Fossil hunting

Aug 5, 2008

Woke up bright and early so we could be on the road in time to get to the fossil dig by the proscribed 9am. Had one last free hotel continental breakfast, where they made the waffles for you, then it was a long drive down a completely deserted US-30 to Ulrich’s Fossil Site just up the road from Fossil Butte National Monument. We got there around 8:30 or so, and were actually ready to go shortly before nine. We were introduced to our guide, Shawn, who is going into his senior year of high school and has no particular interest in paleontology. He and a few co-workers had already been up on at the dig site for a few hours to take advantage of the sun being low in the sky to see telltale images in the rocks that indicate the presence of fossils.

This entire part of southwestern Wyoming was once a vast inland sea, which dried up gradually between 60 and 50 million years ago, leaving enormous deposits of fossils embedded in shale. Various buttes around the landscape are owned by different companies or individuals who either do their own excavating or lease it out to others, and fossilized impressions of fish are easy to come by. Ulrich’s actually has a separate dig site for their commercial excavation, and keeps their own area just for people like us to try our hand at it. We could keep a reasonable number of fossils that we found, although they reserved the right to take anything that was considered unusual.

So after a short drive up a 15% grade in an extremely dusty truck, we were at the site. It was sunny but not too hot. The process basically consisted of breaking off slabs of shale horizontally, maybe a couple of feet square and an inch or so thick, and if nothing was revealed after separating the slab itself from the ground, then we’d set about trying to break it in half crosswise. Sometimes you’d find fish right at a break, or just get the negative image of one, fossils you would keep anywhere else, but here were considered inferior and not worth keeping. They provided the tools, essentially a large hammer and several crowbars that you’d use to pry up slabs of rock and then break them apart. it took a couple of hours, but we came away with a sufficient number of fossils, maybe 15, mostly between three and six inches long, that we considered it a success. Back at the store, they could cut down the larger slabs with a radial arm saw into more manageable-sized pieces, but there were still too many to take with us, so we arranged to have them shipped back home, which will probably cost a fortune but beats trying to get them on the plane in one piece. We’ll keep the best few and the rest everyone can expect to get as Christmas gifts!

Since we were just a couple of miles from the national monument, we made a detour to the visitors center there and looked around a bit, but didn’t take the drive or the trail. It was getting to be lunch time and we’d been up for a while, but the visitor’s center helpfully had a map of the greater Kemmerer/Diamondville area with several restaurants listed. We drove into town and found the first couple of places were closed, maybe just gone fishin, they didn’t look like they’d closed forever, but it didn’t do us any good either way. We did see on the corner of the town square the still operating original J.C. Penney’s store, which wasn’t very big. We ended up at some diner on the edge of town where we could get burgers and sandwiches that were pretty decent. By 1pm we were on the road with a full tank of gas and no place to stop before Denver.

The drive across southern Wyoming was endless, a straight shot down I-80 to Cheyenne of about 250 miles, then a right turn back on I-25 for that last stretch of 75 miles or so to the big city. I think we only stopped once, and we finally got some weather as we drove through the Laramie area with some scattered downpours and even a couple of rainbows. Heading south it still was trying to rain off and on, but we kept going until we got to Longmont, just north of Denver, where we made a return trip to Martini’s Bistro, site of our last meal in Colorado 3 years ago. I had looked up the address and directions the night before, otherwise I never would have found the place, since it’s off the main road and not near any major shopping area, but we got there about 7 and had a nice dinner.

Took one last stop for gas and some squinting at the map afterwards to figure out where our hotel was, but once we knew where to go we found it with no issues and were in the room about 9:30 and glad that we wouldn’t have to drive that far again. It was only 350 miles, mostly at 80 mph, but it seemed to take forever and now that we’re contemplating driving to Illinois for Christmas, which is 3 times as far and with a lower speed limit, I’ve definitely lost my nerve for long car trips.

