Capulin: The Summit

A view into Capulin’s summit crater from the crater rim. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

VITAL STATS
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

 

The clouds that enshrouded Capulin’s cone finally began to break around mid-morning.  We raced to the summit to see what had been hidden behind the thick mist all morning.  What we found was breathtaking.

Capulin’s summit crater is perched over 1,300 feet above the surrounding plains, and the drive to reach it is nothing short of intimidating.  If you’re not driving, take a peek out the passenger side window.  There are no guardrails and the view is straight down.  This cone has virtually no slope.  Not intimidating…not at all…

Ash and cinder deposits that make up the Capulin cone. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

As you approach the summit, you can spot small cliffs of ash and cinder from the volcano’s last eruption.  The materials are packed tightly together but, because of their composition, easily erode. Over the years the cinder and ash have weathered and oxidized (like an old car rusting in your driveway) and have changed to a warm reddish hue.  You can still see the different layers of ash and cinder along these cliffs.

Capulin’s summit sits at 8,182 feet above sea level.  To your right as you pull into the parking lot are spectacular views of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field.  Old volcanoes pepper the landscape.  And those massive mesas in the distance?  They are massive lava flows that issued from the volcanic field thousands of years ago.  You can still spot their dark color beneath the wash of trees and grasses.

To your left (or rather – behind you – since you’ve gone running off to look at the views) is Capulin’s crater.  It stretches like a gigantic bowl in front of you, the edges of its rims rising another thousand feet higher than where you stand.  It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Adventurenovels that we read as kids: do you choose to walk the crater rim?  Or do you choose to go down into the depths of the crater?

I couldn’t contain my excitement.  I went bouncing like a billy goat down into the crater.  (And this is why I’m called Volcano Hopper…)

Inside the Crater

Sweeping lava flows fill Capulin’s crater. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

The path to the bottom of Capulin’s crater is paved with asphalt.  It’s an easy hike, but it is fairly steep with a 105 foot elevation drop.  The trail was lined on both sides with bright orange scrub oak and red chokecherry shrubs. The Spanish word for “chokecherry” is Capulin.  Spanish traders in the area gave the mountain its name because of these shrubs that used to grow all over the mountainside, giving off the sweet scent of roses.  Nowadays, capulin (chokecherries) are mostly found in the summit crater.  Other trees flood the crater with splashes of color for the oncoming autumn.

Suddenly, about halfway down, we burst from a cluster of scrub oak.  The crater opened up in front of us.  And, stretching across our path, is a massive lava flow. The basalt and cinder stretch up from the vent at the base of the crater.  You can see the direction of the last blast of lava from the vent; one side of the crater wall is strewn with ballistic basalt.

The trail spirals further down into the crater past this massive streak of lava.  It’s size is impressive in person: perhaps several football fields in length.  There are several fissures in the rock that could easily hide a puma.  We finally come to the end of the trail – right in front of the vent.  The entire bottom of the bowl-shaped crater is coated in black lava. This is the spot where the last of the explosive ash and cinder was thrown from the volcano.  This is the place where the eruption issued from; the place that built this entire mountain.

It’s eerily silent now.  But once, extremely powerful forces were at work here.  Everything you see here in this crater is a result of what happened at this vent.  The mountain was built by the explosion of lava, cinder, and ash.  These eroded over time into extremely fertile soil, which now has all manner of plants growing in it. These rocks and plants have created an inviting ecosystem for many different types of animal and insect.  Mountain lions prowl the mountain looking for a dinner of mule deer.  Birds flock in, making nests and dining on berries and insects.  Ladybugs flood the slopes every summer.  And all this started with a single volcanic vent.

The Crater Rim

Not only is there a trail going down into the heart of the volcano, but there is one that circles Capulin’s crater rim.  There is a 305 foot elevation gain from the parking lot, and you’re about a mile above sea level here, so there is no shame in stopping to catch your breath every 100 feet.  Besides, the views from up here are spectacular.

There is an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding plains from up here.  To the northwest, you can spy Colorado’s East Spanish Peak and Johnson Mesa.  To the east, you can see Black Mesa in Oklahoma.  Baby Capulin – a much smaller cinder cone – pops out of the prairie nearby.  Ten miles to the Southeast is the towering Sierra Grande shield volcano – the largest volcano in the volcanic field.  Numerous other volcanoes dot the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Trees bravely cling to the cinder cone’s steep edges and, in places, are so thick you can’t see the drop into the crater.  The huge flow of lava from the crater’s vent reaches all the way up to the crater rim, and lava bombs can be found scattered everywhere.  Plants have taken root in cracks in the lava, and amazingly grow straight up out of boulders.

Pressure ridges and a lava flow stretch for miles away from Capulin volcano. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

As we came down around the southern side of the volcano’s rim, we looked down to the plains below and spotted an amazing feature. Remember the lava flow that we had hiked through earlier?  From here, we had a bird’s eye view of Capulin’s lava flows and the pressure ridges hidden throughout.

Pressure ridges form in a lava flow when the lava at the leading edge of the flow hardens, but the lava behind it is still fluid.  The fluid lava pushes forward and will do one of two things:

  • It will dislocate the hardened lava in front of it, pushing it up into ridges (like when you’re shoveling your driveway after a snowstorm and you push it all onto the side of the drive).
  • It will run right up and over the hardened lava. The lava piles up on itself, creating these mounds and ridges.

It’s amazing how massive these lava flows really are.  Hiking through one of them earlier in the day gave me an appreciation for how thick the formations were, and how large each of these ridges really was. Seeing them from this vantage point made me appreciate their scale, and how far down the landscape they ran. Some of these flows were several miles long and hundreds of feet deep.  Impressive!

Seeing the flows from this height makes me want to go explore another lava flow trail: The Boca Trail.  This trail wanders past the separate vent that spewed these lava flows onto the prairie floor, leaving Capulin’s magnificent cone intact.  And I’m itching to find out what secrets it holds.

Check out our Facebook page for more pictures and some exclusive videos from our hike into the summit crater and around Capulin’s rim!

Up Next: Join us on an adventure through Capulin’s Boca Trail!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Capulin: The Lava Flow Trail

 

Capulin’s cone peeks out from behind a massive lava flow. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Vital Stats
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

Capulin volcano has 4 lava flows – three of which are absolutely massive.  They each started from a vent at the base of the volcano, which has left the stunning cone shape intact.  As we waited for the clouds at the summit to lift, we decided to take a hop down the Lava Flow Trail.

This trail is a 1 mile loop through the second lava flow.  It only scratches the surface; this flow extends over 2 miles down toward Highway 87!  We were anxious to get our boots on the ground and go exploring.  So off into the silent, misty morning we went.

