Visiting Yellowstone National Park should never be done when it is cold, raining or crowded. It was all of the foregoing the afternoon I arrived. The ranger’s qarning it could take up to 25 minutes to get between sites was hopelessly optimistic. It took me nearly an hour and 45 minutes to arrive at my first destination, inching along the main highway in bumper to bumper traffic. Running parallel to the highway was the Madison River, offering iconic views of a Montana wilderness scene. The only thing missing was the fisherman standing waist high in the water (they came later):
Fountain Paint Pot
Steam billowed in the foreground, announcing the beginning of the thermal or volcanic area of Yellowstone. I began the game of parking lot bingo, finally grabbing a spot in the lot near Fountain Paint Pot, an area with each of four thermal features (hot springs, fumeroles (steam vents), mud pots and geysers). A boardwalk circling the features shouted out this warning:
Notwithstanding, I saw 3 people dip their fingers into the water, then quickly pull them out, exclaiming “it’s hot!” Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but did they not think that boiling water would be hot?
People aside, the Fountain Pain Pot sent my senses into overload. The stench of sulfur, the hissing of the vents and the bubbling caldron of mud baths and the magnificent streams of water shooting forth from the geysers made the area a joy to behold. The colours of the mini–lakes, shades of turquoise and terracotta swirls from the algae greeted my eyes.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the US. Viewed on a hot, sunny day, it offers a vivid rainbow of colours – blues, greens, yellows and oranges. Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy, making the spring less grand and not at all prismatic. The cold weather creates a roof of steam, covering the spring and obscuring the rainbow effect.
Another slow car ride and a frustrating 30 minute search in the parking lots ensued before I finally emerged victorious with a parking spot. I thought about giving up; after all, I had seen plenty of geysers before and what was so special about seeing another geyser spout water. But it was tantalizing close and I couldn’t bear the thought of hearing “you mean you didn’t see Old Faithful?”
I walked onto the Boardwalk. Helpful signs provided the time of the next eruption: 5:18 PM +/- 10 minutes. An hour and a half later. Displays in the Visitor’s Center explains that Old Faithful is one of 5 geysers in the park for which eruptions can be reliably predicted. It all depends on the prior eruption and how much water was expelled. The more water that is shot out, the longer it takes to replenish the spring and obtain the necessary pressure to gush forward again and vice versa. But in general, Old Faithful erupts about every hour and a half.
I took my seat at one of dozens of benches encircling Old Faithful. By 5PM, hundreds of other tourists had joined me, all of us waiting for the 5:18 spray. By 5:15, the anticipation was growing, the excitement palpable and Old Faithful teased us with mini-spouts, only a few feet high, before the wisps of steam trailed away. 5:18 came and nothing happened. Then 5:19, 5:20 and another tease, but no blast. 5:22…would this be the time when Old Faithful wasn’t so faithful? Tremors, earthquakes deep below could all destroy the delicate forces of nature that make Old Faithful so predictable. 5:23 and more water bubbled forth, then quickly receded. 5:24 and the kids in front of me asked their mother if they could go. 5:25….and finally, swoosh and thar she blows-a gusher 120 to 150 feet in the sky, majestically tossing water high into the sky before cascading back to earth:
The show lasted nearly 5 minutes. Then I (and the other hundreds) left, feeling quite satisfied that I had persevered to see the spectacle and it did not disappoint.