TR Part 3.
(Link to Part 1
and Part 2
Click on any picture to see a high resolution version. If you click through, click on the location name (under the picture) to see a map with the exactly where it was taken.Day 4:
Wednesday was Yellowstone day. It's a 3-hour drive from Teton Village (where we sere staying) to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was supposed to be our first shooting location. Since we were up most of the night before shooting the Milky Way, we decided to skip a full sunrise shoot and sleep late today - we woke up at 4 instead of 3
Going to Yellowstone (South Entrance), you pass through the entire Grand Teton NP from south to north. On the way up we passed Oxbow Bend just as the sun was rising, so we decided to make a quick stop and shoot it from a different angle than we did yesterday. We spent a few quick minutes shooting and then headed on to Yellowstone:
Our original plan was to get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone about 10 o'clock, when the sun is positioned to create a rainbow at the base of the falls. However, we soon learned that there is no such thing a simply getting from point A to point B in Yellowstone. It's impossible to drive without stopping every few minutes for this or for that. The place is chock-full of amazing things to see that we stopped practically after every curve in the road. We didn't even bother taking pictures of most things; we just drank it all in (the weather was iffy too, alternating between rain, clouds, and weak sunshine). From geyser fields to roaring rivers to Yellowstone Lake (the largest high-altitude lake in the US); from narrow passes to wide open valleys with wildlife stretching as far as the eye could see, it's impossible not to be filled with awe of this amazing place.
We ended up stopping in most places, mostly just for 5 minutes or so; even so a stretch of highway that should have taken half an hour to drive took longer than 3 hours. And that's with skipping some of the more involved spots (such as West Thumb Geyser Basin, Lewis Falls, and others).
Right when you enter Yellowstone, you start seeing entire areas that were devastated by the 198 fires which burned over a third of the park. It's interesting to see all those dead lodgepole pines standing forlorn, but with a forest of brand new miniature ones already starting to reclaim the old forest.
"Circle of life":
(The second and third pictures are a perfect example of the mixed-up weather that day - the pictures were taken 4 minutes apart but the weather is completely different)
One of the stops we made was a place called Dragons Mouth in the Mud Volcano area. It's a cave that emits boiling water, clouds of stinky sulfuric steam, all the while roaring like a monster. We watched it for a couple of minutes holding our noses, but then the wind shifted and blew the steam directly at the boardwalk, so we hightailed it out of there coughing and gagging.
One of the most amazing things about Yellowstone is the fact that everything is constantly changing. By the time I go back again, there will probably be new geothermal features, some current ones will disappear, while other will change their behavior dramatically. With more than 10,000 thermal features, it's easy to see why. The scene which left the strongest impression overall on me was not Old Faithful (we didn't even see it), or any of the famous tourists spots. It was a simple drainage grate in the Mud Volcano parking lot. Sulfuric gas was lightly steaming our of it, and the iron grate was actually being dissolved from the fumes. Sometime before we came a new vent had simply opened underneath the parking lot and was now blocking a couple of spots; in a couple of years from now, the entire parking lot may be gone.
This simple sight, more than anything, drove home to me the real power of this place:
(You could see the light steam rising between the Tioga RV on the right and the Ford Explorer on the left.)
Continuing on, you get to the absolutely magnificent Hayden Valley. It boasts the highest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48; we saw herds of bison, deer, bald eagles, herons, cranes, and many more animals. Not to mention that the valley itself is stunningly beautiful, with the Yellowstone River and the mountains in the background.
