Great Falls to West Yellowstone

We hadn’t decided last night whether we were going to Yellowstone or just going to move on East, but this morning I got some good, cheap advice and decided that, hell – I never know when I’ll be in Wyoming again (never?), so there was really no excuse to skip it. Our new plan was to go through Yellowstone and see Old Faithful, then head out towards Cody, WY.

After we gathered all our things and packed the car we ate some quick breakfast on the road from McDonalds. Nothing better than orange juice and coffee in the morning. Yum! We then drove around town taking some pictures of the many, many casinos as well as hundreds of signs for an “Ultimate Elimination Event”. The sign wasn’t specific, but we feared the worst.

The road to Yellowstone through Montana is really long. Will drove the whole way and we just took some pictures of the scenery and the landscapes. Lots of fields, bales of hay, black angus cows, and some mountains in the distance. It really is cowboy country. We drove past quite a few flat top mountains (think Table Mountain in Cape Town). I wonder how these are formed? Seems like someone stood next to a mountain and chopped it down with the edge of their hand. After driving for a long time we realized we had missed the turn-off by a long shot! So we were about an hour farther West than we needed to be. We backtracked and started back South again towards the park. Most of the rest stops we hit were populated by mainly farmers and hunters. Lots of hunters actually, all wearing camo-gear and bright orange hats.

Finally we made it to the entrance of Yellowstone. There’s a big stone arch leading into the park. It cost $25 for a 7-day pass into the park. One of the cheapest national parks we’ve been into!

After a short drive you end up in the small “town” with the visitors centre. It was steaming hot by the time we got there! We got changed into shorts and t-shirts and we were still sweating like crazy. Quite a far cry from the 0 degree glaciers and Rocky Mountains. Yellowstone is the first national park in the world, and so when it was created it was actually patrolled by the United States army. This town that we were in, Fort Yellowstone, was the military base which has since turned into a tourist town/information center for the park, after the National Park Service took over in 1918.

Yellowstone has incredible scenery. No towering mountains like the Rockies, but there are huge valleys and the mountains are wide and expansive. There is also a wide variety, from rivers and plains to desert like landscapes. There are a lot of fallen tree logs everywhere and most of the trees in the park are only about 6 -10 feet tall. It looked like there was a tornado. Later in the day we saw a sign that explained it – in 1988 there was a massive fire that destroyed most of the park. Visions of Bambi swam in my head. I’m not sure if it’s accurate, but Will says that they used to have really strict forest fire control policies and this caused the underbrush to overgrow, this is what triggered a far more devastating fire than would be expected naturally. That’s what Will says, but he’s a walking encyclopedia so I trust he’s right.

Our first stop in the park was the Mammoth hot springs. Wildly different from the hot springs we’ve been in so far – these are completely natural and untamed. Steaming hot water runs down a hill forming terraces like rice paddies but of all sorts of colours – blue, green, orange, yellow. The hill has all sorts of crystals growing on it. It kind of looks like the mystery chemical bucket we had in the lab back in Waterloo. The air smells strongly of hard boiled eggs from the sulphur in the air. The ground all around it is cordoned off as “thermal ground”, a concept which is prevalent all over Yellowstone park. The ground can appear solid, but it’s often just a thin covering with boiling water below it. The sign said hundreds had been scalded and over a dozen have died from the burns of walking on these thermal grounds. Not a monument to those wanderers in sight, we decided it best to stay on the trails. I did however dip my finger into one of the pools against Anne and Will’s protestations. It was very cold because it was further down the hill. After not being burned they quickly shifted gears to worry me about the extremophile bacteria crawling all over my fingers now! These bacteria can thrive in the extreme heats of the hot springs eating up all the hydrogen sulphide. Yummy.

We were stuck in road construction for 30 minutes on our way to Old Faithful. Construction even happens in the middle of nowhere it seems. At this point my mind wanders and I start thinking about trying to find the double rainbow guy. He’s somewhere in this wilderness, crying, and awe-struck.

On the way we saw a few elk grazing in a field quietly. Very beautiful. We finally saw some bison right on the side of the road. People were about 15 feet from it … complete idiots, but we took a picture from the car. Animal count +1!

We stopped at some geysers on the way. The ground is multicoloured and steaming there. Some parts of the ground were smoking and looked burnt like a cigarette burn. Oh! We saw a raven killing a snake on the road in front of us. Nature in progress, hurrah! At one of the geysers we saw the paint pots which are essentially muddy geysers. The sound is pretty unforgettable, “blup blup blup”. It looked like a prehistoric, primordial, tomato soup. Later we found a herd of bison on either side of the road. Mothers and children running around and grazing. Cool! Round about this time I started driving because Will was getting tired. Saab’s are really nice, smooth drive and they’re really fast.

Finally we made it to Old Faithful. It was quiet. We waited. After a while we decided to play a guessing game (Price is Right rules of course) as to when it would blow. We got there at 6:40, so Anne guessed 7:40, Will 7:25. I went with the $1, or rather 1 minute. While we were waiting I saw a bison roam in the forest behind the Old Faithful. A few minutes later a coyote ran in front of the geyser apparently too cool to notice the hundreds of people staring at it. All the people who brought yappy dogs with them started getting nervous. Around 7:10 the geyser started to bubble and tease us with an eruption. Right at 7:13 it started at full steam. I win two honour points, to be traded in at the nearest honour store. The water flies up into the air, apparently 200 ft to the sky!

After Old Faithful we went into the lodge and grabbed something to eat. Ironically we found a clock that predicted Old Faithful’s eruption times accurate to 10 minutes. It was set at 7:14. So much for our guessing game.

Then it became dark and Will decided to run off and disappear to look for the hotel after getting in a tiff with Anne. Bad idea. Darkness, wilderness, and splitting up, do not mix(unless in a Friday the 13th horror movie). We couldn’t find him for 30 minutes in the dark. I went out to find him and kept shouting while I was walking around because I was worried about bears. That’s what I’ve heard is the thing to do if walking in the forest alone with bears. You don’t want to surprise a bear – let them know where you are.

I managed to find the inn before I found Will. But unfortunately there were no rooms in the entire park! The man at the desk told me we’d be crazy to head to Cody because it’s about 2 hours through the park in the darkness with animals running out every few hundred meters and then a 2 hour drive through the mountains. Not possible at this hour. So we backtracked and went out the west entrance. The drive was pretty scary with thick forest on each side of the road and the possibility of bison or deer running out into the road. I ran over one mouse and saw one coyote on the side of the road, but luckily no bigger animals.

When we got out of the park it was in the town of West Yellowstone, a small village. We checked into the ‘Ho Hum Hotel’, an aptly named establishment. The owner looked like Norman Bate’s mother and all the license plates in the lot were from Iraq war veterans.

Anne ate dinner at McDonalds (again, gah, because everything else was closed at that time). We tried hard to avoid it. We came back to the hotel and bought some Samuel Adams Imperial White beer and watched some survivalist TV shows (popular in this part of America it seems) until bed time. It might seem ludicrous, but this is how we slept.