Most cinder cones are formed when ground water trickles down and mixes with the basaltic magma below. It turns into a type of lava soup: liquid and runny.  As the new soup travels further down into the earth, it gets closer to the mantle.  It heats up in the blink of an eye and – whoosh! – flashes into steam.  The steam expands and explodes, blowing a hole into the rock above it.  The lava soup splashes out of the new hole. As it cools, the lava forms cinders that pile on top of each other to form a cone.  Since the explosion has opened some new holes in the ground, that creates a way for the magma to bubble up and ooze out over the ground in some pretty spectacular lava flows.

Basalt is usually what I’d expect to see on a hike like this one.  And we come across vast stretches of the black lava, bunched up into towering hills in places.  But over the years the lava has oxidized, similar to the way an old car rusts.  So along with the black chunks of lava, we saw all manner of reds, browns, and golds.  It was stunning.

Some very shredded looking pumice which tells the story of Capulin’s explosive past. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

What did stop me dead in my tracks was a chunk of andesite right off the side of the trail. Andesite is much less runny than basalt (think peanut butter versus honey), and that usually causes it to be much more explosive.  The sheild volcano just to the south of Capulin has quite a bit of andesite on its slopes.  This was very surprising to learn.  We think of sheild volcanoes as having more effusive eruptions with their basaltic magma. But this andesite showed us that Capulin and the surrounding mountains may have had an ornery streak; their eruptions may have packed more of a punch than your typical cinder cone eruption. Volcanoes are always full of surprises!  And I love how they’ll tell you their stories if you have your eyes open.

We continued down the trail and came across huge pieces of pumice.  They were extremely light if you picked one up.  And they were scarred with incredible holes where gas in the magma had escaped from them.  They looked as if they had been shredded.  Confirmation that this volcano had some serious spunk.

Volcano Hopper with a cloud-shrouded Sierra Grande in the background.

Coming around the bottom of the loop, we paused at the Sierra Grande overlook.  Sierra Grande is the shield volcano I previously mentioned.  It sits 10 miles to the south of Capulin.  That morning, its summit was hidden in the clouds.  But we could see the gently sloping shape like an upside down shield or bowl.  With the clouds, it reminded me of Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

This trail is not only packed with amazing geological formations, but with life.  We spotted deer tracks and mountain lion prints in the mud.  A lizard darted back and forth between the rocks.  Trees and wildflowers covered everything and most were starting to turn vivid shades of color with the encroaching autumn.  In some places, the foliage was so thick that you’d never know you were walking on an ancient lava flow.

My dad and I have gone on a lot of backcountry hikes together.  The most important thing I think he ever taught me is that it’s important to be aware of your surroundings, but it’s also important to look where you’re stepping.  You might find the most amazing things at the toe of your hiking boots. And we had a few amazing finds!

Volcanoes are masters of creation.  Not only do they have a knack for creating land, magnficient formations, fertile ground, etc. but they will occasionally create gemstones!  Olivine – also known as peridot – is one of the most common.  As we walked, I spotted an unusual piece of lava. As I picked it up and examined it, I realized that there was a garnet embedded in the heart of the lava. A few steps later, and my partner in crime found a piece of lava with green olivine crystals glittering inside of it. Stunning!

But the clouds have broken at the summit.  Now’s our chance!  We wrap up our hike and hop in the car.  It’s time to head to the summit!

Want pictures and videos?  Hop over to our Facebook page to see more!

Next Up: Capulin’s Summit Crater

 

 

 

Capulin Volcano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vital Stats
Name: Capulin
Type: Cinder Cone
Eruption Status: Extinct

Last Eruption: Approximately 60,000 years ago
Location: 36.7811° N, 103.9695° W
Northeastern New Mexico; Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field

The drive east through Northern New Mexico can be a pretty boring one.  The landscape is flat and brown, minus a few hills popping up here and there.  Major yawn factor – until you see the unmistakable cone of a volcano standing majestically next to the highway.  And then you realize exactly what you’re driving through.

The Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field stretches from southern Colorado to the western border of Oklahoma and Texas, near the town of Clayton, NM.  This volcanic field is a bit of an anomoly in the volcano world. Most volcanoes form on hot spots (like Hawaii) or along plate boundaries (Cascade Range).  New Mexico doesn’t sit on either one.  However, a continental rift does run though the area where the land is pulling apart and much thinner than the surrounding crust. This is what allowed magma to rise to the surface, creating some spectacular volcanic activity.

The volcanic field was active as long as 9 million years ago, forming all manner of lava flows and volcanoes.  And if you know what you’re looking for, you can see evidence of these everywhere. Enormous mesas line the north side of Highway 87.  These are massive lava flows!  Eroded and covered in trees, they’re a little tough to recognize after thousands of years.  Those hills dotting the landscape?  All of them are volcanoes.  Most are cinder cones, but the largest volcano in the area – Sierra Grande – is a shield volcano like you’d see in Hawaii.  The diversity here is amazing and the views are incredible.  And one of the most beautiful sights is mighty Capulin, standing watch over the highway.

Capulin is one of the youngest of these volcanoes, and the easternmost in North America.  She stands more than 1,300 feet above the plains, topping off at 8,182 feet above sea level.  Capulin is known as the Sentinel of the Plains, and she’s breathtaking as she watches over the vast stretches of prairie.

A cloud-wrapped Capulin rises behind the monument sign. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

I’d seen her many times as a kid – keeping a sharp eye for the volcano’s cone on long road trips through the area.  This morning, as we approached, clouds wrapped around the volcano’s slopes like a misty veil.  Every now and again, we’d catch a glimpse of the steep cone through the clouds as we approached.  But the thick clouds didn’t stop us – we darted straight for the summit!

 

 

 

 

 

Walls of compacted cinder and ash make up the volcanic cone.

Capulin was made a National Monument in 1916, and the volcano has been meticulously cared for and preserved because of it.  I’ve seen volcanoes that are much younger, and in a far worse state of deterioriation.  In the 1920’s, with the advent of motor cars, the park warden requested a road be put in to the summit of the volcano.  The National Park Service denied the request, but that didn’t stop him. And to this day, the road still exists.

It’s easy to get turned around on the spiral that leads to the summit.  On our left were magnificent banks of cinder and ash that made up the volcano’s base; on the right was a sheer drop 1,000 feet down to the prairie below.

A misty summit crater. Photo credit: Volcano Hopper

Then, suddenly, you come into a small parking area.  I ran right to the wall overlooking the summit crater. A freezing wind met me and clouds swirled down into the crater.  It was completely silent.  I could hear my own heart beating.  It gave the volcano a fascinating, almost mystical, dimension to it.  And the 30 degree weather gave it a dimension that was FREEZING!