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Bonus day in Jackson

Aug 4, 2008

Today was the nebulous day between the rafting trip yesterday and the fossil excavation tomorrow. The only goal was to get somewhere close to Fossil Butte National Monument by nightfall, which ends up being Montpelier, Idaho, unless you want to stay at a flophouse or double back a similar distance through the wasteland of southern Wyoming. Between Jackson and Montpelier is about 2 1/2 hours of US 89, and some lovely mountain scenery, and not much else. So we opted to spend the day in Jackson, as it turned out there was enough to do there to keep us occupied for a while.

The first order of business was laundry. Since the availability of laundry facilities at the Denver Marriott is dubious at best, we checked out of the Painted Buffalo Inn and made our way south of town to a laundromat we saw yesterday with the name of The Missing Sock that was too good to pass up. It was in a new building and had a two story ceiling with a laundry line of odd socks pinned up along the wall. Across the parking lot was a giant grocery store, so while the wash was going we picked up breakfast and lunch (although it was mid-morning by then) and ate the former while the clothes were drying. Beth got them all folded up and packed away, I got another $45 worth of gas in the minivan, and we were ready to do something more interesting, if less practical.

Since we’d had to kind of rush through Grand Teton National Park yesterday to make our schedule, we took some time to go back north into the park, this time on the inland route of Teton Park Road as far as Jackson Lake Junction. We tried to stop at South Jenny Lake, but the parking lot was mobbed on a Monday at lunchtime, so we kept going to the next area north of Jenny Lake at String Lake, which was still hopping but much less crowded. The people there were doing all manner of things, saddling up horses, picnics, swimming, kayaking, hiking, not all at the same time of course. We stuck with the picnicking, with the backdrop of the Tetons through the trees and the bugs. It would seem that the Grand Teton area, being much closer to civilization and much smaller than Yellowstone, is a popular place for all manner of recreation, and as a result is a bit more difficult to get back to nature, although maybe if you get out on a trail for a while you can find some solitude, that’s usually the case. String Lake isn’t even a big lake by Teton standards, but it’s big enough for all the activities described above, and with the mountains looming in the background just on the other side it makes for a spectacular view.

After lunch we drove up a little further to Signal Mountain Lodge, which had the requisite gift shop to browse around in. Then we drove out to the main road and back south to Jackson. Just north of town is the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which is in a dramatic building stuck into the side of a mountain and blending in with the landscape, with an elaborate deer sculpture out front at the road. Since it was only 3pm and we still had some time, we stopped there for 90 minutes or so and checked out the paintings. Beth was worried the museum would contain mostly shlocky western art, but in fact had some legitimate paintings, including a Rousseau and an O’Keefe, plus a collection of prints by Picasso, and a special exhibit of work of Robert Bateman, whom I’d never heard of but his wildlife paintings were pretty good. Beth particularly liked the more recent, political stuff.

It was evident from the map that we might as well stay in Jackson for dinner, since there was not much between there and Montpelier that could be counted on for sustenance, so we drove back into town and did a little shopping for t-shirts and hats, which like everything else in Jackson seem to be on the pricey side. In between shopping we had dinner at the Snake River Brewery, where I could sample a few of their beers and we could take advantage of happy hour appetizer specials, and then had a decent dinner of pasta or pizza.

Finishing up the shopping, it was 6:30 and time to hit the road. Most of US-89 is very scenic, and very empty. As we got within the last 7 or 8 miles of Montpelier we hit a major construction project where the road was down to one lane and we had to sit at a makeshift traffic light for several minutes, but it was ok because I could put the car in park and watch the episode of Gilligan’s Island that the kids were watching (the one with the gorilla throwing grenades, in case you’re wondering, which is not one of the better known ones). But we managed to get to the Super 8 here by 8:45 or so with no further items on the agenda, which was good.

If you look at the map, Montpelier, Idaho is nowhere near Denver, which is our destination tomorrow as the Worldcon starts on Wednesday. So don’t be alarmed if there’s no Tuesday entry until later, since we may get in too late to put in an update, and how much do you really want to hear about transversing southern Wyoming?

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Onward to Jackson

Aug 3, 2008

After four nights in Yellowstone, we hated to leave, but felt like we had done quite a bit so there weren’t too many regrets. The kids were more than happy to go back to the same diner as yesterday for breakfast and order the same cheese omelet, so we could get on the road by 8:30 or so. This gave us enough time to go north for a few miles, so Beth could get a few pictures of the wildflowers covering the hills just past the Village. As it turned out she also got to take pictures of a moose that was munching on the same wildflowers and causing his own traffic jam. There aren’t nearly as many moose in the park as there are elk or bison, so spotting one was an event, although we’d seen them before in Rocky Mountain National Park. We never did see any bears, though, which was a bit disappointing even though wildlife viewing isn’t one of my top priorities for these kinds of trips.

So we turned south and headed through a very smoky Hayden Valley this time, still with a lot of bison roaming around but not causing too much traffic. Just past the rapids nort of Fishing Bridge, we saw the remnants of the fire from the last few days, with not only burned trees (which you see everywhere in the park), but the burned grass and vegetation below them that indicates it to be a recent event. There was still a fire burning somewhere a bit further east, saw a few fire trucks along the way, but it didn’t slow things down for us. We turned off the great loop road and headed towards the South Entrance the Grand Tetons.

Since we had to get to Jackson by 1:30 and factor in lunch too, we only stopped briefly at Colter Bay visitor center at Grand Teton National Park, bought a few bookmarks but that was about it. We got to our destination by noon or so and were finally back in civilization and could go to Wendy’s for lunch, so we did. Still had some time to kill so we stopped at Staples and got a new iPod charger for Chloe since she forgot to bring hers and has been rationing her music for the last six days.

We didn’t tell the kids in advance that we were doing a rafting trip, it was kind of a last minute decision on our part after I was looking at the specifics of this part of the itinerary last weekend. I discovered then that most of the things I thought we would do in Idaho were closed on Sunday, such that there wasn’t much point in ending up in Pocatello as I had originally intended. Meanwhile the AAA travel book had several ads for different rafting companies in the Jackson area. Jackson hadn’t been part of the original plan since it wasn’t that far from Yellowstone, but as I checked out some of the tour operator websites I thought this would be a good contrast to all the nature stuff we would have been doing the last several days.

So as we were driving towards the place after lunch I said we were going to take a boat ride on the Snake River here, so now they knew why they’d been instructed to wear bathing suits this morning when getting dressed. We went with an outfit called Mad River Boat Trips, which offered an 8-mile whitewater trip in an inflatable raft big enough for 16 or 18 people. It turned out to be a blast, everyone had a great time, we were in the water maybe 2 hours, plus time to get shuttled there and back, such that we didn’t return to where we started until 5:15 or so. There were 12 people in our boat, all families, and the section of the river they focus on makes for a gradual succession of increasingly difficult rapids with plenty of smooth sections in between, so you’re not working too hard for any length of time, and the rapids were up to Class III, big enough to really feel the drops but not so much that it felt dangerous. The raft guide stands in the back with two giant oars doing the steering, approaching the rapids sections at the proper angle so that the boat goes straight into them. You still get drenched, but nobody went over the side or anything. It wasn’t cheap and not something I would do a lot, but it was well worth it.

We checked into the Painted Buffalo Inn back in Jackson (at last, tv and wi-fi again! What, they traded Manny?) and then went out to find food at the Cadillac Grille on the town square. The dinner took a while for some reason, and Justin was strung out from lack of sleep, but we managed to get back to the room by 8 and it still took him forever to get to sleep. Tomorrow is sort of an open ended day, the only real priority is to do some laundry so we don’t have to buy more clothes to make it through to the end of the trip.

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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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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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Geyser city

Jul 31, 2008
Until I started to educate myself about Yellowstone, its primary claim to fame was as the home of Old Faithful, and that was the initial reason to come here, as we check off the iconic American landmarks one by one. So on our first full day in the park, that was where I felt we must go. We got up at a reasonable hour this morning, had the buffet breakfast at the Canyon Village restaurant, got 10 gallons of gas at $4.45 a gallon (youch!) and were off to retrace our route from yesterday evening, this time in broad daylight without a cloud in the sky.

