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Yellowstone - A Geothermal Wonderland

Yellowstone - A Geothermal Wonderland

Did you know that Yellowstone is just a big volcano? A massive caldera brimming with all kinds of geothermal activity? If you spend any time in the park, you’ll quickly realize that you are standing on something other than normal ground.

The park is a sensory sensation - so many bizarre colors on the ground, truly putrid smells around every turn, colorful boiling hot springs, and then the geysers! It seems that Yellowstone has a little bit of everything going on, and it is breathtaking.  

There is far too much to list in a blog, but we’ll try to list out the areas and some of the spots we loved the most.

Norris Geyser Basin

This was our favorite of all the geothermal hot spots. We were here in the later afternoon, and got to see a lot of the activity in that beautiful golden light at the end of the day. We also had the trail mostly to ourselves, which was great after so many other crowded spots. The trail here is a boardwalk, like most in Yellowstone. The trail is two loops that come to be about 2.25 miles in total. Norris is full of hot springs and geysers, but the highlights were definitely Steamboat Geyser and Vixen Geyser.

Steamboat was spouting a little while we were there and was really fun to watch - in a full eruption, this is the largest geyser in the world at 380 feet.

Vixen Geyser is a smaller geyser, but it gave us a fantastic show just as we walked up to it, and ended up being our favorite geyser in the whole park.

Cistern Spring was a favorite here, too - this big blue pool is surrounded in trees with white silica bases that are just striking against the bright colors. This was possibly my personal favorite spring in the entire park. This area is full of action and color, and is truly stunning, and really should be on any list for any visitor.

Mammoth Terraces

This area wasn’t high on our list, but more of an “if we have time” stop. We had time, so we stopped, and it was worth it. The area is another that is easy to follow thanks to Yellowstone’s boardwalks. It is divided into Upper and Lower Terraces, but the walkways are all connected for easy exploration with about 2.8 miles of walking. The area consists of formations that resemble terraces, so I assume that is how the area got it’s name. Canary Spring is a popular spot on the trail, but the entire area presents a very different look than other geothermal areas. There are some small pools and gurlging in the area, but for the most part, there are smooth white and grey landscapes all around, some with water trickling over. This is a unique area, so we’d say it’s worth a stop.

West Thumb

West Thumb is a smaller area, but it’s right along the road into the south end of the park, and we had it on the list as our first stop. The area provides a sweeping view of the very large Yellowstone Lake on one side, while gurgling pots and colorful pools are on the other side of the boardwalk.

Abyss Pool was an attention grabber in this area - a very bright blue, extremely hot, 53 foot deep pool.

Another popular spot is the “Fishing Cone”. This small cone shaped spring/geyser is just off the walkway in the big lake. It’s got a fun history, which says that back when the spring was much hotter, people could catch a fish and boil it right there in the cone. It’s not as hot or active anymore, but the story has stuck with this formation!

Mud Volcano

We visited Lassen National Park awhile back, and I absolutely loved the mud puddles the gurgled and boiled. I anticipated Yellowstone having mostly colorful springs and pools, and clear geysers - I didn’t realize that they also have a good supply of gurgling mud pots. Much to my delight, this area is a hot spot for activity with mudpots and fumaroles. It smells so strong of sulphur, that at times, we had to cover our faces. If you get caught in the steam cloud, you will especially feel that burn from the stinky sulphur. This small area has a one mile loop, and is just bubbling with activity.

The Dragons Mouth Spring was our favorite in the area - a gurgling, belching, wave splashing cave. The cave literally splashes out waves and seems to be a breathing dragon, with little gurgles and growls, that left me waiting for something to jump out of the ground.

Mud Geyser and Mud Volcano are both muddy pools with lots of air bubbles that are just mesmerizing to stare at. The bubbles are more noticeable in that muddy water and are so fun to watch form and pop, over and over again.

Black Dragon, Churning, and Sulphur Cauldrons are a few more of the gurgling cave types of formations. These are just fascinating to watch.

Sour Lake is another strange feature in this area - a big, fermenting, still lake that looks true to it’s name. It just looks like it is sitting still, with very little movement or life around it. When we got a little closer, courtesy of the boardwalk, we noticed small bubbles forming in a few areas. We could feel the warmth coming from the water. Despite it looking like a fairly normal body of water, it was clear from the bubbles, heat, and smell that this was not just water and earth.

Artist Paint Pots

This was one area that we did not end up seeing when it was on our list. We just ran out of time the day we had planned to stop here, and we were fine with that. Then we got a handout from our campground and started looking at some of the photos, and well... we had to make time. On our last morning in the park, with a bit of a shortage of time trying to get to Salt Lake City for our flight, we made the time. We parked in a nearly empty parking area due to it being early in the morning and speed walked our way to the bubbly, muddy water. We were happy that we made time to visit this little spot... we met a friendly ranger, saw some fantastic popping mud bubbles, and along the back of the trail, got an amazing view overlooking the area. With a short .6 mile trail, this area presents a great walk through forest, mud pots, pools, and more. There is even some beautiful grass growing around some of the pots and pools in this area, which was somewhat strange!

Grand Prismatic Spring

This is by far the most popular single spring in the park, and possibly for good reason. It is HUGE. At 370 feet wide and 120 feet deep, it is just big. And colorful! It has a beautiful blue center, with a variety of copper and green rings around it.

We started our view of this bucketlist hot spring by climbing the trail to the new overlook. This trail lets you trek through the woods, likely with a lot of other people, and presents an amazing view of the spring. This is a popular trail, so expect some company, but it is really worth the crowd and gives an amazing viewpoint. After this hike, we headed to the second parking area and took a walk on the boardwalk. The views along the boardwalk are much more close to the spring, so it doesn’t give that big sweeping view of how large the pool is. Instead, the boardwalk get right up close to the bacteria mat and shows some amazing detail. Except smelly steam clouds on this trail, and hope that the wind blows away from you - this spring is smelly!

There are several other big pools in the area, including Opal and Turquiose, and a former geyser, Excelsior. This is now a big crater and pool that produces a massive amount of water (up to 4,000 gallons per minute) and drains, via several colorful channels, into Firehole River.

And please, above all else, respect this area (and all of the others) and keep your feet and hands where they belong. Don’t touch the ground, don’t throw things at springs or geysers, don’t walk off the boardwalk... respect these special places so they last much longer. Always explore responsibly.

Biscuit Basin

This is another small area worth a stroll. There is a small parking area, and a short boardwalk, that allows easy exploration of the variety of features here. The dark-yellow Mustard Spring and the bright blue Sapphire Pool are found here. Also the Jewel Geyser, which we got to see having a small eruption a couple of times while we were there. We enjoyed the geyser spritzing, but we also really liked the brightly colored thermophiles here - very vibrant and strange looking bacteria mats!

These geothermal places are high on my list of favorites. I thoroughly enjoy the views and the strangeness of the scene. On this trip, I got a wild idea to start making videos. I remembered visiting Lassen and having lots of photos afterwards, but the photos didn’t really tell the story of the bubbles and gurgles. I bought a gimbal the day before we left and hoped I could figure it out enough to get some good videos. I’m no pro, definitely a beginner, but I’m thrilled to have some videos of these crazy features to watch and relive. Enjoy the video:

The main thing we want to express here is that this area is amazing and beautiful. It is worth a visit and will definitely leave you speechless at least once. But, the increase in visitation to this park (like many others) is having an impact. If you visit, read the signs and follow the rules. Respect the places you enjoy, so others can enjoy them later. And in a park like Yellowstone, it’s often for your own safety. Explore responsibly.

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