Day 5 -- Yellowstone National Park

This morning when I woke up I knew something was not right. For one thing, I didn't really wake up. Kathy was already out and busy getting things ready for the kids, but I just couldn't get up! I had no energy and could take only shallow breaths. I just kept falling back to sleep.

The kids ate breakfast and I was still in the tent. Finally I staggered out and made it to the table. Everyone looked at me, wondering what was the matter. I was not very coherent but was able to tell them that I was barely able to breathe and that, without an adequate oxygen supply, could not function very well. Probably the altitude was a complicating factor too. This situation was most likely due to the fact that I had not been scrupulous about taking my medication each morning and evening. In particular, I had not been using my inhaler for several days now. Apparently I had encountered my nemesis, mold spores, and they had laid me low. Now I had to make a decision, through my fog; would I stay here all day or would I at least sit in the car and be driven around while the kids and Kathy visited the park and took some trails? This one didn't take me too long to decide; this spot didn't seem to be too good for me, even with the ferret to keep me company; perhaps I would be able to breathe better somewhere else. At least I could look at some of the scenery elsewhere in the park. So we zipped up the camp site and threw out all of the trash. I climbed into the front seat, leaned back and closed my eyes.

Kathy and the kids were headed first to Mammoth Hot Springs, so we left the campground, after dropping off our envelope containing the payment for tonight's stay, crossed the stream, and turned north. We passed the turnoff to the Sheepeater Cliffs area and continued north to the Golden Gate region. In this narrow passage, where the road starts downhill to Mammoth, the roadway is built out from the vertical cliff wall of welded tuff. Beneath the roadway, under a small parking area, is a waterfall. The welded tuff in this area derives from the first eruption cycle, 2 million years ago, in the Yellowstone Volcanic field. The continuation of this layer can be seen, at this same level, to the northeast, atop Mt. Everts.

Beyond the Golden Gate, as we descended into the valley, we passed "the Hoodoos." large jumbled blocks made of a mix of ancient hot springs deposits and welded tuff. These blocks have tumbled down in a large landslide that slipped on the underlying shale layer.

At Mammoth Hot Springs I chose to remain in the car in my semi-conscious state. Kathy, Rebecca and Daniel headed off to walk the boardwalk trail through the travertine deposits and pools that have been forming here in the Lower Terrace area for centuries.

When Kathy and the kids returned to the car, she was disturbed to find me still only semi-conscious. She determined to find a doctor for me. I felt that it would be sufficient if we could just find a pollen mask for me to wear. Since there was a clinic in the Mammoth village, Kathy decided to stop there to see whether she could find anything to help. They had nothing at the clinic but suggested the drug store. Kathy stopped there but they had no pollen masks either. I decided enough of this, let's get on with the day. Reluctantly she agreed. We found the junction and the road east to Tower Junction.

I remained barely aware as we drove through these glacially carved valleys. At one point we stopped to allow people going out on horseback to cross the road. Rebecca and Kathy commented upon how unprepared most of the riders were for the cold and rainy weather. At some point I realized that Kathy had said that the top of our table was covered by a layer of ice when she first went out this morning; the light rain of last night had frozen overnight. Just before we reached Tower Junction, we pulled out onto a narrow dirt road to drive to one of the petrified trees in this part of the park. As we reached the parking area, the rain really started to come down, so we decided not to take the short walk up to the petrified tree stump. This stump appears to be of a tree identical to the redwoods growing along the California coast today. The tree was buried by volcanic ash from one of the volcanic eruptions of the Absoroka Volcanic Supergroup in Eocene time, about 50 million years ago. This tree, and others in the surrounding area were buried in the same way as were the forests around Mt. St. Helens.

At Tower Junction we turned south toward Canyon Village. Near Tower Junction the road lies just west of the Yellowstone River, passing Tower Falls where the steam vents can be seen in the canyon walls. Around these vents the rock has been altered by the chemicals dissolved in the hot water and are now bright yellows and oranges seen against the dark brown to greenish color of the volcanic rock.

