A Geothermal Playground with a Side of Bison

Our visit to Yellowstone National Park, and why did it take us so long to go

We left the balmy, green and lush Upper Midwest nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, one heck of a Great Lake. The humidity level in September averages around 70 percent. The landscape of our starting point is mostly flat but there are valleys where rivers empty into the lake and kettle moraines where the glaciers played havoc millions of years ago.

After a year of lockdowns and cancellations, a change of scenery was a balm. A trip to the vast, ancient lands of the western US appealed to us – a place that stood before this bout of human suffering and cannot be canceled, mitigated, or sheltered in place.

We headed west on I-90 which brought us through Minnesota which is lovely near the Mississippi River, has rolling green farmland through the middle but the western portion starts foreshadowing what is to come: the Great Plains.

The Great Plains come at you hard in South Dakota, right up in your grill. It’s kind of interesting at first, the nothingness, the lack of trees and increasingly the vast lack of greenness.

Those in the Louis and Clark expiation experienced the same shock. Legend goes that prior to the westward expansion of the US, a squirrel could run atop the trees from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River.

The Great Plains are great in the meaning of vast or widespread. I don’t find they fit the meaning of wonderful and awesome. They start giving way to high plains and high plains desert by the time you hit the Badlands, Wall and Rapid City, SD.

The Badlands are otherworldly. They are chalky and craggy and vast. They create a sense of post apocalyptic life. And they are really beautiful. We arrived near sunset and were able to see twilight fall and the sunset spread out. That was a great time to see it. A great chance to stretch our legs, see an interesting scene. It was hardly tedious like the Great Plains had become.

We stayed overnight in Rapid City, SD, a charming little town that had a great pulse. We found a local coffee shop downtown that was lively. Since it’s the closest city to Mt. Rushmore, there are statues of presidents on the street corners downtown. Those presidents not on Mt. Rushmore. And my husband was annoyingly accurate at guessing who the president was before I could read the plaque. I was annoyingly surprised that I was as tall as or taller than many former prezes if the claim to actual size is legitimate.

Mt. Rushmore was half an hour from there. It’s a National Monument; free to visit but parking costs $10. Well worth the money. It captures the psyche of west and the time: this probably can’t be done but let’s try it. It actually is not finished as planned but it’s amazing what engineering and a little dynamite can do. And the ability and fearlessness to do it suspended hundreds of feet off the ground.

We walked along the Presidential Trail which was a great way to see different angles and see the beauty of the mountains. This also gave us a chance to spot and be spotted by other Packers fans. There’s a large gaggle of us around most places as seen by our hats, shirts, hoodies, and now masks.

Rapid City is really close to some beautiful areas of South Dakota. Custer National Park is nearby and the Needles. We didn’t see those this time. Sturgis is nearby and Deadwood. It’s an interesting little oasis. It is also on the western border of the state and Wyoming awaits with its feast or famine vistas.

Our next stop was Cody, Wyoming just outside the East Entrance to Yellowstone. To get there, we parted company with I 90, which proceeded northeast into Montana, and our driving speed was hampered. But the scenery, ooh la la! Or partially ooh la la. The Black Hills and the Big Horn National Forest were spectacular. They are winding and full of trees and there are deep and severe valleys that give you quite a thrill. Sadly the pictures we took there flatten it out and don’t capture the dimensions. That was true of all our pictures of the whole trip. The pictures look good but wow, you should have been there!

Sage brush and cattle ranches become the norm in Wyoming. It was very dry and brown. And open. A “Home, Home on the Range” kinda openness. “Not sure which end is up” kinda openness. When you get off the interstate you lose the ability to drive fast and lose important things like rest stops and road shoulders.

Cody was fantastic! It was the first of our reserved accommodations, and we stayed at Robin’s Nest B & B in a neighborhood just outside the downtown. The innkeepers, who moved there from Texas 19 years ago to start the B & B, were very knowledgeable about the area and the Park. They made reservations for us at the Cody Steakhouse, gave us advice on where to get coffee and a bagged lunch, and sat down with us and our itinerary and told us places that were “must see.” Spoiler alert: They were correct every time.

The promised land

It took 45 minutes to get into the East Entrance. It was exciting to finally make it, and our first sense was the vastness of the park. And you notice the abundance of pull outs, small cutouts or parking lots where you could pull over for a quick photo or longer time to adjust your plans. There are also a lot of picnic areas off the trail with picnic tables, outhouses, and sometimes connections to trails. The road system is impressive.

We planned to stop at the the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone per the suggestion of Bob from the B & B but was saw a lot of cars stopping at the Mud Volcano/Sulphur Caldron area. Because in more than 50 years of life we’ve never encountered a chance to check out either a mud volcano or sulphur caldron. It was our first taste of this thermo playground we drove hundreds of miles to see. It’s doesn’t exactly smell like roses; however it is a lovely freak show of heat and chemicals bubbling from the earth and creating some fascinating colors.

