I know Elizabeth’s hangry vibe, and we were rapidly approaching hangry status. We had been supposed to get an early lunch with my family at Leeks Marina in Grand Teton, but they had decided to head out for Jackson Hole before lunch. On top of that, Leeks Marina wasn’t open, so the deliciously-advertised pizza wasn’t available. We tried to make do with an ad hoc lunch of snacks at West Thumb, but it wasn’t going to cut it all the way until dinnertime. We would need to find more sustenance somewhere along the shores of Lake Yellowstone.
Fortunately, despite the fact that Grant Village had been closed, there were still two more places nearly guaranteed to offer us some food – Lake Village or Fishing Bridge, on the northern side of the lake. I drove along the heavily forested lakeshore, up and down rolling hills, until we emerged into the Bridge Bay and Lake areas. With no service, we relied on signs that directed us toward the Lake General Store. The signs must have been confusing, or perhaps sleep deprivation and unfamiliarity with the local terrain. Somehow, Elizabeth, Pam, and myself found ourselves rolling up to the living quarters of Yellowstone’s Lake Village employees. That wasn’t right. After some further searching, we determined that visitor services must be shut down here, too. Fortunately, we still had another shot to figure things out a few miles down the road at Fishing Bridge.
As the name implies, Fishing Bridge is located right near a bridge where fishermen like to ply their trade. Thanks to warming waters in the Yellowstone ecosystem (thanks again, climate change!) the bridge sits at the peaceful spot where the Yellowstone River emerges from its eponymous lake. Just on the other side, a small quasi-village exists with a visitor’s center, service center, general store and gas station. To Elizabeth’s disappointment, the visitor’s center was closed due to staffing shortages, but the general store – blessedly – was open. It was a large wooden-cabin-inspired building with a creamery offering limited ice cream, and plenty of “hiking food” – prepackaged sandwiches, trail mix, beef jerky – was available in the grocery section. I got myself a turkey and cheese sandwich, which turned out to be more than halfway frozen in the cooler, and Elizabeth bought some “Yellowstone root beer”, which hit the spot on yet another record-warm day in northwest Wyoming. We ate the food outside of the general store on some benches, watching the famous Yellowstone hustle and bustle pass us.
It was edging toward mid-afternoon on a completely haze-shrouded day. The three of us still needed to set up our campsite up in the Canyon Village Campsite, and the bitter experience of that morning had taught me that maybe we shouldn’t neglect spending the time to set it up nicely. But still, the all-knowing itinerary had one final location lined up for us to explore this afternoon – the mighty Mud Volcano. In terms of Yellowstone tourist attractions, Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon, and Grand Prismatic stand alone, with certain locations like Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley lying below them. Heck, you might even read about West Thumb, or the Boiling River, or Mount Washburn as places that lie under the radar. Rarely did I read about Mud Volcano, but what I did read sounded incredible. It’s a major thermal area that is highlighted by the eponymous Mud Volcano, a constant boiling spring of muddy water that erupted some 50 years ago and just kind exploded the edge off of the hillside it lies on. I was obsessed.
Parking at Mud Volcano was pretty limited – at this point, we were still dealing with horror stories from my parents of having to circle lots for 15-20 minutes until a spot opened. So, instead of pulling into the lot, Elizabeth and I decided to park right behind other cars that were using the generous shoulder along the Loop Road, and then we could walk up into the lot. It is now that I must mention that Mud Volcano is near the Yellowstone River:
Right as the river winds into the open Hayden Valley between the Lake Village and the Canyon Village. While not quite like Lamar Valley, the Hayden Valley is also a haven for the Yellowstone bison, who were out in full force near the car. I think this may have been the closest Elizabeth and Pam had ever come to a bison. Much of the herd remained across the river:
But not all of them, with one bison wandering across the road right behind us as we walked up to the boardwalk. Big mammal count: 2/6. And, in “unplanned birds”: this grouse.
There would not be any wildlife along the Mud Volcano boardwalk, but the thermal views were incredible – in my opinion, far outstripping everything (so basically West Thumb) that I had ever seen.
We took the loop counterclockwise, saving the best (Dragon’s Mouth and Mud Volcano) for the very first.
If you read enough about Yellowstone, you’ll get the highly cliche “A picture doesn’t do it justice”. Which, yeah, duh. This is one of the most unique places on Earth. A picture will never do it justice. But looking at that image of Mud Volcano, I have nothing else to do but trot out the cliche. It doesn’t look that cool in the picture, does it? Well in reality, it was the living, bubbling, groaning feature that commanded attention. What was it like to be the grass that grew the closest to the feature? What did bison think of it? Did it ebb and flow, or constantly simmer like a pot that had been boiling for an hour? You could find yourself lost in questions. But the time demand of a national park the size of Rhode Island is unforgiving, and up the hillside to the springs atop the bluff we traveled. Up there, we were treated to a sight that is a lot cooler when you stop and think about it: two bodies of water with different colors.
*Those* are some colors. And another thing that was quite distinctive of the Yellowstone thermal features: downed trees and other debris along the shore of the little lake. In some ways, it kind of degrades the view, I suppose. But there’s no way in hell people are going to remove them when stepping out into an active thermal field means they might fall through the thin crust of dirt straight into a pit of scalding water.
We headed back down the hillside toward the parking lot, which was fun because the waters of the little Sour Lake tumbled down toward the Yellowstone River along the boardwalk, fed by a few more thermal features along the way.
On our way back to the car, a few of our bison friends had decided to get frisky. One in particular wandered along the near bank of the river, scattering a bunch of tourists who had wandered too close in search of closer bison views. I laughed at the people who screamed and ran, until the bison turned 90 degrees to the right and started wandering towards me. Then it was my turn to backpedal. The bison didn’t care. It just kept ambling
Elizabeth and Pam were terrified of our bison friend, but who could be so mean if they had their tongue stuck out like that? Exactly. Nobody.