Driving south from Tower Falls the road moves away from the river and climbs the westward flank of Mt. Washburn, one of the volcanos whose explosion produced the mudflows that buried the forests 50 million years ago. Coming over the pass, were it clear, we might have a view south all the way to the Tetons, but today it is overcast. From this point we descended into the Yellowstone caldera.

We passed Canyon Village and went straight to the the overlooks. Kathy went out first to see how long and how steep the trails to the viewpoints were. She found a trail on which she wanted to take the kids, to the Brink of the Upper Falls. I stayed in the car and drowsily watched the activity in the parking area. Gradually I became aware of unusual activity across the road. A ranger was talking to a group of people at the base of a hill. The lower slope was grassy and the upper slope was forested. A couple of other rangers showed up and they were actively using their radios. Every so often a ranger would tell the onlookers, many looking through binoculars, to move back. This jockeying around went on for a while with people pointing up toward the trees occasionally. Finally I saw an elk just inside the trees. It would move back into the trees and then become visible again. Then I heard a strange bugling sound which continued for 15 or 20 seconds. The crowd laughed. It was certainly the first time that I had heard an elk call, and it was unexpected. I still had no idea why the presence of so many rangers was necessary and why all of the activity on the radios. When Kathy and the kids returned, they told me that there was a bear up in the trees; that explained all of the ranger activity. It was certainly a change for the better from our first trip into Yellowstone when traffic would be stopped on the roads by people feeding the bears from their cars (or even out of them!), with no concern for the welfare of the bears or themselves.

Walls of Yellowstone Canyon
© 1982 Stephen E. Strom

After the overlooks on this side of the canyon had been exhausted, Kathy drove us over to the other side of the canyon. On the way, we noticed a small group of elk high above the grassy meadow, near the treeline, calmly observing the hullabalo below. At Uncle Tom's parking area she insisted that I get out and walk the short distance to the overlook to see the canyon walls. I managed, with the help of my walking stick, to make it to the railing, feeling very unstable all the while. When there, I saw again the incredible walls of Yellowstone Canyon, the rhyolite altered and softened by the action of the steam from the steam vents perforating the sides of the canyon walls. I walked slowly back to the Prev, placing my feet with care to avoid spraining my ankle on the uneven ground. When we were all settled in the car, Kathy drove on to Artist's Point where the most famous view of the Lower Falls is seen. Here I stayed in the car again, content to wach the activity of a bird, a Lewis woodpecker, in a nearby tree, apparently oblivious to the activity at the overlooks.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone
© 1982 Stephen E. Strom

We decided that we would have lunch in Canyon Village, so we drove back out along Artist's Point Road to reach the main road to Canyon Junction. By this time, several groups of people had discovered the group of elk and were climbing up toward them, showing no common sense at all. Some people actually seem to think that this area is a large petting zoo! We left them to the rangers and continued on to the village.

At the village we found that we were at the tail end of the lunch service and were able to enjoy a quiet meal. Daniel had his usual, chicken fingers and french fries (a few). I found that the ingestion of a warm meal and caffine (in the form of iced tea) had a rejuvenating effect on me. We visited the giftshop after lunch where Rebecca examined all of the available posters. I obtained the book Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country. A video documentary on the great forest fire in Yellowstone was playing, keeping Daniel entranced both by the conflagration and all of the fire fighting equipment that was shown. After a while I went out to the lobby to rest while Kathy and the kids finished looking through the shop. Suddenly a violent hail storm began. We waited inside until the hail abated and returned to the car.

Just after we began the short drive from Canyon Village west to Norris Junction, another burst of hail hit us. It soon let up, but, being a bit wary, we looked for something to do while remaining in the car. The Virginia Cascade loop drive seemed made to order, so we turned off to see where this road would lead us. This short loop passes along the north edge of a rapidly cascading narrow stream in the midst of a dense forest of lodgepole pines growing in the thick layers of rhyolite flows that filled the Yellowstone caldera after its collapse.

At Norris Junction we turned north again and paid a visit to Sheepeater Cliffs, just across from out campground. These cliffs derive their name from campsites near here which were littered with the bones of sheep and from a band of Shoshone, called the Sheepeaters who lived in the high mountains. The cliffs themselves are formed of columns of rhyolite. The columns formed when the lava cooled very slowly, probably underground, and then fractured as the cooling chrstaline rock contracted. Here the columns are exposed due to erosion that took place long after the lava had cooled.

