Located in the northwest corner of Wyoming and extending into parts of Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone is most recognized for its abundant wildlife and unique hydrothermal features. Indeed, it was this collection of more than 10,000 geothermal features – geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles – that led to the land’s protection and designation as the U.S.’s first national park in 1872.
Yellowstone’s hydrothermal activity and historic eruptions have also given it a bit of an infamous reputation. The Yellowstone Caldera is considered a supervolcano. To be categorized as such, a volcanic center has to have had at least one eruption of a magnitude 8, the highest on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI). Yellowstone has had two such ‘super-eruptions’ – 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago. A third large eruption occurred roughly 1.3 million years ago, but was a VEI 7. By comparison, Krakatau’s legendary 1883 eruption was a VEI 6.
Yellowstone’s first known eruption 2.1 million years ago covered an area of nearly 6,000 square miles with ash, releasing about 6,000 times the volume of material expelled from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s. However, most of Yellowstone’s eruptions have been much smaller than VEI 8. Moreover, only about 9 percent of Yellowstone’s magma chamber contains molten rock, significantly less than the estimated 50 percent needed to accumulate prior to an eruption. While it’s interesting to learn about Yellowstone’s incredible volcanic history, such data suggests that an imminent eruption is highly unlikely.
We spent a few days in Yellowstone in the middle of September. It was technically the park’s shoulder season, though you never would have known it. The amount of people entering Yellowstone was unreal. Coming from sparsely populated northwest Montana, seeing that number of people in one place was almost culture shock. Pandemic or no pandemic, I was not at all interested in crowds of that magnitude.
Looking back at the park’s attendance data, there was indeed a significant uptick in visitors this September. That said, if there had been 21% fewer visitors (i.e. Sept. 2019), there still would have been too many people. I immediately considered that our preceding three-month stint in northwest Montana spoiled us to infinite outdoor solitude. I then concluded that Yellowstone’s frontcountry must just be a veritable hellhole of ginormous RVs and inconsiderate tourists who have no respect for the land or wildlife. Both were likely unreasonable distortions of reality. Regardless, I do firmly believe we need to find a solution to overcrowding in some of our national parks. Not only does it mar the experience for visitors looking to enjoy nature’s serenity, but there is the serious issue of sustainability and the grave danger of irreparably damaging the precious wilderness we’re trying to protect.
Moving on from my pontifical rant, Yellowstone does have a distinct beauty you won’t find anywhere else. If you want to experience it, you’re just going to have to share it… especially if you’re sticking to the frontcountry. And while getting out into the backcountry may have better suited our needs for tranquility, it’s unfortunately not a viable option when traveling with a dog (pets are restricted from backcountry areas in nearly all national parks).
Below, we’ve detailed the areas of the park we visited. If you’re looking for meaningful information or suggestions on Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you won’t find it here. Those areas were too reminiscent of a tacky amusement park and we had zero interest in visiting, no matter how many people stick the “must-see” cliché in front of them. Although we did stop at a few popular spots (some of the thermal features were too spectacular to pass up), we ultimately sought out some of the slightly less frequented trails and thermal areas. With that, the areas highlighted below are presented in order from most crowded to least crowded. Perhaps it’s not the most conventional way to try to help with planning a visit, but I say screw convention. My advice for a more peaceful visit: start at the bottom.
Midway Geyser Basin
Let’s get this one out of the way first – yes, we skipped Old Faithful but yes, we did stop by the home of Grand Prismatic Spring. For me, the colors were just too alluring to pass up – even more so because the spring’s vivid shades are the result of its resident microbes. A microbiologist by training and the blog’s namesake science nerd, I just had to see the wonderous effects of the local cyanobacteria communities and their compatriots.
For those interested in a quick science lesson, the microorganisms living around these hot springs are called extremophiles, named for their ability to thrive in extreme, inhospitable environments. Extremophiles live in seemingly uninhabitable environments across the globe, including those at forbidding temperatures (thermophiles, hyperthermophiles), salinity (halophiles), pH (acidophiles, alkaliphiles), pressure (piezophiles), and even radiation (radioresistant microbes). Considering temperature alone, it’s incredible to think that the current theoretical boundaries for microbial life are around -40°C to 150°C (-40°F to 302°F). If you want to read a bit more about extremophiles and how they push the boundaries for life, check out this review published in Frontiers in Microbiology (2019): https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2019.00780/full.
