park, but that rule seems rather pointless the way it is being implemented.
As per usual, the food selections are very limited and heavy on starches and carbs. That's fine with us, but the oddball assortment of menu items made us scratch our head. Bill ordered the lasagna hot entree and had a choice of vegetable...one was corn and the other was mixed vegetables. Dave had a pulled pork sandwich that came with a side of macaroni and cheese (there were other options such as beans, corn, and maybe chili, but we're not sure). We also both had pre-made salads and Dave had a slice of carrot cake. There are menus at the entrance describing all sorts of combination and options with the meals, but this information is not posted at the actual counter where you place the order. So, the person serving has to ask every person what they want on the side and tell them what is available because none of the containers visible are labeled. We'd hate to see this place when it is crowded!
To say this food was terrible is an understatement. Well, OK, the lasagna was adequate and a large portion. So was the BBQ pork, but everything else was nearly inedible or truly inedible. The vegetables were awful and the garlic bread that came with the lasagna was so hard it wasn't possible to break it. The carrot cake was dry and tasted like nothing. The macaroni and cheese had no flavor at all except maybe plain macaroni. Come to think of it, plain macaroni would have had more flavor than this did. It was almost like the cook put some yellow dye in the cooking water and that's it. We are not exaggerating how bad it was. The only saving grace tonight was that the cashier only charged us for one beverage and didn't charge for the lasagna meal at all, so consider us even for the value we received.
Honestly, Xanterra should be embarrassed to put their name on this crap. They have comment cards in every restaurant bill, all over the shops, and in the cafeteria. What do they expect people to say, that this is acceptable food? Obviously they don't care because they have to be getting negative comments constantly and yet the menus haven't changed in a century. The comment cards only ask one question related to the food, the rest of it concerns the service.
The only saving grace to anything with Xanterra's name attached is that the service in uniformly friendly and well-intentioned. We have already mentioned the many times the staff at the Snow Lodge has been nice, but this afternoon took the cake for good service. A couple of foreign visitors had shipped something to Yellowstone that they need for their trip home. It never arrived at the Snow Lodge because they didn't put a hotel name on the box (their fault completely). The staff searched the entire park and found that it was at the Mammoth Hotel. After some discussion about what to do, the clerk said she would drive up there herself (two hours EACH WAY) and get it so they would have it by the time they check out tomorrow. Is that amazing or what? These devoted seasonal employees deserve to be working in a much better facility that this, that is for sure. Nobody has a hand out for tips either. We left a tip for the maid twice that wasn't taken.
Back at the room after our terrible meals, Bill checked and found the laundry room empty. They have a fairly large facility for guests to use, but it is open to anyone, so it can be quite busy. The hotel has been slow the past couple of days, but a huge crowd of people checked in today. We noticed that the waiting area for the dining room was packed tonight when last night there was no wait at all.
Even though it is freezing, we had to open the window again to air out the food smell. It smells good if you are hungry, but it is very strong and gets overwhelming at times. We found that it is too quiet with the window closed because all of the interior noises of the hotel are amplified without the outside sounds. The hotel was obviously built on the cheap so slamming doors and chatty neighbors are a nuisance. Not to mention the elephants that walk unceasingly on the floor above.
Friday, May 21 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
The weather is better today, partly cloudy, but still cold. In any case, it is improved enough for us to venture out for another day of exploring Yellowstone. We had breakfast in the dining room as usual, but this morning it was nearly empty. The food and service were fine, but we're really getting tired of the menu. Even if it is good, you don't want the same thing every single day.
We set out for the farthest northern destination today, Mammoth Hot Springs. We expected the drive to be about two hours each way and it was exactly that, including a fifteen minute delay at the construction zone. They stop traffic in one direction, let the other direction of cars through, then switch, so each cycle takes about twenty minutes. It isn't bad this time of year...there were only about ten cars in the line...but in the coming months it will really impact travel time. Hopefully by the time the crowds arrive the road between Tower and Canyon will be open. The people manning the stops walked along the cars and told everyone to stay in their vehicle and that it would only be about ten minutes, which was a nice touch.
The drive was pleasant, passing serene vistas across valleys backed by snowy mountain peaks. There are turnouts for viewing wildlife as well as quiet scenes of pastoral creeks and forests. We've had our fill of bison and their calves, so it is no longer necessary for us to stop at every herd along the road unless, of course, they are doing something particularly cute.
The road climbs through a treacherous mountain pass known as the Golden Gate. It is hemmed in on both sides by towering cliffs of stone. The first road had to be constructed in a trestle fashion hugging one side of the cliff. The current concrete road follows the same precarious route. A waterfall plunges from the upper entrance to the pass while craggy cliffs loom overhead.
As the road descends into a beautiful valley, you pass through an area of jumbled boulders called The Hoodoos. These rocks don't belong here, they tumbled from the steep mountainsides on the side of the road. Just as the Hoodoo area ended, there were cars parked everywhere along the road and a ranger was wandering around trying to keep people from blocking the road. We think this is where bears were sighted roaming in the valley below, but we couldn't find a place to stop, so we kept driving. Even if there were bears to be seen here, they would have been tiny specks WAY down the hill.
The Mammoth Hot Springs area features the Historic Fort Yellowstone area, the park's administrative offices, and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, built in the early 1900's. It looks nice on the outside, but it is a bit antique on the inside for our tastes. It was nice to look at, but we wouldn't want to stay here. If the Snow Lodge seems rickety we can imagine what this hotel would be like. It is the only other hotel besides the Snow Lodge that is open in the winter.
We parked by the fort and took a brief stroll around the historic buildings. Deer were lounging on the lawn and munching the grass. The fort area is the only place in the park where you will find tended lawns. They were planted by the soldiers who founded the fort before the Park Service was formed and took over. Even the Visitor Center is housed in an old stone structure and there are beautiful private residences nearby for various park officials.
