Yellowstone… where hell bubbles up!

“…Sir, will you please step back….”
I was still hazed, was not clear about what I heard after the officer asked me to step back.. I was fidgeting with my camera and he yelled louder this time..
“Sir, when I ask you to step back and go to the other corner of the parking lot, I mean NOW, not after 5 more minutes..”
This time I obeyed, ran to the other end of the parking lot and watched curiously. Another officer came rushing in his car, stepped out urgently, took a piercing look at the crowd and pulled out a shotgun. He cautiously walked to the edge of the road, aimed and took a shot. The crowd gasped as they heard a painful squeal.

“No ma, I am not bored of national parks..”
said I. “But you have been to a lot of national parks this year already. What is different between them. Don’t you see the same mountains, waterfalls and whatever everytime?” my mom wondered. I tried to resist, only a bit. “You should visit some city that you haven’t yet been to. Neha would like that..”
. “Ma, Yellowstone is not just waterfalls and mountains. It is a unique place. There’s an active volcano in that region which results in geysers, fumaroles, steam vents and whatnot.  This unique combination creates an ecosystem for diverse wildlife… like bears, wolves etc…” “…sarey ra, its upto you. Be careful wherever you are. Keep calling us regularly and let us know you both are safe and don’t get closer to wildlife”… “ok ma”
We had landed in Bozeman, MT and drove to the Mammoth Hotel which is closer to the northern entrance of the park. We had just crossed Gardiner and saw a board that read “Watch closely for wildlife” along with the speed board. After a few minutes of driving, I saw something black and long moving 50 feet ahead on the road. I jammed my brakes which woke up Neha. We saw a black wolf that crossed the street almost casually. It gave a half look at the car lights and walked into the bushes. That was a brilliant start to our trip!

“Earth, Animated”
Yellowstone shattered my assumptions about the Earth. I always assumed that Earth was still, placid and inert. But what I saw and heard about Yellowstone challenged and killed my assumptions. Here the Earth is like an animated hobo. It moves (more than 2500 earthquakes every year), yells (Roaring mountain), sweats (geysers, fumaroles), stinks (sulfur cauldron or any other geyser), burps (mud volcano) and pukes (Old Faithful).
Apart from being the first national park in the USA, in fact the first in the world, it is also one of the biggest. Over 2 million acres of land that extend to 3 states in the USA. It has been described in many ways. Some have called it “The place where hell bubbles up” while some have said “A living laboratory”. Interestingly, this park was created “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”

“Wake up and smell the Sulfur..”
There is an active volcano 6 to 8 miles below the surface at Yellowstone. There is also a unique plumbing system that allows for geysers, fumaroles, steam vents, mud volcanoes and hot springs to form. There are more of these natural phenomenon at Yellowstone than all the other parts of the world put together. We covered a lot of this ground in the first two days of our stay at Yellowstone. We knew that there was lot to see and experience and we would be on our way to explore the park at 7 AM EVERY morning and return to the hotel at sunset time, at around 8 PM.
Mammoth Hot Springs is closer to the hotel we were staying at. This is a result of calcium carbonate deposition over the years. The hot springs flow out from here, creating a white shiny deposit. The earth that defied these deposits still allow for the hot springs to flow but giving birth to some bright colors that range from brown to maroon to red. There is a nice hike around the hot springs, up and down a hammock which gives you all the views of the hot water flowing on these deposits. It is a really nice opportunity for the shutter-buggers owing to the bright white deposits against a lush green backdrop lit by the bright sun depending on when you visit the place.
There are more of these hot springs as you drive south towards Norris area. By the way, most of you must have heard about the grand loop at Yellowstone. It is a “8” shaped loop that connects the major attractions in the park. Here’s a map:
Grand Loop – Yellowstone
Going down south, we stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin. Along  the way, you see a lot of small geysers which is evident by the smoke and gases getting emitted. An interesting stop is the Roaring mountain. As the name suggests, it makes noises that can sometimes be heard 4 miles away. :O An interesting fact about this mountain is that it supports life of single celled organisms similar to the ones that life on earth began with. What is ironic is that these areas where ‘simple’ organisms thrive and is similar to the place where life started, is uninhabitable to the complex life forms like humans.
Norris Geyser Basin is an active geothermal region where “faults” of the Earth intersect and is abundant with geysers that are bright blue and emit smoky sulfur based gases. The smell is strong but you get used to it. There is a wooden path laid across the basin which gets you closer to these wonders.
There are other such geothermal facets of the park like Sulfur Cauldron, Mud Volcano, Upper Geyser Basin, Lower Geyser Basin, Biscuit Basin, Artiste’s paint pot, Fountain paint pot etc. There are so many of these that after a certain point you get bored of the geysers.
When you reach the lower part of the Grand loop, you get to see one of the more popular attractions of the park called Old Faithful. It is a singular phenomenon where water gets spewed out from a geyser every 90 minutes or so. There are seats around the geyser where people gather before the “show”. The visitor centers and park rangers can help the tourists with the forecasted times of show. It lasts for 2 to 3 minutes and makes you wonder the why and how!

