For the first time in this entire blog series, on Day 7 of this trip, I can finally not talk about smoke obscuring vision. It’s a bit of a trade-off though, because the weather pattern shift had finally come through, so now I get to talk about 40 degree weather and rain showers. In real time I was happy to make the trade. Rain was needed up there, and it felt way more within the realm of normal reasons to ruin a trip and much less dystopian. That didn’t stop the rain from doing its level worst to ruin the last two full days of our trip, though.
Wednesday, August 18 was a day that I would almost define as a flex day. Not to say there was flexibility in the rigid Nolan/Elizabeth schedule. But we were going to get out to Midway Geyser basin early to beat the crowds, and then we had options of different things we could stop at on the long arc-shaped drive back to the Canyon throughout the day. We didn’t have to stop at all, or we could. It was a flex day.
One thing did have to change, on decree from Queen Elizabeth herself. We needed coffee. The Canyon Eatery was open for a modest buffet-style breakfast affair pretty similar to the dinner we’d had two days prior. This fortunately included coffee. I made the ultimate sacrifice of driving down through the drizzle to stand in line for 20 minutes and get her something hot to drink (and to get myself some eggs and pancakes. We’d all but abandoned making our own food at this point as the demands of seeing everything in Yellowstone continued to pile up). If it maybe put us a touch behind our hoped-for arrival time of 9:00 at Midway Geyser Basin, it also left Elizabeth less grumpy, a trade-off I was willing to make.
The drive from Canyon to Norris was already becoming familiar from the prior day, with a big meadow giving way to the forested caldera slope. From Norris, still at 7,400 feet itself, one takes a winding mountainous drive southward along the tumbling Gibbon River to the Madison Junction. Here, the valley views become even more pronounced where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet at the base of National Park Mountain (really), before following the Firehole River up into a much more open terrain in the geyser basin section. This is where the bulk of Yellowstone’s current thermal activity is. Between the Upper, Middle, and Lower Geyser Basins there are dozens if not hundreds of geysers, pools, and fumaroles to see. The drive through the Lower Geyser Basin reflected that, with large plumes of steam just rising up into the chilly morning air constantly along the roadside. I’m sure you could spend a week just watching different thermal features in this corner of the park if that was your jam.
Elizabeth and I had a plan, of course. The furthest-away feature that we would be stopping at today was the Fairy Falls Trailhead, about a mile past the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk. The Fairy Falls Trail rises gently along the slope of a ridge overlooking the Firehole Valley, and at one point it opens into a renowned overlook of Grand Prismatic Spring. Grand Prismatic is one of the three or four most famous features in Yellowstone, and that overlook view is usually lauded as the best way to see the spring. This was a must-do for us.
We were a bit late to the trailhead, arriving around 9:45 (for those keeping track at home, 45 minutes behind the master itinerary). Although so far we hadn’t had any adverse crowd conditions in Yellowstone, here we were forced into the overflow lot at the Fairy Falls Trailhead – not a huge deal, but an extra minute or two. In some ways, it was a bonus, because the national park had built the parking lot for this trailhead in the middle of a geyser basin because reasons. I am just now learning that this basin is called the Rabbit Creek Group, with mostly nonactive pools that probably would have looked better if there had been any sun to reflect. There are five or six geysers in this group, but because I was taking video and because it was raining, preventing me from getting out the camera, this small, unnamed pool from my iPhone is the only shot of it I have.
The trail crosses the Firehole River on a little steel bridge that I was very excited to access. Just downstream, the Rabbit Creek empties into the river with steaming hot springs water, an impressive sight. Rain occasionally spattered us, but nothing too bad. The trail moved into the trees on the hill on the western side of the valley, blocking our panoramic view of the steam plumes rising. The trail was well-maintained and probably quite pretty – if it wasn’t spitting a cold rain at us. Even so, it wasn’t more than 15 minutes and a half a mile before we reached the destination – the Grand Prismatic Overlook. Grand Prismatic Spring is this massive hot spring with colors that emanates hot blue water from the center, which fans out in all directions into a sort of runoff channel similar to the one we saw at Mammoth the day before. Only this one, rather than fading from orange to yellow, does the exact opposite – the outflows nearest the spring are a brilliant yellow, fading to orange and then brown. This is because of the bacteria that live at that temperature of water – yellow bacteria like hotter water than orange and so forth. The result is a beautiful, prism-like hot spring on warm, clear days like we’d had.
But not on a day like today. Nope. On a cool, rainy day, a steam plume rose from the center of the spring.
The overlook was kind of crowded at this time of day and we didn’t stay long. I would definitely say that relative to expectations, this view was one of the bigger disappointments in Yellowstone. Obviously it was a vibrant, out-of-this-world pool from what we could see, but the steam really cost us a chance to see it in all its glory. Like I said though, I was willing to make that trade if the smoke would subside a bit.
On the walk back downhill to the Fairy Falls Trail, the sprinkles gave way to an earnest rainfall. We hustled back to the car with raindrops hissing into the river around us and started the Subaru immediately to try and dry off. In a good news/bad news situation, I was wearing a sweatshirt that kept me from getting soaked but also locked the moisture in. Without any cell reception, there was no real way of knowing how long the shower would last, so after staring at the rain for a few minutes we decided to head over to the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t let up enough to where I would use the Canon, so my iPhone camera would have to suffice in one of the more famous areas in the park. I wasn’t really disappointed, though. The rain added a fun element to the walk (it would have been more fun if Pam and I prepared the way Elizabeth did and had rain jackets as opposed to sweatshirts).
The Midway parking lot was pretty crowded again – for the first time in Yellowstone, we actually had to wait to get a spot. It was only a couple of minutes, or just enough time for the next downpour to arrive. The boardwalk first leads over a bridge crossing the Firehole River that had me stoked. To the left of the bridge, the outflows from Excelsior Geyser poured into the river through these intense snot-yellow tufas that were somewhere in between gross-looking and awesome.
The boardwalk is one-way to control traffic better with everyone walking clockwise. That brought us by the massive Excelsior Geyser crater first. Normally this thing would be bright blue, but barely any water was visible through a massive wall of steam. The thing that struck me was that even with the steam, it was obvious this geyser was massive in size.
That selfie cost the world 30 seconds of being able to flow clockwise around the boardwalk, but the rule of national parks held – everyone was polite enough to wait us out. Elizabeth, Pam and I moved on past the Excelsior Geyser to the back end of the boardwalk – Grand Prismatic Spring. Once again, I want to say that next time I go to Yellowstone, I will choose a sunny and warm day to see the spring. But to be honest, just this once, it was pretty cool to see the spring in the rain. For one, the raindrops left little impacts in the pristine, shallow channeled outflow water that added to the alien impression of the landscape. And for another, from this angle the steam was reflecting the rainbow colors of the spring below.
In this case, I was willing enough to accept the difference between expectation and reality.
The last two pools of Midway Geyser Basin are on a less grand scale than Grand Prismatic. Opal and Turquoise Pools were a little hard to see in the downpour, especially now that my sweatshirt was soaking through. In a rare Nolan move, I didn’t even take a picture of Opal Pool. Here is Turquoise Pool in all its glory:
By now, Pam and I were feeling really jealous of Elizabeth’s ΑSK rain jacket. We skedaddled back across the cool little bridge and got into the car where the heat could blessedly dry us. Because of our late start and small breakfast, I was looking to avoid a similar hangry Elizabeth situation as the day before. By common assent, we decided to head into West Yellowstone for lunch. Maybe one of the great Yellowstone sights hadn’t been exactly what I’d expected, but I think we made the most of it.