We walked from here up the street, passing the Mammoth Hotel, Terrace Grill and Hotel Dining Room, a Yellowstone General Store, Gas Station and the Mammoth Restrooms. The latter was doing a booming business since restroom facilities in the park are very limited and are usually of the disgusting pit variety.
At the end of the village is the first major feature, Liberty Cap. It is an ancient towering pinnacle of travertine formed by a now-inactive spring. The springs here bring up so much limestone in the water that they can add several inches per day to the terraces. The boardwalks have to be moved constantly to avoid being overrun by deposits. At one place nearby, the paved trail was overtaken by the terraces and abandoned. Springs start and stop randomly all of the time, so what you see today covered in beautiful colors may just be a crumbing white ruin next year.
Just up the boardwalk from Liberty Cap is a beautifully active spring aptly named Palette Spring. It is already starting to incorporate another extinct cone, Devil's Thumb, into its growing terraces. Water splashes down the terraces in quite a large volume from this spring. The water from the springs disappears into underground channels here and does not puddle up or flow very far.
We decided to walk back and move the car to one of the upper parking lots to continue our tour of the terraces. As we passed the Terrace Grill, we decided to go in and have some ice cream to revive ourselves. We also walked through the lobby of the hotel and looked through the gift shop. Then we wandered back toward the fort, passing a cute sleeping deer on the lawn by the hotel.
The boardwalk for the Lower Terraces passes the huge, currently inactive, Minerva Terrace. While this enormous formation is dry at the moment, it comes back to life occasionally with surprisingly large volumes of water. Because of the high mineral content of the water, the springs are constantly blocking their own outlets, forcing the water to find new ways out of the earth. One such example was just starting to build terraces out of the side of an older dry terrace.
The next stop isn't really a stop at all, but rather a loop drive through the Upper Terraces. This area looks so contrived that it is hard to believe it isn't faked for the tourists. There were some pipes sticking up out of a concrete box and we said that is probably where they hide the pumps to operate all of the springs!
The loop is on a narrow one-lane road that winds through various terraces and springs. Most are inactive now, but they do come to life depending on the water supply and other factors. Today, most were just dried up, crumbling white mounds. However, one spring is so active it is threatening to take over the roadway. Orange Mound Spring pops straight up from the road. It looks as though the water used to flow into a small basin around the corner at a parking area. But today it is flowing directly toward the road and forming beautiful draperies of color right about car window level. Attached to the mound behind it is Tangerine Spring that has a small jet of water spurting out of the top with a rainbow of colors flowing down. This one we are sure is faked (just kidding!)
Across from Orange Mound is a small travertine cone, currently dry, that mimics the shape of a mountain directly in line of sight behind it. When it is active the water fizzes as it emerges due to all of the dissolved gasses.
Around another bend we came across the long, narrow formation called White Elephant Back Spring. It is a long, tall and narrow spring with a fissure running along its backbone. Parts of it are still active with orange flows running down the side. The crack continues all the way to the road with sulfur tinted fumes rising from it. The final feature on the loop drive is the large Angel Terrace. It is mostly inactive and white, but there is a newer section that is currently flowing with color.
We parked at the beginning of the loop road and walked to the nearby Canary Spring. This amazing spring forms colorful and very elaborate terraces that are overtaking the trees nearby. The sign explained that the trees take up the mineral water until it clogs their veins. The partially petrified trees can stand for decades without rotting until they are eventually completely covered with deposits.
As we were walking back to the car, a bluebird so colorful it almost glowed, landed on a branch just long enough for a photo. We believe this was faked for our benefit also. Isn't it wonderful what they can do with animatronics these days?
It was after 5:00pm by now, so we started the long drive back toward Old Faithful Village. We stopped for a photo of the scenery around Swan Lake Flats, then drove on to the Obsidian Cliff interpretive display. The display is housed in a historic shelter made out of basalt lava columns collected nearby. The cliff isn't much to look at today because so much of the shiny black obsidian was stolen in the past. There are signs all along the roadway now reminding visitors that it is illegal to take samples. The gravelly sections piled at the base of the cliff contain lots of the shiny black stones, as well as some large boulders of it.
Our next stop was at the turnout for Roaring Mountain. An entire hillside roars with steam emissions from countless fumaroles. The hillside is being eaten alive by the microorganisms that live in the fumes. In the past the rush of steam could be heard four miles away at Obsidian Cliff, but today it was just a low roar.
We have two major destinations left to see, one of which we stopped to view in the distance from an overlook, Norris Geyser Basin. This area is too large to take in unless we make a day of it. We hope to do that tomorrow, but it will depend on the weather. If it rains we will finish up the geyser basin closer to Old Faithful.
Back at the Snow Lodge, we forced ourselves to go to the Geyser Grill for dinner. We just couldn't face the dining room again tonight. The grill isn't much better, but at least it is relatively normal. When we arrived the woman at the counter was screaming at the cook and another guy at the top of her lungs. There was no need to yell at all since they were no more than ten feet away, she just wanted them to make a certain sandwich. She freaked out later and began screaming again when she accidentally ordered a chicken sandwich instead of the chicken salad. When we went up to place our order, it turned out that she is the assistant food and beverage manager. Wow, that sure explains a lot.
We ordered hot dogs and a fried chicken sandwich. Both were acceptable for what they are, so no complaints particularly. In fact, the chicken sandwich was almost good. We have completely exhausted the food options at this point. We have no idea how a picky eater would survive at this place.
While we were sitting there contemplating our meal, we came to the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing about the Snow Lodge that we actually like. The staff is friendly and very helpful, but the facility itself is really lacking. When you come back to the hotel from a day of sightseeing all you want is a decent meal and a comfortable place to rest. This place offers neither of those things. In fact, it is a hassle to do anything here. Yellowstone is fantastic, but unfortunately one has to put up with staying in these God-awful hotels to do it. Next time we would book the most basic cabin since the hotel rooms certainly aren't anything fancy. Why not just rough it in a cabin for half the price? At the very least you'd avoid having elephants stomping around on the ceiling every night.