Bald eagle pair in the Hayden Valley:
Finally, after 3 hours and countless detours, we made it to Artist Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon is 1200 feet deep and quite spectacular. It's not nearly as massive as THE Grand Canyon, but it's got something to make up for that: at the head of the canyon, the stunning Lower Yellowstone Falls plunges 308 feet straight down, almost twice the height of Niagara. (This one also has trees, as opposed to the one in AZ
.) As expected, we were too late to see the rainbow, but we had no regrets
The tiny people standing on the observation deck on the top of the falls should give you some sense of the immense scale:
We then headed back to the trailhead to tackle the famous Uncle Tom's Trail. This was originally a rope and ladder affair which allowed people to climb into the canyon at the base of the falls. These days, it's a steep path leading to over 300 stairs, going more than 600' down into the canyon. Besides being extremely strenuous (the way down is also quite difficult, not to mention of course the way up), it hugs the canyon wall all the way down and is very vertigo-inducing. The stairs are also made out of perforated metal, so most of the time you could also see pretty far directly below your feet.
Personally, I'm terrified of heights (a 6' ladder gives me the heebie-jeebies), so I wasn't sure if I should even try. However, standing on the edge of the cliff at Artist Point - a spot which should have had me terrified - I noticed that I wasn't in the least bit nervous. Basically I think that since the scale was just so crazy, I didn't really see it as a typical heights situation. (I've tested this hypothesis many times since and find it to be true - in moderately high situations I'm still very nervous, but once we're talking a few hundred feet or more I'm fairly comfortable. Go figure.) In any case, I decided then that I will give Uncle Tom's Trail a try.
We emptied our packs in the car, keeping only the essential cameras and lenses, plus plenty of water. As expected, the trail ended up being extremely difficult, but yet very enjoyable. There are 'landings' every 20-30 stairs or so with benches, so it was pretty manageable. At the bottom of the trail is a platform where you could rest up and enjoy the view. You're very close to the falls, and the spray makes everything slick. The roar is unbelievable.
View of the falls about halfway down the trail:
Cellphone shot of the trail, heading down:
View from the bottom:
We then headed to Midway Geyser Basin, home of Grand Prismatic Spring. GPS is the largest hot spring in the world, and one of the most beautiful. We were planning on hiking up a nearby hill to get the entire spring in view, but the trail was closed due to high bear activity. There are bears all over the Yellowstone backcountry; for a trail to be closed means that it's really really
dangerous. Instead we just explored it via the boardwalk. The steam was constantly blowing toward us, so we hardly saw anything, although we were able to catch a glimpse of the different colored bacteria which give the spring its color. Overall it was like walking through regular (albeit very smelly) fog - we hardly saw anything. Earlier in the day is supposedly a better time to visit here.
Right next to Grand Prismatic Spring is Excelsior Geyser Crater, once Excelsior Geyser. This used to be one of the the biggest geysers in Yellowstone, until one of the huge eruptions messed up the internal plumbing. Now there's huge hot spring in the crater instead, pumping about 4000 gallons of boiling water into the Firehole River below it.
Excelsior Geyser Crater. The steam rising in the right background is from Grand Prismatic Spring:
Excelsior Geyser emptying into the Firehole River:
At this point it was almost 8 PM, so we headed up to Mammoth Hot Springs to shoot the sunset over Minerva Terraces. This really is an otherworldly place. The limestone-rich boiling water slowly builds up delicate terraces, leaving stunning multi-level formations. We were disappointed to find that the terraces were mostly dry, but it was pretty cool anyway.
We stayed awhile, then started the 3-hour drive back to the beach on Jackson Lake in the Tetons to shoot some star trails. We got there about 1:30, and stayed for a bit more than an hour. There had been grizzlies around that day there and we were terrified
Since star trails require very long exposures, we were able to set up the shot and wait it out in the car. What causes the star trails is the rotation of the earth, while the stars stay still. Since it's a long exposure, the stars get recorded on the sensor as a trails of light. The long exposure also picks up things which are almost invisible to the human eye - the orange glow on the left side are the lights from Idaho Falls, ID, more than 80 miles away.
The greenish streaks on the right are actually the Northern Lights, visible due to the long exposure.
This is a 20-minute exposure - the star trails are longer, but the Aurora is less structured:
This exposure is 8 minutes - shorter star trails, but a better looking Aurora: