We are continuing our Yellowstone adventures, embarking east from Madison Junction towards Old Faithful. This sixteen mile drive crosses through the fiery ground of Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin, in a land of rivers and dramatic waterfalls, valleys and the shadow of the caldera.
Turning right at Madison Junction towards Old Faithful, steam rises to the clouds as elk and bison roam the valley – the result of a 30 by 45 mile volcanic caldera.
This stretch of highway is one of my favorite spots in the park because it showcases the heart and soul of Yellowstone’s unique thermal history. This stretch of road showcases Yellowstone’s unique convergence of fire – water, life and rebirth out of the ashes of volcanism and forest fires. Each mile offers unique turnouts, hiking trails and thermal views that are truly out of this world.
I named this the ‘Firehole’ discovery tour because – this section of road hugs Yellowstone’s famed Firehole River. The Firehole River rises in the park boundary and zig zags twenty-one miles from Old Faithful through the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins before colliding with the Gibbon River to form the mighty Madison River.
The Firehole takes its name from the scalding water that pummels into the river from neighboring thermal features – causing steam to rise from the rivers edge. The warm temperatures make this a year round haven for wildlife. The Firehole is a popular fishing spot for trout.
The Firehole River plunges over the craggy caldera rim and at the Firehole Canyon – in three spots – forming three gorgeous waterfalls. The heart of this road and the confluence of fire and life rests in the Firehole.
As we leave Madison Campground, we notice several turnouts roadside – including historical and geologic features. Ojo Caliente and the Sentinel Meadows is an often overlooked site (mini drive) that has some scenic views and hiking trails.
Firehole Canyon Drive is one of the most scenic detours in the park and leads travelers to the dramatic ‘Firehole Falls’ (pictured above).
Eight miles south of Madison Junction – we stop at the Fountain Paint Pot area. Part of the Lower Geyser Basin (an interconnected network of thermal features – read more here). This interpretative boardwalk trail is a fan favorite because this trail showcases all of Yellowstone’s unique thermal feature types – from geysers to fumaroles and hotsprings to the famous ‘mud pots’
The paint pots are mud pots named for their colorful assortment of red clay colors. Mud pots are hot springs that are acidic enough to dissolve the surrounding rock, and typically also lack water in their systems. The paint pots look different depending on the weather and time of year. In the spring and early summer they can have more liquid from snowmelt. It is fun to watch the boilding pots create unique and fun designs. Mudpots can also be found in other areas of the park: Artist Paint Pot and West Thumb Geyser Basin
Other features on this boardwalk trail include the clear blue waters of Celestine Pool and the spouter – Clepsydra Geyser, which constants spouts water from several vents, pausing only when the powerful neighboring Fountain Geyser erupts ( up to fifty feet for twenty minutes during an eruption)
Across the street from Fountain Paint Pots – You’ll discover an ethereal and otherworldly loop road that takes you through steam so thick you need to drive slowly. The ‘sweet’ smell of sulfur – taking hold of your senses as the road meanders through several thermal features including the scalding Firehole Lake and powerful Great Fountain Geyser. Great Fountain erupts routinely as one of the most powerful of Yellowstone’s geysers – sputtering seventy-five- 220 feet every ten to fourteen hours
Midway Geyser Basin:
Midway is located around seven miles west of Old Faithful in the Lower Geyser Basin. Midway is a palette of color and fire.
I often imagine God using Midway Geyser Basin as His palette when painting the metaphorical canvas of Yellowstone. Midway is home to the third largest hot spring in the world – Grand Prismatic Spring.
Grand Prismatic is so large that to truly experience the scope of its size and beauty you need to hike neighboring trails (like Fairy Falls) to see the entire magnitude of the spring. The colors are dynamic and so brilliant they could only come from ‘God’s palette.’ Colors of bright oranges, deep blues and oxide reds – and the colors are alive – Grand Prismatic is one of the largest ‘colonies’ of bacteria in Yellowstone. As the water cools, bacteria begins to grow forming the colorful bacterial mats. Life survives even in the harshest spaces and the color you see is bacteria – thermophiles!
Don’t walk on the bacterial mats or touch the thermal features – they are off limits for a reason!
One of the highlights of Midway is Excelsior Geyser – a dormant/extinct geyser that is now a sizzling hot spring with water so blue and cerulean it reminds me of the Caribbean. Clearest water I have every seen and yet deadly at over 212 degrees.
In the next several blog posts we’ll be exploring the Old Faithful area, including enjoying a tour of the Old Faithful Inn and experience the majesty of the world’s most famous geyser!