Monday, July 21, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Day 7, First Day at Yellowstone

We arrived in West Yellowstone, MT, early Tuesday evening via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, the road that connects the Grand Teton National Park with Yellowstone National Park. In the closest to camping we'll get, we stayed at the Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone in an adorable cabin that is outfitted with every modern amenity you could want, including wi-fi (be it slow and frustrating!). We once again fully unpacked the van, getting settled in to what we belatedly realized was the handicap accessible cabin. It was basically the same as a standard with the exception of the bathroom, which (after managing a couple of showers) was clearly not going to be functional for us. Frustrating, but we were tired, so we thought we'd make a go of it. We had to get to bed so that we would be ready to explore Yellowstone on Wednesday!

After several early mornings and a couple of very active days, we all needed a morning to sleep in. I skipped the run, we didn't turn on any alarms, and it did us all a lot of good. Of course, it also meant we sat in a bit of traffic to get into the park, but we were already prepared for big crowds based on what we'd always heard about Yellowstone, so no big deal. 

Not five miles inside the gate, we had our first summer Yellowstone traffic experience: we came to a dead stop and then slowly crept along. Surely it wouldn't be this way the whole 35 miles to our destination? We eased and idled along until we discovered it wasn't a traffic jam - it was an elk jam! 
Such backups are well known in the Park, affectionately called elk jams, bear jams, moose jams, etc. Hard to be annoyed with stop and go traffic when the cause is one of the very things we came to see. Rolling back along the road now to our first stop, Old Faithful! Is there anything more iconic when one thinks of the great American outdoors? 

Our phenomenal luck and timing that we've been so blessed with on so much of this trip held: we found a parking spot practically at the front door of the Visitors' Center. 
We headed straight inside to the passport station for the next stamp in the collection - the beginning of a collection potentially for a lifetime of Caroline and John. So, so grateful to Melissa for those!!
After a quick swing around the gift shop (trust me when I say we're doing everything we can to stimulate the American economy on this trip), we checked the estimated time of the next eruption, consulted our watches, and headed over to the Old Faithful Inn
This historic building, built in 1904 and the largest log structure in the world, is absolutely remarkable in its construction. With a 92 ft cathedral ceiling and a fireplace constructed entirely of local stone, it is breathtaking in its western grandeur. More recently, it was the inspiration for the Disney World Wilderness Lodge which we, by chance, had stayed at on our vacation two years ago. My opinion? Can't beat the real thing!
It was time to head outside to get a good viewing spot for Old Faithful. While consistent in erupting, it isn't exact in its timing, so we waited in the sunshine while the crowds built for the show. And the show did not disappoint:
There are few ways to feel smaller as an inhabitant of planet Earth than to see the awesome power of a geothermal geyser. As impressive as Old Faithful is, though, other geysers in the park supersede it in size and power. They're just not as reliable, so we didn't have the opportunity to see any of them up close in peak eruption.

After the geyser quieted back down, we followed our itinerary's recommendation to explore the Upper Geyser Basin, marveling at the hot springs and geothermal activity that was everywhere you looked. The aqua blue of the water is a result of an absence of impurities; there are some micro organisms that live in the extreme conditions, but the brilliance of the boiling water is a result of silica that reflects all wavelengths except blue. 
Due to the fragile nature of the thermal areas, all walkways are raised above the ground, and for obvious reasons you have to stay on the boards! That worked great for us, though, as it kept us right on track to tour the Basin, able to stop and look a bit longer at a hot spot and then catch back up together. Caroline was especially taken by this one:
As she and I moved on, we got lucky when the Grand Geyser erupted with Sawmill still going:

The kids were super troopers for the roughly two miles of walking; we've seen many families with very young children, making me realize that we are at a perfect point for these types of family vacations. The kids enjoy seeing new things; they're strong enough to make it on their feet for long periods of time; nobody asks to be carried or has a flat-out, flop-down fit. Even hunger doesn't cause a meltdown, which is great, because we were all ready for lunch by the time we finished our Upper Geyser Basin tour.

Big bonus of a driving adventure vs. a flying adventure: coolers and picnic blanket in the van. All we needed was a shady place to stop. With pull outs every mile or so on the Yellowstone highways, no problem!
On to the Midway Geyser Basin! Silly me, thinking it would be more of the same. Yes, it was hydrothermal activity. No, it was not at all the same. More hot springs than geysers, the landscape was unique and astonishing. We rounded out our first day inside the park with - what else - Lower Geyser Basin. Again, the landscapes were similar but unique, interesting, inspiring and spectacular. 
On any drive inside the park, it is impossible to miss the signs of the massive wildfires decades ago in the summer of 1988. Dead, fallen trees still mar the vistas, and wide swaths of forest are less than half the height of the old growth trees. 
I vaguely remember the news coverage of the devastating fires when I was thirteen; seeing the park for the first time, I obviously don't have personal knowledge of the difference between pre- and post-fire. For me, the impact is a desire to know more about the fires, more about the ecology of this vast park, more about the interdependence of all of its inhabitants and the cycles of nature. I think that is the legacy the establishment of Yellowstone created - a renewed sense of wonder in people of all ages, reverence for the beauty God created for all of us and a desire to preserve it for everyone's great adventures to come. 

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