In our drives between Old Faithful and Norris Geyser Basin, we had not yet visited Fountain Paint Pots, across from the exit from the Firehole Drive, so we decided to take a short drive south to take this walk. The weather was looking a lot better so the prospect of a short walk among the mudpots was appealing. Here, instead of geysers, hot springs or fumeroles, we saw bubbling mud in a variety of colors.

Mud Pots

After this short walk, we turned the Prev north again. As we were nearing Norris Geyser Basin again, Kathy and I remembered overhearing the ranger talk about Echinus Geyser yesterday. We decided to turn into Norris to see whether an eruption of the geyser was due soon. Fortunately one was due in only a few minutes so we headed off quickly down the boardwalk trail. It was downhill all the way to Echinus which was good for getting there in a hurry but did not bode well for the return trip for me. I sent the kids ahead and followed at a slower pace. They arrived just as the eruption was beginning. I don't think I have ever been anywhere before where the natural world was cheered and applauded. the display was certainly more erratic and had a more spontaneous feeling than did the eruption of Old Faithful. A crowd had assembled for the show and noone was disappointed.

When the eruption had died down, Kathy told me that Daniel had an urgent need, so they rushed ahead of me and out to the bathrooms. The rest of the crowd slowly dispersed, and I faced the uphill climb back to the parking lot. The combination of whatever was causing my allergic reaction, the altitude and the sulphurous fumes was definitely making me short of breath. Rebecca and I started slowly up the steps. At each porch that had been built along the boardwalk to allow observation of a geyser, we stopped and pulled out of the traffic flow. At Emerald Spring I stopped to take a picture. In this way we climbed to the top of the basin. Then we tried to remember where the bathrooms were located. We searched the visitor center but there were none there. Then we remembered the line in the parking lot outside of the small bathrooms and headed back to the car. When we reached the parking lot, we did not have to wait long for Kathy and Daniel. All of the people there were very sympathetic to Daniel and let him move to the head of the line.

There was still an ample supply of daylight left so we decided to drive north again to Mammoth Hot Springs again and take the loop drive through the upper terraces. At the beginning of the drive we pulled out next to the upper extent of the boardwalk through the Jupiter and Minerva Terraces. Kathy and the kids could see the path they had taken early this morning, but from a different viewpoint. here we looked down upon the major portion of the hot springs and travertine terraces that have formed in this region. We then drove through the mounds and terraces of the upper terraces. Orange Spring Mound is particularly impressive because of the streaks of color due to algae and bacteria that make it so distinctive. Its mounded shape is caused by the very slow water flow and deposition of minerals.

Angel Terrace

At Angel Terrace we got out to walk around this strange landscape. This is one of the most unpredictable features in the Mammouth area. For decades it was dry and the travertine was beginning to crumble. Then the hot springs became active again and the trees that were beginning to invade the ground around the spring were killed by the return of the hot water which now flows across the ground here.

By this time everyone was getting pretty tired so we decided to relax back at the campground for a bit and have a snack before going to bed. Besides, we were leaving here tomorrow and needed to do a little organizing so we would be ready in the morning. The ferret and the prarie dog were there to greet us on our return. Given the weather that we had seen today, it was relatively pleasant now, though a bit chilly. This time when I lay down in my sleeping bag, I went to sleep almost immediately.

I don't know whether a light rain fell tonight.


Recommend this site to a friend!

A large number of early photographs of Yellowstone National Park are available from the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress. Many were taken by the famous photographer, William Henry Jackson. Take the time to look at some of these early images.

See our map and guide reference section for trail maps and other useful information available from has over 3,500 maps.

Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, DeLorme Publishing.

Roadside Geology of Wyoming, David R. Lageson & Darwin R. Spearing, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, MT

Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country, William J. Fritz, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT

Time Exposure : The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson, William Henry Jackson, Patrice Press.

William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape, Peter B. Hales, Temple Univ. Press.

William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier, Douglas Waitley, Gwen McKenna, William H. Jackson, Mountain Press. (Hardcover)

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom