The Other Grand Canyon

Aug 2, 2008

So far this trip has been comparatively hike-free for a National Park tour, mostly because there are so many things to see that right off the road. We did do a lot of walking through the upper geyser basin on Thursday, but it was all paved roads and boardwalks, not exactly a hike. So today was our one day to actually get out on a trail, although it also has long paved sections and even a short boardwalk. ‘

After scoring breakfast in the diner at the far end of Canyon Village, definitely the best deal in the area to start the day, we drove the short distance to the south rim of Yellowstone’s own Grand Canyon, where the Yellowstone River drops down through two waterfalls into a short but spectacular crevasse. Normally there’s also a north rim trail, but it has been closed all year for construction. It would seem the south rim trail recently underwent a similar facelift, since the eastern end at Artist Point was very built up with a large parking lot and common area, and it was completely full.

We started in the middle, at Uncle Tom’s Trail, and went down 328 metal steps about 2/3 of the way into the canyon alongside the 308-ft Lower Falls. It’s just as spectacular in real life as the pictures in the postcards, and with the morning light we also got some rainbows occasionally bridging across the base of the falls. Making the climb back up wasn’t too bad, everyone did just fine, and then we followed along the South Rim trail east, stopping at the occasional overlook, until we got to the end at Artist Point. Here the canyon wall juts out enough that you get a straight-ahead shot of the entire canyon with the falls in the background, a very popular subject for artists over the years. If there was anywhere during our time in Yellowstone when I felt like there were too many people, it was here. Since you can drive to Artist Point, hop out and check out the view, and then hop back in the car and head back to the bar, that would seem to be what most people do, such that it is almost too accessible. I’m sure Albert Bierstadt and some of the painters of the past would’ve appreciated getting there that easily, but then all those famous paintings would have lots of foreigners in them.

Chloe and Justin were quite indignant to discover that we could have skipped the one mile “hike” from Uncle Tom’s Trail to Artist Point and could have just driven it instead, and even moreso that we’d now have to walk back. But that’s what we did, and by then it was time for lunch. Since we were staying near to home base today, we went back to the Village and had the lunch buffet at the restaurant there, featuring a decidedly southwestern theme of tacos, enchiladas, barbecued chicken sandwiches, and various other things, not bad but not something you could go to every day.

After killing some time in the gift shop, we only had one other significant item on the agenda, and that was to drive a little further south towards Fishing Bridge and check out the Mud Volcano. Now that the road was open and the smell of smoke was out of the air, it seemed to be safe enough to head down there for one last look around. ‘ As you drive in that direction you pass through the Hayden Valley, where there was a huge group of bison on both sides of the road, blocking traffic when one or more of them decided to walk across and stop in the middle and look around. We must have sat in a bison-induced traffic jam for 20 minutes before we could finally get through. People were starting to get nuts, driving in the wrong lane, that sort of thing. The bison had no fixed timetable themselves, however.

The area around the Mud Volcano has several non-geyser geological wonders that involve stuff coming out of the ground, and in this area were the smelliest of them all, more what I was expecting in the Geyser Basin. This Mud Volcano is no longer a volcano, just a lot of gas bubbling up out of the ground with enough sulfuric acid to liquify the mud. Most of the other features in the area have fanciful names like Black Dragon’s Cauldron or Dragon’s Mouth, each one different from the next and for the most part unlike what was on display in the geyser basin.

By the time we were finished there it was late afternoon and time for ice cream. Originally I was thinking we’d continue on to Fishing Bridge but looking to the south just in the time we were at the Mud Volcano area, suddenly there was a huge plume of smoke coming from the direction. Rather than risk getting stuck on the wrong side of the fire again, we opted to head back to Canyon Village and got ice cream there instead, and walked around the other shops and the visitor center and museum for a while. We stopped back at the cabin for an hour or so, then drove back to the village for dinner, also on a southwestern theme, where I ended up getting Idaho trout for the second time this trip. After dinner Beth wanted to go back to the room as she was suffering from too much southwestern food, but I wanted to get some of my book read for one of the Worldcon reading group meetings since I was already way behind, so I opted to stay in the lounge for a little while, but it only ended up being half an hour or so.

It was shortly after 8 when I came back to the room and gathered up Justin and some flashlights and sweatshirts and we hopped back in the minivan and drove all the way to Madison Junction to check out the astronomy program there. They had an astronomer giving a talk and slide presentation outdoors in the campground ampitheatre at 9, followed by a star party at 10. The weather was perfect, no clouds, no wind and not freezing, so it worked out great.

We were a few minutes late thanks to an elk standing by the side of the road blocking traffic. The talk had to do with the life cycle of stars, and while it wasn’t geared for kids there were quite a few kids there and Justin seemed to have learned a few things. The speaker even paused to let us watch the space station zip across the sky during this talk. By the time he was done at 10, the skies were pretty dark and we felt our way out into a meadow behind the ampitheatre where maybe 8 or 10 guys had set up different kinds of telescopes and pointed them at various things for people to look at. There were a few hundred people there, so you had to wait in line a while to see each one. We saw Jupiter and its four major moons all lined up on one side, first through a set of high-powered binoculars on a tripod, and then on a regular telescope. We were then able to see three different Messier objects, including the Dumbbell Nebula, through three different types of scopes, a refractor, Schmitt-Newtonian, and Dobsonian. We could have seen more but it was getting really late and I was dreading the trip back to the cabin in the dark, never mind finding our way back to the car, but we did both without problems, Justin chatted the whole way back, and we were in the cabin by 11:45 and he passed out almost immediately, and I wasn’t far behind.

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