While there are several potentially interesting things to check out along the way, we passed them all in a beeline for Old Faithful Village, arriving there about 10:30 or so. The visitors center is under construction (as of right now it’s just a few girders sticking up into the air behind a chain link fence), but the temporary visitors center had the times for all the major geysers and we were within 20 minutes or so of seeing Old Faithful, so we just hung around until it went off, at the far end of the predicted time scale. There were lots of people around, but it wasn’t mobbed or anything, everything in the village has been designed a hundred years ago around the geyser, so it is certainly accessible, and its kind of funny to watch the build-up around the occasional spurt of water for a good 10 minutes before the real eruption begins, stringing you along as though the real show were imminent long before it really becomes so. When a geyser does go off, people ooh and ahh like they’re watching fireworks, and the resulting spray is impressive if not spectacular, as its very monochromatic and all over in a couple of minutes.

Having dispatched Old Faithful (which is neither the tallest, most frequent nor most predictable geyser, just the most famous), we took a walk around the southern end of the upper geyser basin, which took about 90 minutes and covered the popular Castle Geyser (which has a huge blocky cone that might have looked like a castle once), Plume Geyser, Anemone Geyser and a bunch of others. Any or all of these might go off at any moment, most of them are spewing out small amounts of steam all the time, or contain burbling or even boiling water. The walkways around the basin are mostly boardwalks that keep you on a proscribed path and presumably out of harms way. Surrounding the geysers is a blasted mostly treeless moonscape with bright rust colored channels running here and there. From the far side of Geyser Hill, we could sit and watch Old Faithful go off a second time in relative solitude, then made our way back to the Old Faithful Lodge for lunch in the ubiquitous Xanterra cafeteria, food service concessionaire for the National Park Service.

After that it was back on the trail, but wouldn’t you know it Old Faithful was due to erupt again, so we hung around long enough to see it a third time, from a slightly different angle than the first and a bit further back. Starting again at Castle Geyser but this time continuing north towards Morning Glory Pool. We passed a smallish crowd at Grand Geyser, which was some where between 0 and 2 hours from erupting, and move on towards the spectacular Beauty Pool, one of the more significant thermal pools that contain rings of brightly colored bacteria but with water so clear you can see down several feet. Before we got much further we could hear more of that oohing and ahhing from behind us, and sure enough the Grand Geyser had just gone off, we were still close enough to observe for a few minutes. It is the largest predictable geyser in the world, and only erupts a couple of times a day, so that was the rarest one we saw in action, from a couple hundred yards away.

Passing by Giant Geyser we met up with the main path around the time that Daisy Geyser was expected to go off, so we detoured a short distance over there and sat down to wait, and within a few minutes it started erupting, with only a few other people around. It’s not nearly as big as some of the others, but its on a particularly windy stretch and the water coming out occasionally got blown in our direction and gave a brief shower. Just because the water way under the ground is so hot that it causes the geyser to erupt, most of the water coming out of these geysers is not hot at all, so there was no concern there. The guidebook warned about being “kissed” by this geyser because of the windy conditions, but we decided it was more like being sneezed on. We kept going west on this side trail to Punch Bowl Spring and Black Sand Pool before doubling back to the main route. Much is made in the literature about the sulfuric “rotten eggs” smell coming from the geyser basin (you see kids trying to get their pictures taken next to a geyser or pool while holding their noses) but it’s really not that strong or that prevalent unless you’re getting a direct blast. The Black Sand Pool, which you could see from a platform 10 feet above, probably had the most noticeable smell because the wind kept blowing it right at you and you could feel the heat from the steam also.

We continued north a short distance past the Mortar and Spiteful geysers to Morning Glory Pool, which was just as spectacular as Beauty Pool if not quite as colorful. Then it was a mile-plus walk back to the village, during this time Beth and the kids had to switch shoes because Justin was having problems walking. He was wearing out fast after doing great most of the day, and we barely got him back to the Inn where we could hang out for a while and figure out dinner. Chloe on the other hand, after starting off slow before breakfast, was generally agreeable the entire day, so go figure. Beth had her pedometer, but it was way off on the estimated miles, I should have brought my running watch, but based on the map I guessed we walked about five miles over 7 hours including a long lunch break, three stops to wait for Old Faithful, and numerous other rest periods along the way.

