Our first geyser basin! My expectation going in was never that West Thumb would be the highlight of the entire trip, but since it was the first one I expected that maybe it would hold a special place in our hearts – a premonition that I would say played out exactly correctly.

Yellowstone National Park Map - The best maps of Yellowstone

Some of the basics of Yellowstone: each basin is full of numerous:

  • Geysers – water shooting up out of the ground
  • Hot springs – water bubbling up out of the ground, but not necessarily shooting up above water level
  • Pools – calm, but hot pools of water
  • Fumaroles – vents of steam
  • Mudpots – like springs, but with mud or muddy water bubbling up
  • Paint Pots – Colorful, murky pools

There are several others, but those are the main names to recall. You need a map to keep track of the names of each of these features, because one little basin like West Thumb (which is no more than 400 yards in length or width) has a couple of dozen named features, and even more unnamed ones. Seriously, I’m looking through my pictures and can’t match everything up with a name.

Our parking spot was right at the south entrance to the boardwalks, which meant that we did a counterclockwise loop around the outer boardwalk before cutting back across the inner boardwalk. Signs were posted everywhere warning individuals not to walk off of the boardwalk, or they risked falling through the thin crust of ground above all of this boiling water. But on the other hand, bison seem to manage!

Thumb Paint Pots
Lakeside Spring – probably

This was our first introduction into the wild scenery that accompanies geyser basins – the signature white color to the ground, the scrubby brush and dead, calcified trees, and the steam plumes that suddenly take you from “comfortable” to “diffused sauna”. It really escapes any sort of comparison or metaphor.

Next up in our loop was one of the first iconic sights of Yellowstone: Fishing Cone, where old-timey fishermen would cook the trout over the escaping steam. Note: I do not recommend this method, since it’s been banned inside the park. There are actually several such cone-like geysers along the lakeshore of Yellowstone Lake (sidenote: seeing Yellowstone Lake was another bucket-list-type moment for me). Fishing Cone itself wasn’t doing a whole lot of anything, and I can mark it down as a mild disappointment. But its companion geyser, Lakeshore Geyser, was cool enough to make up for it and leave me satisfied. And further up the boardwalk, Big Cone Geyser added a bit more of the needed punch.

Lakeshore Geyser
THE Fishing Cone
Big Cone

A few days later into the trip, maybe Elizabeth and I would have been too experienced to like it. But now?

One thing that was noteworthy overlooking Yellowstone Lake was that the ever-persistent smoke layer definitely had not left. Herein lay the beauty of Yellowstone’s thermal features – you get so close to them, the smoke generally can’t ruin the view!

We came around the north corner back away from the lakeshore, and for the first time were acquainted with the brilliantly-colored bacteria that congregate in the boiling waters of the Yellowstone hot springs. The color of the bacteria is dependent on the temperature of the water, leading to different-colored rings as the water cools away from the spring. Black Pool: maybe a misleading name.

Black Pool Bacteria
Black Pool

The last part of the boardwalk featured a pretty high density of pools and springs. I don’t have too much of a memory of any of it, other than the sense of wonder that never quite goes away in Yellowstone. Some pictures:

Abyss Pool

It had been an excellent inaugural geyser basin. Yellowstone clearly had a lot of wonders to show us. But for now, Elizabeth, Pam, and I were hungry. We didn’t have any real plans for lunch, just a big pile of snacks and materials for peanut butter sandwiches. West Thumb had a nice picnic area right by our car that we set up with our snacks. Birds twittered among the pines above us, while squirrels chittered around and tried to eat my pretzels. While there, we got a text from Terri and Garrett, who had hiked down to nearby Duck Lake for their lunchtime. After spending several days in a row joined at the hip with the two of them, it was probably good for them to get to explore on their own – after all, Yellowstone was the park that was really Terri’s dream.

The snacks helped take the edge off the hunger, but couldn’t end it entirely. We were still in search of more to eat and possibly our very first national park stamp at the Lake Village. I kept driving along the northwestern shore of Yellowstone Lake toward the village. It was scenic in a “Hope you love millions of pine trees” kind of way. Onward to the next great Yellowstone location we went.

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