Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Vacation: Part 2

This was an unusual trip for us in that we visited some places that normal people would visit on vacation (and not, for example, random national wildlife refuges outside hunting season, wastewater treatment plants, and boats that don't even have fishing gear on them in the ocean).  Yellowstone National Park is the iconic American outdoor vacation destination (and yes, it even has its own Apples to Apples card), and there is nothing more iconic at Yellowstone than Old Faithful.  So let's not waste time:  We saw Old Faithful doing its thing, on a rather dreary, overcast/sometimes raining day, and I got some mediocre photos of it.  (As always, you can click on the photo to see a larger image; some of the shots are worth seeing this way.)

OK, now that we've established that, let's take a step back.

As we approached Yellowstone, the scenery started getting more interesting, which was welcome after all the flat, cow-dotted land we had passed on our seemingly interminable drive through South Dakota.  There were hills with visible rock strata -- yay!

Yellowstone itself a gigantic park -- almost 3,500 square miles.  The map below can orient you a bit to where we stayed in the park and the locations we visited.  Our hotel was in the southern area at Grant Village.  Note the distances between sites -- West Thumb to Old Faithful is 17 miles, for example. 

As we drove into the park (from the east entrance), we started seeing ducks right away -- red-breasted merganser, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, bufflehead, and common merganser.

I didn't know this before, but Yellowstone is situated on an area with a deep history of volcanic activity -- 2 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago, huge volcanic eruptions occurred there.  The heart of the park resides in the caldera (basin) of this volcano, and the copious extant geothermal features in the form of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles are fueled by the magmatic heat; the magma is as close as 3 to 8 miles underground.  Nowhere in the world are there as many geysers as at Yellowstone.  (Source here and throughout: National Park Service.)

When we passed our first geothermal feature, Robert stopped the car so we could get closer.  In his excitement, he lead us through a muddy area that gunked up my traveling shoes (I was not wearing my hiking shoes in the car), which was irritating at the time, to a fumarole -- an opening in the earth's crust that emits steam and gases (but not water).  It was really weird and interesting to look at, and we were pretty enthused by it, but little did we realize at that time how many fumaroles we would see during our stay.  (Yellowstone apparently has about 4,000 fumaroles.)  Here's a fumarole that we saw later, labeled with a helpful sign reading "A Fumarole."

Before we even got to our hotel, we encountered crazy traffic congestion around the West Thumb intersection -- people's cars parked all along the road, people carrying gigantic cameras, multiple park rangers policing the area.  Robert wisely decided that something drawing this much attention was probably something worth seeing.  And he was right.  There was a grizzly bear hanging out not far from the roadside.  It was too far away for me to photograph but with our binocs, we got very good views of it.  Life Mammal!  And no real risk of death!

The first area we explored in the park after checking into our very small but acceptable hotel room was the West Thumb geyser basin along the edge of Yellowstone Lake.

Some random pools

It's a nightmare landscape

Black Pool

Thumb Paint Pots

On our way toward the Old Faithful area, we stopped at the Kepler Cascades on the Firehole River.

Around Old Faithful, there are a lot of geysers.  "In a geyser, constrictions in the plumbing [underground] prevent water from circulating freely to the surface where heat would escape.  The deepest water can exceed the surface boiling point of 199 degrees F.... Increased pressure exerted by the enormous weight of the overlying water prevents the deeper water from boiling.  Bubbling upward, steam expands as it nears the top of the water column.  At a critical point, the confined bubbles lift the water above and the geyser overflows.  This decreases pressure on the system, and violent boiling results.  Instantly, a huge volume of steam is produced that forces water out of the vent in a superheated mass.  Eruption begins."

(Note: I first typed that as "superheated ass."  Nobody's ass was superheated while we were there.  More than one person commented on the fact that I was wearing gloves with extreme envy.  It was chilly, but I only saw one other guy with gloves.  Everybody else was stuffing hands in pockets or pulling them into their jacket sleeves...those who had paid enough attention to the weather forecast to be wearing a jacket.)

The crowd around Old Faithful had about a dozen false starts as we saw the steam start venting from the hole prior to the eruption of the water.  But we were eventually rewarded with the full water explosion thing (as shown in the picture above).  Old Faithful gets its name from the fact that it consistently performed for the Washburn Expedition of 1879 every 88 minutes or so.  It still does.  The eruption lasts from 1.5 to 5 minutes and expels 3700 to 8400 gallons of water, reaching a height of 106 to 184 feet.

Castle Geyser erupts every 14 hours or so, lasting about 20 minutes, and we just got lucky that it was erupting when we showed up to the Old Faithful area.

Cliff Geyser in the Black Sand Basin erupts every few minutes.

I wish I could reproduce for you the various interesting sounds that these geysers make.  In the Black Sand Basin, I heard one that sounded like a washing machine, one that sounded like a teakettle, and one that sounded like a bubbling cauldron.

Tomorrow: Our journey through some of Yellowstone's spectacular geothermal features continues.


mom said...

I'd really like to go to Yellowstone someday. It's amazing how large the park really is.

Just saw on the internet that some people got sick at Yellowstone earlier this month. I think norovirus. I'm glad you guys didn't get sick!

Sally said...

Yellowstone is definitely worth seeing. I would probably recommend a little later in the season, though it might be busier then, too -- it was kind of chilly while we were there. (And I'm not sure how much the extra visitors would really impact your experience of the park.)