Once again, there was no hot water in the shower tonight. We heard a couple this morning in the dining room complaining that they haven't had hot water for two days. To be completely accurate, the water is tepid, not freezing cold, but it varies from that to scalding hot depending on the mood of the plumbing at any given time.
Saturday, May 22 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
We awoke to quite a surprise this morning, it is snowing! Several inches had already accumulated when we opened the shutters and it was still snowing when we went down for breakfast. Needless to say, it is freezing outside, in the low 30's. While we were eating it did lighten up a bit, but it never did completely clear up. We'd rather walk around in falling snow than pouring rain though.
On the way back to the room we went outside to check the temperature. Yep, it is definitely freezing! The friendly woman who helped check us in came over and whined about the weather. She said it has been like this since she arrived in April...hot one day, freezing the next. She has to bring all sorts of layers of clothing with her every day to work so she has what she needs to walk back to the dorms. We asked her if we should go to Norris Geyser Basin (about an hour drive north) or stay around here and finish the geyser walk. She immediately said to go to Norris and, "Don't let the weather stop you. Just go." She also confirmed what we already knew about the geyser walk, don't stop at Morning Glory Pool, keep following the pathway and there are several worthwhile things to see where most people never go.
We bundled up with all the layers we have and went back downstairs toward the car. The woman we asked about the weather the day it was raining called out that we had better stop bringing on this bad weather, so we informed her that we couldn't have brought this weather because it doesn't snow in San Diego!
The car was covered with a few inches of snow, but it brushed right off with no problem and we were on our way. Norris Geyser Basin is one of the major "must see" places in Yellowstone. The largest geyser is located there, but it is unpredictable, so it is highly unlikely it will do anything major for us. Although the snow fell off and on all day, it didn't stick to the roads or affect travel at all.
We had to dodge the stopped traffic several times because the bison were out along the road in several places. One of the calves was running around playing, trying desperately to engage the others, but to no avail. Finally he plopped himself down in disgust and started munching grass instead. It was too cute!
The drive to Norris involves the construction zone, so we were stuck there for the usual twenty minutes. Even in the snow, they had someone walking the line of cars announcing how long the delay would be (15-20 minutes) and telling everyone to keep moving and stay in the car. Being Saturday, the line of cars was longer than previously, but it still wasn't anything drastic. Every parking lot is busy today, but the crowds aren't ridiculous. However, we keep saying to ourselves that we would hate to be here in the summer when there are no parking places left and the roads are bumper to bumper.
We arrived at Norris about an hour after we left Old Faithful, around noon. This area is divided into two parts, Porcelain Basin to the right and the Back Basin to the left. Up a short trail from the parking lot you come across the historic Norris Museum, still closed for the season. The breezeway through the center perfectly frames a spectacular view of Porcelain Basin.
The Basin is so named because it sort of resembles the translucent white and pastels of porcelain. Certain parts of it do, but the area to the right resembles the seething surface of Jupiter more than any Earthy substance. Immediately in front of you as you descend into the otherworldly landscape is an enormous roaring steam vent aptly named the Black Growler. Steam rushes from several huge holes in the ground with a tremendous roar. Strangely enough, a large shelf of snow still exists just inches away from one of the fiercest vents.
Down the boardwalk to the right we started our walk to the planet Jupiter. Showing how volatile this area is, a large boiling hole had opened up directly under the boardwalk.
To try to describe the panorama of spewing geysers, bubbling springs and boiling pools below is nearly impossible. Click HERE to see a short video. There are so many small geysers on the colorful plain that it isn't possible to keep track. Steam rises from the superheated hillside beyond while water spews from cracks in the ground. It is an awe-inspiring sight for sure.
To the right of the boardwalk some sulfurous steam vents are dissolving the hillside in a similar process to that we saw yesterday at Roaring Mountain. The difference here is that the gasses are venting directly out of the rocks rather than from well-defined fumaroles, so the area is called a Solfatara. The ground is very soft and dangerous to walk on. You could easily sink into the hot ground and be steamed to death in a few seconds. Adjacent to this mess is Congress Spring, so named because it just sits there and does nothing...although today the light green milky water was bubbling with gas.
We did mention that it is freezing, right? On top of that, it is sometimes very windy and chunks of slushy snow are falling. We'd rather be caught in a snow flurry than rain though. Down on the boardwalk loop that cuts across the basin, there are so many geysers, springs and pools that most don't even have names. Some of those that do are Colloidal Pool, Sunday Geyser, Constant Geyser (which wasn't doing anything at all today), Whirligig Geyser, Pinwheel Geyser, and Dark Cavern Geyser.
The snow really started to fall when we were in the most exposed part of the boardwalk with no protection at all. The ice started to build up along the edge of the walkway in just a few seconds. The boardwalk leads to a gravel trail through the forest to another part of the basin. Along the way were some brand new mud pots beginning to form. Many other pools and springs are along this route also, some are a pale milky blue while others are bright orange or green, depending on the temperature of the water. The boardwalk begins going uphill at Crackling Lake, a very colorful shallow pond that makes a loud cracking sound due to the hot gasses escaping from its spring.
Up the hill and following the trail through the forest to Back Basin, we passed by Forgotten Fumarole with its elaborate white formations around the dry funnel-shaped hole. The first feature we came across in the Back Basin section is Minute Geyser, an example of how thoughtless early tourists destroyed a geyser that used to erupt every minute. They threw so many rocks into it that it clogged the plumbing. The geyser still spurts water from a nearby vent, but it isn't nearly as spectacular as it once was. This is the main reason the main road was moved away from this area years ago.
