Grizzlies and geysers at Yellowstone, part 1

August 13, 2023

As we drove toward the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, I twisted my telephoto lens onto my Nikon and held the camera in my lap. Twenty-three years earlier, on a late afternoon drive in Yellowstone, we’d seen a grizzly sow and twin cubs dash across the road in front of us. I was driving and didn’t get a photo, but the thrilling moment is etched in my mind. This time, riding shotgun, I hoped lightning might strike again, and I’d be ready. And it did!

Grizzly sighting

I can’t believe we were so lucky as to see a grizzly mama and cub so close again, from the safety of our truck, as they crossed a road in Yellowstone. They hustled across and climbed the embankment, the sow casting a wary look back at the vehicles that had stopped for her and her cub.

The cub was curious, stopping to gaze back at us tourists gawking in car windows.

Notice the yellow wildflowers coming up. It was mid-May, only a week after the East Entrance road had opened for the season. We were on the tail end of a 5-week, 8,000-mile RV trip through the West.

What an amazing start to our 5 nights of RV camping in Yellowstone!

23 years between visits

We first visited Yellowstone in May 2000 — 23 years ago almost to the day. Our daughter was then 4 months and our son 4 years old. It surprises me now to think that we took off for Yellowstone with an infant — we must have planned the trip right after her birth? — but with a second child you just stuff them in your coat and go.

To our delight, our daughter, now 23, joined us for this portion of our trip. She flew into Billings, Montana, and we swung through and picked her up en route to Yellowstone. She traveled with us through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier.

As you can see, our campsite at Fishing Bridge was still piled with icy snow in mid-May, and temps dipped below freezing at night. But daytime temps were comfortable, and the snow was melting.

Snowy scenery

The scenery was pretty wintry in some places though.

The lakes were slushy.

Bison, our fellow travelers

We’d seen bison at Theodore Roosevelt and Badlands National Parks, but nothing like the numbers we saw in Yellowstone.

Bison have lived in Yellowstone since prehistoric times. In fact, Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where bison have always roamed wild and weren’t extirpated, although just barely. By 1902, because of poaching, only two dozen bison remained. The U.S. Army protected the survivors, and today wild bison in Yellowstone number around 6,000.

They are the largest land mammal in North America, with cows weighing up to 1,000 lbs. and bulls 2,000 lbs.

The woolly, horned beasts are all head and hump — enormous creatures. I wouldn’t want to surprise one on a trail, as they can be aggressive when people get too close. But what a thrill to observe them from our truck or from a distance. In Part 2, I’ll show lots more pics of bison, especially the playful newborn calves.

Yellowstone Lake

We walked down to icy Yellowstone Lake one day to have a picnic lunch. Snowcapped mountains ridged the horizon, and the lake was gray and white with melting ice.

As we sat, a bald eagle appeared to our right, flying along the lake edge not 25 feet above us, passing us with a patriotic fly-by. I watched with admiration. No photo — I was fully in the moment.

Old Faithful and Geyser Loop Trail

One day we visited Old Faithful and gathered with throngs of tourists waiting for the famous geyser to erupt.

Venting steam…

…soon turned to a high-arcing splash of water super-heated to 200 degrees F.

We set off on the Geyser Loop Trail, which winds through the geyser basin for 1.3 miles. We spent a couple of hours on the trail, stopping to observe geysers, bubbling mud pots, and colorful hot pools in the otherworldly landscape.

Boiling water in a white-crusted crater

Boardwalk paths keep you safe from breaking through the thin crust into hot and acidic pools. And they keep the fragile landscape safe from us too.

These geothermal features can be beautifully colored and clear as glass.

Or sulfurous and pustuled.

It’s a wondrous yet treacherous landscape.

Nothing like walking atop a supervolcano.

Bison and other wildlife wander freely here, and I guess they know to avoid the boiling pools and scalding steam. Or maybe they stay close in winter for the warmth.

Death happens though.

Encrustations make fanciful shapes around some of the geyser vents.

Others stay flat.

Portal to the underworld

It’s exciting to see a geyser erupt.

Some are more predictable than others.

I spotted a mountain bluebird as we walked the trail.

What a beautiful bird.

Another gushing geyser

And another pool

We also saw a yellow-bellied marmot. These large rodents hibernate for 8 months of the year. I bet it was glad to be out in the sunshine.

The boardwalk trail

Steam and the smell of sulfur are ever-present here.

Reflective pool

Beauty Pool lives up to its name with a pumpkin-orange rim and green center.

Giant Geyser with its tree-stump-looking vent

Some factoids, according to the park service:

“The majority of world’s active geysers are in the Upper Geyser Basin, including Old Faithful. Only four other places in the world have large concentrations of hydrothermal features: Russia (Kamchatka), Chile, New Zealand, and Iceland.

The heat for the hydrothermal features comes from Yellowstone’s volcano. Molten rock or magma may be as close as 3-8 miles (5-13 km) underground. Rain and snow supply water that seeps down several thousand feet (more than a kilometer) below the surface where it is heated.

Underground cracks form a natural plumbing system. Hot water rises through the plumbing to produce hot springs and geysers.”

Morning Glory Pool is one of the most famous hot pools at Yellowstone. It used to be blue, like the flower, but vandalism and perhaps natural changes have cooled the water, encouraging orange- and yellow-colored bacteria to grow. Its clear water and cave-like hole remind me of Jacob’s Well, a cool-spring pool in the Texas Hill Country.

Bulger Geyser putting on a show

At last we were geysered out and headed back, stopping at the historic treehouse of a hotel that is Old Faithful Inn. Here’s the view in the lobby, where enormous timbers support an incredible construction of woodsy balconies and hallways. It’s a must-see if you go to Old Faithful.

Up next: Bison romping, playing, blocking traffic, and more in Part 2 of my Yellowstone posts. It was calf season, and I delighted in the frolicking calves and wallowing cows. For a look back at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s badlands and bison, click here.

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