We have been watching the excellent PBS documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns. Much of the first two episodes chronicled the discovery of Yellowstone by American frontiersmen and its early history as America’s first national park. It’s not hard to believe that initial reports of the area’s geyser basins were dismissed by the general public as fictional or regarded as greatly exaggerated, dreamt up by eccentric mountain men with big beards and even bigger imaginations. I would love to have been one of those first visitors to behold the Upper Geyser Basin, having been completely unprepared for the wonderland that awaited me.
In its current state, Old Faithful is circumscribed by an oval raised walkway to protect it from throngs of tourists, with offshoot walkways guiding you through miles of other geothermal features to the north. Weathered name plates and signs are everywhere, reminding you not only of the dangers of straying from the walkway but also of the damage caused by early tourists to the park, who, over time, filled most of the geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs with countless tons of stones and other projectiles, forever altering their natural characteristics. Eruption patterns have changed as a result, and the once-vivid colors of many hot springs have been muted because of temperature alterations caused by such actions. Man has proven to be an efficient instrument of change in Yellowstone.
Despite all this, it’s an unbelievable place, and I feel lucky to have seen it. The park planners have done a wonderful job of protecting Yellowstone. The slightly elevated walkways, which have been placed strategically to afford vantage points that would be treacherous without them, are a necessary evil, and many of them even lend their own aesthetic.
The Upper Geyser Basin consists of a huge low-lying area of rolling hills abutted to the east, south, and west by bluffs covered with dense pine forest. In comparison, the basin floor itself has few trees, and most of those are dead and limbless and white as bone. Firehole River, which cuts a beautiful path through the basin, is lined by numerous fumaroles and is fed by runoff from the nearby hot springs and geysers.
As I explained in my previous post, our goal during this second visit to the Upper Geyser Basin was to find Morning Glory Pool, which is the last stop on a paved path for walking and biking that runs a couple of miles north from Old Faithful. Our first visit came two days earlier, and we had left before realizing how much we had missed in the northern part of the basin. So we returned to see it.
The weather had taken a pleasant turn from that morning and early afternoon. Most of the clouds had burnt off, although thick swaths of rain clouds hung in the distance, while individual billows sauntered by overhead. The walk to Morning Glory was long, but incredible—complete sensory overload the entire way. Geysers were erupting everywhere, and it’s amazing how different one hot spring could be from another just a few feet away. Some held perfectly calm, clear water, showing the lurid hues of the spring walls underneath—turquoise, crimson, saffron, and emerald. Others had raised mineral rims and resembled huge simmering cauldrons.
Morning Glory Pool did not disappoint. A sign explained that the vivid colors of the spring had lessened over the years because debris thrown by tourists into the spring had cooled it, weakening the colorful bacteria lining its walls. However, it was as beautiful and vivid as we had hoped.
As I explained on my Flickr photostream, I decided to leave my 10-stop neutral-density (ND) filter on my camera most of the day, meaning that most of the exposures lasted 20-30 seconds. This was great for recording time-lapse details that are invisible in split-second exposures, as well as for reducing glare from the bright sky, but bad for Teri’s patience. I could have spent the rest of the day there, but the plan was to get back to Jackson Hole for dinner. Never in my life have I been somewhere so photogenic. Fascinating compositions were literally everywhere, and all of the photographs in this post were taken in a 72-minute span. As I explained to many of my photographer buddies afterward, it’s nearly impossible for anybody with a camera not to come away from the Upper Geyser Basin with a bunch of beautiful photographs. One needs only to close their eyes, point their camera in any direction, and click.