Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons: Days #1 & 2 – The Drive, Paint Pots, and Geysers

As I mentioned in my race recap, Mom and I chose to do our annual hiking trip in Yellowstone and the Tetons this year instead of the Smokies.  She had driven through the Tetons a few years ago, but had never been to Yellowstone; I had been to both with my little brother during a trip to visit my best friend from college, H-, who was working in Yellowstone, but that was 9 years ago.  So we were both really excited to explore the parks, do some camping and hiking, and generally have a great time.

Our flight, having left around 6am, arrived in Bozeman, MT on Thursday morning after an incredibly quick layover at Dallas/Fort Worth (it’s a miracle we made the connection).  Mom and I made a brief stop at REI and Target to pick up perishables we’d need for the next couple of days since we didn’t know what, if anything, would be near to where we were staying, and then drove to the cabin Dad had booked us in near Island Park, ID.  Honestly, when I saw the cabin’s address was in Idaho, I was concerned we were going to be too far away from our race and the park, but it turned out only to be a 20min drive from the cabin to West Yellowstone.  Not perfect, but not too far away, and infinitely better than paying some of the extortionate prices we heard other runners saying they paid for one hotel room in town.

The two-hour drive from the airport to the cabin gave us some gorgeous views of the mountains, as well as our first bison siting!  We also discovered West Yellowstone had a lovely little grocery store where we could stock up before entering the park for the hiking portion of the trip, in addition to some restaurants and shops, which sadly we never really got the opportunity to visit.

The cabin itself was incredibly spacious – two bedrooms, 1 bath, massive kitchen and living room with pullout couch capability – but was a touch difficult for us to find initially as the instructions described it specifically as “red.”  We had the same mosquito problem inside the cabin that we did during the races, but it’s quite possible we accidentally let some of them in while unloading the car.  The only real problem we had with the cabin was Friday night when the power went out mid-dinner preparation, but that turned out to be a regional power outage which was corrected shortly.

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The second day of our trip was the day of the 5K, but since the race wasn’t until that night and packet pickup wasn’t even til later in the afternoon, we decided to head on into Yellowstone National Park to do some of the easier boardwalk-type trails and see some geysers before heading back to the cabin to rest before the race.  Side Note: If you’re going to be going in and out of a National Park like Mom and I planned to do, I highly recommend purchasing an American The Beautiful pass.  It costs $80, but is valid for one year and is good at over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all of the National Parks.  Totally worth it if you’re planning multiple trips and/or multiple entries.

Fountain Paint Pots

We came in at the West Entrance and headed South towards Old Faithful.  Our first stop of the day was the Fountain Paint Pots, which is an area of mini-mud pots – acidic hot springs with bubbling mud rather than water – and fumaroles, aka steam vents..  It’s a 0.5-mi loop on a boardwalk that takes you around to the different paint pots.  It’s very important to stay on the boardwalk!  People get injured and/or die every year when they step off and the thin ground below gives way to the boiling/steaming water and mud below.  The Fountain Paint Pots is one of the most popular areas in Yellowstone because it’s right off the main loop and handicap accessible, but just because it’s a tourist hotbed doesn’t mean you should avoid it by any means.  Mom had never been to a National Park quite like Yellowstone before, so it really set the tone for the types of things we were going to see.  Plus there are quite a lot of paint pots to see despite the short distance, so it’s a good bang for your buck if you’re short on time.

Firehole Lake Drive

Honestly, Firehole Lake Drive was never one of our planned destinations.  In fact, we had no idea what the road was until we were on it.  We turned down the drive to get shots of bison grazing nearby, and when we discovered it was a one-way road, we figured we’d just see where it took us.

It turns out that Firehole Lake Drive is 3-mi long and takes you past a few geysers and hot springs, including the Great Fountain Geyser, with periodic places to park and get out of the car for a closer look.  We didn’t spend a ton of time lingering at the different stops along the road because of ongoing construction on some of the parking lots, but it was a nice little detour for sure.

Old Faithful

After we took Firehole Lake Drive and ended back on the main loop, Mom and I drove to Old Faithful.  Fun Fact: There really isn’t any cell service whatsoever in Yellowstone – payphones galore, though – but there are a few major hubs where you can get limited cell signal, one of which is Old Faithful.  So you’re surrounded by glorious nature and probably the most famous geyser in the world, yet everyone is one their phones, checking to see what they missed or posting the day’s photos to social media.

Old Faithful erupts approximately 20 times a day and rangers calculate the time of the next eruption by tracking the time, length, and height of the previous one.  That estimated eruption time is then displayed at strategic points around the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center and Lodge, as well as digitally at the other major hubs around the park for people who are making plans to travel to other sections of the park.

Mom and I arrived relatively early – not enough to get a seat on one of the benches, but plenty early enough to stand directly behind said benches without having to worry about taller people being in our way.  The estimated times of eruption say “plus or minus seven minutes”, and the eruption we saw was only two minutes past what was originally predicted.

When Old Faithful goes off, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.  The water shoots anywhere from 100-180-ft in the air and can last up to 5min.  Mom and I took a few photos and video, and then put the phones down to just soak in the moment and enjoy what was right in front of our eyes.

Biscuit Basin

When Old Faithful was done erupting, we still had some time before race packet pickup, but decided to at least start heading back to the West Entrance so as not to get too sucked into the park and accidentally run late for the night’s festivities.  There were some places we didn’t stop at on the way to Old Faithful, so we still had plenty to do.

Biscuit Basin is a small thermal area, actually part of the larger Upper Geyser Basin.  Although it consists mostly of pools and springs as opposed to geysers and fumaroles, the colors alone are worth the stop.  The greens, oranges, and reds are caused by photosynthetic thermophiles – heat loving bacteria generally found in hot springs.

Midway Geyser Basin

Our last stop of the day before race preparations began was the Midway Geyser Basin, which contains one of the largest hot springs in the world – Grand Prismatic Spring.  The boardwalk does take you from the parking lot up to Grand Prismatic Spring and past the other pools, but due to the sheer size of it (250ft x 380ft) and the fact that steam is actively coming off of it most of the time, it’s impossible to see all the way across.

Speaking of steam, the smell of these hot springs and geysers can be quite foul due to the sulfuric steam being released through vents in the ground.  I saw some people trying to mitigate it with masks or by putting their shirt over their nose, but I don’t know if anything really helps.  The cool things about the steam, however, is that if you look close, it reflects the different colors of the pool and thermophiles below, making for a rainbow-colored haze.

Something to keep in mind: The boardwalk does come incredibly close to the springs and pools, so take extra caution if traveling with pets or children, and hold on to your valuables tightly or your hats, sunglasses, etc. may blow away and join others items you can see in or near the boiling water that were too far away for their owners to reach while standing on the boardwalk.

 

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