There are many geysers along this loop, too numerous to mention individually. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of thermal features to see here. Our guide book points out fifty of them by name, but there are literally hundreds of them here. Some are clear blue pools with gas bubbles lazily rising to the surface while others boil or steam furiously. One of many named geysers is Fearless Geyser, but it wasn't doing anything today.
Down an innocent looking turn in the boardwalk we came across the dramatic Green Dragon Spring. The water bubbles up from a blown-out cavern whose roof is lined with bright green and yellow deposits. Steam belches from the opening to complete the sinister atmosphere. Nearby is a bubbling mud pit in another explosion crater called Black Hermit's Cauldron.
Continuing the loop we came across serene landscapes fed by warm springs and steam. Among the generally devastated forests of a thermal area you can find beautiful microclimates of mosses and grass thriving in the moist heat. Nearby a large mossy glen is Puff 'n' Stuff Geyser, mostly just a jumble of furiously steaming rocks on the hillside today. A blockade had been placed on the trail over a newly forming hot spring.
One of the most famous features here is Echinus Geyser. It resides in an enormous explosion crater against the hillside. Its eruptions are currently unpredictable, but sometimes it keeps a regular schedule of spectacular shows. Today it was bubbling and steaming, but not much else. Nearby, a relatively new spring had flooded the forest and killed the trees, emphasizing the fact that nothing is forever in this environment.
Before climbing back up the hill, the boardwalk detours past the brightly colored Cistern Spring. Photos do not do the color palette justice. The yellow-green is so bright it almost appears to be glowing. Intricate edge details complete the picture. When the enormous Steamboat Geyser nearby erupts, this pool drains completely and then slowly refills over a couple of days. It was full to overflowing today.
The aforementioned Steamboat Geyser is just up the hill. When this geyser has a major eruption it can spew hot water up to 400' in the air making it the world's largest geyser. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened since 2005 according to the sign, but it does spurt shorter bursts of water and steam almost constantly. Various smaller cones around the base constantly emit plumes of steam accompanied by appropriate sound effects.
The final major feature before reaching the museum again is Emerald Spring known for its deep green coloration. Due to the freezing temperatures today, the colors are a bit dull from the voluminous steam coming off the water, but the springs are beautiful nonetheless.
While thawing in the car in the parking lot, the snow began to fall harder than ever. Click HERE for a video of the proof that we actually did leave the hotel in this weather!
It was about 3:30pm when we were finished with our walking tour of Norris Geyser Basin and we have covered everything along the route back to Old Faithful. So, we declared ourselves finished with this part of the park for this trip. The only area we did not visit was the Tower Falls area. It would be a three-hour drive for us because the Dunraven Pass section of the road is still blocked by snow. We think we'll survive missing this one big attraction.
While waiting for the construction delay, it began to snow again, almost obscuring the view up the road. The poor guy who has to walk down the line of cars looked like he was freezing, but he was still cheerful about it.
We arrived back at the Snow Lodge around 4:30pm. Hungry, but not all that hot to have any more food from Xanterra's restaurants than absolutely necessary, we walked next door to the Yellowstone General Store. We bought some huge peanut butter cookies and a few souvenirs before searching out their snack bar in the back. While the food was nothing to write home about (cheese pizza and a huge hot dog), it was worth a shot rather than eating at the Geyser Grill again. The general stores here are operated by Delaware North, not Xanterra. We can't say there is really much difference though, but it was worth a try. The cookies were very good, but they were pre-packaged from the grocery section, not baked here.
After snacking we went back to the room to thaw out and rest until dinner time. The snow started to fall lightly around 5:30pm and continued to do so into the evening. It finally started to stick to the rooftops around 7:00pm, so we expect there will be a similar scene tomorrow as we had this morning. By the way, all of the accumulated snow had disappeared before we returned to the hotel in spite of the occasional flurries during the day.
We forced ourselves to go to the dining room around 8:30pm and found it had a wait of about 25 minutes. We took a pager and went for drinks in the attached Firehole Lounge. The drinks were good and reasonably priced for a hotel bar. While the restaurant was full, only a handful of tables and two chairs by the fireplace were occupied in the bar. Service was prompt and friendly.
Our pager went off within the specified amount of time. We had the same server we have had twice before. Dave's New York steak was good, but the mashed potatoes were cold again and the portion served was one-third of previous meals. The best part of eating in the dining room is watching the other diners be horrified by either the menu or by what they receive after ordering. One woman we saw was appalled by the rotisserie chicken and even had her husband taste it to determine it wasn't just her. A man at another table returned his steak, but we don't know why. We would sure tire quickly of working here and hearing the constant complaints. However, every single employee is very friendly and couldn't be any more pleasant.
Luckily there was hot water for showers tonight because we needed it to boil the sulfur smell out of our hair.
Sunday, May 23 - Yellowstone National Park - Old Faithful Snow Lodge
It is a beautiful, mostly sunny day today, although still very chilly (around 40 degrees). There is a light dusting of snow on the rooftops, but it doesn't appear that there will be any precipitation today.
As usual, the dining room was nearly empty for breakfast. The scrambled eggs were cold for the first time. When the waiter came over to ask if everything was OK, instead of asking that he asked, "Is everything hot and as it should be?" We told him no, but don't bother replacing it. He said that the egg lady and the grill lady aren't working well together today. So it takes two people to put together a plate of French toast with scrambled eggs? Come on! When we worked at Disneyland we were able to slap out entire breakfasts from a tiny ill-quipped kitchen, so they certainly should be able to do it here. We cringe when we think of what the actual food handling practices must be since nothing is ever really hot or really cold.