“The H20”
My mom was right (as always). There are a lot of mountains, lakes and water falls in the park. The most popular ones are in the “Grand Canyon” area of the park. There is an attraction called “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” which as the name suggests is a huge dramatic canyon. The beautiful part about this canyon is the “lower falls” at one end of it. The waterfall adds a gracious element to the visage of the canyon which otherwise looked boring and barren.
An interesting fact about this place is that when Yellowstone was being considered to be made the first national park, the president sent the official geologist to write a report about this place. The geologist took along a painter who painted the canyon and waterfall and it is ever since called “The Artiste’s point”. 
A mile before hitting the Artistes’ point is a place where you can see the “Upper falls”. This place is also the start point of the legendary “Uncle Tom’s Trail”. Uncle Tom’s trail is a 350 odd steps trail beside the lower fall. It is an easy hike down these metal stairs which reward you with a stunning view from the flank of lower falls. Along the way, you are bound to chance a rainbow sighting representing the confluence of mist from falls and sunlight.
The biggest lake in the boundaries of park is Yellowstone Lake. If you stop at the “Bridge Bay”, you can rent a motor boat and drive it up in the lake within a certain region. The rental is extremely affordable and well worth the time. If you plan to fish, the rental lady will give you tips on the good places to fish. The motor boat can be operated at whatever speed you wish and it was a good adrenaline rush. One hour gives you enough time to drive around Stevenson island in the lake and visit the Steamboat point. Well worth the time and money.
There are some designated swimming places in the park. The ones that I can remember are Gardiner River and another one at Firehole Drive.

“View from a distance.. Don’t mess with them..”
Another typical feature of Yellowstone that everybody who visits the park talks about is the close encounters with wildlife. The park is rich and diverse in wildlife. The famous among the inhabitants of the park are bison, wolves, bears, deer, elk, osprey birds, American bald eagle etc. Bison are plenty in the park. They are so abundant that they often cause road blocks and herds of them are seen grazing, especially in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.
Because we started earlier in the mornings, we got to see a variety of elk, deer, mountain goat, osprey birds etc. We had already seen a black wolf. The only animal that we hadn’t spotted was the bear. In Lamar valley, you can often spot folks stopped up in the pull overs and gazing through their high powered scopes. Some of them are excited to show others that they had spotted an animal and allowed us to spot a bear that was slowly moving in the valley. We were a tad unhappy that we were not able to see a bear at a close range without the scope. On the way out, we had pulled into Roosevelt Hotel to check if they got anything vegetarian for breakfast. That is when the incident that I described at the beginning of the blog happened.
A bear had been troubling the folks in the hotel and surroundings. The park ranger had shot it with a rubber bullet to scare it away and force it into the mountains. They also told us that bears that get accustomed to humans and the food that it finds around human settlements, they get aggressive. If it doesn’t find food, it might result in aggressive action on humans. So, they had to scare it away.

“Grand Tetons”
The Grand Teton National Park is attached to the Yellowstone on the southern side and is definitely worth a visit. The mountain range is striking as a background to Jenny lake. We were in time to watch the sunset and have to say that it was stunning.
We were supposed to do the “scenic loop” in the Grand Teton National Park but the weather was bad most of the time and we drove off to Helena to catch our flight back to the bay area. We had exited Yellowstone from the northern entrance and when we hit Livingston, the nearest town, I started missing the park and the action we had every day. We were either watching wildlife or going on some beautiful hikes or exploring the amazing park every day. We were almost disconnected with technology as we had no signal bars in our phones most of the time (except at the hot spots on the grand loop) and almost never connected to wifi. We used the time that was usually expended on technology to watch the star lit sky after dinner or sitting in front of the fireplace at the lodge or just talk about random things from Marie in ‘Everybody loves Raymond’ to Darwin’s theory of evolution. When I saw the “M” (of a restaurant we all love to hate) towering at the interstate at Livingston, realization dawned that all these good things were going to end.

“Helena, the capital of Montana”
Helena is a charming little town. It also happens to be the capital of Montana. It has a history of gold being found in the area and the miners had invested in the city’s beauty. We did a train ride in Helena from Montana State Capitol which took us around the attractions of the city and also the homes of millionaires. Later that day, we walked in the “outdoor shopping mall” in the downtown area which was relaxing. We also visited the St. Helena Cathedral which was amazing.

Something I observed here is that the people are extremely warm. They knew we were tourists and would greet and tried to help us wherever possible. We met a sculptor in an art gallery that was proudly showing off his work on native Americans. An elderly gentleman on the street came up to us and told us the best restaurants to go to in the area and the not-to-miss home made ice cream shop. We didn’t miss both and they were excellent recommendations.
Later that day, we took the flight and flew back to the bay. I couldn’t help, but start thinking about my next vacation on the flight back! 🙂

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