Already seeing a patch of blue sky trying to burn through above, we headed back down to the base of the volcano.  One of the reasons Capulin is so well preserved is because the vents that issued the four lava flows are at the base of the cone.  We tugged on our hiking shoes and set off to explore the Lava Flow Trail.  The things that we found were amazing, unexpected, and shed a lot of light on the personality of Capulin volcano.

Up Next:  Come join us on our Lava Flow Trail adventure!

Volcano Hopper and her partner in crime – ready to tackle the Lava Flow Trail!

Have adventures, but don’t get injured!

Feeling your knee pop ranks on the list of Top 10 Terrifying Moments, right next to feeling the lava give way beneath your boots, or facing a starving tiger. In that split second after it pops, all sorts of frenzied things race through your mind.  “That’s it! I’m done for! I’ll never walk again!”

Lucky for me, I wasn’t 12 miles up a lava field when it happened. I was just standing around, talking story. Yes, I am talented enough to hurt myself while standing still. It takes real skill to do that. But the truth is, this injury was a long time coming.

The pain made an appearance in my right knee a full year before the pop!  It was uncomfortable when I hiked or ran, but it wasn’t the worst pain I’d ever felt.  I hiked 100 miles over volcanic terrain last year, but never got it checked out.  Despite my best efforts, my IT Band (the muscle that runs along the outside of your thigh) kept getting tighter and tighter. The muscles on the insides of my legs that balance it out just couldn’t keep up. So, this February – Pop! My IT Band ripped my kneecap right out of joint.

The symptoms masked themselves as a miniscus injury, so it took 6 months to figure out what acutally went wrong. Finally, in July, I had a patellofemoral realignment surgery. What a mouthful, right?  The short of it is that the doctor had to cut a slice of bone out to rebalance my leg, reset my knee, and then he screwed the pieces down.  It sucked.  I was on crutches for 8 weeks (my upper body strength can now rival that of the Hulk!) and in a brace for 10. I still have 8 weeks of physical therapy to tackle. Needless to say, no volcano hopping for me this summer. And that in itself has been worse than all the pain.

But it gave me a long time to think about injuries. How many of you, my friends, have suffered something similar? Or might battle this in the future? And how many of those injuries might be prevented?

I sat down with my physical therapist and asked what a person who does a lot of running and/or hiking could do to prevent an injury like this.  Together, we compiled a list of helpful hints that might prevent an injury like what I’ve experienced from happening to you.

Now, keep in mind that I am not a doctor, nor am I a physical therapist. I’m just a volcano enthusiast. If you have questions or concerns about your own health, please call your doctor. But hopefully, these tips will start you down a positive path to staying healthy and injury free on your adventures!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:  There are a zillion different stretches and exercises for each of the tips and tricks below. I’ll list a few of my faves, but jump on Google and do some additional research.  Talk to your own physical therapist, or the personal trainer down at your gym.  Start a routine and stick to it!

Before Your Boots Hit the Ground

On your off days (days that you’re not on the trail), you need to be stretching and strengthening your entire body! Your legs do not work alone when you’re out on a trek, and if your whole body is strong and in sync, it will make the hike easier and hopefully reduce any injuries you might experience

1.  Balance Exercises

It is critical for you to do balance exercises, especially if you’re going to hike over tricky landscapes. I’ve found these are critical for hiking over lava flows. Lava is wickedly uneven and one tip to the right or left can result in a twisted ankle or bloodied limbs. But these exercises will also strengthen and activate muscles you didn’t even know you had.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite balance exercises:

– Stand with one foot on the ground. Keep the second foot off the ground but in a “kickstand” position in case you wobble and need some extra support. Keep your hands around belly-level. Look to your right, then to your left like you’re window shopping. Too easy? To make it harder, stand on a pillow or a sofa cushion.

– Stand on one foot. Lift up onto the ball of that foot. This stretches your calf muscles like you wouldn’t believe.

– If you have one of those Bosu balance trainers (they look like ½ of an exercise ball), you can use it for a million different balance exercises. You can even do squats on it. This is a great tool to simulate uneven ground. If you don’t want to buy one, your local gym will usually have one that you can borrow during your workout routine.

2.   Strengthening Exercises

It’s super-critical that you strengthen your whole body on days when you’re not hitting the trail. I’ve found time and again that I do better on a run or hike if I’ve been following my routine, especially my core work.

During these exercises, you can do a lot of work to ensure that all of your muscles are strengthened equally. If one becomes stronger than the other (like my IT Band did), it can cause injuries. Make sure to work your feet, calves, glutes, hips, and core. Mix up your routine to keep it exciting. And be sure to look up online or talk to your gym’s trainer to find the best fit for you.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite strengthening exercises:

– Using an elastic band for resistance, lie on one side and open your legs from the hip like a clamshell. This helps strengthen the hips.

– Keeping the elastic band on, do crab walks back and forth across the room. Keep your knees bent as you step. You can also do this on a treadmill that is steeply inclined for more resistance.

– Exercise balls can be used for a plethora of strengthening exercises too, especially core. Lie on your back, with both feet up on the exercise ball. Raise your hips as high as you can, roll the ball in toward you with your feet, then push it back out. Repeat. Want to make it harder? Cross one ankle over the other so that all your balance is on one leg.

– The treadmill is a great tool as well. You can incline it steeply to do slow crab walks (you turn to the side for this and hold on!) or you can walk backward while keeping it at an incline. This will work different parts of your lower body.

– Agility exercises are a fun and important way to keep yourself on your toes. Turn up the music and do some dance moves like the Ickey shuffle. My physical therapist has what looks like a rope ladder that he puts out on the floor. I do all sorts of complicated footwork through it, forward and back. Do it as slowly or as quickly as you are comfortable with.

– Plyometrics are training while incorporating jumps. I’m not doing many of these right yet with my legs, but a favorite is the leg press. I can do a very slow, controlled jump while strengthening my leg muslces. Do some research to find out which ones will be most beneficial for your routine.

Getting out on the Trail

1. Dynamic Stretching

So you’ve been strengthening your muscles all week and you’re ready to hit the trail! You get out of the car and are itching to run to the trailhead. But there’s something you must do first: warm up! Cold muscles are prone to injury.