After breakfast we walked across the parking lot passing the back of the Old Faithful Inn, around the end of one of the log-built wings and onto the paved pathway that leads toward the Upper Geyser Basin. This pathway used to be the Grand Loop Road until the bypass road was built to keep traffic farther away from the thermal features. When the road passed close to them the vandalism was a terrible problem.
Today's goal is to complete the walk through the Upper Geyser Basin from where we left off on the first day. You may recall that we ended with Castle Geyser when we ran out of energy, so that's where we picked up the route today. We crossed the river near Castle Geyser and turned onto the boardwalk toward Grand Geyser and beyond. Part of the walkway back toward Old Faithful from here is closed because there is a bear frequenting the area, so we're glad we saw everything in that direction before.
Past Grand Geyser, which was nothing but a steaming crater today unlike the spraying/splashing that was going on last time we passed by, are a number of spectacular springs and geysers. First up on the right is Wave Spring whose surface constantly ripples with tiny waves. Around the bend in the boardwalk are two large, interdependent pools, Beauty and Chromatic Pools. One or the other usually looks better depending on the interchange of water. Today, Beauty's bacterial mats are looking rather tattered and peeling from the walls. Chromatic Pool looked better, but it is starting to peel also.
On the other side of the river to the right is the Giant Geyser complex of interdependent geysers. There are several geysers in close proximity here and they play together or independently. Giant Geyser is very old judging by the tall cone it has built. Its eruptions are huge, but are unpredictable and rare. However, the water almost constantly splashes inside the cone. To the far left of Giant is Bijou Geyser that today is splashing wildly a few feet out of its crater.
As we were walking up the path from Giant Geyser, we noticed that Daisy Geyser across the river was erupting. We'll come to this geyser later, but since it is erupting now we stopped to watch for a few minutes before proceeding to the next big deal on the pathway.
That "big deal" is Grotto Geyser with its grotesquely shaped cone. From the back it is a smooth white mound full of holes that steam and boil from deep inside. Water splashes around almost continuously. When this geyser erupts, water sprays from every direction. The front of the cone is a hodge-podge of pillars and other shapes. It is believed that the deposits formed over dead trees in order to make these odd designs.
One of the most predictable geysers in the park is coming up next along its own spur in the pathway. Riverside Geyser has been delighting visitors for over a century. There was a crowd of people waiting, so we figured maybe we would get lucky and witness an eruption. When we arrived, water was spilling from one side of the chair-like formation along the riverbank. Our guidebook said that if this is happening, the eruption will begin within an hour. We parked ourselves on a bench and waited along with everyone else.
We were not disappointed as the eruption began precisely as scheduled and spewed water the entire width of the river. The eruption continued for over twenty minutes before the geyser finally exhausted the water supply and belched steam. When we passed by later it was nothing more than a smoldering dry cone. Click HERE to see a video of the eruption in progress.
There are too many pools and geysers along the route to mention individually, but the most famous of all is Morning Glory Pool at the end of the boardwalk. The loop road was moved because visitors kept throwing things into this pool and it blocked the plumbing system, causing the colors to fade. Even today the pool has to be cleaned out annually by the rangers to keep it functioning properly.
We read in our guide book and were told by the woman at the hotel, to continue walking on the trail beyond Morning Glory Pool because almost no one does this. The pathway was part of the loop road in the past, but all remnants of the pavement have been removed or covered over. You would never know a road was here except for the stone walls near Gem Pool. Otherwise, the trail is just a scenic pathway through the forest. We only met a handful of other people during the hour we walked this route, so even if the main attractions are crowded it is still easy to find a quiet spot just steps away.
Across the river is Cyclops Spring with colorful runoff feeding into the river. We passed the skull of a bison who didn't survive the winter, as well as a deep, clear blue bubbling spring at the bottom of a steaming pit. There are no signs or railings along this trail, so it is possible to walk right up to the features, within reason. There are scary warning signs all over about not getting too close. If you were to fall into one of these pools you'd be boiled alive in a matter of seconds.
Toward the end of the trail is the beautifully colored Mirror Spring. This end of the trail meets the Grand Loop Road. If it were open we could have continued to the Biscuit Basin features from here. It was a bit disconcerting to reach this end of the trail where the signs for arrivals from the road are located. There was a Bear Warning sign tacked to the post. This wasn't mentioned at the end where we started.
We retraced our steps back to the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk, continuing back toward where we started. We turned off on the spur to the right toward the Daisy Geyser complex. We saw Daisy erupt earlier from across the river. At the moment it is splashing at bit and Comet Geyser immediately adjacent is spouting a few feet above its crater.
Continuing on around Daisy is a very tall extinct cone of a spring or geyser in the distance across a meadow. The scenery along the trails is breathtaking no matter where you look. The walkway continues toward Punch Bowl Spring atop its own mound. This spring was tapped for use in the visitor camps years ago, but it didn't have an irreversible effect on it. There is still a notch in the rim where the pipe was attached and most of the overflow goes through it, but it looks quite natural now.
Punch Bowl Spring was the end of our tour of Yellowstone's thermal features. We wandered back along the old road toward Old Faithful. The old Hamilton Store opened for the season today, so we went in to check it out. There is a diner-type food service counter at one end that would have come in handy for us, but too late now to save us from the Snow Lodge meals. We bought a couple of souvenir items and had to endure another bazillion-year-old clerk in training. As always, everyone was very nice, so putting up with someone who has never seen a computer before today isn't a big deal.
We walked past the front of the Old Faithful Inn and around to the Old Faithful Geyser walkway. There was a crowd gathering on the benches, so we assumed correctly that there is an eruption imminent. We had to wait about twenty minutes, but it was pleasant and not crowded on the outer part of the walkway. Actually, the boardwalk part isn't crowded this time of year either, but we wouldn't want to be here in a few weeks when the masses arrive.
The eruption today was much more spectacular than the first one we saw. We took one last photo of Old Faithful before wandering back to the Snow Lodge. Click HERE to see a video of the entire eruption.