For those less intrigued by the geeky factoids, simply enjoy the pics below. Even though you’ll be sharing the one-way boardwalk with others, Grand Prismatic’s colors are pretty captivating. Stretching an enormous 370 feet in diameter, reaching a maximum depth of 160 feet, and a maximum central temperature of 189°F (87°C), it’s a pretty impressive geological masterpiece.
If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of the hot spring, head up the short overlook trail beginning at the Fairy Falls Trail parking area. It’s only about 1.5 miles round-trip, but it gets you up just high enough to see the entire pool.
Additionally, don’t forget to check out Grand Prismatic’s neighboring thermal features: Excelsior Geyser, Turquoise Pool, and Opal Pool. I was particularly taken by Opal Pool’s dramatic backdrop.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Carved by the flow of the powerful Yellowstone River through ancient rhyolite rock, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone stretches for 20 miles and is over 1,000 feet deep. The river flows north from Yellowstone Lake, entering the canyon as it tumbles dramatically over Upper (109 feet) and Lower Falls (308 feet). The river eventually exits the canyon in a similarly grand fashion, plunging another 132 feet from the top of Tower Fall.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spend any appreciable amount of time in the canyon area of the park so, I can offer no advice on hiking or prime photo spots. Our first day in Yellowstone, we intended to hike around the South Rim section of the canyon. However, as we headed north from Madison Junction in the direction of Canyon Village, we hit a massive gridlock. After moving maybe one mile in all of thirty minutes, we gave up and turned around. We were so frustrated, in fact, that we almost left Yellowstone altogether and never returned (we can be a bit dramatic like that). It was a bit of knee-jerk reaction, but as I mentioned previously, I was thoroughly disheartened with the amount of people.
Although it’s not at all how we would have chosen to experience the canyon area, we made one quick drive-by on our way out of the park three days later. It was hurried, and we collected just a couple snapshots of Lower Falls as we drove the North Rim Road. I had been stoked to finally experiment with my neutral density filter, but again, dealing with tripod setup and filter calibration with a swarm of people battling to snap a quick cell phone shot and flee was far more than I could handle (overkill yet?). The falls and canyon were stunning, but would probably have been much more enjoyable around 6 a.m.
Mammoth Hot Springs
One of Yellowstone’s most distinctive features is Mammoth Hot Springs. At its core is a collection of some 50–100 hot springs that receive water from Norris Geyser Basin, a solid 20 miles away. The towering travertine terraces are formed from the deposition of calcium carbonate, a mineral that is precipitated from hot water flowing through the ancient limestone tiers. When visiting Mammoth, keep in mind that the flow is constantly shifting. Consequently, certain springs will appear bone dry while others will be saturated with opalescent water. The next day, it could look completely different.
Black Sand Basin
Black Sand Basin is a collection of colorful geothermal features just north of Old Faithful. When we visited, we were delighted to find that both Black Sand and Biscuit Basins (see below) had far fewer visitors than some of the other nearby hot spots (wocka wocka). Moreover, they both had a number of visually striking thermal pools.
Perched at the edge of Iron Springs Creek, Black Sand Basin’s Cliff Geyser erupts every few minutes and can reach heights of 30 feet. Its eruptions may be on the smaller scale, but we found this geyser strangely captivating. Equally alluring was nearby Opalescent Pool. The multicolored spring was peppered with spindly lodgepole pines whose bases were encrusted with stark white mineral deposits. The dead pines are affectionately known as “bobby socks trees,” as it looks like they’re all sporting a pair of the vintage, white ankle socks.
Like Black Sand Basin, we were able to find a bit of a respite at Biscuit Basin. While this thermal area contains only a small collection of geysers and hot springs, we found its few jewel-toned pools to be some of Yellowstone’s most dazzling.
The basin was named in the late 1800s for the accumulation of biscuit-like mounds of geyserite rock that adorned Sapphire Pool. Today, however, the basin’s namesake ‘biscuits’ are merely a memory. In 1959, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake transformed the normally inert Sapphire Pool into a powerful geyser. The violent eruption shot water some 200 feet in the air, in turn destroying the namesake geyserite embellishments and doubling the size of the pool.
