This World – Across the Continent in 22 Days, Part V

Part V: Gardiner, Montana to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

This is the fifth instalment in a series chronicling the adventures of the author; her husband, Adam; and two-year-old daughter, Kiersten, as they travelled by car from Alaska to Louisiana in summer 2008.

Day 15: Gardiner, Montana to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We get up late today, but it doesn’t matter. We’ve started the vacation portion of this trip! Each year, more than two million tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park to see its sights, and for the next three days we’ll be among them. we’ll be spending our nights in a primitive campground overlooking Yellowstone Lake.

At the front gate, we’re surprised to learn that there are forest fires in the Park, but they’re distant enough that they shouldn’t affect us. In fact, during the summer there are nearly always fires somewhere in this vast area. Unless the fires are a danger to visitors or landmarks, rangers generally allow them to burn, especially if they were started by natural causes like lightning. Fire, we learn, is vital to growth and rebirth in the ecological cycle of the forest.

After crossing the Montana ? Wyoming state line not far from the entrance, we begin noticing how different the landscape here is than in Glacier National Park. There is a lot of reddish, striated rock, and the climate seems very dry, with arid grasses and sagebrush everywhere, but very few trees. We’d expected that the home of Old Faithful would be much wetter.

During a brief break at one of the visitor centres, though, we learn that because of Yellowstone’s vast size?2.2 million acres?it is home to a widely varied landscape, from dry plains to rocky formations to lush waterfalls to hot springs.

After lunch, we’re on our way again. We’d been looking forward to a break from driving, but it takes several hours to reach our campsite! Yellowstone’s size allows for incredible diversity, but it also means that getting anywhere takes a long time. Of course, part of the problem is our guidebook, which notes all the sights and vistas along the way. We hate to miss anything good, so we stop umpteen times and take scores of pictures: waterfalls, the Continental Divide, canyon vistas, and a petrified tree.

Wildlife also causes delays. If we were concerned about the lack of animals in the early days of our trip, we’re more than making up for it here. In less than an hour, we see deer, elk, and bison. In fact, a whole herd of buffalo holds up traffic in both directions for a good 20 minutes as it crosses from a wallowing pond to a nearby field.

As we slowly make our way toward the centre of the Park, the elevation and landscape change. we’re seeing a lot more forest now, and from the higher elevations we can see panoramic views of the plains below, as well as billowing smoke from fires far in the distance.

we’re camping near Yellowstone Lake in a tree-heavy area. Hopefully, the trees will help hold the heat and we won’t have a repeat of our last camping trip’s frigid nights. Despite what we were told a few days ago, we can’t believe it will be so cold here tonight. Right now, we’re sweating in the 70-degree sunny weather. It makes us wonder momentarily how we’re going to handle the temperatures further south.

For now, though, we’re focused on setting up camp. Things come together again quickly, and before we realize it, night begins to fall. It seems to come earlier than at Glacier, which surprises me as we aren’t that much further south. However, the trees may be contributing to the effect. Because we’re so far into the Park, there’s very little light pollution, and the night is blacker than black. Even with a flashlight, I can only see a few feet in front of me. All I can think about is Yellowstone’s famous grizzly bears as I make my way back through the dark from the restrooms. Thank goodness for our propane lamp, glowing like a small sun in the darkness!

The dark sky also means a lot of stars, but there’s so many visible here that, even with our newly purchased constellation guide, we can’t identify anything other than the Big Dipper.

Eventually, we give up and decide to head to bed. Our air mattress works really well, and although the temperature has dropped, It’s only just below 50 degrees.

Compared to Glacier, That’s warm. If it stays steady, we just might have a comfortable night!

Day 16: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We made it through the night! In the early morning It’s still 47 degrees, and we marvel at the difference 10 degrees can make. We don’t linger to enjoy the weather, however.

Although we saw some fantastic views along the road yesterday, we haven’t yet visited Yellowstone’s ?must-sees.? Today, we’ll tour the geothermal areas of the Park. This is one of Yellowstone’s most well-known features, and It’s not limited to Old Faithful; there are countless other geysers, as well as bubbling pools, steam vents (fumaroles), and mud pits.

First, we head for the bubbling pools. They are amazing. Random pools of water or mud, often multicoloured, literally bubble up out of the ground. Some of them were formerly geysers, while some may eventually show geyser activity. And they’re hot?the air around some is significantly warmer. we’re walking along a boardwalk built because the ground is so unstable. Apparently, these pools can and do spontaneously appear; in another area of the Park, a pool formed and destroyed a nearby boardwalk, injuring a tourist.

We see bubbling coming from Yellowstone Lake, and wonder whether there’s new activity there. It’s quite possible, as geyser activity has increased recently due to earthquakes earlier in the summer. Yes, earthquakes! Yellowstone experiences thousands of small earthquakes each year, including one 4.2 quake this past March.

All this talk of ground instability reminds us that our firepit was smoking slightly when we arrived, and continued to do so despite our efforts to quench it. For a few foolish moments, we entertain the thought that a thermal vent might be pushing through. doesn’t ?Frey Geyser? have a nice ring? Our dreams are dashed, however, when a ranger assures us that the steam was the result of careless campers who stayed there before us.

After lunch, we head for the main geyser basin, home to Old Faithful and scores of other, lesser-known geysers. Old Faithful goes off every 75 to 90 minutes, and rangers can predict its eruption time within a 10-minute window on either side. We wait some time for the next eruption, and after a false start, it goes off!

Kiersten, initially thrilled, spends most of the eruption time trying to run toward the water That’s running in rivulets in front of the geyser. After it finishes, everyone presses forward to feel the stream, and It’s warm to the touch.

Although It’s exciting to witness the real Old Faithful?in person and not on a postcard?we’re slightly disappointed, as the geyser wasn’t as high or forceful as we were expecting. Later, we find out that Old Faithful’s output varies in intensity, and we happened on a weaker cycle.

We see a later eruption from elsewhere in the geyser basin, and It’s definitely impressive despite the distance.

After watching Old Faithful, we decide to view the rest of the geyser basin. The area is home to hundreds of geysers, some small, some large, some regular, some sporadic, some frequent, and some that haven’t erupted in months or even years.

There is a boardwalk winding among the geysers and bubbling pools. Some of the smaller geysers are only a few feet away from the boardwalk, and we’re sprayed by warm water when they go off.

It feels more exciting than Old Faithful, since we’re much closer to the action.

When not erupting, many of the geysers are frothing, boiling pools. I can’t get over the bizarre sight of a sinkhole full of water that looks like It’s in a pot on a stove?I keep thinking that It’s time to throw in the pasta! The sulphur smell is slightly off-putting, though.

The geysers are all different, too. Some erupt straight in the air like Old Faithful, while others send spray outwards. One sucks all its water back in with a loud slurping sound; it sounds like some monster from Star Wars. We head back to our campsite around dinnertime, exhausted by the walking and the newness of everything we’ve seen today. We need to slow down our pace somewhat. Today’s sightseeing was a little hard on Kiersten, who is overwhelmed?and we’re not far behind.

Dinner puts us in a better humour, though. I’m really enjoying cooking outdoors, and the best part is that we get a homemade, hot dinner. Cold sandwiches in the car have been standard fare on this trip, and this is a refreshing break.

After Kiersten is in bed, Adam goes to attend the campground’s evening program, while I attempt to fight moths while writing in my journal. After losing the battle, I decide It’s time to retire early. Tomorrow, we’re hoping to catch a ranger-led hike, which begins at 9 a.m. A little extra sleep now couldn’t hurt!