Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
People often ask me what part of this road trip was my favorite. What was my favorite park, where was my favorite destination, what was my favorite experience.
To use a cliché, that’s like choosing a favorite child.
But, this day was up there.
It was the place, yes, because you cannot not be moved by Yellowstone, but more than that it was a singular moment of kindness. It will forever stand out, especially whenever things are bleak or when I doubt humanity’s capacity for compassion.
Traffic started early that morning. I could hear cars at 6:30, and while it initially surprised me, I realized it shouldn’t. The park is nearly 3,500 square miles. Most of that may be wilderness, but it still takes a lot of people to manage the millions that visit every year. It was chilly when I stepped out of the tent and I was glad I had a stash of knit caps and had put on four layers before going to bed. (What? I get cold.) We shared our last breakfast bar. It was a fast meal; we needed to get moving before the masses hit.
If I can give you one tip for visiting Yellowstone National Park, it is this: get up early and go to Old Faithful first. Don’t cook breakfast, don’t stop along the way, don’t dilly-dally. Just go.
Even with our abbreviated morning routine, it still took us an hour to get out of Madison campground. We were on the road by 7:30, and ignoring every desire to pull over save one, made it to Old Faithful within 40 minutes.
Along the way we drove through steam so thick in places it looked like the ground was on fire. By 8:10am it was already getting crowded. Inside the visitor center we checked the time of the next eruption, and since it was projected to happen in just a few minutes we made our way outside to the benches. There were two rows that wrapped around a portion of the geyser. The first was full, so we stood on top of the back row.
As we waited we could see steam rising from the earth in multiple places, stretching out in a row towards the tree line. The crowd was quiet. Eventually, the steam from Old Faithful billowed higher and higher, and although we couldn’t see much of the eruption, we could hear the water sizzle as it landed on the scorched earth.
I expected a bombastic explosion, but it seemed calm and kind of gradual, probably because it was hidden by the steam. Still, it was something to behold and imagining the pressure required to push that stream of boiling water more than 100 feet in the air, pressure that had been building under our feet, was humbling.
Bicycles were allowed on the route from Old Faithful to Morning Glory, a short path that’s only two miles round-trip. We helmeted up and rode, stopping at each hydrothermal feature in turn. Next to Castle Geyser a bubbling pool rimmed with crusted white minerals and orange mud intermittently boiled, and then steam would roll out of the neighboring cone like a puffing train engine. Across the path Shield Spring simmered, and further down Grotto Geyser looked for all the world as if a mythical beast had collapsed and turned to stone, eroding over the centuries.
At the end of the trail, Morning Glory hot spring was a rainbow of orange, yellow, green, and blue surrounded by a ring of white. At the edges, dead lodgepole pines wore “bobby socks” and reminded me of Iowa’s White Pole Road. The trees had wicked up the mineral-rich water, and after the moisture evaporated a ring of silica stayed behind.
We quickly rode back to Jeannie and munched on trail mix while we drove to Biscuit Basin. We parked and a sign warned us that the area was volatile and unpredictable. Another pointed out that the ground was so acidic in some spots that it could burn through boots, so stay on the boardwalk and don’t be an idiot. Streams of steaming rivulets flowed into the Firehole River. Pools of bright aqua looked painted, and amazingly, confoundingly, wildflowers popped up near bleached and contorted trees.
Hordes of tourists from a pair of buses blocked sections of the boardwalk and we carefully, very carefully, sidled by so we wouldn’t get dumped into the scalding, burning earth by a stray selfie-stick. It was our first encounter with the masses and we decided that any future stops would be dictated by the number of tour buses in the parking lot.
The hike up to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook was just six-tenths of a mile from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 105 feet. It only took us ten minutes, even with a flatlander (me) leading the way. Fortunately, I had trained before we left so I’d be in better shape, because even though that trail was short, when it began at an elevation of 7,270 feet with some fairly steep spots, it wasn’t necessarily easy.
At the base of the trail, where it split off from the Fairy Falls hike, we stopped to stare at the steam floating above the hot spring. It was, and I kid you not, orange and blue. We made our way up and caught glimpses through the trees. After one tight turn and final steep stretch, we stepped onto the platform and looked at the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world.
Grand Prismatic Spring is aptly named, and it was easy to see why early reports of Yellowstone’s natural wonders were dismissed as the ravings of crazed lunatics. But after enough stories, skeptics could no longer deny that these fantastical descriptions may be real.