The eruptions continued for several years, but eventually ceased in the late 1960s. Today, Sapphire Pool is again quiet and one of Biscuit Basin’s most striking features… and no longer considered a true geyser. Its 200-degree (F) water has remarkable clarity, and is an almost blinding shade of brilliant blue.
Nearby, the gem-toned waters of Wall Pool, Black Opal Pool, and Black Diamond Pool also dazzle with beauty. And really, one of my favorite features was the unassuming Mustard Springs. I don’t know why I was so taken with the small, bubbling upwelling. It just had this charisma about it, like it was just trying to make its presence known amongst all its larger, more eye-catching neighbors.
Firehole Lake Drive
Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way side road that winds for three miles through a section of Lower Geyser Basin (just off Grand Loop Road). It’s got a handful of geysers and hot springs, and is significantly less trafficked than the surrounding areas (e.g. Fountain Paint Pots). While many of the thermals here offer a more subdued beauty, it’s a nice place to sit and do some geyser gazing away from the crowds. If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll even catch one of Great Fountain Geyser’s eruptions.
Artemisia Trailhead to Upper Geyser Basin
For viewing Yellowstone’s thermal features, the Artemisia Trail was probably the biggest highlight for us. The trail is two miles one-way beginning at the Artemisia Trailhead (across the street from Biscuit Basin) and terminating at Upper Geyser Basin. While Upper Geyser Basin was a bit too congested for us, the first half of the trail up to about Grotto Geyser was nearly empty. This portion of the trail had a much smaller density of thermal features, but it was wonderful to be able to enjoy the glittering few in a bit of serenity. It was so quiet, in fact, that we were even able to stop along the Firehole River and quietly photograph a lone, grazing bison. While we certainly don’t expect to be the only two people in the park, this was much more the experience we had hoped for.
Some other interesting tidbits about some of the thermals along this trail:
- While its colors are still striking, Morning Glory Pool looks nothing as it did eighty years ago. Prior to the mid-20th century, the spring was a crystalline blue, resembling the flower for which it had been named in the 1880s. However, visitation increased, and tourists began senselessly discarding a host of objects into the pool as they drove past (the former park road passed the pool). The practice became so routine that the pool was nicknamed the “garbage can” in the 1950s. The mass of debris obstructed the heat source, lowering the pool’s temperature. This temperature shift altered the composition of the water’s native microbial communities, consequently changing the pool’s color. While all the trash was removed back in the 1970s, it remains to be seen if the pool will ever revert back to its original azure shade. Takeaway message: please don’t throw your shit (not even coins) into Yellowstone’s precious thermal features.
- Belgian Pool was formerly named Oyster Spring. However, in the 1920s, a Belgian tourist became distracted when a nearby geyser erupted, and slipped and fell into the hot spring. Regrettably, he later died of his injuries. It seems a bit of a morbid homage by the National Park Service, but I guess it’s a pretty solid reminder to stay well away from the thermal areas and have a modicum of self-awareness.
- While it looks like a piece of modern art, Grotto Geyser does erupt routinely. Not only does it have normal eruptions every six to seven hours, but it also has marathon eruptions. These marathon eruptions can last 10 to 26 hours, and typically occur after a series of two to ten smaller (normal) eruptions.
What is the tallest predictable geyser in the world? Surprisingly, it’s not Old Faithful. It’s actually Grand Geyser, about a half mile away in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. Grand Geyser’s powerful eruptions shoot water 150–200 feet in the air and last around 9–12 minutes. By comparison, Old Faithful’s bursts reach similar heights but last only 1.5–5 minutes.
As soon as we arrived in Yellowstone, we decided to skip Old Faithful. The Disney-esque parking lots and throngs of people aren’t our style under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. What’s more, local guides joke of being able to easily predict Old Faithful’s next eruption using the “Old Faithful Indicator.” It’s not a high-tech scientific gadget, but rather the growing horde of people that encircle the geyser minutes before it explodes. For me, this wasn’t even a tiny bit appealing.
We stumbled upon Grand Geyser with fortuitous timing during a morning walk from the Artemisia Trailhead to Upper Geyser Basin. While it’s more predictable than Old Faithful, Grand Geyser has a much longer forecasted eruption window – several hours compared to Old Faithful’s ~20 minutes. Consequently, waiting for Grand Geyser’s impressive show will probably require some additional patience.