The best way to get your body ready to move is to move it! Dynamic stretching is moving your muscles into a good stretch, but not holding them in place. Remember those static stretches you used to do in gym class? The ones where you stretch and hold it for 30 seconds? The days of stretching like this before a workout are dead and gone. Doing this before a run or a hike can actually hinder you. Save those static stretches for afterward.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite dynamic stretches:

– Lunges: Do a lunge with one leg forward, the other behind. Bend your knees. Twist from left to right at the waist, then stand up, bringing your feet together. Switch legs. Repeat.  You can even make this a fun game of red light/green light if you’re with some pals on your way to the trailhead.

– Front kicks with hand reaches: Kick your leg up straight out in front of you. Try to touch the palm of your hand to your toes. Switch legs and repeat.

– Squats

– Rotate ankles/toe taps: A little trick I learned in Irish dance to prevent shin splints. Rotate your ankles by drawing circles with your toes clockwise, then counter clockwise. Tapping your toes side to side can also help reduce the likelihood of shin splints.

4.  Post-Hike

It’s so tempting after a long hike to sit down on the nearest available object. Your feet hurt, your body hurts, and you’re just flat out pooped. Don’t yield to the temptation or you’ll be sitting on that object until someone comes to pry you off of it. Your muscles will cool down and freeze in position. You need to let them down gently.

Volcano Hopper’s favorite post-hike stretches:

– Static stretches:  Find a stretch position and hold it for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

– Yoga stretches:  I like to incorporate some yoga stretches at the end of a hike, especially for my lower back.  Downward dog and Child’s Pose are two of my favorites.

– Foam Roller:  If you’re able to get onto a foam roller (I heard that groan!), definitely do.  Or find one of the hand-held rollers that creates the same effect.  I know that foam rolling can be mighty painful, but it’s critical to release some of that tightness in your muscles.  Especially that IT band of yours.  Make it hurt so good.

 

Remember, this is a super-brief summary of everything you can do to strengthen your body and prevent injuries on your adventures. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there on this topic, so please do some research!

Stay happy, healthy, and safe out there.  Happy Hopping!

Yellowstone: Norris Geyser Basin

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Lower Geyser Basin
Approx.
44.7262° N, 110.7043° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Norris Geyser Basin Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 Having a blast with Yellowstone’s geyser eruptions and thermal features? So am I!  But we’re just getting started. Now we’re off to the oldest, hottest, and most active geyser basin in the park: Norris Geyser Basin.

Norris is unlike the other geyser basins in a few aspects:

1) It’s freaking hot. How hot? Scientists drilled a hole 265 feet into the rock a few years back and measured a temperature of 401 degrees Fahrenheit. That’ll toast your marshmallows!

2) Norris sits at the junction of 2 major fault lines and a slew of fractures and fissures. All these cracks in the ground cause earthquakes, which shake up the plumbing systems that cause geyser eruptions. The cracks also allow more heat from the volcanic hot spot to rise to the surface, fueling the geyser basin’s thermal features.

3) Generally, we think of most places on Earth as having characteristics that are friendly to supporting human life. Not here. Dig around a little and you’ll find that arsenic, mercury, and other toxic metals are prevalent in the soil and water. Echinus Geyser (which we will visit in a few minutes) has the pH of a can of Coke. Remember that Coca Cola will dissolve a penny if it’s left in the liquid for long enough.

Yet, despite these toxic metals, life thrives here. One organism in particular thrives on arsenic! Organisms like this, who thrive in extreme conditions and on compounds that would knock you and I over, are called “extremophiles.” Since their discovery, these organisms have been attracting a lot of study from the scientific community.

4) Disturbances! Norris Geyser Basin is the only place in the park where normal thermal features will undergo dramatic changes overnight. Clear blue pools will turn a mucky brown and boil vigorously while others explode as geysers. These wild parties that the basin throws last from days to a week and then everything reverts to normal behavior. Why? Scientists don’t really know. If I had to make a logical guess, I’d suspect it has something to do with item #2 above. With all the extra heat that is allowed up from the magma chamber and the frequent earthquakes that make things shake, rattle, and roll, I could see how dramatic changes might occur here.

But enough chatter. Let’s go exploring!

Porcelain Basin:

Porcelain Basin looks like a moonscape with splotches of bright color. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Once we’ve parked the car and explored the museum (which is a great place to learn more about Norris), we headed north along the trail. Coming out from the thick pine trees, we emerged into the Porcelain Basin. It felt akin to stepping out onto the Moon. Everything in the basin below us is an ashy gray, made so by the layers of geyserite and acid-bleached rhylolite lava. Amid the shimmery gray landscape are vibrant pops of color: bright blue pools of boiling water and rainbows of color where algae and bacteria have set up shop. Reds, oranges, yellows, greens… they’re all here. The drastic changes in color show the diversity of temperatures and pH levels in the water here.

Since this place is so stinkin’ hot, make sure you keep your boots on the boardwalk! Geyserite is fragile and if you step in the wrong spot and break through, you are toast. Stay safe.

Black Growler is a noisy little steam vent – you can hear it halfway across the Porcelain Basin! Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Black Growler: This little guy is one of my favorite, and perhaps one of the most memorable, features of Porcelain Basin. It is one of the hottest thermal features in Yellowstone at a whopping 284 degrees Fahrenheit. This steam vent vaporizes water and jets the steam out of its opening. It sounds like a jet engine or a howling dragon. And it just won’t quit. Imagine having him for a next door neighbor. Goodbye, sleep!

Whirligig Geyser: This geyser is a spectacular rainbow of colors where extremophiles have set up their homes. “Rivers” of reds and orange pours from the center of the geyser while emerald green algae has made thick mats a little further away. This geyser is a great addition to the party – it has rhythm! When it erupts, the water pulsates like a drumbeat.

Back Basin:

Once we’ve done the loop through Porcelain Basin, we head South past the musuem into Back Basin where the thermal features don’t get any less tame.

Minute Geyser: Our first stop is Minute Geyser. It’s sort of a sad sight, really. This geyser used to frequently shoot water 60 feet into the air. People tossed so much junk into it (coins, trash, etc.) that it has clogged the vent. Now when it erupts, it’s only 1-2 feet in the air. A perfect example of what NOT to do to a geyser. Don’t vandalize them and if you see it happening, report it.

Porkchop Geyser exploded in 1989. You can still see the wreckage around the geyser’s vent. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Porkchop Geyser: This geyer packs more of a punch than you’d think. It was a glittering hot spring until 1985 when it suddenly turned into a geyser. Silica deposits started to congeal in the vent, which constricted the passage and made the water fountains triple in height. Finally, the silica clogged the vent completely. In 1989, Porkchop exploded, launching rocks and water 200 feet into the air. Yes, there were tourists nearby (yikes!). Thankfully, it was a near miss and nobody was injured. You can still see the blast zone today.

