Wildflower Inn gardens
After loading up the Jeep we began our drive to Yellowstone National Park and Mammoth Hot Springs, where our next hotel was located. Mammoth is in the north of the Park, so we would get to see much of its scenery as we made our way through. I confess that although I was eager to see Yellowstone, I was sad to leave Jackson and the Tetons. The valley was so beautiful and the surrounding mountains so majestic, and I had begun to feel quite at home there despite only having been there two and a half days. I could easily see myself living there, should the opportunity ever arise.
Our first stop after entering Yellowstone was at West Thumb, on the western edge (well, where else?) of Yellowstone Lake. Here there is a geyser basin, and I couldn’t wait for my first view of an actual geyser. It was seeing a picture of Old Faithful in a book probably owned by my older brother (we’re going back 45-some years here, so forgive me if I can’t exactly remember!) that ignited my lifelong desire to visit Yellowstone. I knew Old Faithful wasn’t at West Thumb, but the basin sounded well worth a visit. We would arrive there around lunchtime, so it would be a good place to stop. The speed limit in the Park is 45 mph, and some of the trailers and campers were going far slower than that, so even the driver had ample time to look around and drink in the spectacular scenery.
West Thumb lived up to its write-up. There were boardwalks across the thermal areas and the smell of sulfur wafted on the scant breeze as we walked along them toward the lake. Many of the springs had name boards, and it was easy to see how they had been given names like ‘paint pot’. I particularly liked the one named ‘Black Pool’ – despite the fact that it was clearly blue! It was nothing like our own Blackpool in the UK.
A couple of the springs were actually in the lake itself, only exposed at times of low water, and we were fascinated to see that the colourful yet toxic-looking stuff coming out of the springs didn’t seem to affect the fresh water of the lake. The other thing that amazed and delighted us was the profusion of wild plants that seemed perfectly capable of thriving with their roots buried in what looked like solid calcium deposits. Blue, yellow and orange flowers blossomed across this seemingly inhospitable and alien-looking landscape, which had clearly killed many of the surrounding pine trees.
Hardy yellow flowers
After our walk and lunch at West Thumb, we continued on to Old Faithful. It was on the way to Mammoth anyway but I think I would have wanted to detour had it not been. I had simply been waiting for this opportunity for too long, and I had to find out what times the geyser spouted and whether we needed to make special arrangements to see it go off. West Thumb had been surprisingly quiet and peaceful, with none of the overdevelopment, amusement opportunities or retail outlets that I had been imagining. The area around Old Faithful, arguably the most famous and popular site in Yellowstone, did have a more touristy feel to it, but even here there was none of the “Disneyesque” hype we expected (and dreaded!) to find. Yes there was a newly-completed Visitor Center, which looked a touch too modern to me, but it was actually quite attractive and it held some fascinating information and exhibits. There was also a large hotel, which was clearly quite old. And there was a very large building, Hamilton’s Stores, inside which were all the souvenirs, postcards, posters, maps, books, etc you could possibly want, as well as clothing and groceries. But it was the construction of this building that was most striking. During our drive that morning I had remarked upon some pretty unusual trees which had strange, gnarled and knobbly protuberances on their branches. I never did find out whether this was due to some form of virus or disease, or whether it was natural to this type of tree. Whatever the cause was, it was clearly a feature of the area and this large wooden building had many of these deformed and gnarly branches, called “burled logs” in its construction. The whole thing had been stained a very deep brown and the effect was striking.
From the Visitor Center we learned that Old Faithful erupts around every ninety minutes, and that there was twenty minutes to go until the next one. I hadn’t realized the eruptions were that frequent, and so we wandered around for a bit before taking our seats on the semi-circular benches placed around the geyser. The benches soon filled with other eager geyser-watchers and we got our camera ready, still not quite sure what to expect.
The geyser had been spouting steam the whole time, but soon we began to notice spits of boiling water being thrown up. The crowd made predictable “oohs” and “ahhs” each time one of these spits went a bit higher, but then the geyser would die down again, as if playing with us. But it was only a few more minutes before the pressure built enough to send the water rocketing skyward, and Old Faithful once again put on its ages-old display. I have to admit that I was enthralled, and found the geyser every bit as spectacular and beautiful as I’d hoped. I’m sure it would look utterly ethereal by moonlight, and even more beautiful during a gorgeous sunset, but I was captivated by its puissance and majesty on this simple, hot and sunny day. One of my lifelong dreams had been realized, and I was so grateful to have the chance to witness this natural and unique phenomenon. We took photos, of course, but I wanted to come back later with the camcorder. I needed to get this baby on film!