We picked our way down the trail. About halfway through our descent we stepped to the side to allow a trio to pass. It was a man and woman carrying another man in a running wheelchair. They set him down for a moment and she leaned in to check on him, and then they picked him up again and resumed their hike.
This. This was one of the kindest gestures, one of the most humble displays of humanity I have ever seen. It’s a moment I grasp and clutch, this privilege of witnessing these selfless people. I made up stories in my mind, but they all had the same moral: two people went to extraordinary lengths to make sure another could see a magnificent view.
Our next stop was going to be the spring itself, but after seeing three tour buses in the packed parking lot, we decided we’d come back early the next morning on our way out. We drove north and I nearly broke out in hives. Traffic heading the other direction towards Old Faithful was backed up for miles. MILES. I wanted to tell them “turn around, see something else, don’t sit in traffic in YELLOWSTONE.”
We took a detour on Firehole Lake Drive and found a secluded picnic spot nestled in the pines. An unexpected benefit of being in bear country was that we had to keep our kitchen with us, and we fired up the Coleman and heated up burgers I’d cooked in the Extended Stay in Billings. While we ate, just the two of us in a sunny spot on a hill, I thought of all those people we had passed and hoped they found a quiet place of their own.
The day was disappearing quickly. We packed out what we’d packed in and drove on, wanting to see everything we possibly could in our short time at this amazing place.
Norris Geyser Basin sits at an intersection of three fault lines. It is the hottest, oldest, and the most volatile of all of Yellowstone’s hot spots. On one side is Back Basin, known for trees and Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world. On the other, Porcelain Basin, a white-washed depression spotted with color. In the middle is the Norris Geyser Basin Museum, an original trail museum built in 1929 – 1930.
We walked through the breezeway and entered the museum, browsing the displays and learning that those various colors we’d seen around the hot springs were actually itty-bitty tiny creatures. The green was heat-loving algae and the red and orange were thermophiles and “extremophiles,” a real term for microorganisms that survive in extreme environments.
By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we walked the Porcelain Basin route because it was shorter. Plus, the park was doing construction on the boardwalk in Back Basin. With thermal features at least 199°F, which is boiling point at that elevation, it’s surprising there was a boardwalk at all. We took the steep walk down past fumaroles, quite literally openings in the earth’s crust that spew sulphuric steam, towards an almost-blinding valley. No wildflowers sprouted there and it was nearly devoid of trees. A bronze hat made of straw sat in a steaming pool the same shade and I clamped onto my cap to make sure it didn’t suffer a similar fate.
We’d hiked. We’d biked. We’d narrowly avoided being dumped into ground that could dissolve our very bones. My feet throbbed. My body ached. But this was Yellowstone! So, we kept going.
A quick stop at the National Park Ranger Museum was nonnegotiable. Park Rangers are some of my favorite people. I’m normally loathe to lump any group, but every person I’ve met that works in a National Park has been helpful, enthusiastic, and passionate. Bruce and Collins, retired rangers at the museum, were no exception. Collins had to be in her 70s, yet she told us how she’d backpacked in Grand Teton that past weekend.
I want to be her when I grow up.
It was after 4pm, so we asked the two volunteers whether we should go to Mammoth Hot Springs or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. “Canyon, no question,” urged Bruce. So to the canyon we went.
This canyon, this Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, did not seem real. It was a painting of a canyon. It was a pastel gash. Spiny slopes of yellow, coral, and rust led my eye to a narrow river of rapids. It wasn’t just rust-colored. It was actual rust created when the iron in the rhyolite was exposed to moisture and oxygen.
We turned to look the other direction; the waterfall that fed those rapids cut through the pines and dropped in a wide band. We wanted to climb down the trail and get closer, but that would’ve meant we had to climb back up. It was getting late, we were getting hungry, and we still wanted to see the other side of the canyon. So, we drove and parked again, and got close enough to the falls to feel the spray and touch the rainbow, and we kissed and I said “yes.”
Eleven hours after leaving camp we returned. I made up for our bagel the night before with a dinner of shrimp cocktail followed by ditali topped with Italian tomatoes, ground beef, and mushrooms. It had been an amazing day. An exciting, exhausting, awe-inspiring, humbling, and amazing day.