After cleaning up and shedding a few layers, we walked over to the Yellowstone General Store for a light lunch of individual cheese pizzas. Too bad we didn't find this place before yesterday because the food is actually decent for what it is. This will enable us to order a lighter meal from the dining room later tonight.
A busload of tourists arrived today, so the hotel is quite noisy tonight. Our neighbors are the most talkative we have had yet, but since they're over 80 we assume they won't be up partying until the wee hours. Between the time we returned to the hotel and going downstairs for dinner, we rested and re-arranged our luggage for our return trip.
There was no wait to be seated in the dining room tonight, but the service was very slow. Our waiter was training a new waitress, but that didn't seem to be the reason for the poor service. The special tonight featured a rib-eye steak and different potatoes than the usual garlic-mashed, so it was relatively good overall. We were amused by a large party of Koreans who barged past the hostesses and seated themselves. It seemed to amuse the staff more than annoy them. The best part was that they ended up being served by one of the waitresses who doesn't take crap from anyone. We wished we could just sit there and watch the scenario unfold, but it was getting late.
It snowed slightly just before dark.
Monday, May 24 - Drive to Jackson, WY Via Grand Teton National Park - Homewood Suites by Hilton
Situated in famed Jackson Hole,
National Park's crown jewels include the Cathedral Group of peaks and the
majestic Snake River. The dramatic spires that inspired Ansel Adams rise
straight from valley floors, providing awe-inducing views. See them at their
most compelling from the comparatively gentle Jenny Lake and Hermitage Point's
trails or the switchbacks of Death Canyon. Jackson Lake is favored for
windsurfing and sailing. Colter Bay Visitor Center contains an Indian Arts
We awoke to a winter wonderland this morning, except this is supposed to be spring! There is so much snow in the trees that we're worried the road through the mountains will be closed. With no news or internet connections, we have no way to find out until we go downstairs to ask at the front desk.
We had the same waiter at breakfast we have had several times before and at dinner last night. All of the employees in the dining room this morning were here last night, so all of them look barely awake. Breakfast was good, no problems except the waiter forgot to bring part of the order until we reminded him.
After breakfast we packed up and called for a bellman, who never came. Bill went to move the car to the door and found the bellman standing in the middle of the lobby waiting for business. Apparently no one told him he had a call.
Dave went to check out with the same woman who checked us in. She asked how we enjoyed the stay and Dave replied, "I might just kiss the ground when we get to the Hilton today." She thought that was hilarious and said, "Yes, the park hotels are a bit 'different', aren't they?" Then she said how much they enjoyed having us and thanked us for cheering them up. She called the road condition hotline for us because the road from West Thumb to the South Entrance was closed earlier this morning. The recording said all roads are open, but snow tires are required for the South Entrance. We figured since we have 4-wheel drive we should be OK.
We left the hotel around 11:00am and set out for the South Entrance to Yellowstone and onward south to Jackson. The snow continued to fall off and on all day, but it never was a problem for us and the roads were clear. Driving through the Continental Divide part of the mountain was snowy, but it was by far worse on the other side of the slope.
Turning south on the South Entrance Road, we passed frozen, snow-covered Lewis Lake before arriving at Lewis Falls. We had to climb up a snowy pathway to the lookout for the falls. The best view was from the north end of the bridge. A snowy meadow with the river running through it was scenic on the other side of the bridge.
A few miles south we came across a turnout overlooking a deep canyon with the Lewis River far below. There was an exhibit explaining how the fires in 1988 blew through this canyon and started fires on the other side.
Just north of the south entrance of the park is a small turnout for Moose Falls. The trail to the falls was very wet and muddy, but the view is worth the trek. There are no formal lookouts or railings in these off the wall locations, so it is almost like being the first to visit the scene. The road crosses the river on a picturesque old stone bridge.
Outside of the park the road continues through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway which is a narrow strip of land that was donated to preserve the area between Yellowstone and Grand Teton. There are some resorts along the way, but almost everything is still closed and snow-covered.
A several-mile stretch of the road is under construction and the pavement has been removed, so it was slow going for quite a while. Eventually we arrived at Grand Teton National Park. We stopped at the Colter Bay Visitor Center for a park map. There is an exhibit of Indian Art in the center, so we checked that out and got our cultural enrichment for the day. The whole place smelled of mildew, so we got out of there as quickly as possible.
The road skirts the shoreline of Jackson Lake for a few miles before turning through ranch land again. We stopped at a viewpoint over Willow Flats (posted with warning signs about bears). A couple was being mobbed by some Yellow Headed Black Birds. They were feeding the birds and the brave creatures we flying up and actually eating right out of their hand. By the way, it is illegal to feed the wildlife, including birds, in the national parks.
Our next stop was at the Cunningham Cabin Historic Site. We're not sure of the exact historical significance of the cabin, mostly because the dispenser of brochures was empty. However, it is a registered Historic Site according to the plaque inside. It sits in the middle of nowhere, but has a spectacular view of the Tetons across the valley. It must have been beautiful, but harsh living here in those days.
There are several turnouts with various explanations of the Snake River Valley and the Teton Mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, the snowy weather and low clouds prevented us from seeing much of the Tetons today.
A few miles farther and we turned off the main highway toward Slide Lake. The drive through rural farmlands is picturesque. There were herds of bison and other animals running wild. Slide Lake was created in the 1920's when a huge chunk of the mountain side suddenly slid from 9,000 feet into the valley below and splashed up the opposite side of the valley. Two years later, the earthen dam broke and washed away the small town of Kelly down river. Today it is hard to see the debris because a forest has grown over it, but looking through the trees we could see the enormous piles of rocks. A smaller lake still exists behind the breached dam.
