Day 6: Yellowstone National Park Continued

Just as the small child cried out, Jacob stirred next to me. I was still asleep, so I couldn’t really figure out what was happening, other than the fact that there might or might not have been a bear in the near vicinity. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and saw Jacob putting on shorts and a shirt and grabbing the bear spray. I tried to add this all up in my still-asleep mind. Was he was headed OUTSIDE THE TENT? This to me seemed like a dumb idea. I mean, if there’s a bear outside our tent, shouldn’t we not engage it and try to avoid its swiping paw and giant mouth? Maybe that’s just me.

I told him not to go, but he was determined to figure out what was going on. I waited in the tent for a report. About 3 minutes later, Jacob came back with the details: A group of campers next to us arrived late in the night, and one of them had purportedly heard rumors of bear sightings in a nearby campground. This of course led the child to believe anything in his or her field of vision bigger than a breadbox must have been a bear. Of course, there was no bear in our campsite. This child was just an alarmist. However, a bear in the near vicinity wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. So Jacob settled back in the tent, and I, now terrified, tried to go back to sleep, in fear that a bear would tromp into our campsite, even though we’ve taken a TON Of precautions to keep ourselves bear free.

The next morning we got up and armed ourselves for a long day of sightseeing. We left Madison campground and headed north for the Artist’s Pots, which are gross-looking mini volcanoes in white clay. The steam underneath the earth mixed with the clay/silt beneath the crust, and it bubbles up into this weird clay goop. Also among the Artist’s Pots were more strange springs, steaming holes, and oxidized rocks, all set in a weird hillside with a backdrop of the gorgeous Rockies.

Next, we hopped into the car and headed for the Mammoth Hot Springs. But on the way, we stumbled across Roaring Mountain, a geothermal site that is full of steamy pots that are slowly eroding away the hillside. The steam from the earth eroded the hillside probably about a hundred feet in the last few years.

After Roaring Mountain, we drove a short way to the Mammoth Hot Springs, which are divided into upper and lower terraces. These terraces are springs that have erupted out of the ground and mixed with the underlying silt to create these giant rock formations. It looks like stairs, and they’re different colors. This is where Yellowstone gets its name, since the limestone that makes up most of the terraces is yellow.

We stopped at the Mammoth Springs Visitor’s Center where I found postcards and a campfire cookbook, and we sent our postcards out. In the parking lot area there was a big field with lots of wildlife, and we saw a female elk and bison.

Then we wandered over to the upper terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs. They were even weirder, if that’s possible.

After Mammoth, we drove to the park’s one petrified tree. It’s an old Redwood set in the side of a hill. It’s got a gate around it to keep visitors out and from damaging its slowly eroding surface. The size of the petrified tree is a little misleading. It’s probably just the center of the original tree, and it’s maybe only 4-5 feet around. A Redwood like in California would have probably been three times that, which leads me to believe that this petrified tree must have been much larger at one point and probably petrified down to a smaller size. Also, it’s not very tall, and it’s the only one around, so that was quite unusual. Not sure how it would have gotten there.

From the Petrified Tree, we drove to Tower-Roosevelt, where we stopped for a picnic and then took a look at one of the waterfalls in the park. We witnessed it from the lookout point, and then we headed down a switchback trail down the mountain to see the base of the falls. By this time, I was SO OVER switchback hill trails. But I guess that’s what happens when you go on vacation in the mountains…

At this point, Jacob declared he wanted to see a bear. As if the bear scare this morning wasn’t enough. So we talked to a park ranger, who tells us bears have been sighted in Lamar Valley, which is in the eastern part of the park. It’s just a bit south of Tower-Roosevelt, so we hit the road. We saw bison aplenty, antelope, pronghorn, and elk, but no bears. It turned out that the wildlife was really far away, and we needed binoculars to see them properly. Curse our frugality! But here’s what we did see:

We look around for a few miles, and discouraged, we decided that we probably weren’t going to see any bears and start heading for the canyon. We drove back almost to our junction for the canyon, when we saw a clump of people on the road. We pulled over and discovered that there were two black bear cubs and their momma on the hillside in the trees about 30 yards from the road. We jumped in the side of the ditch with the camera and managed to see the two babies lumbering down a log. They were so cute! They might be hard to see in these photos, but they’re the black fuzzy blobs on the logs.

