Before I left Utah for good, I spent the morning picking up a few more essential items at the backcountry.com warehouse. Afterwards, I loaded everything back into the car and headed north. With just under three hundred miles of driving ahead of me, I settled into the driver seat. Podcasts about strawberries, synesthesia, and social expectations coursed gently through my speakers, keeping my mind occupied while my eyes darted between the road ahead and the surrounding scenery. Avoiding I-80, I cruised past Bear Lake, heading north along the eastern border of Caribou-Targhee National Forest. I passed through towns with names like Smoot, Paris, and Alpine, before finally reaching Jackson. For the entirety of the route, I had never left the presence, whether to the east or west, of snow-capped mountains. It felt like I had rediscovered the winter… a season I thought I had left behind months ago.
Once I arrived in Jackson, I headed downtown to meet up with Eric and Mike, Garth’s buddies that I had climbed with down in Moab. We spent the night playing corn hole at a bar downtown, before eventually calling it a night. After an incredibly restful night, we all spent the morning talking about gear. Eventually, I decided that I needed to head north. Yellowstone was calling my name.
Heading out in the early afternoon, I decided to follow the road that connects Grand Teton National Park to the southern limits of Yellowstone National Park. I will talk more directly about my time in Tetons later, but I quickly began to see signs that the road would be closed up ahead. Although part of me assumed that this predicament might affect me further down the road, I boldly decided to continue north. I wanted to get as much time amongst the Tetons as I could before I headed to Yellowstone. Sure enough, road barriers forced me to turn around just short of Yellowstone’s southern entrance. From what I could see, the snow that had originally caused the closure had long since melted…
Spinning Sam around, I retraced my steps. On my return journey, the Tetons reared up on the right side of my windshield. They were just as beautiful on the right as they had been on the left. Eventually, I found myself back in Jackson, where I picked up a few more food items before heading over Teton Pass. Landing in the rolling hills of Idaho, I cruised lazily towards the endless horizon of undulating cropland. Three hours later, I pulled off of down a rutted dirt road into the Gallatin National Forest for a quiet night nestled among a grove of Douglas fir.
Frost and a full bladder forced me to roll out of bed on the early side. Nature wanted me to have a full day in Yellowstone I guess! Although I didn’t feel any older than the previous day, I was now twenty-five. Whoa. Celebrating my birthday in Yellowstone felt perfect. Little did I know what the park had in store for me that day!
First stop, Old Faithful. Like its name suggests, this geothermal feature performs every thirty to ninety minutes, shooting steaming water over a hundred of feet into the air. It is not the most powerful geyser in Yellowstone, nor the most exciting, but it can be counted on to erupt frequently and spectacularly. It is undoubtedly one of the most well known natural features in the United States, a quintessential emblem of the National Parks. On my way out to watch the eruption, I walked with a middle-aged man named Ray. Working his way north, he had stopped by Yellowstone simply to catch one of Old Faithful’s infamous eruptions. We chatted as we walked, sharing our own experiences from the road.
Soon, Old Faithful began to gurgle, sending plumes of steam to mix with the low-hanging clouds above. The superheated steam of Old Faithful blended perfectly with the frigid clouds pelting snow from above, creating a world of pale gray. This eruption lasted for only a few minutes, but was dutifully captured in exhaustive detail by dozens and dozens of camcorders, smartphones, and cameras. As the eruption began to falter and fade, most onlookers, including Ray, headed for the warmth of the visitor’s center. I headed out towards the boardwalk to check out the rest of the geothermal features in the Old Faithful area of the park.
I had hit the park as winter began to transition into spring. This meant that many grizzlies and wolves had moved south to prey upon any bison basking in the heat of the many thermal features that blanket the region. This meant that the park had closed many of the trail systems leading beyond the boardwalks to ensure safe passage for the migrating animals.
The migration of predators became abundantly clear to me on my hike. As I strolled back down the bike path towards the Old Faithful visitor’s center, a Park Service vehicle started heading my way. Nonchalantly, the ranger inside informed me that a grizzly had been seen up ahead. She mentioned that if I saw a park vehicle with flashing lights that the rangers were most likely dealing with the bear. The ranger hadn’t made it seem like there was much cause for alarm, so I continued my walk back.
Five minutes later, I looked across an open field and saw a large grizzly charging in my direction. Lovely… About 300 feet away at that point, my mind started to race through my options. Moments later, a park pickup truck, complete with flashing light bar, came bouncing out of a gulley. Over the loudspeaker, the ranger calmly told me to turn around and walk away. I did as I was told. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder every now and then though…
As I walked away, the grizzly continued on his (or her) trajectory, powering onwards towards the spot just ahead of where I had been standing. The truck followed closely behind the bear, steering it towards the open field beyond the walkway. Once the bear reached the bike path, it stopped and quickly turned its head towards me. At this point, we were only about 150 feet (maybe less) apart. Urged onwards by the ranger, the gaze only lasted a moment, then the bear continued off across the field. At this point, I turned and focused my camera on the massive creature as it loped across the grass, heading towards the section of geysers I had just been hiking through.
The danger had passed, but the spectacle had just begun. I spent the next thirty minutes surrounded by onlookers, all curious about the fate of the bear. Avoiding the river, it had clambered onto the boardwalk and was now marching towards Old Faithful. Stunned hikers on that same boardwalk began cautiously moving away as a ranger informed them of the inbound grizzly. Near the lodge, a ranger retrieved a bright orange shotgun from the mount in his truck and started a purposeful march towards the bear. On his radio, he directed the other rangers who were managing the tourists who might end up in the bear’s path. Although the ranger had armed himself, it remained very clear that no one intended to hurt the bear. They simply wanted to steer it away from the more populated section of the park.
