August 18 – This was our last day in Yellowstone Park. We had originally planned to spend tonight in the park, but since the east entrance to the park was still closed due to fires and all of our activities for the day were on the north end of the park, it didn’t make sense to continue camping at the south end of the park since we would have to exit the park from the north entrance. We packed up camp after breakfast and headed towards the north end of the park. On our way we passed majestic and brilliant Yellowstone Lake. Unfortunately the fire was burning on the other side of the lake and the smoke had reduced visibility on the lake to about 200 feet. We got out of the truck to try to take pictures, but the cameras couldn’t see anything in the haze. While the smoke was not thick enough to burn our eyes, it had a very strong smell. As we headed further north we got out of the smoke zone and visibility improved. Across the Yellowstone River we saw a heard of bison grazing and stopped for a few pictures. A few miles up the road we saw another herd that was closer and we stopped again.
Our first hot spring type attraction was the Mud Volcano area. This area has some of the most acidic springs in the park and the acid is so strong that it dissolves the rock (both above and below ground) and instead of water the springs are boiling with mud. Depending on the time of year (and the amount of rain) the springs can be really thick like wet concrete or much thinner like paint. In the early summer one of the more active features spits up thick mud, forming a volcano like cone around it. It was too late in the season and the cone was gone, but the features were quite interesting. Another great feature was the Dragon’s Lair. This was a very watery hot spring, but a quirk in the underground plumbing caused rising steam to get caught in a chamber and make a roaring sound as it was released in clouds. Like all of the features in the park, there is sulfur present but because of all the sulfuric acid the smell (rotten eggs) was very strong. Most of the children in area walked around holding their noses.
We continued north and in the distance saw another herd of bison grazing near the road. For a better view we stopped before the herd and climbed up a small mound for overhead viewing. While we were there most of the herd decided that it was time to cross the road and they held up traffic for a while. As soon as traffic started flowing again, part of the herd decided it was better on the old side and they crossed again. We enjoyed the spectacle for a while and then moved on. A few miles further up the road we ran into more bison (almost). We waited for them to cross the road and then we moved on.
The Norris Basin area was the next area of hot springs on our slate. This area is one of the most dynamic ones, with new springs popping up often. More than half of the boardwalks in the area were closed due to “extreme” activity (they say the ground was over 150 degrees). One of the tallest spouting geysers in the park was in this area, but its eruptions are very infrequent and can’t be predicted (the last eruption was on April 15, 2003). One part of this area, the Porcelain Basin looks like the surface of a far away planet. The acidity and sulfur gas have killed off every plant in the area and the surface is covered in a layer of white mineral deposits. Steam and water spout up at random. The hot water flowing from the springs supports a wide range of thermophiles (bacteria that thrive in hot water) which create layers of color in the water as it flows to the stream that drains the area.
Our last stop was the famous Mammoth Hot Springs. Like other features in the park these springs are dissolving minerals from the rocks underground and depositing them on the surface when the water cools. The rocks in this area are more easily dissolved and the water is rich in minerals. The result is the fast (in geologic terms) build up of formations above the surface. Some springs have been known to grow up to three inches per year. As the springs grow they form large mounds and terraces. The springs are much less active today than they were in the past and most of what can be seen today is the massive mounds of built up stone from an earlier era. There are a few springs still working and the pools that they create are beautiful. One of the largest “towns” in the park is by the hot springs and to our surprise the elk love it there. We encountered a large group just lounging around between several staff housing apartments.
From the springs we continued north and left the park. At the north entrance stands the semi-famous Roosevelt Arch. When the park was first being developed the north entrance was the main entrance and a grand arch was being built over it. President Roosevelt happened to be vacationing in the park at the time when construction was starting and since he was there he was asked to lay the cornerstone and since then it has been known as the Roosevelt Arch. We however will remember it as Ankle Arch because Stacie twisted her ankle while hopping out of the truck to take pictures of the arch.
After Stacie hobbled back to the truck we left the park behind and drove up a small highway, looking for one of several Forest Service campgrounds that were along it. We skipped the first one and planned to stay in the second one, but our map was vague and we were having trouble finding the campground (what a surprise). While wandering a back road we saw a billboard for “historically romantic Chico Hot Springs Resort”. Parts of the description struck a chord in each of us and we decided to check it out. They had a few rooms left and we decided that for “medical reasons” it would be best to stay there and partake of the healing waters. The resort is built near a hot spring and opened its doors in 1900 and has been a popular attraction ever since. The water is piped from the spring to a small hot pool (104 degrees). From the hot pool it flows into the main pool which is around 90 degrees. The pools are drained and cleaned at midnight and reopen at 6 am. Stacie used an aggressive three stage therapy on her ankle, starting with twenty minutes of ice, followed by two drinks in the bar and then thirty minutes in the hot pool, followed by more ice. The therapy helped and she slept well.