Emerald Spring: Many of the hot springs you’ll find at Yellowstone have a crystal clear blue color to them. What makes Emerald Spring gleam like a green gem? You’ll smell your first clue when you walk up to it: sulphur. It stinks like rotten eggs and, ironically, is the color of egg yolk. When this yellow sulphur at the spring’s edge mixes with the blue water, it creates the gorgeous green tint that you see.

Volcano Hopper enjoying the warm steam and being in the heart of a super volcano!

Green Dragon Spring and Puff N’ Stuff Geyser: Green Dragon Spring is a great place to cool your heels for a few minutes as you gaze over the greenish pool. I love the name of Puff N’ Stuff – a geyser right next door that huffs and puffs like an old school locomotive. In the freezing fall weather, it was nice to be enveloped by the warm clouds of steam for a few minutes.

 

 

Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest geyser. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Steamboat Geyser: As you climb the hill, you’ll notice to your right a massive red and white mound of a geyser base. This is Steamboat Geyser – the tallest active geyser on the planet! It shoots water up to 380 feet in the air when it erupts. This is three times bigger than Old Faithful’s eruptions! And the steam phase afterward is equally as impressive, lasting up to 12 hours. But if you get to see one of these eruptions, consider yourself lucky. Times between eruptions can range from a week up to 50 years. The last eruption was on March 15, 2018 and before that it erupted on September 3, 2014. Steamboat will regularly do mini-performances with eruptions from 10-40 feet in the air. We were lucky to see a 60 footer as we explored the area.

Cistern Spring: Near Steamboat Geyser is a beautiful blue spring named Cistern Spring. And it’s aptly named: when Steamboat erupts, this spring completely drains. Think of what happens when you flush your toilet. The water tank at the back of the toilet completely empties at the same time the bowl does. This phenomenon means that Steamboat and Cistern are sharing the same plumbing system. A few days after a Steamboat eruption, the spring refills and regularly overflows onto the surrounding landscape.

Echinus Geyser: Echinus Geyser (pronounced e-KI-nus) was named because it once resembled the spiny spikes of sea urchins known as echinoderms. Echinus formerly erupted every 30-70 minutes, but has slowed to a few times a day. That doesn’t mean that it’s eruptions are puny. In fact, Echinus will shoot water up to 125 feet in the air. It also has a pH of 3.3, which is as acidic as vinegar or as a bottle of Coca Cola. The acidity and height of the eruptions make Echinus Geyser the largest acid-water geyser in the world. In fact, most of the world’s acid-water geysers can be found right here at Norris Geyser Basin.

Up Next: A little less explosive, but no less impressive! Mammoth Hot Springs.

And don’t forget to hop over to my Facebook page for more pictures!

 

 

Yellowstone: Geyser Basins

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location:
Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Lower Geyser Basin
Approx. 44.4600° N, 110.8292° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Lower Geyser Basin  Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Now that we’ve gotten to see some very impressive geyser action, I’m hooked! I’m stoked to explore the rest of the thermal features in Yellowstone National Park. You too? Well, then, let’s go!

The next stretch of our journey will take us west and north along the southern loop road toward Madison Junction. We will head through four distinct thermal areas: Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Lower Geyser Basin. Our first stop is only a mile up the road, and I’m ready to explore!

 

Black Sand Basin

We tumble out of the car at Black Sand Basin. It’s only 1 mile up the road from Old Faithful. We explore the area that is full of pools and geysers. Black sand, made from weathered obsidion (volcanic glass), is strewn across the basin. A handful of brightly colored pools – some of the most vibrant in the park – are found here. Thermophiles (bacteria and algae that love the heat) nestle around the pools and create their bright colors. Mineral deposits of sulphur (yellow), manganese (pink), and oxide (red) can be found in high quantities here also.

Around the pools, particularly Opalescent Pool, trees stand straight and tall and… ghostly white. The trees have sucked up the ground water over time and the silica that is dissolved in it. This mineral not only gives the trees their ghastly appearance, but is starting to petrify the trees.

Cliff Geyser puts on a show as it perches on the edge of the Firehole River. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Cliff Geyser is the only geyser in the basin and is perched right on the edge of the Firehole River. He strutted his stuff while we were there, constantly spewing hot water 25-35 feet in the air. It was spectacular to watch!

But perhaps even more spectacular and, maybe even a bit mind-boggling, are the cliffs surrounding the basin. These cliffs are made up of rhyolite. 640,000 years ago during the last eruption, these cliffs were active lava flows! Can you imagine something that size filling the landscape as it flowed toward you? I felt puny standing there on the boardwalk and gazing up at the cooled lava flow. I can’t imagine how utterly breathtaking (and hot!) it would have been to stand there when it was active.

Rhyolite Cliffs – old lava flows from the last eruption – surround the basins.  Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 

Biscuit Basin & Mystic Falls

By now, you’re likely craving a snack. Biscuits sound tasty, don’t they? Sorry, but you’re not going to find any of granny’s home cooking here. The basin was named for rock formations that resembled home cooked biscuits, but in 1959, a violent eruption of Sapphire Spring destroyed every last one.

Nestled along the Firehole River, the boardwalk here wanders through a variety of hot springs and pools and a pair of spunky geysers. Jewel Geyser, not to be outdone by its counterpart at Black Sand Basin, shot a spray of water 30 feet into the air every 5-10 minutes.

But we were craving a little adventure. We wanted to get off the beaten path for a little while, get away from the tourists, and do a day hike up into the rhyolite hills. Who can pass up a hike into an old lava flow? I mean seriously…

So my partner in crime and I hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders and trudged off into the trees. We saw a momma condor guarding her enormous nest high in a petrified tree, and glimpses of birds and wildlife darting between the thick pine trees. Winter was coming, and bright splashes of color exploded between the branches.

Volcano Hopper enjoying Mystic Falls while warming her back against a steam vent.

The hike to Mystic Falls, a moderately difficult trail, is a 2.5 mile round trip. And it was worth the trip! The Little Firehole River has eroded a path through the old lava flows and now holds a 70 foot gushing cascade of water. Thermal features dot the sides of the river and waterfall. I hiked to the base of the falls and warmed myself by a vent of steam and water that poured into the river. (You can see the steam behind me in the picture if you zoom in.) After a brief respite at the falls, we hiked back to the car for our next adventure.

 

Midway Geyser Basin

Midway Geyser Basin has two very seriously cool features: Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring.

The cone of Excelsior Geyser, nestled up against the river. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Excelsior Geyser: This is one big mamma jamma geyser. When you walk up to it, the cone of the geyser looks like a giant hill with water pouring over the sides. Back in the late 1800’s, it shot water 300 feet into the air on a fairly consistent basis. Now it is considered dormant, but that doesn’t stop it from pouring 6 million gallons of 200 degree (F) water into the river every day. That’s 4,000 gallons a minute!