Back on the main highway it is a short distance to the Jackson Hole valley at the base of the Tetons. Trish took us directly to the Homewood Suites by Hilton at the edge of the tourist town of Jackson, WY.
We checked in with no problem. In our room we found a personalized welcome letter, two bottles of water and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies, our HHonors extras for this brand. Unfortunately, we also found that the living room part of the suite was missing all of the draperies, so we collected our freebies and went back to the front desk. We were moved to a room on the other side of the hotel, went out and brought up our luggage, only to discover that our new keys didn't work. Back down to the desk where the hotel manager and some other official-looking people were standing around. We received new keys and an apology. All was well from then on.
Bill had laundry to do, so we were happy to find that the laundry room (free of charge) is just a short distance down the hall. On the way to the room, he dumped the bag of laundry into the machine. It took hours to dry the clothes because the machine's automatic setting didn't work, unbeknownst to us until an hour elapsed and the laundry still wasn't dry.
All of the rooms here are like mini-apartments with a fully stocked kitchen, refrigerator with ice maker, dishwasher containing a full set of dishes already washed, a small cook top, microwave and a supply of popcorn and coffee. There are also pots and pans with basic utensils for cooking. We don't plan to do any cooking, but it is nice to have our own supply of ice and a full-sized refrigerator-freezer.
In addition to the kitchen the suite consists of a living room with a gas fireplace, desk area, bathroom with the toilet/shower in a separate space, and a bedroom with two double beds. Best of all is the fantastic Hilton bedding we enjoyed at the Garden Inns. Anything is an improvement over the Snow Lodge.
The hotel serves a light dinner on weeknights, in addition to the breakfast served every morning. The menu for the entire month is posted on the refrigerator, which is a nice touch. Tonight's entree is Stuffed Green Peppers with greens beans and rolls. We went down to eat after the laundry finally dried. They also had salad and several choices of beverage. The food was good for a free meal and you can have as much as you want. We would probably prefer to go out to dinner, but we are tired tonight and this is a wonderful option.
On the way back to the room we bought some ice cream from the "Suite Shop" and chatted briefly with the guy at the front desk. He gave us a map of Jackson and some other local information.
We relaxed in the room for the rest of the evening, reveling in the glory of a hotel room that doesn't have elephants walking on the ceiling and toilet paper that doesn't make crinkling sounds when it is crumpled.
Tuesday, May 25 - Jackson, WY - Homewood Suites by Hilton
It was so quiet and so comfortable being in a real hotel that we overslept and had to rush to make it down for breakfast this morning. The weather is much improved today. It is partly cloudy and cold, but not freezing.
Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, make-your-own waffles, muffins, a variety of bread and bagels for toasting, dry cereals and yogurt. Everything was good and was fully-stocked even though we arrived at the last minute. The hotel manager came in and asked everyone (one other couple besides us) if everything is OK.
On the way back to the elevator, the desk clerk (who we hadn't seen before) asked if we are twins. This question is so ridiculous we can't hide our contempt anymore, although we do laugh it off. After we told her that isn't the case, she said, "Oh, yeah, I see he (pointing at Bill) is older." Talk about putting your foot in your mouth. Dave is nine years older than Bill! She was appropriately apologetic when we informed her how wrong she was.
Since the weather is cooperating, we are sticking to our plan to do the drive of Grand Teton National Park today. We left the hotel around noon and drove north toward the Moran entrance to the park. On the way we passed the Elk Refuge and stopped to take a few pictures of the view back toward Jackson.
Our next stop was at the monument announcing the border of Grand Teton National Park. The views from here are spectacular. Looking carefully at the peaks of the Tetons you will see many interesting features including glaciers and a flat lava flow perched at the very top of the range.
About twenty minutes later we arrived at the toll booths at the Moran entrance to the park. We have an annual pass, so it was no charge for us, but ordinarily it is $25.00 per car, good for seven consecutive days. You can also go to Yellowstone in this same time frame without paying another entrance fee.
We pulled over at every turnout and viewpoint along the Grand Teton Road. The first of these is at Oxbow Bend where the river makes a tight bend. The calm water provides a spectacular reflection of the Teton peaks in the distance.
The next major stop was just after Jackson Lake Dam. The dam was built to provide irrigation for Idaho potato farmers before the area became a national park. The dam was reconstructed in the 1980's and the height raised by several feet. At the viewpoint there is a display of the original portable motor used to open the spillway gates. The views over Jackson Lake toward the mountains is, of course, amazing.
We intended to take a scenic drive to the top of Signal Mountain, but the road is still closed, so we continued on to our next stop at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart. This log structure features a rustic interior and is still used for Catholic services to this day.
Nearby is the Signal Mountain Lodge where there are accommodations and a lodge building with a restaurant, bar and two gift shops. We found some very nice and reasonably priced things to buy. The staff in both shops was very friendly and helpful.
The next turnout is for something called The Potholes. The best we can figure out is that this refers to a slight depression in the otherwise desolate meadow that supports an island of pine trees. There were no signs or other information, so we're just guessing at the explanation.
At the Mount Moran turnout there is an interpretive display pointing out a layer of lava at the very top of the mountain peak that was originally at the valley floor. When the mountains were thrust upward, this layer hinged upward and now stands on end thousands of feet above the valley floor.
We turned off on the one-way Jenny Lake Scenic Drive. Honestly, the drive didn't show us much. It sort of winds through a forest, which is pretty, but nothing to write home about. It passes the still-closed Jenny Lake Lodge and does have a nice overlook for the lake views. The next viewpoint is for an explanation and view of the glacier in one of the Teton's upper valleys.
This completed the tour of the Teton drive except for the short trip to the southern entrance. There were cars stopped along the road, so we got out to see what they were looking at. There was a single moose browsing in a shallow lake near the road. The poor guy was just trying to find a snack and ended up with crowds of people staring at him. He didn't seem to mind though.