The exterior of the Old Faithful Inn is still being worked on, they were painting and replacing some windows and redoing the roof, although its supposed to be done by the fall. We looked inside the five story 100-year old atrium, which isn’t as expansive as you’d think, but still quite a sight, and could sit in a few padded rocking chairs while we made dinner plans. We opted for the Snow Lodge across the street and its Obsidian restaurant, where I got prime rib and the kids got mac & cheese with French fries and Beth got some odd baked pasta thing, and we split a couple of desserts and tried to figure out who had the most sunburn.

Since the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village is still closed, we had to go back the same way we came, but we took a short detour along Firehole Lake drive to see the Great Fountain geyser, which is a large series of terraced pools that looks like a geyser designed by a landscape architect. On the other side of the road was a short trail leading up to the Fountain paint pots, a large pit of whitish mud that constantly boils up in big bubbles. The sun was low in the sky for these which made picture taking more of a challenge, but we didn’t want to wait too long and get stuck driving in the dark again, so we made it back to our cabin by 8:45 or so and the kids were asleep in no time.

While there are many more geysers we could see in other areas, I think we saw plenty today, and saw more active eruptions that I would have expected, so we can now move on to some of the other areas of geologic interest, and maybe tomorrow try not to walk quite so much to give everybody a break.

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Today was another long day in the saddle as they say in bike racing, longer than it should have been as we were expecting to do about 320 miles and ended up around 400. This was not the fault of Google Maps or myself, as I’ll get to in a minute.

After travelling so much yesterday, we were still able to get up and going reasonably early this morning, and had our complimentary breakfast (featuring the welcome return of the waffle maker) and were on the road by 9 am. Gassing up the minivan indicated that we were doing a little over 20 mpg, and cheap Casper gas was $3.79 a gallon (for 85 octane, which I don’t even think you can get in Mass). Once through Casper, we were off the highway for the next several days and on the long slow climb to Yellowstone.

The first stretch takes you up US-20 to Shoshoni, a stretch of about 80 miles with absolutely nothing remarkable to distinguish it. Then it’s a right turn to make the second leg up to Thermopolis, which we reached around 11. Since it was too early for lunch and would take too long to get to the next (and last) point of civilization in Cody, we stopped for a while at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, mostly to kill time till noon, but it turned out to be a good sized museum, built to contain a 106-foot long Supersaurus that was excavated right in Wyoming, and including quite a few complete skeletons of several other types of dinosaurs as well, mostly from the local surroundings. They also had a decent sized gift shop with a wide variety of different fossils and polished stones for sale. If we wanted to hang around even longer there was a tour of an excavation site you could also take for an additional fee, but we didn’t want to hang around that long.

Thermopolis, which should really just be a wide space in the road, has some claim to fame for being near the Hot Springs State Park, which is something of a minor resort area, with a water park and everything. The downtown is not huge, but we managed to find a decent restaurant that served a variety of different things, we mostly opted for sandwiches and salads but they also had crepes and homemade desserts. After lunch we took a few extra minutes to walk around the block to the post office and pick up some stamps, then hopped back in the car and took a short unplanned detour heading out of town into the state park, just to get some pictures and a look up close at the Tepee fountain, where the locals have created an enormous travertine dome by having the mineral water from the springs burble up out of a pipe and gradually create its own sedimentary formation. Started in 1903, its now probably 12 or 15 feet high (there’s another smaller one outside the park entrance that doesn’t look like its still operating, we speculated that it was there as a backup).

From Thermopolis you head northwest up state route 120 to Cody, another 80 miles with not much going on. After driving through the spectacular scenery of Wind River Gorge coming up from the south towards Thermopolis, anything less would have been a letdown, and while the rt 120 section was not as desolate as the road coming west out of Casper, it didn’t live up to its indication on the map as a scenic route. We made a pitstop about half way along in Meeteetse, another wide space in the road, and were in Cody by 3pm or so. We took some time there to stop at Dairy Queen, then walked through their main street area taking pictures of some painted fiberglass bears that are decorating the downtown area, much like the painted buffalos we saw in Custer, South Dakota back in ’05. A few people had recommended the Buffalo Bill museums, but it is actually several different museums in one, and priced as an all-day event, so we gave it a pass.

