Not necessarily mammoth

Aug 1, 2008

This morning no one could get out of bed early, including myself, so it was 9 before we made our way to the village general store and grabbed a few breakfasty items, and ate them right outside on a picnic bench. Checked in at the visitor’s center, where they said the road to Fishing Bridge would re-open at noon, although at reduced speed and still subject to delays. We weren’t planning on going that way today, but it’s always nice to know what your options are. So it was close to 10 before we were in the car and going somewhere.

Today the goal was Mammoth Hot Springs, which hadn’t been on the original itinerary but the pictures we saw were compelling enough that we thought we’d wander up that way and check it out. The road north from Canyon to the Tower-Roosevelt area is for my money the most spectacular in the park, at least on a sunny morning at the beginning of August, with wildflowers everywhere and a twisty road that takes you up and down and around one mountain after another. The trees are sparser here, not because of the fires but just fewer of them, such that you could wave to someone standing on a mountain ridge in the distance.

Along the way to we stopped at Tower Fall, for some reason always given in the singular, which I guess makes sense because there’s only one of them. There’s a little gift shop and ice cream station at the top, but it wasn’t as crowded as the guide books indicated. The overlook at the top is right off the road, and then there’s a long walk down to the river. We made it most of the way, but the trail is blocked off towards the bottom, although there were several people who’d made it all the way regardless. Beth and Chloe turned back sooner than Justin and I did, so us guys had to make the long climb back to the surface alone, me as motivational trainer to Justin so he could keep going up. I kept telling him on the way down that it was a long walk back, and once we were in the middle of it he said a few times, “this was a bad idea”, but he made it.

There was another waterfall a little further along the drive, also feeding into the Snake River, and while you could only view it from the top, there were boardwalks set up to climb up to another vantage point that looked hundreds of feet down to the deep blue Yellowstone River going through a gorge surrounded by a spectacular panorama of mountains. We drove the rest of the way to Mammoth Hot Springs and made a right turn towards the North entrance and the town of Gardiner. Another town that’s a mile long and one block wide, we could at least get cheaper gas, a cell phone signal, and lunch not provided by Xanterra. We ended up at Outlaw Pizza because it had a salad bar (most salads in regular restaurants here are iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, so Beth was happy and rest of us got pizza, including a interesting combination of chicken, black beans and barbecue sauce.

Heading back into the park, we got a picture of the Roosevelt arch, and stopped at the 45th parallel for another. There were finally a few animals to be seen along this stretch, mostly deer, but up until now the entire park had been strangely wildlife-free. Back in Mammoth Hot Springs, we parked and walked down to the chapel at the end of the Fort Yellowstone area, skirting around a fairly large solitary deer (or was it an elk? I’m still not sure I know the difference) grazing on the lawn. We couldn’t get in to see the stained glass, so we walked back to the visitor’s center to get some info, then hopped back in the car to drive a mile up the road to the parking for the lower terrace.

The Mammoth Hot Springs may be mammoth some times of the year, but today was not one of those times. The pictures indicate a series of rust-colored waterfalls from the springs that build up enormous travertine plateaus, with the water either trickling down the sides or cascading through a series of pools. But when the water isn’t running, all the bacteria that create the color part die and everything just looks white. There’s a huge series of stairs and boardwalks around the terrace so you can see every formation, but they were almost entirely chalk white, still interesting, but probably not as photogenic. It was warm and very sunny, but there was also a brisk wind to keep things from heating up too much. Back in the car, you drive up a switchback and there’s the entrance to the upper terrace, which you can actually drive around since it’s much more spread out. We got out to walk through more boardwalks down to some pools and other areas that were much more active and had more color to them. By this point we were out of water, and the restrooms up there didn’t actually have plumbing, but we were basically done by then anyway, so we drove back down to the village to down some sodas by 4:30 or so. The kids even passed up ice cream, since they weren’t too impressed with the selection. We did a little shopping both at the general store and then the gift shop, the Mammoth hotel was very nice on the inside, and had some patio tables set up in the shade outside where we could just hang out and relax for a little while. I wanted to check out a ranger tour at 6 covering Fort Yellowstone, which the kids were less than enthused about, but we did it anyway. This is oldest area of the park, where the army actually ran things from the 1880’s until the National Park Service was created in 1916. So even though it was never a fort in the military sense, they built a series of buildings, most of which still stand and are still in use, to house all the troops, officers and horses, plus some additional structures for recreational use during the long cold winters. While the historic buildings are in great shape, just on the other side of the road are some other employee residences built in the ‘70’s in a similar style that are badly in need of renovation, the ranger said he gets questions about the age of those buildings all the time, the fact that people think they’re original indicates their state of disrepair.

After the tour it was time for dinner, and Mammoth has a restaurant across the street from the hotel, where I got chicken pasta and Beth got chicken with vegetables and Chloe got chicken Caesar salad and Justin had a burger. We had thought about staying up late to see the stars tonight, but it doesn’t get really dark until at least 10, and as we drove south towards Norris there were a lot of wispy clouds around, making for a nice sunset but not very good stargazing, so we decided to just head back to the room, and the kids were satisfied just watching old Gilligan’s Island episodes along the way.

Tomorrow will be another walking/hiking day, but what’s interesting about how Yellowstone is laid out is all the main roads were pretty much built to go right past the most interesting features, and while there are plenty of trails that take you into the backcountry, there’s still a large number of other trails that start right off the Great Loop Road and just go a mile or two. Plus all the boardwalks and stairs around some of the other features, they’ve done their darnedest to make this park as accessible as possible. So the descent into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone tomorrow will be all stairs, hardly a hike, but still a workout.

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