 

 

The massive crater of Excelsior Geyser. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 

We hike to the tippy top of the cone and I stop dead in my tracks. The mouth of this geyser is as big as some volcanic craters I’ve come across. It is HUGE! The water boils and bubbles in what is now a huge hot spring, but I can’t help but wonder when the explosive geyser action will start up again.

 

 

Bright colors along the edge of Grand Prismatic Spring. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Grand Prismatic Spring: The Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the world. It is only beaten in size by two springs in New Zealand. It is 370 feet in diameter, and 121 feet deep. The size, and the massive amount of steam that rolls off of it, make it tough to see the whole thing from the boardwalk. Aerial pictures are your best bet (they’re all over the Internet). But there is something equally as special and beautiful being on the boardwalk. The ground is flooded with bright, vibrant colors caused by the thermophiles and minerals. There were places where the reds and oranges were so vibrant flowing under the boardwalk that it looked like bright swaths of glittering paint. These colors reflect into the clouds steam, creating an otherworldly effect. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk around it and you may catch glimpses of the bright blues, greens, oranges, reds, and yellows of the actual pool through the mist and steam.

 

Lower Geyser Basin

White Dome Geyser shooting water into the air. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Lower Geyser Basin encompasses an area just south of Madison Junction that is full of geysers, hot springs and pools, fumaroles and mud pots. As we headed north along the loop road we took a diversion onto Firehold Lake Drive. This loop wanders through an area of geysers and bubbling mud pots. We pulled over to watch the 20 foot high White Dome Geyser jetting water into the air for several minutes.

Just a few minutes up the road are spectacular geysers, such as Great Fountain Geyser and Clepsydra Geyser that frequently erupt. Estimated eruption times are usually posted at the Old Faithful Visitor Center, and you can chat with a geyser watcher during most daylight hours. The Fountain Paint Pots are bubbling mud pots, and are some of the most colorful in the park.

We’re losing the light today and it’s threatening to snow, so we’re going to head back to the cabin for some grub.  Let’s explore more incredible geysers and eruptive action tomorrow at Norris Geyser Basin – one of the most active areas in Yellowstone!

Up Next: Norris Geyser Basin

 

 

 

Yellowstone: Upper Geyser Basin

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: Upper Geyser Basin 44.4600° N, 110.8292° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Volcano Hopping at Old Faithful Geyser.


As we head west along the southern loop road, we catch glimpses of wildlife in the thick trees. A mother elk and her calf are grazing on sweet grasses that are clinging to what’s left of autumn. The father, a majestic ten point buck, bounds across the road in front of us and disappears up the hill. As we pass West Thumb Geyser Basin, the trees begin to take on a ghastly appearance. Here you can see the scars of the 1988 forest fires. I was just a kid then, on a cross country trip to Oregon to visit family, but I remember the roiling smoke on the horizon. The fires destroyed 36% of Yellowstone. But forest fires have a natural way of clearing out the old junk and creating space for new life. This is similar to how volcanoes behave. Ash mixes with soil to create fertile land and vibrant life springs forth from it. Now, nearly 30 years later, we can see where life is making her comeback.

Upper Geyser Basin. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

As we come around a bend in the road, the forest makes way for a wide stretch of open land. Massive columns of white steam rise into the blue sky from the tawny ground. The Firehole River winds peacefully through the steaming landscape. At last! We’v found what we were looking for: Upper Geyser Basin. Let the eruptions begin!

Upper Geyser Basin sits on the caldera floor nestled snugly between two enormous lava flows. See those hills that surround the geyser basin? Those are the ancient flows, composed primarily of rhyolite. (Remember that rhyolite is a fairly sticky lava that can cause violent eruptions.) The magma chamber sits close to the the surface of the caldera here, and the ground is incredibly hot. And that’s part of what fuels the geysers. (Need a refresher course on what makes geysers tick? Hop back to this post.) In fact, 20% of the world’s geysers can be found right here! One single square mile holds over 150 geysers. That’s one crowded super-soaker party!

There is so much to explore here! Put on your walking shoes (it’s about 3 miles round trip to the end of the boardwalk and back) and bring a water bottle and a little bit of patience. While the scientists can estimate the time of many eruptions, it’s not an exact science. Volcanoes do have a mind of their own after all. Remember, keep your feet on the boardwalk. The ground is extremely fragile and scalding hot. If you fall in, you’re not coming back out.

GeyseriteOne of the first things you’ll see is a crystal-like substance that forms the base of these geysers. The water that is jetted into the air is full of silica. Silica is a key component in glass. This and other minerals are deposited over the vent by the spraying water and, over time, create the cone-like formations in the basin. A word of warning if you are taking pictures or wear glasses: If you get sprayed by water from a geyser, clean your lenses immediately. Silica in the water will fuse to the glass once it cools and you’ll have a permanent “geyser kiss” on your glasses or camera lens.

Old Faithful as seen from Castle Geyser. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

Old Faithful – This is undoubtedly the most famous geyser in Yellowstone. It is a stone’s throw outside of the Visitor Center and is extremely predictable. My hat’s off to the scientists who timed this geyser while we were there. They were spot on each time. Check the Visitor Center for expected eruption times. When Old Faithful does erupt, you won’t be disappointed. Water jets an average of 130 feet in the air from this cone-shaped geyser, and eruptions can last from 2-5 minutes each time. But there are bigger and badder geysers lurking in the basin behind this attraction. Let’s go find a few of them.

Beehive GeyserThe sinter and geyserite that form this little geyser give it a shape akin to a beehive. But this little guy packs a punch! It shoots water like a firehose up to 200 feet in the air and when it does, it sounds like a jet engine. This one is tough to catch in action as it can erupt anywhere from every 8 hours to every 24.

Chromatic Pool. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Chromatic Pool – This pool won’t erupt and shower you with smelly, mineralized water, but the colors and depth of this pool are spectacular. There are many other thermal pools scattered throughout the geyser basin similar to this one.

 

 

 

Castle Geyser. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

Castle Geyser – Now here is an impressive and ornery geyser if I ever met one. The geyser is formed from a 12 foot sinter cone and may be one of the oldest in the entire park. Over thousands of years, the minerals in the water have built this cone into a massive formation that overlooks the landscape around it. Eruptions occur every 12 hours on average and last for about 20 minutes. The spray shoots 75 feet into the air. After the water dies down, Castle tends to huff and puff steam like a dragon for another half hour.