The Grand Canyon brought us the first of many waterfalls. The cauldrons were malodorous so the falls were a pure delight to all senses. We walked on the path between Uncle Tom’s Trails to Artist Point. We still had the thrill of first timers but it did portend more good things to come. The third stop was one many people told us was a must see: Mammoth Hot Springs. We climbed a lot and had the weird phenomenon of having the air get hotter as we ascended. But that’s the thermal dynamic juju going on. The landscape is otherworldly, and this area boasts to be the only area in the park where you can see the landscape change from year to year in the terraces, travertine flats, and sulphur pools. The sulphur smell permeates here, but the unbelievable scenery makes it worth enduring.

We stayed overnight in Gardiner, MT, a small town that seems to be dedicated to the needs of Yellowstone visitors: hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, coffee shops, laundromats, small grocery shops. We ate dinner at the Rusty Nail in a hotel near us. It was a busy place but the food was good.

The next day, armed with sandwiches and drinks, and dirty chais, we set continued where we left off. But as we headed south, we took a sharp east turn into the Lamar Valley, the bison sighting land of opportunity. Where the bison go the people go, and we experienced a wildlife jam. We also visited the Petrifying Tree, which we called the caged tree since it was off limits to humans. Sadly previous visitors thought the three petrified redwoods would make a great souvenir so they chipped away at them. One tree remains. They’re taking no chances with the rest of us. {Redwoods need a warmer, wetter climate and this volcanic wonderland used to be a lot warmer place.}

After lunch, which was at a picnic table next to the energetic Gardiner River, the Park treated us to more waterfalls, more hiking, our first look at geysers, more sulphur, and the threat of rain, which was really needed. A few hours later rain drenched us as we made our way to Bullwinkle’s Restaurant in West Yellowstone, Mt. The owner is a former Wisconsinite and huge Packers’s fan. We knowingly wore Packers gear which got us noticed and had a great conversation with the owner. She gave us some beverage coozies for our next Lambeau tailgate. She lamented that customers were short tempered and more impatient this summer and fall saying, “They treat us like it’s our fault they’ve been locked down this year.” The food was great and for dessert we had homemade huckleberry cheesecake.

The evening’s rain chased away much of the haziness we’d noticed from West Coast fires as far east as Rapid City, SD. As we entered the park early by 8 a.m., it was so clear and crisp. The landscape appeared to be smoldering from hundreds of extinguished campfires. It was steam. With seams and geysers everywhere, it was extremely visible in the clear, crisp air. And we were heading south toward Old Faithful.

The consistency of Old Faithful is remarkable, you know, thus the name. And it’s really the star of Yellowstone, the main act that keeps bringing the people in decade after decade. Eat your heart out, Wayne Newton (and Homer Simpson)! Approximately every 74 minutes or 20 times a day, yes even in the middle of the night without a single tourist sitting on a bench in the viewing area crowded with people and a few bison, that geyser turbulently ejects its water and steam. The eruptions average 130-140 feet and last between 1.5-5 minutes. Eat your heart out, Dr. Pimple Popper!

The water temperature in Fahrenheit can measure as hot as 204 with the steam 350. After the water fades, there is still considerable steam in the atmosphere. On the lovely fall day we saw Old Faithful made me think about how cool it would be in the winter when the air is colder and the sun hits at its winter angle. It has erupted more than a million times since the park was founded in 1872. That is faithfulness rivaled only by the heavenly realm. Not bad for creation!

For a geyser to form there needs to be volcanic heat, plentiful ground water, and a geologic system or fractures or fissures through which the heated water can escape. Only 1000 geysers exist on Earth and more than half are located in Yellowstone.

If you must move on from geysers, the road from the Old Faithful region south to the end of the park to Grand Teton National Park, is lovely. We encountered more waterfalls, bison, and stunning scenery.

We stayed overnight in Jackson, Wyoming which had great bike trails leading to and from Grand Tetons and toward the ski villages of Jackson Hole. At the Jackson Hole resort we took a gondola up the mountain passing hiking paths and ski runs just waiting for powder. The top of the mountain was breathtaking. and it was bright and fresh and lovely and you wanted to stay and soak it in. But we had to hit the road and head back home.

This is a great trip to take. I’ve visited Rocky Mountain National Park and Smoky Mountain National Park and they are worthy of their national park status. But Yellowstone isn’t just a park in the mountains; it’s a freak show of whatever happens when the things below our feet come in contact with the things above. You don’t often get to experience that. And it is the one place where American bison have roamed uninterrupted since prehistoric times. You are stepping into another world and another time when you enter the gates.

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