Yellowstone National Park Part I: Boiling Earth and Buffalo Jams

Mammoth Hot Springs. A bit like being on another planet.

There's nothing that I like more than a volcanically active area where you can see the Earth in action, building and reforming itself. Yellowstone National Park delivers that on an epic scale. It is, after all, a giant caldera. Here you can see the world's greatest concentration of geysers. Here you can walk along rainbow colored hot springs and hot pots. Here the crust of the Earth seems so fragile as water and steam explode out of the deep fractures below.

We first stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs. Near the visitor's center we saw a group of Elk cows and their babies. Then we explored the upper terraces area, drawn by the glowing blue of some of the pools on the higher terraces. The amazing travertine terraces that form the hot springs are created by rain and snow melt descending far into the earth where it is heated by magma chambers. This hot water comes in contact with limestone deposits far below the surface, first laid down when this area was a vast sea. The water, on its way back up to the surface combines with carbon dioxide. This forms a carbonic acid solution that dissolves incredible amounts of the calcium carbonate (limestone). Once the water reaches the surface some of the carbon dioxide escapes from the solution, which in turn means the limestone can no longer stay in solution. A solid mineral is then deposited in beautiful terraces. Nearly two tons of travertine are deposited on the Earth's surface by Mammoth Hot Springs every day.

The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. You can see the glowing blue color of some of the pools reflected in the steam coming off the top.

Travertine, bacterial mats, and steam surround the ghostly corpses of trees as the terraces grow.

Looking into the formations within the hot springs.

Young Elk posing and napping. Adult female in the background.

After Mammoth Hot Springs we headed south and then east on the Grand Loop Road toward Canyon Village and south into the Hayden Valley. We started seeing an individual bison (buffalo) here and there. I've never seen one in the wild before. I was itching to see herds of them. But first we stopped along the Yellowstone River to see the Trumpeter Swans. We got to see a bunch of Wigeon as a bonus. This was my first glimpse at Trumpeter Swans as far as I can recall.

My first buffalo. Not a great photo of the animal as its giving us buffalo butt but its MY FIRST BUFFALO!
These magnificent animals were once found as far east as North Carolina.

Yellowstone River and heading into the Hayden Valley.

Trumpeter Swans


Hayden Valley with bison (those dark spots down on the right).

Buffalo Jam. This is a daily occurrence in the Hayden Valley. The bison don't care that the cars are there and will cross at any time. You can see why people get clobbered taking selfies. Silly people out of their cars! Bison can charge at up to 30 mph. Thus all the photos you see below were taken from the safety of Mr. Truck.

Bison (Buffalo). They do standing still and doing nothing really well.

Buffalo Wallow. Buffalo wallows are really interesting. These are natural depressions in the prairie that hold rain water and run off. It probably started out as a watering hole. Buffalo enlarge these every time they "wallow" in the wallow. They also leave behind hair and skin oils that to help further prevent water from absorbing into the soil and extending the life span of the water hole. This then provides water and habitat to a greater range of animals and plants.

Beauty. Notice the uneven horns.The story of this photo: I got this by jumping into the back seat of Mr. Truck while Traveler Thirteen drove. I ended up sitting on top of various bits of stray photography equipment, a dog water bowl, and an assorted collection of shoes so that I could aim my Nikon 200-400 mm lens out either side of the truck. I felt like I'd been run over by a herd of buffalo after bouncing around back there but it was totally worth it for this shot.

Notice the branch and leaves stuck to the horn. This isn't that uncommon.

As we exited the Buffalo Jam heading toward Fishing Bridge I saw the above bison just walking at a good clip along the side of the road. You can see the well worn game trail beneath its hooves. Then a little farther on some mule deer were hiding in the road. And then suddenly there were buffalo pouring out of the woods. They passed right behind the truck. We'd hoped to get them in front of us for photographic opportunities but the buffalo had other ideas. 

After making our way through the Buffalo Jam area we stopped at the Mud Volcano area where we took photos of a single buffalo hanging out near the parking lot. And a Swainson's Hawk landed in a nearby tree to watch us doing so. We then explored the hot springs.

Mud Volcano. When discovered it was a lot more active. The water temperature is around 184 degrees Fahrenheit. Iron sulfide creates the dark-gray color while hydrogen sulfide produces the lovely rotten egg smell most hot springs exude.

Close up of the boiling mud.

Dragon's Mouth. This is a wild and turbulent spring. The enormous amount of sloshing, splashing, booming sounds, and steam erupting from the cave gives the illusion that tons of water is boiling out of the cave but, in fact, much of the activity is really happening in the cavern and there's actually very little water coming out of the spring. What is happening is hot water rises to the surface within the cave while hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and water vapor gases expand causing pressure explosions deep in the cave.

Looking into the interesting colors and patterns of one of the hot springs.

We camped at Fishing Bridge. It's known for bear activity so no cooking outside in this campground. We walked down to the river in search of bear but didn't see anything. But we did see one thing I've been trying to see for years. See below.

This is a Gray Jay. I've spent many weeks exploring Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine trying to see one of these buggers. They were never where they were supposed to be. Finally, right next to the Gift Shop at Fishing Bridge I got to see not one but two!

Camp site.