Thursday, September 5, 2002

The Mesa Falls Scenic Byway begins at Ashton, Idaho, passes through the Targhee National Forest, and meanders its way north along Henry's Fork of the Snake River. There was very little traffic this morning, and we saw two moose standing in the road.

The most spectacular scenery on the byway are the Lower and Upper Mesa Falls, two of the last undisturbed waterfalls in the West. First we came to Lower Mesa Falls, where the river is sqeezed into a gorge that drops 65 feet. We had the place all to ourselves.

Lower Mesa Falls

Even more fantastic is the powerful Upper Mesa Falls, over 300 feet wide and crashing down 114 feet to the river below. On most days, if you visit the falls before noon, the sun reflects in the mist caused by the water's 11-story plunge and displays a beautiful rainbow. It was overcast this morning, but the sun came out for a few minutes just at the right time. Spectacular!

Upper Mesa Falls

Early in the afternoon we passed through the tiny tourist town of West Yellowstone and entered Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, our nation's oldest and greatest national park. At 2.2 million acres, it's also one of the largest national parks. The thermal features of Yellowstone include geysers, hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), and mud pots. Only three other locations in the world have large concentrations of hydrothermal features - Iceland, New Zealand, and the Kamchatka region of Siberia. Add to this the fact that Yellowstone is the most abundant large animal habitat in the lower 48 states, and you can see why it's my favorite!

The west entrance road closely parallels the Madison River, apparently VERY popular with fly fishermen. We saw our first Yellowstone wildlife at the Madison Junction, a huge elk!

Elk hide-and-seek, Yellowstone National Park

Firehole Canyon Road, just south of Madison Junction, winds for two miles through a narrow, steep canyon and passes by the 40-foot Firehole Falls. Several families were swimming and playing here in the hot-springs-warmed water, one of the few places in Yellowstone where swimming is openly allowed.

Firehole Canyon Cascade

Fountain Flat Drive follows along the Firehole River through grassy meadows. There were dozens and dozens of bison here. Bison are very cool the first time you see one but quickly become as dull as cows.

Roaming buffalo

At the Fountain Paint Pots trail you can see all four of the geothermal features, geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots, along a half-mile boardwalk. Many trails in Yellowstone are on boardwalks to prevent the earth from crumbling underneath someone's feet, plunging them into a boiling pool. Works for me. Some of the mud pots and springs are wonderfully colorful due to the different minerals in the water.

The earth is alive - Fountain Paint Pots

Firehole Lake Drive is a three-mile road through Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone's most extensive geyser basin. White Dome Geyser is believed to be one of the oldest geysers in the park. Every ten minutes to three hours it erupts 30 feet into the air.

White Dome Geyser in eruption

A footbridge at Midway Geyser Basin takes you over the deep blue Firehole River. Excelsior Geyser, actually a hot spring, pours 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the river. Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's largest hot spring, over 370 feet across. The brilliant colors at the edges of the pool are from algae and bacteria living in the 170-degree water.

Firehole River

Bear sighting! No more than 100 yards from the road we saw a mama grizzly bear feeding fish to her two babies. Wow! We watched for a few minutes and then moved on so other people could see. I drove a short distance further and looked back to observe the bear jam - you know, a traffic jam caused by bear-gazers.

Grizzly mama and kids

Next was Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, and then the most visited geyser in the world and the most popular attraction in Yellowstone, Old Faithful, in Upper Geyser Basin. A coyote was roaming in the parking lot here looking for handouts. He reminded me of Spike-dog!

Emerald Pool, Black Sand Basin

Hmmm, looks wily.

We spent an hour or so walking the boardwalks and paved trails around Geyser Hill, home to more than 40 different geysers. Upper Geyser Basin is the largest concentration of geysers in the world.

Upper Geyser Basin

Approximately every 92 minutes, Old Faithful erupts for 1.5 to 5 minutes, expelling 3,700-8,400 gallons of boiling water, and reaching a height of 100-185 feet. The bigger it blows, the longer till the next eruption, and vice versa. Sometimes I feel like Old Faithful is so famous that the other wonderful geysers get short shrift, but I suppose geysers aren't actually vain and don't really need the notoriety.

Thar she blows!

Two miles south of Old Faithful we stopped at Kepler Cascades, which drops 100-150 feet, depending on who's measuring.

Keplar Cascades

We made it to the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake for sunset. There were mountains in the background and steaming springs and fumaroles in the foreground - beautiful and otherworldly.

The ethereal Yellowstone Lake

The rest of our drive to Canyon Village was in the dark. We had to be as careful as possible not to hit a wayward deer (or something even bigger). A "Pioneer" cabin is $56/night, and we're here in one place for three whole nights, a record for us. The cabin is a simple, motel-style room with two twin beds and a private bath, no TV, no radio, no phone. Canyon Village is centrally located in the park and has a gift store, picnic shop, restaurant, and cafeteria. The restaurant was the only thing still open when we arrived at 7:00 p.m., and since there was a two-hour wait, we ended up with a cookie for dinner instead, left over from breakfast.

It's barely even September, but most of the Yellowstone's lodging closes down next week for the winter. Most of the park is over 7,500 feet in elevation, and it gets cold early! Only the lodges at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful are open year round.

The sky is so clear here you can see the Milky Way!

169 scenery-filled miles today.


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