Most days, in most ways, this park’s Upper Geyser Basin is a geothermal outlaw biker beach party – belching and splashing at all hours, with a sulphuric whiff of menace riding the breeze.
But in one patch of boiling mud, about 17 times a day, the bubbling becomes something bigger. Heated to 93°C or more, the water and steam rise some 15.2m to 30.5m and beyond into the vast Wyoming sky.
If it’s a summer day, the surrounding boardwalk and benches will be teeming with travellers from Chicago, China and thousands of other places where mud doesn’t bubble. As the splashes grow, so do the oohs and aahs. Sometimes, Old Faithful blows for just 90 seconds, sometimes for a full five minutes.
Either way, it’s one of the most thrilling scenes in North America. There’s no telling what fiery volcanic catastrophe might someday erupt in Yellowstone, but for now, this geyser masks that menace as a charming little ritual, a family photo op.
That’s part of Yellowstone’s appeal. Its beasts and geothermal wonders could kill you or bury several states in ash. But in the meantime, they’re beautiful.
And – except for the bison that dawdle in the middle of Grand Loop Road – they usually don’t stand still. Two black bear cubs scamper behind their mother across a meadow near Roosevelt Lodge. A rainbow flickers above the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Steam billows from Chinese Spring as dusk falls on a cold, windy day.
In late July last year, I spent four days among these iconic scenes with Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster. (Yellowstone is mostly in Wyoming but spills over into Montana and Idaho.) And as I did, my mind kept wandering back to an event in 1871, when photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran arrived here on the first federally funded expedition to document the area.
How much chance did Jackson and Moran have of capturing a landscape so thrumming with motion and colour? After all, it took so long to shoot and process an image that 13 black-and-white glass-plate exposures were a long day’s work.
They did their best and took the results to Washington. The next year, Congress voted to make Yellowstone the world’s first national park. The legislators also agreed to buy a Moran oil painting, The Grand Canyon Of The Yellowstone, for US$10,000.
These days, the park gets about 3.5 million visitors a year. Every park lodging was sold out when we were there. (In later summer and early fall, your chances of landing a room are better – especially last year, with the opening of 249 new rooms in the park’s central Canyon Lodge area. They’ll stay open through Sept 20.)
I had been to Yellowstone with my family just five years ago, but I was thrilled again to behold the elk that lounge on the lawns at Mammoth Hot Springs, to spy a dozen bison roaming a ridge above the Hayden Valley, to watch a man, his son and his grandson fly-fishing at dusk on the Madison River.
The massive log architecture and stone fireplace of the Old Faithful Inn, perhaps the most emblematic lodge in the national park system, were as impressive as ever. And even though I knew precisely what was coming at Old Faithful, I had to hang around long enough to see it erupt not once but twice.
I also had to make peace with crowds and crowd behaviour. Most visitors, of course, were great, and it makes an American proud to hear the honest enthusiasm and varied accents around Old Faithful at just about any hour. But in those four days, I saw an entire family step off the boardwalk to pose for pictures in a dangerous geothermal area; one father helping his son stick his fingers into the water of an off-limits hot spring; and several men and women advancing perilously close to bear and bison.
Then there was the encounter I learned about from rangers: On our second day in the park, a 43-year-old woman from Mississippi approached a bison near the Fairy Falls trailhead, then turned her back on it to take a selfie. The animal stepped forward, lifted the woman with its head and threw her to the ground. Her injuries were minor, rangers said. Hers was the fifth bison-related injury of the summer.
(Two weeks after my visit, authorities found the body of a 63-year-old Montana man who had been killed by a grizzly while hiking alone off-trail. He was the park’s third grizzly fatality since 2010.)
The best way to steer clear of animal attacks, rangers say, is to follow the park’s rules: Stay at least 100m away from a bear (especially a mother with cubs) and at least 25m from bison or elk.
To steer clear of crowds? Hike more. Drive less. Rise early. Rest at midday. Roam widely in late afternoon and early evening, when many families retreat to dinner.
But keep in mind that it’s possible to have a sublime park experience in the middle of a crowd.
I know this because one morning, I braved the busy Midway Geyser Basin parking lot, crossed a little bridge over the Firehole River and joined the procession of global tourists on the boardwalk.
First, we passed Excelsior Geyser Crater. Then, we strode straight into a great white cloud with a sulphurous stink.
Somewhere before me, I knew, was Grand Prismatic Spring (see top image), the largest in the park, 91.4m across. But where?
Then the wind shifted. Steam and stink vanished. Suddenly it was 20 degrees cooler, with a wraparound view.
The spring began at the boardwalk’s edge with a flat, brown earthen crust, then a soggy orange fringe, a yellow edge and then the spring itself, whose greenish shallows gave way to blue. The deep blue of prisms, of cake frosting, of too much Photoshop. Implausible blue.
Then the hot, stinky cloud swallowed me again, and my only sensory input was the sound of a thousand tourists, murmuring in a dozen languages at the strangeness of it all.
Every time the wind changed, the setting shifted again. One moment, misty, lunar desolation. The next, a boiling blue pool with a forested slope beyond.
I couldn’t get enough. I walked the loop twice. I climbed ridges to the north and south to get different perspectives. And I imagined Jackson and Moran at wits’ end, desperate to capture some sliver of this sensory spectacle.
Later, I tracked down their photos and paintings and wondered: If colour photography and reproduction had been common in the 1870s, would Grand Prismatic Spring have become Yellowstone’s marquee attraction instead of Old Faithful?
It hardly matters. Whether our photo-op tools come from the 19th century or the 21st, we’re all overmatched at Grand Prismatic Spring and at Yellowstone.
If you want the gleaming, belching, splashing, seething, stinking, roaring, growling, menacing essence of the place, you’d better just come and put yourself in the middle of it. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service