Yellowstone, fourth day — Mud Volcano.

What should I do on my final day?

One friend had recommended the mud volcano, and it certainly sounded intriguing. Not a true volcano, I presumed, but a geyser of mud sounded quite bizarre enough.

The volcano lives about 12 miles south of Canyon. Another long drive.

Going there meant passing through the Hayden valley. I saw a bunch of cars (and people) off by the side of the road, and then I realized that looming out of the morning mist was a herd of bison. So I stopped to watch.

Then I ran back to the car to get my camera, and watched a little more actively.

The bison didn’t pay us any attention. Some of them wandered quite close to the parking area (I moved back behind the line of cars when that happened), but that wander wasn’t because of us. They just happened to be going by and we weren’t interesting enough to avoid.

Quite a few of the animals would roll in the dirt, which I thought was kind of neat.

Time passed, the mist began to lift, and the true size of the herd began to become apparent. I started to count them, but soon gave that up, there were too many, they moved around faster than I could count them and there were probably more on the other side of the hills I could see (there were). There were probably several hundred in sight. Not enough to blanket the plains, but enough to be impressive.

Well, even one of these animals is impressive; especially when walking down the road straight at you. But 200 is more impressive.

In one way, Yellowstone disappoints. The signs record the history of a changing land, usually documenting the time when a feature was at its peak (and that time is rarely now).

So the sign at the “Roaring mountain” describes how it could be heard 4 miles away. Once. Now the steam vents produce a faint whisper that the noise of a passing car overwhelms. (the mountain in the picture was not hit by a snow storm, that’s the color of the deposited rock).

The boardwalks on the travertine terraces at Mammoth have viewpoints at many places now dry and crumbling into dirty grey stone.

Even Old Faithful, which once erupted every hour, now erupts every 65-90 minutes.

Once upon a time (~1870), the Mud volcano sent columns of mud into the air. Now it just bubbles happily to itself. It’s neat, and if I didn’t know its history I would be perfectly happy to watch it bubble — but compared to the eruptions of the past, well — the present disappoints.

So the mud volcano was a bit disappointing. It didn’t erupt at all, just sat there blowing steam and quietly bubbling mud to itself. But there were other hot springs and geysers here.

There is also a mud geyser. Another large pond of bubbling mud with several steam vents. Before an earthquake in 1979 the hillside here had been completely wooded, after the quake the ground became very hot and the trees cooked and died. At the time the geyser started erupting.

That has all changed. The ground seems a normal temperature, there are no more eruptions.

The steam vents are nice…

On the other hand, the Churning Caldron was nicely impressive. A huge pillar of steam rose above it, visible from a long way off, and when I approached it there was an incessant splashing (hidden deep in the mist so I couldn’t see what caused it) and a concomitant train of waves washing up on the edge of the pool.

Several hours later, when I was heading back to the hotel I passed by this basin again. It was much warmer now, and all trace of mist was long gone. It occurred to me to wonder… The steam which hid the surface of the caldron might be much less now. The warmer, drier, afternoon air could absorb more water vapor so there should be less mist. It might be worth stopping the car again and checking out the caldron in case I could now see what was causing the splashing…

Well there was still a lot of steam, but it was possible to make out the great masses of water that were thrown up in the center of the caldron.

Across the road from the mud volcano is another thermal feature called sulfur caldron. The thing which most interested me there was not the caldron itself, but the fact that in the middle of the parking lot a small steam vent had opened, and they have had to close off a bit of parking lot because of it.

The mud volcano may erupt no more, but new thermal features are forming which may someday be equally impressive.

There were quite a number of other thermal features outside these two areas set up for tourists. Across the river were two large steam vents, and down by the riverside were several hot springs. But I was most impressed by a stream of bubbles arising from the middle of the river itself — some sort of underwater steam vent perhaps? Except that didn’t make sense, with that much water above it, the vent should not be hot enough to make steam. Perhaps some other gas was percolating up?

It wasn’t even 11 yet, and I had seen all I wanted to at the Mud Volcano. Where next? The closest place seemed to be the “West Thumb Geyser Basin”, which was on the banks of Lake Yellowstone, about 20 miles away.

If you have a lot of imagination, then when you look at a map of the lake, it sort of looks like a two fingered hand with a thumb. Very sort of. Anyway this basin is at the fingernail of the putative thumb.

I don’t see any spectacular geysers at the west thumb. There are lots of hot springs and steam vents, and pools. The pools are the neat part. Most are crystal clear, and most are colored. The color of the pool depends on the bacteria which live in the pool which in turn depends on the temperature and mineral content.

There are also some hot springs out in the lake which have built up stone vents even in the water.

On the way back I pass through the bison herd again. There appear to be even more of them now (perhaps there was more mist than I realized). Some are wandering in the road, so traffic slows. Remember, bison in the mirror are closer than they appear.

On the road between Canyon and Norris there is a sign saying “Virginia Cascade”. I decide to follow it. There’s a rather impressive waterfall on a less than impressive road.

Once back at the hotel I finally have time to go on the hike my sister suggested days ago. It leads down to the Gardner river, and then along it. The most immediately striking thing is how lush and green the river bottom is while the canyon walls are sere and grey.

There are a lot of butterflies down here, attracted to the blooming wildflowers.


Good-bye Yellowstone!


More pictures

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