So now there were no more diversions, we were heading towards Yellowstone by 4pm or so and hoping to get to Canyon Village by 6:30. As soon as you leave Cody heading west you’re into the Absaroka mountains and winding along the valley parallel to the Buffalo Bill reservoir. The kids were watching movies in the backseat while Beth was trying to identify hoodoos, these distinctive rock formations that jut up out of the sides of the mountains, and I was trying to stay on the road while taking it all in. We found the goose hoodoo and the elephant hoodoo, never did see the laughing pig hoodoo. There were some odd colored yellowish clouds off to the north that were looming low against the mountains, but when we pulled over to take a picture we could smell smoke, and sure enough those clouds were coming from a fire somewhere northwest of where we were. At our last hoodoo stop at Chimney Rock there were a couple of official looking guys there in a pickup truck, so Beth asked what was going on, they said there was a fire nearby that had been burning since Saturday, and another one inside Yellowstone itself.

A few miles later we were at the eastern entrance of Yellowstone, where we paid the admission fee and the ranger told us not only was there a fire, but that the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village was closed as a result. Come to find out a tree had fallen onto a power line and that started the fire. This meant that last stretch of 16 miles once we got a ways into the park would now require us to go all the way around the south loop of the Great Loop Road, which was more like 80 miles. If we’d known this ahead of time, we could’ve taken an alternate route from Cody that takes you out of your way to the north and in through the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, but the fire had only started earlier this afternoon. The ranger said, “they won’t finish putting it out anytime soon”, so there was nothing to be done but keep going and do the loop within the park.

We stopped at several scenic spots along the road to Fishing Bridge, since this was one stretch of the park we aren’t planning on retracing. We could see smoke from the fire off to the northwest again, but it wasn’t blowing near us and didn’t affect the views, mostly to the south. There were a few overlooks that we stopped for as we went up over Sylvan Pass and down towards Yellowstone Lake. One area had a few cars parked along the side, but everyone was sitting in their cars talking on their cell phones. This close to the entrance apparently you could still get some coverage, there must be some system by which people know where to go within the park to make those all-important calls.

By the time we were at Fishing Bridge and saw the closed road, it was already 6 o’clock, so we decided to stop the Lake Hotel just a mile or so down the road and try to eat there. Both the restaurant and the hotel are considered the best in the park, and normally to eat there you have to make reservations in advance, but the fire was screwing up everyone’s itinerary, and the place was more than half empty, so they took us right in. We skipped the pricier dishes like antelope, or prime rib of bison, and had a nice dinner with nice views of the lake out the window. We spent a few minutes in the gift shop afterwards and took some pictures, and were back in the car by 7:30. It took another two hours to drive around from there to West Thumb to Old Faithful to Norris junction and finally Canyon Village. It still wasn’t completely dark by the time we got to our room, but it was pretty close. Even at 8:40 Beth was still taking pictures of the sun setting over the Midway Basin. Saw a bad accident too where a little car had skidded off the road into the woods, recent enough that there were still police lights flashing. Traffic around the loop wasn’t too bad this time of day, there were still plenty of people out and about, fishing or checking out the geyser basins even as the sun was going down. The kids were trashed by the time we checked in and we weren’t far behind. I was half thinking that just my luck they opened the road five minutes after we turned south, but it was still closed when we got here, hopefully everything is under control, though. We’re staying in cabin P21, just one of zillions of little buildings containing four units each. Tomorrow I may let Beth drive some, since we’ll need to retrace our steps back to Old Faithful and see if we can catch ourselves a geyser.
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Hello from Wyoming

Jul 30, 2008

So here we are back in Wyoming, a mere three years after our last trip out this way. Last time we covered the eastern half on our way to and from South Dakota, this time we tour the western half, starting here in scenic Casper (after a four hour drive from Denver last night), and heading towards Yellowstone. We’ll spend a few days up there, then back down the western side through Jackson and Kemmerer with a short dip into Idaho in between, just to say we’ve been in Idaho, then back to Denver next week for this year’s Worldcon.