Eventually, the bear crossed the river, fading from view. Just as it disappeared into the trees, Old Faithful began to erupt. I wondered if the crowd gathered around the geyser realized that they had just missed a wildlife view opportunity that definitely did not come around every thirty to ninety minutes. I considered myself very lucky that I had had such a front row seat for the bear’s trek across Old Faithful.
On my way north from Old Faithful, I stopped at numerous turnoffs to explore the seemingly endless network of thermal pools and geysers that permeate this landscape. Each serves as a beautiful, but worrisome, reminder of the volatility of this corner of Wyoming. During my travels across Idaho, I tracked the path of the Yellowstone hotspot as it left its burned its way across southern Idaho. Now, I was standing on top of that hotspot. Over the last two million years, this hotspot has generated three super-eruptions, one of which was 2,500 times more powerful than the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980. The average time between super-eruptions is about 600,000 years. 630,000 thousand years ago, the Lava Creek eruption created the caldera, measuring 34 miles by 45 miles, that holds most of Yellowstone’s geothermal features. We are overdue for another eruption.
Although the geysers and hot springs is a gentle reminder of the superheated chaos playing out just below the surface, there are even more impressive indications of the hotspot’s power. In the early 2000s, the floor of the caldera rose an average of three inches per year, due to the impressive body of magma swelling beneath it. In 2008, that growth nearly tripled to a staggering eight inches. Apparently, the swelling has now slowed, but the message is clear: Yellowstone is unstable.
I must admit that the geothermal activity in Yellowstone can be a bit overwhelming. It is so unlike other forms of natural beauty, so otherworldly. Fear not, though, because Yellowstone holds many more treasures. My favorite, by far, is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Although it also owes much to the seismic activity and faulting of the caldera, its hydrothermally painted walls of rusting rhyolite need no explanation to be appreciated. Although it is far less grand (in scope) than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, the veins of oxidizing iron running through the sheer walls will undoubtedly take your breath away. Far below, the Yellowstone River tumbles powerfully down Yellowstone Falls before twisting and turning through the canyon below. At this point, I have visited quite a few canyons and this one definitely ranks near the top of the list.
Continuing north, I passed by more bears (grizzly and black) digging for their dinner. I stopped for bison aimlessly wandering across the roads. Even though I was heading towards Mammoth Hot Springs, it became clear that I had left behind the main section of geothermal activity in Yellowstone. Roadside steam vents became less and less common, a thick scent of pine replaced the sulfuric smells of the geysers, the landscape around opened up into vast plains and snowy peaks. The change in scenery created a welcome sense of calm. I no longer wondered if a geyser would erupt or whether the shifting winds would engulf me in steam. I had transitioned to a more familiar landscape, one that I understood more clearly.
I had one geothermal activity left in my day though. Bypassing Mammoth Hot Springs for the day, I headed straight for the Boiling River. Just south of the 45th parallel, the scalding water of the Boiling River feeds into the icy waters of the Gardner River. I figured a good soak in a hot spring would be the perfect way to wrap up an already spectacular birthday, so I hiked the half-mile up to the confluence of the rivers and quickly changed into my swimsuit. With snow drifting down from the gray clouds hanging so low that they seemed just out of reach, I ventured into the water.
Normally an exceedingly popular place for bathers, I had the whole river to myself. I will admit that the Boiling River isn’t quite as relaxing as your average hot spring experience. Visiting late in the day, it was clear that the Gardner River had already received more than its fair share of snowmelt. It was freezing. For the next twenty minutes, I shifted around in the river until I found the right balance of hot and cold. Some moments, I would get hit by a fiery blast of water from the Boiling River and would be forced to retreat to the frigid waters of the Gardner. Eventually, I found a spot that seemed more consistent than the rest. Yet, even there, I would intermittently be hit by a blast of cold water as the overflowing Gardner shifted course. Sufficiently relaxed, I headed north into the Montana section of the Gallatin forest for a beautiful night under a clearing sky.
The next day, I started my day with quick hike along the elevated boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs. After a close encounter with an elk, I headed into the Lamar Valley, commonly known as the “Serengeti of Yellowstone.” For the next few hours, I would cruise through vast valleys filled with bison, elk, dear, bears, and countless other animals. I even got a chance to see a pack of eight wolves through a telescope. Way cool! They had just finished cleaning a carcass and were settling down for an afternoon nap. I had hoped to leave the park via the eastern gate, but another road closure forced me to double back. Getting to retrace my steps through the entire park, however, proved more of a gift than a burden. Getting to drive from Cooke City all the way back to Jackson provided a unique perspective on the scope and diversity of the park.
Although the debate over its recognition as the “original” National Park continues to this day, Yellowstone has captured the hearts and minds of the world for over a century. Alongside wonders like the Grand Canyon, it is truly one of the most recognizable units within the National Park Service. Encompassing 2.2 million acres of land, there is likely something for everyone in Yellowstone. If the geysers, mud pots, and thermal pools don’t instill a sense of wonder within you, then the wildlife, canyons, valleys, and mountains will surely help you realize the majesty of Yellowstone. If the boardwalks and parking lots frustrate you, then take to the endless acres of backcountry wilderness. For me, I already know that I cannot wait to head back to Yellowstone when I have at least a week to spend far from the beaten track.
Road closures can’t stop me!