Riverside Geyser with a buffalo grazing nearby. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

Riverside Geyser – As we came around the bend toward the Firehole River, a loud snort stopped us in our tracks. Basking in the warmth of the riverside geysers was a mother buffalo and her calf. We kept very quiet as we tiptoed past. Along the river are several geysers such as Riverside. This one shoots 75 feet into the air, raining down into the Firehole River, approximately every 6-7 hours.

 

 

Morning Glory Pool. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

Morning Glory Pool – This gorgeous pool is situated at the end of the boardwalk. Its vibrant colors and flower-like shape are reminiscent of a morning glory flower. As temperatures vary in the water, the colors change. Hotter water means more blue. Cooler water allows the organisms on the edge of the pool to thrive, causing spectacular oranges, yellows, and greens. Sadly, past visitors have used this pool as a “wishing well” and hundreds of dollars in coins and other garbage have been fished out over the years. This pollution has unfortunately caused a change in temperature of the pool, clogging the vent beneath the surface, and so Morning Glory looks much different than it did 100 years ago.

Grand Geyser shooting water 200 feet into the air. Photo Credit – Volcano Hopper

Grand Geyser – This is the biggest and baddest of them all here in Upper Geyser Basin. It is also my personal favorite. We found a cozy spot in the sunshine on the boardwalk benches near this geyser. Here we met a fantastic geyser spotter named Jim. He and many other volunteers come out to the basin every day to observe the eruptions. They know this basin like the back of their hands. When tiny Turban Geyser next to Grand started spewing water, he told us that the big guy was about to go off. Jim was right. Grand erupted a few minutes later, jetting water 200 feet into the air above our heads. We were much closer than at Old Faithful and felt utterly dwarfed by the eruption. It lasted nearly 10 minutes. I have never seen anything quite like it. If you have a little time to spare, I highly recommend taking a picnic lunch to Grand and waiting for it’s next big show.

There are far too many geysers and pools to describe in this one meager blog post. If you’re in the park, go explore it for yourself, and let me know which thermal features you found the most fascinating!

Upper Geyser Basin is one of six geyser basins in the park. Let’s hop up the loop road to see what other thermal features we can explore!

Upper Geyser Basin. Photo Credit Volcano Hopper

Up Next: Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, and Midway Geyser Basin

Want more? Check out the photos and a video of Grand Geyser on Facebook.

 

Yellowstone: Canyon

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: N 44 43.178 W 110 28.829
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

It’s early. The sun hasn’t even begun to crest the eastern horizon and I’m shimmying into my coat and hiking boots. There’s too much of Yellowstone to explore to stay in bed a moment longer.

Watching the sun rise over Yellowstone Lake  Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

We swing by Yellowstone Lake to watch the sun come up. Brilliant bands of pink and orange streak across the sky and reflect in the deep water. Snow glints off of the peaks in the Absaroka Mountains just on the other side of the sprawling lake. A great horned owl hoots as it perches on a sign nearby. A young male elk tromps through the woods, scraping his horns against a tree trunk before disappearing in the brush at the top of the hill.

 

 

Buffalo in the fog Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

The sun peeks over the mountains and we head North on the loop road toward Hayden Valley. The weather has changed dramatically in the span of a few miles. The valley is flooded with dense fog. Strange shapes move in and out of the mist. A herd of buffalo wanders down the middle of the street. With all the open land they have to romp, it’s amusing they’re using the road for their breakfast commute.

 

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Our next stop is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This place is spectacular. A v-shaped canyon winds through the yellowish rhyolite, and the mighty Yellowstone River gushes along its floor. The canyon itself ranges from 800 – 1,200 feet deep, and is anywhere from 1,500 – 4,000 feet wide. We turned down the road and stop at Inspiration Point. This, like many of the points on the South side of the canyon, has exquisite views of the towering Lower Falls at the head of the canyon. Lower Falls is the site of an old geyser basin that, through chemical changes and heat, changed the composition of the rhyolitic rock around it so that it was easily erodible.

But erosion is not the only creating factor of this canyon. Volcanic forces are at work here too. This area was once covered in lava flows from the eruption 640,000 years ago. As the magma chamber below the park inflated and lava domes stretched the ground above it, the hard ground fractured. These fractures are called faults. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone sits atop one of these fault lines. The rushing water and a few glaciers did the rest of the work.

 

Artist Point Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

From Inspiration Point on the South rim of the canyon, we were awarded a spectacular view of the falls to the left and some brightly colored rocks to your right. They are bright reds, oranges, and pinks amid the yellowish canyon walls. It almost looked like an artist had flung paint against the rock. An apt description, and not an original one, as the area is called Artist Point. The heat and chemical action from the volcano and geysers caused changes in the rhyolitic rocks of the canyon, causing an increase in iron oxide. That’s the same stuff that rusts your car. It sure creates a spectacular spectacle here.

 

Upper Falls tumbling over eroded rhyolite Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

It would have been easy to stay here all day and gaze at the beauty, but partner and crime and I hopped back in the car. We drove up the road to a trail Upper Falls. This smaller waterfall, at 109 feet, sits upriver of the much larger lower falls, but is no less amazing. Like it’s bigger sibling, Upper Falls was created at a spot where hard rhyolite meets soft rhyolite. The softer rock is easily eroded beneath the torrent of water, which creates the falls we see today. We watched fish flipping their tails and leaping up into the air to catch bites of bugs flying by

.

Lower Falls with a rainbow Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

There are hiking trails along the North side of the canyon, and some will take you down its steep v-shaped slopes. We picked Red Rock Point Trail. It was absolutely freezing in the shadow of the trees. Soft puffs of breath burst out in front of us as we hiked down the trail. But the view at the end was worth it. The sun, just breaking through the fog, cast rainbows across the base of Lower Falls. Water roared as it crashed 308 feet down the precipice. No wonder people consider it one of the most amazing waterfalls in North America! The pine pollen in the air glittered and swirled like gold dust as I waved my hand through it. A woodpecker went to town on the tree nearby. What a breathtaking way to start the morning!

 

 

But I’m ready for a bite of breakfast over at the diner in Canyon Village, and am ready to go see something ERUPT! How about you?

Up Next: Upper Geyser Basin

Yellowstone: Mud Volcano, Sulphur Caldron & Hayden Valley

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: 44.4280° N, 110.5885° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

We continued our journey north from Yellowstone Lake along the Southern Loop Road. The Yellowstone River runs adjacent to the road and here you can find some great fishing spots. LeHardys Rapids is one of them. In the summer months, you can watch the cutthroat trout doing acrobatics as they leap up over these rapids in seach of their upstream spawning grounds. Keep on going through the heavy forest and you’ll come to a section of the park that really stinks.

