Full-on Yellowstone ~

When you’ve been away from a beautiful landscape, your memory loses some of the particulars of its beauty and changes others. That’s what I was thinking when I drove through the Lamar Valley (see last post). If Yellowstone had no geysers, no hot springs or mud pots or fumaroles—even if it had no elk and bison—it would still be a stunningly glorious place.

This day, however, I experienced another stunning aspect of Yellowstone: the sheer numbers of people. I knew it would be crowded, but I was astonished by just how crowded in was even in late September. The crowds included all sorts of people but were dominated by Japanese and, I think, Korean couples taking selfies at every pool, every geyser, every sign. Yet still I had a few moments by myself at Mammoth Hot Springs and at Porcelain Basin, part of the Norris Geyser Basin, literally the hottest spot in the park, with springs almost as hot as boiling, and highly acidic to boot.

Palette Spring

Palette Spring, Lower Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs

Dryad Spring

Dryad Spring, Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs

Dead tree and dead spring

Dead tree and dead spring, Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs


The oranges and reds in these photos are created by communities of thermophiles (heat-loving bacteria); the greens are created by communities of cyanobacteria (also thermophiles, but a very different kind, commonly called blue-green algae). When the source of a spring changes and the spring dries up, these organisms die, and only the chalky whiteness of the travertine formations remains.

Porcelain Basin is my favorite place in Yellowstone because of the lovely colors, many of them pastel but some brilliantly vivid. The features here include not only hot springs and geysers but fumaroles—essentially, steam vents. A light spray from these vents misted my skin and hair as I walked down into the basin.


Fumaroles, Porcelain Basin

Hot springs, Porcelain Basin

Hot springs, Porcelain Basin. The teal-blue comes, in part, from arsenic.

Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae)

Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in runoff from a hot spring

One overview, Porcelain Basin

One overview, Porcelain Basin

After Porcelain Basin, I drove through the Madison River valley to West Yellowstone to secure a hotel room for the night, then got to Old Faithful at dusk. I’ve seen this geyser on several previous trips, but never saw so many people waiting for it to erupt. It was fortunate that I wasn’t anxious to get a good photo of Old Faithful, because it was almost dark and both of the batteries for my Olympus were exhausted. At the moment the geyser started to erupt, hundreds of cell phones were lifted up simultaneously by the people in attendance. To an alien it would have resembled some bizarre worship ritual. Here’s one of my obligatory iPhone photos—color noise and all—to cap off this day.

Old Faithful at dusk

Old Faithful at dusk


Hot Springs State Park ~

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

I spent part of Sunday at Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming. This site is billed as having “The World’s Largest Mineral Hot Spring” (see photograph). The springs, which feed three bathhouses/pools in the park, were acquired from the Shoshone and Arapaho in a 1896 treaty with the stipulation that they be maintained free of charge for everyone. So far, that stipulation has been honored. I didn’t have time to visit any of the bathhouses—and hadn’t brought a swimming suit, not having read up on Thermopolis before I left Loveland. But that was okay; the previous day’s drive had been hot in advance of a front (87 degrees west of Casper in late September!), and I was relishing the refreshing coolness on Sunday. I was also relishing the lack of crowds while I had the chance; things would be very different at Yellowstone.

The park has several places to see the travertine formations created by runoff from the springs. The travertine is deeply “stained” by heat-loving bacteria, making a colorful sight. One of the most interesting things about the hot springs area is the profuse growth of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in the runoff. These bacteria form long, thick mats that ripple in the current like hair. The water where they grow is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Reddish and orange bacterial mats predominate where the water is warmer.

Streamers of cyanobacteria

Streamers of cyanobacteria live in the runoff channels at Hot Springs State Park

Heat-loving bacteria

Heat-loving bacteria are responsible for the red, orange, and yellow colors

A mix of thermophilic bacteria

A mix of bacteria (reddish-orange) and cyanobacteria (green)

The park is on the Bighorn River, which is actually the downstream reaches of the Wind River. The dual names resulted from the fact that, until Wind River Canyon was discovered, no one realized that the Wind River cuts north through the Owl Creek Mountains. Just south of Thermopolis, it becomes the Bighorn. The original Crow (Apsáalooke) word for the Bighorn is a whopper: lisaxpúatahcheeaashisee, “which translates to English as Large Bighorn Sheep River” (thanks, Wikipedia).

Bighorn River north of Thermopolis

Bighorn River north of Thermopolis

Besides the hot springs, the park also features a suspension bridge over the Bighorn River and a drive through a hilly range that’s home to a buffalo herd. The red sandstone hills surrounding Thermopolis date back to the early Triassic and are called the Red Peak Formation (part of the larger Chugwater Formation). According to a park sign, the nearly 600-foot-thick formation is almost devoid of fossils because one of the planet’s great extinction events had taken place at the beginning of the Triassic.

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming. The green in the water is long mats of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which thrive in the warm water.

On the (fenced) range

On the (fenced) range at Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Bison at Hot Springs State Park

Part of the bison herd at Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

I spoke to a man who was using a decoy dummy to train two 8-week-old pups to retrieve ducks. They were splashing in a little inlet of the Bighorn River where there was runoff from a large hot spring. The water temperature at that location stays in the 70s year-round, he said. The pups were having a blast but were more interested in playing and checking out visitors than retrieving the dummy. They were joyful, muddy, and very, very wet.

Pups being trained to retrieve ducks

Pups being trained to retrieve ducks

Next up: A visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.