It’s four in the afternoon and I’m in the middle of a large forest clearing, shivering to the bone. I’m with dozens of visitors looking at Old Faithful geyser – calm as of this moment – inside Yellowstone Park, the world’s first national park and one of the largest in the U.S. The sky is ominously gray and a slight drizzle accompanied by relentless wind ensues. A further test of my resolve.
Clad in a cotton shirt and shorts and another used shirt to cover myself from the rain, it doesn’t take long to realize my inadequate preparations for the park’s frigid weather. Because the past two days had been sunny, I ignored Richard’s advice to wear something warm. I don’t know Yellowstone to be a rainy place, with 15 inches of precipitation a year, and now I’m paying for it. The two twenty-something ladies who sit a few chairs in front of me in our bus (and who I learn are Singaporeans) have also come to the park underdressed, and they’re visibly shaking. “It’s freezing,” the shorter one says, squeezing with her friend under a small yellow umbrella. “No kidding,” I mutter.
We’ve arrived in Yellowstone from Gardiner, the park’s northern entrance in Montana, after a long scenic drive that took us from Gillette across the interstate in southern Montana. It’s the fourth in twelve days of driving – more precisely, bus-riding – across western America, and this is our last destination before heading south. This is one of the most I anticipated, having heard of Yellowstone’s collection of geysers, lakes and diverse wildlife. It’s ironic, then, that I have heard so much about the place and yet, oblivious of its climate.
Drenched after a misplaced faith on a shirt, a lady advises us to go inside the visitor center. “You can actually see the eruption from there and you don’t have to get soaked,” she offers, smiling. I give up. I run inside just as another breeze blows. It doesn’t take long, however, to convince me otherwise. After minutes of waiting Old Faithful finally erupts, spewing gallons of water in the air. I borrow Abie’s umbrella, cover my camera with the used shirt, and run outside, back to Old Faithful’s viewing Point, back beside the two Singaporean ladies. Everyone’s locked in at the sight with their cameras capturing the moment that, in a matter of moments, ends. Not that it isn’t bound to happen again. Old Faithful is one of the most popular – if not the most popular – attractions in Yellowstone, in large part due to short intervals between eruptions. On average, the geyser shoots 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of water every 92 minutes.
Yellowstone sits mainly on the northwestern corner of Wyoming – with a sliver of the park in Montana and Idaho – and is sprawled across the northeastern end of a geological feature that, millions of years ago, involved dynamic geological activities. As a result, the park today contains a large number of geothermal areas – in fact the highest in the world – such as the Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s largest geyser, the Steamboat. The Mammoth Hot Springs – our stop before Old Faithful – near the park entrance are made by hot water from deep beneath the Earth’s crust. The water carries with it minerals called travertine that turn into terraces of stones upon reaching the surface.
Leaving Old Faithful behind, we head on to the Midway Geyser Basin, where a boardwalk takes visitors near the Grand Prismatic Spring, which at 370 feet in diameter, is North America’s largest hot spring. The hot spring takes its name from the deep-blue color of the water and the vivid yellow and orange ring surrounding it. The ring gets its color from the pigmented bacteria in the mats that grow around the edges of the water. The afternoon’s soggy weather, combined with steam coming from the spring, produces an ethereal mood in which people seem to disappear into the smoke.
Nearby, a herd of bison slowly cross a river and onto the street, forcing cars to stop and yield to these bulky creatures. A few brave – and foolish – souls from our bus walk a few yards towards the animals to have their picture taken before Richard calls them back. “Keep a safe distance from the bison,” he warns. “When provoked, a bison will attack humans. And it can outrun you.”
After an hour we leave for our hotel in West Yellowstone, across the border in Montana. Except for the I-MAX building and a few other anachronistic establishments, the place pretty much looks like an old-fashioned, far-flung town in the Wild West. We do our grocery chores, eat our dinner and rest our tired bodies for the day ahead.
Leaving our hotel at dawn, we reach the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the first large canyon on the park’s river. The river features two waterfalls – the 308-feet-high Lower Falls and the 109-feet-high Upper Falls. We don’t stay here for long though, and quickly ride to the West Thumb by the Yellowstone Lake. North America’s largest high elevation lake, Yellowstone Lake’s surface area measures 132 square miles and its shore stretches for 141 miles. Part of the lake is located in a volcanic crater that has been filled by glaciers thousands of years ago. Just near the boardwalk by the lake, I spot a few bubbling paint pots and geysers, including the Fishing Cone, where it is so hot visitors used to drop the fish they caught from the lake to cook.
By mid-morning we exit the park and ride the interstate. The Grand Tetons soon loom at a distance from the road, their peaks covered in huge clouds. We’re now on our way to Jackson town in Jackson Hole, where we’ll stop for lunch before descending to Salt Lake City.