We were very fortunate to have seen bears at all, let alone bear babies, so we were really excited. Each of the bears in Yellowstone are tagged by the rangers so that they know where they are at all times. Even though they know where the bears are, they’re not always visible to park visitors, so it’s a big deal when you get to see one.

After seeing our bears, we headed for the canyon visitor’s center to learn more about the canyon. Yes, that’s right. There is a canyon in Yellowstone Park. It’s called the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and I was very curious about how similar it would be to the Grand Canyon, which we had just seen. It has a north and south rim (like the Grand Canyon) but it’s not nearly as big, thank goodness. You can go about 500 feet into the canyon, and you can walk around the rim. There were a bajillion trails, and so we weren’t sure what we wanted to do first. We asked a ranger about the best paths to take to visit the canyon, and she guided us to a 2-hour trail that took us to the brink of the upper falls and then also to the lower falls. We parked and walked to the trail, and it was a windy road to the brink of the falls, right where the water spills over the edge.

It was beautiful and windy there, and we were getting sprayed with the thousands of gallons of water flowing over the edge.

After marveling at the view for a bit, we hiked uphill found ourselves on the trail toward the lower falls. It was yet ANOTHER switchback downhill that we have to walk back up. I became disenchanted with having to walk up hills, however, the view of the lower falls had gorgeous cliffs, more views of the water, and a gorgeous postcard-like view of the canyon, which is yellow and orange and red, completely unlike the Grand Canyon. It was my favorite feature of the park.

At the end of the trail, we picked up dead wood lying around so that we would have something to burn to make dinner. We had been industrious so far in picking up driftwood and dead limbs without having to buy any firewood, and we wanted to keep it up. The wood was a bit damp, but we had high hopes it would burn.

After the canyon, we were really tired, but it was only 4 o’clock, and we became determined to see as much of the park as possible since we were headed back home the next day. So we drove over to the Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldrons.

Newsflash about the park if you didn’t pick up on this yet: IT SMELLS BAD. In fact, there were some places where you couldn’t even breathe because the stench is just awful. So, no surprise here, when we got to the Sulfur Cauldrons and the Mud Volcano, they absolutely REEKED with the smell of rotten eggs. We saw the sulfur cauldron first, which was right off the road. It was a valley full of boiling springs giving off foul steam.

After we breathe in enough sulfur to kill a small dog, we continued down the road and arrived at the 2/3 mile loop of the Mud Volcano. It’s got several springs and mudpots that are like mini volcanoes spewing foul-smelling liquid and steam. One spring, dragon’s mouth, gives off a wave of water and a deep roar as it erupts.

After walking around the park, we decided to squeeze in one more sight. Exhausting, aren’t we? I almost did this day in two posts but decided that if I did this all in one day, you could read it all in one day, by golly. We drove back south toward Yellowstone Lake and stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is right off the lake near the shore. It’s another segment of weird geysers, springs, paintpots, and pools, which are all directly north of the beach. It’s very odd because it’s a geothermal area very near a body of water. We took this in rather quickly because at that point it was sprinkling and cold, and we were really tired.

When we finally got back to camp, it was definitely raining, and we could not get the stupid fire going. We finally got a few of the logs to burn after 15-20 minutes, and we had enough wood to cook baked beans and our hot dogs. But after we ate, the fire went out, and it wasn’t dark yet. It did stop raining though. So I ran down to the camp office to get more firewood and kindling. I came back, and it started to sprinkle again; however, the wood was dry, and we got a roaring fire going in no time. We kept the fire going through another round of sprinkles, and we turned in at about 9:30, when the sun finally went down. It goes down SO late, and it’s confusing to know what time it is based on the sun. It was a lot warmer than it was the night before, so we slept really well all through the night.

I didn’t take a picture of the campsite that night 1) because I was really annoyed at how soggy I was, and 2) it wasn’t really going to be a good picture with all the rain anyway. But I did manage to take one panoramic picture, which I will leave you with. This was the ultimate view in between drives to the various geothermal sites of the park, and it’s somewhere I hope to visit again:

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