The flights from Providence to Chicago to Denver were all on time and completely unremarkable. This was our first time flying on Southwest, and I had failed to appreciate the nature of their every man for himself boarding policy (i.e. no assigned seats), but it worked out ok, the kids could sit by themselves way up in the front of the plane on the first leg while we sat towards the back. For the second half we put right in front of us (which means nobody leaning their seat way back into my knees the second the plane is in the air). Once in Denver we talked to an older bleached blonde lady at the Alamo rental counter who was so friendly you couldn’t help but think it was a diversionary tactic to rip us off, but we ended up with a Chrysler Town and Country that has satellite radio and a dvd player, so that should help ease the transition to Yellowstone.

Still right on schedule, we headed north to Cheyenne, where we had dinner at Los Amigos, a Mexican place we’d tried to check out last time but managed to hit on the day they were closed. This time we could get enchiladas and tacos, all very tasty, with $2.75 margaritas, which were served in a plastic tumbler, but hey, they’re $2.75 margaritas, what can you complain about? It would have been nice to stop right in Cheyenne for the evening, but there was still another 8 or 9 hours of driving to Yellowstone, so we pushed on through the vast wasteland that is southeastern Wyoming for another 2.5 hours to Casper. There wasn’t much traffic, and by the time we got here to the “Sleep Inn” in Evansville around 9:30 or so the sky had just gone completely dark. Still a certain amount of scenery through that stretch, highlighted by the sun setting.

So today is another 6 hours of driving to get to Canyon Village by way of Thermopolis and Cody, which promises to be much more scenic. But there’s no internet in the park, so there won’t be any more updates until at least Sunday night. We’ve got the cameras ready though!

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Around the Cape

Oct 31, 2007

Our whirlwind weekend on the Cape saw much better weather on Sunday, with sunny skies albeit somewhat cooler temperatures. The kids saw this as a recipe for a return trip to the beach, but we had other ideas, and the beach was plenty windy the day before when it was warm, a cold and windy beach didn’t seem that appealing.

We checked out of the Tidewater Inn after walking around the grounds a bit to see what the rest of it looked like, and in the daylight, including the indoor pool and on-site restaurant. Beth was intrigued by its potential for a mid-winter getaway for her usual Storyland crowd, something they tried last winter for the first time

with limited success. Armed with a pile of brochures and newspaper ads, we crossed from south to north to Yarmouthport and landed at the Optimist Cafe for breakfast, an 1860’s era house converted into a restaurant that served up standard breakfast fare. Just down the street was the Edward Gorey house that we wanted to check out, but they didn’t open until 12 and after breakfast we still had an hour to kill, so we drove back to Brewster and did a quick tour of Nickerson State Park, where Beth has been camping with the Girl Scout leaders in years past. The Cape Cod Rail Trail cuts right through it on its way from Dennis to Wellfleet, but we drove to the lake within the park and walked around a bit, Chloe was being very difficult about communing with nature so that didn’t help.

So after an hour or so we headed back to Yarmouth and took a tour of the Edward Gorey house , which has only recently opened up as a museum (since he only died in 2000) and has the ultimate gift shop if you’re into Edward Gorey at all. Best known for the drawings that became the opening animation for the Mystery series on PBS 20 years or so ago, he was an eccentric guy who managed to make a living producing odd illustrated stories with a certain macabre appeal. Justin remembered the Gorey calendar we had last year based on his book The Gashleycrumb Tinies, which is an alphabet primer about a group of unfortunate children who each meet with some gruesome demise (i.e. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”).

Once we left the Gorey house it was well past lunchtime and time to start thinking about wrapping things up, but we hadn’t done any souvenir shopping, so we went back to West Yarmouth and had a late lunch at Molly’s Pub, which was short on ambiance and looked to be a good place to watch sports and pick up strange women, but the food was decent and reasonably priced, at least for lunch. Next door was a Cuffy’s , which sells almost nothing but Cape Cod t-shirts and sweatshirts, most of which were pretty plain, but Chloe and Justin found something they liked and have been wearing them ever since. They had a deal to buy one get one free, or buy two and get 4 free, but we were hard-pressed to find four more of anything that we wanted (although Chloe would have probably been up for getting 4 of the same thing in different colors).