Just as we were passing by Grand Geyser, we heard a ranger say that it was going to erupt in about 30 seconds (the activity of nearby Turban Geyser can be used to predict Grand’s eruption). We looked up at each other incredulously – what an extraordinarily lucky birthday present for Stephan! Only a couple dozen people had gathered along the benches, which sit significantly closer to the geyser than Old Faithful’s viewing platform. What’s more, most of the crowd quickly fled when the wind shifted and they started getting sprayed. I soon found myself standing under the impressive burst with only one older gentleman, seemingly the only other person who relished getting caught in the geyser’s gentle mist.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
174,000 years ago, a large volcanic eruption formed the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. The volcano’s eruption and subsequent inward collapse formed a caldera that later filled with water, creating an extension of the lake.
Because of its location within the park, the West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the less visited thermal areas. It’s about 35 minutes east of the Midway Geyser Basin and Old Faithful areas, and doesn’t boast the same level of geyser activity as you can find in the more popular areas of the park. However, with its vast lakeside hot springs, its beauty easily competes with, if not exceeds, any of the other thermal areas we visited.
West Thumb’s feature with arguably the most interesting history is Fishing Cone, a hot spring that’s partially submerged in Yellowstone Lake. In 1870, a gentleman from the Washburn Expedition (a team who set out to explore and map northwestern Wyoming) was fishing alongside the cone, when he accidentally dropped his catch into the spring. Moments later, it returned to the surface boiled. His chance accomplishment was an instant sensation, and eager fishermen began imitating this ‘cooking-on-a-hook’ stunt. The fishing folly continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was even publicized as a tourist experience in a national magazine. Some visitors even began donning a chef’s hat and apron for a chance to be photographed dunking their catch into the cone-shaped hot spring for a quick boil.
Some of West Thumb’s other arresting features include the cavernous Black and Abyss Pools. The pools are similarly vivid shades of turquoise and equally massive. Black Pool is roughly 35 to 40 feet deep, while Abyss Pool is slightly deeper, at 53 feet. Their position at the water’s edge just begs them to be photographed – they’re really quite spectacular.
After mainly driving around to gawk at thermal features for a couple days, we were eager to get back on the trail. With smoke from the Lone Star Fire closing access to trailheads near Shoshone Lake and the southern portion of the Grand Loop Road, we opted to hike Sepulcher Mountain. The trailhead was right near Mammoth Hot Springs and it was said to be lightly trafficked, so we figured we’d give it a shot.
The loop trail was 11.6 miles with 3,550 feet of vertical gain. It was a nice hike with reasonable views, but nothing that was mind-blowing. We were battling some wicked haze and particulates from the wildfires burning throughout the region, but even with better air quality, we surmise the peak’s location (near Gardiner, MT) would afford only okay views. That said, we saw only one other pair of hikers the entire day. We really needed that solitude to reset after seeing so many people. The full hike report and pics can be found here.
If you’re still reading at this point, kudos to you! For a hard-core science geek like myself, I feel like so much of Yellowstone is thrilling (clearly). The geological history, the biological and microbiological diversity, the chemistry of the thermals… it’s nothing short of overwhelming. And, of course, the geothermal features themselves are an inimitable beauty you won’t find elsewhere.
My biggest gripe is that the park is just so damn crowded. It’s great that people want to get out and experience our national parks. However, it’s not great that it’s taking an undesirable toll on other visitors and, most importantly, on the parks themselves. It’s by no means an easy solution, but we need to find a balance and soon.
If you’re into photography, this may also prove to be one of your greatest frustrations with Yellowstone. As you’d expect, you can avoid the crowds by visiting the thermal features early in the morning. The caveat? The light sucks. If you want to capture the vibrant hues of the chromatic hot springs, you need to wait until the sun’s much higher in the sky. And as you’d expect, later in the day = more people. Maybe others have figured out the secret here, but we did not.
My biggest piece of advice is this: If you plan to visit Yellowstone, try to find the quiet(er) corners. You’re still certain to find something resplendent.
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Uncle Bruce for offering his wealth of knowledge to our Yellowstone planning. Stephan’s uncle has spent his summers working as a Yellowstone guide for years. Before that, he made frequent trips to the park as a ‘geyser gazer’ and amateur photographer. We didn’t tackle all his recommendations, but we had fun trying.