Another bunch of cars was stopped a few miles later, but this time it was for a single Pronghorn Sheep laying in the middle of a field all by itself. We saw a herd of these animals running in a meadow yesterday on the way back from Slide Lake.
Just inside the Moose Entrance to the park is an area featuring several historic buildings. There is recreation of the ingenious Menor's Ferry that used to carry people and goods across the Snake River using the current for power. Adjacent to the ferry landing is an old General Store, a log barn full of old wagons and such, and Maud Noble's Cabin. Nearby is the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Inside is a window behind the altar that has a view amazing enough to inspire religion in almost anyone. The hand-hewn log pews complete the picture.
On the way to the main highway, another moose was attracting a crowd on the bridge. The name Moose Junction was chosen for a reason!
It is only about fifteen minutes back to Jackson from the Moose entrance and with a stop at a gallery along the way, we were back at the hotel by 4:00pm. The desk clerk chatted with us briefly (we hadn't met her before), then we went up to the room to clean up and get ready to go out to dinner. We decided to walk to a Mexican restaurant we passed on the way back, only two blocks from the hotel.
The town of Jackson is full of an eclectic mix of the old and the new. Some of the buildings are of log construction, such as a large church complex we passed on the way. Many of the shops are fronted by frontier-style boardwalks. The restaurant we went to is called the Merry Piglets Mexican Grill and Cantina. The decor was very cute with some clever murals of pigs doing various things, including serving tacos and driving a convertible. The service was very friendly and the food was plentiful and tasty, but overpriced for Mexican food. However, everything in Jackson is ridiculously priced, so this was probably one of the least expensive dining options other than fast food.
After dinner we took a walk around Jackson's famous Town Square. There are huge arches made of elk antlers at each corner of the square. The shops surrounding the square feature art galleries and other tourist-oriented shops. The buildings are a mix of old and new, some featuring log construction, others have kitschy cowboy-themed facades. One had a full-sized stuffed deer standing out front.
One of the oldest buildings is the Jackson Playhouse, still in use with a live show every night at 7:30pm. Nearby are some tiny bungalows, one with a cleverly made fence using old skis. The walk back to the hotel is only a few short blocks from the Town Square, so we were back and relaxing in our comfortable room by 7:30pm.
We did nothing except watch TV and rest for the remainder of the evening. Since we finished touring the Jackson downtown today, we will have more free time tomorrow than originally planned. We'll see what we can come up with to fill a few hours tomorrow afternoon.
Wednesday, May 26 - Jackson, WY - Homewood Suites by Hilton
It is warmer today, around 60 and overcast. The weather report for the upcoming week calls for rain off and on. Since we are on the return leg of our trip there isn't anything planned that we can't easily skip if the weather is bad.
Breakfast at the hotel was good again. Instead of waffles, today they had biscuits and gravy. Otherwise, it was the same as yesterday.
We drove over to Teton Village at around 11:00am to see if the aerial tram is open. Turns out it doesn't open until May 29th. God forbid this should be printed anywhere. We only found out by calling the number Trish gave us. Teton Village is a very upscale ski resort packed with expensive hotels and condominiums. We drove around the "village", but nothing warranted even getting out of the car. Jackson has more to offer if you are staying more than one night.
We stopped briefly a the Visitor Center to look at the gigantic bronze sculptures they have around the outside of the building.
Our next stop was the National Museum of Wildlife Art. It is located about two miles north of Jackson across from the Elk Refuge. The building is made of red rocks that blend into the hillside like an Indian ruin. There is a huge bronze sculpture at the entrance. There are large bronze sculptures in the parking lot, as well, plus stunning views of the valley below.
We aren't big museum people, but this one looked interesting enough to kill an hour or so. The impressive lobby area houses a two-story totem pole art piece as well as more big bronzes. A gigantic cougar looks ready to pounce from the top of the stairway. The friendly woman at the reception desk gave us free (with $12 per person admission) audio guides to provide information on specific works of art.
The collection features paintings and sculptures of wildlife. Everything was worth looking at, but we particularly enjoyed the sculptures. The explanations given by the audio guide enhanced the experience nicely. We spent a little over an hour here.
On the way back to the hotel, we drove to the other end of Jackson where the chair lifts begin for the slopes above town. One of them gives scenic rides to the summit during the summer, but it wasn't open today. We drove around town to be sure we aren't missing anything (we aren't as it turns out), then returned to the hotel around 2:00pm for the rest of the afternoon.
At 6:00pm we went down for the free dinner. It started off with lasagna, green beans and garlic bread sticks. When we went back for a little more, the entree had changed to a vegetable lasagna with a cream sauce. It must be leftover night. Both were good, especially since it is free. They restock everything the minute it runs out, right up to the last minute it is open.
We picked up some ice cream to take back to the room for later, so we're done for the day. The washing machine on our floor is broken (it was full of water), but Bill eventually finished the load he wanted to do by going down to the second floor to wash and bringing it up to our floor to dry. We can't complain too much because the washer/dryers are free of charge.
All in all, we really don't get the allure of Jackson. Everything is very expensive and looks like a tourist trap to us. Maybe in the winter when the ski slopes are open there is more point to it, but we can't imagine why anyone would come here for a vacation. There is a motel on every corner, so maybe there is something here we are overlooking, but as far as we are concerned it isn't very exciting. The scenery is beautiful, but once you've seen it, you're pretty much done.
We would recommend the Homewood Suites. We were very comfortable here and all of the free food and other amenities are very convenient. This particular property is overpriced, but so is everything else in Jackson. Ordinarily, Homewood Suites run about $150 per night, this one is about $265 (reduced from over $300 when we first considered it). Our other choice would have been the Wyoming Inn up the road, but when we drove by and saw that it is under construction we were very glad we chose this place instead.
This adventure continues with Part 3 - Jackson to Bonsall.
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