That was our last stop on the trip before heading back up 495 to home. We listened to the Patriots game along the way, but it was such a blowout it wasn’t that interesting, and we were back at the house by 6:30 where we could finish watching the carnage on the new tv.

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Down the Cape

Oct 27, 2007

Taking advantage of a commitment-free weekend to spend a couple of days with the family on The Cape (that’s Cape Cod if you’re not from around here. You can even buy a sweatshirt that just says “The Cape”). I haven’t been here since Beth and I did a road trip down this way 20 years ago, although Beth has returned several times for various things with and without the kids.

We managed to leave the house on time this morning around 9am and by 11 we were over the bridge and into scenic Dennis (I didn’t know your name was Dennis). It was a little early for lunch, so we browsed for a while at the Brewster Country Store, then found a restaurant just down 6A (really the only road through town) for some fish and chips. It was a bit dreary and raining off and on, although not too bad temperature-wise. Neither Dennis nor Brewster has a real downtown area, just a series of small newish strip malls and a lot of old sea captain houses that have been converted into restaurants or shops or whatever. There wasn’t much traffic since it’s the end of the October and the weather was iffy, so we could get around fairly handily.

After lunch we doubled back into Dennis to find Mayflower Beach, a smallish beach by Cape standards but completely empty and pretty much surf free, being on the bay side. We saw flocks of little birds (sandpipers maybe?) walking around at the edge of the water, it was high tide and a few dead horseshoe crabs had washed up on the sand. We walked up and down the beach until it started to rain, then ran for the car and headed back to Route 6 and towards Wellfleet and the national seashore.

When Beth and I drove here in her Chevette back in 1987, we left before sunrise to beat the traffic on an August weekend to celebrate our one year dating anniversary. We beat the traffic so well we were in Provincetown by 7am and nothing was open. But after we did a whale watch in the morning we wended our way back down to Harwich by way of the National Seashore, stopping at a few beaches a long the way. This time around we revisted one of those, Marconi Beach, an ocean-side beach that is miles long and also completely empty. It wasn’t raining out there, after stopping at the visitors center down the road in Eastham the sun was even trying to peek out. The kids were drawn to the ocean surf even though they were fully dressed, and within about 10 minutes Chloe was wet up to her stomach and Justin was completely soaked. They were indifferent, however, and spent a good 40 minutes running in and out of the water. With no towels, changing clothes was problematic, and we didn’t exactly bring much else to change into, but we managed to find something.

Since the weather was still cooperating (away from the beach it was at least 65), we still had plenty of time to look around, so we drove up a little further to the Marconi transmitter site, where the first intercontinental telegraph message was sent 100 years ago. The towers were torn down in 1920, and the location of some of them are now out at sea due to beach erosion over the years. On the other side of the parking lot is a short trail through the Cedar Swamp, which we walked around in about 45 minutes. The swamp part itself wasn’t swampy, although it didn’t matter since there’s a boardwalk all the way around it. It’s only about a mile, but it was very scenic with some of the fall colors, and nearly deserted.

Back in the car, we headed back down Route 6 to our lodging for the night at the Tidewater Inn in West Yarmouth, which took close to an hour to get to. I found this place on for about $60 a night, although their going offseason rate was around twice that. They have a nice setup with an indoor pool and even a rec-room in the basement of the lobby with ping pong and foosball. We unloaded our stuff and found dinner down Rt 28 at the Captain Parker Pub where the kids could have pizza or chicken strips and I could still get more seafood.

We were back in the room by 7:30 to settle in before the Red Sox try to win a 3rd game against the Rockies in the World Series. How said for the younger generation that they don’t know the pain of an endless drought of World Series championships, as this year’s team has dominated like no other Red Sox team since they won 3 years out of 4 back in the 1910’s.

Tomorrow there’s several things to choose from, sunnier weather is forecast although cooler and windier, we’ll see how many of them we can get done before we hit the road to reach home in time for game 4.

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