You get out of your car at a place called Mud Volcano. Whewie! I wasn’t kidding, was I? The place smells quite a bit like you left some eggs out on the porch to rot for a month. But the smell should tip you off to some pretty fascinating volcanic features. So let’s go take a look around.

This area of the park – Mud Volcano and Sulfur Caldron (just up the road) – is one of Yellowstone’s most active areas. The ground actually bulges here in a place called Sour Creek Dome. (I can’t imagine why they would name a creek that, can you? Must have something to do with the rotten egg thing.) This area of the park has been known to rise several inches over the course of a year. Of course, as the volcano breathes, the ground level can sink back down, so no need to panic just yet.

Sour Creek Dome rises in the sunlight behind Sulfur Caldron. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Okay, so where’s this dome? I see you looking around. Look on the east side of the road. See that hill that rises a little like a dome in front of you? Bingo. That’s your huckleberry.

But what is going on with that smell?

Give it a few minutes and you won’t notice it as much any more. What you are smelling is hydrogen sulfide gas. Remember in my introduction to Yellowstone that I talked a bit about mud pots? (Read this post if you need a refresher.) This is one of those mud pots on a grand scale.

There is a 2/3 mile long trail that winds its way through the Mud Volcano area. There are a few steep sections, but it is well worth exploring! Again, if there are areas of boardwalk, make sure to stay on them. This place is piping hot and there’s no need for you to get scorched.

Steam puffing from the Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Fresh out of the parking lot, if you head to your right, you’ll come to Dragon’s Mouth Spring. This is one of my absolute favorite features of the Mud Volcano area. A pool of water flows outward from a cavern that is tucked into the hillside. Steam puffs from the vent like loud snorts from a dragon. Get quiet for a minute and listen. One seriously could believe there was a dragon hiding in there huffing and puffing. Very cool.  Hop over to my Facebook page once you’re done here to watch a video!

The bubbling Mud Volcano! Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Head a little further up the trail to the Mud Volcano itself. This is where that lovely scent is strongest. The place bubbles and burps as the hydrogen sulfide gas is released. It may look like the mud is actually boiling, but it’s just the gas escaping up into the air.

Some serious action going on at Churning Caldron. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Trekking up the incline, you’ll come across the Grizzly Fumarole where hot gas is escaping through cracks in the ground. You’ll find other pools and mud pots along this trail, such as the Sour Lake, Black Dragon’s Caldron, Churning Caldron, Sizzling Basin, Mud Geyser, and Mud Caldron. And mind your step in the parking lot where Parking Lot Pool bubbled up through a crack in the pavement in 1999. Just a sizzling reminder that this volcano won’t be tamed.

The acidic and smelly Sulfur Caldron. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Head up the road until you reach Sulphur Caldron. It’s not that far of a drive – only 1/10 of a mile or so. This place is seriously stinky too. This place is one of the most acidic hot springs in the entire park. The pH level of these springs ranges from 1-2. That’s about like swimming in stomach acid. The water is also full of sulphur, which gives the place an eerie yellow tinge. I can’t say I was even remotely tempted to go for a swim.

Heading a further North on the loop road, the cluster of forest will open up into a wide open expanse. This is the beautiful Hayden Valley. Various creeks and rivers run through the lush landscape that is surrounded by mountains. Glaciers redecorated the place after the the last major eruption, giving it the marshy landscape that you’re seeing today.

A famous bison traffic jam. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Don’t just barrel through here on your way through. Chances are you can’t anyway! Bison traffic jams are common here as herds wander down the road or across it in search of a snack. Keep your eyes peeled for young bison hanging out with their herd. We were lucky enough to see a few that were just months old! Remember to give them their distance, especially the babies. Momma bison will get aggressive to protect their kids, and they can do a number on not only you, but your car.

Bison wandering through Hayden Valley  Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

On the east side of the road, you can often find some spotters camped out with a telephoto viewing lens. If you see a little crowd hanging out with them, get out and go have a look. Bears and wolves commonly frollick through this area, and you can safely watch them through the spotter lenses. These people are usually very nice, and can tell you some awesome stories about the animals in the park.

Up Next: Yellowstone Canyon

And don’t forget to hop over to the Volcano Hopper Facebook page for many more photos and a video of Dragon’s Mouth Spring!

 

Yellowstone National Park: South Entrance & West Thumb Geyser Basin

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: 44.4280° N, 110.5885° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

The Grand Tetons from Taggart Lake Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

It was a long drive to Yellowstone through a lot of flat and rather uninteresting prairie, but we made it. The late afternoon sun was pouring down onto the golden autumn leaves and making the creek sparkle. Instead of heading directly into Yellowstone, my partner in crime and I took a detour south toward Jackson. We stopped at a few places along the Grand Tetons and did a little hiking at Taggart Lake to stretch our legs. These mountains are not volcanic, but they certainly are magnificent. Bathed in the rich colors of fall, they were a sight not to be missed. While you’re in the area, make sure you stop and take a look. You won’t be disappointed.

And of course, if you’re hankering for some pretty darn delicious food, don’t miss the Gun Barrel restaurant down in Jackson and take a bite of their bison prime rib. Yum. Just… yum.

With a good night’s sleep and incredible dinner under our belts, we were ready to set off in search of some adventure. I had been quivering with delight knowing that one of the biggest volcanoes on earth sat just over an hour away. Now my feet were itching to get my boots on the ground and go exploring.

Baby moose searching for some lunch at Yellowstone. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

We headed North from Jackson, taking the south entrance into the park. The area is heavily forested, but make sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife just off the road. If you see a bunch of cars pulled over in one spot, it’s likely that they’re watching something really cool! This area is a popular hangout for moose, and we were lucky enough to spot a momma and baby moose grazing for some lunch!

As you wind through the forest, you’ll spot Lewis River and Lewis Falls on your left. Lewis Falls tumbles beautifully down a ridge before the river runs into Lewis Lake. This ridge is the southern boundary of the Yellowstone Caldera from the most recent eruption 640,000 years ago.

While the Yellowstone hot spot has caused 142 eruptions and countless minor ones, spanning from Nevada to Idaho, only 3 eruptions have happened within the current park boundaries:

  • 2.1 Million Years Ago – this was the biggest, baddest of them all, ejecting enough material to overflow the Great Lakes.
  • 1.3 Million Years Ago
  • 640,000 Years Ago – this is the age of the most recent caldera.

Aside from these 3 mega-colossal or “super” eruptions, there have been 80 smaller eruptions and lava flows, the most recent being 70,000 years ago.

Yellowstone is formed by a hot spot that burns its way through the mantle. The layer of crust that it has burned through is typically rich in rhyolite. Rhyolite is rich in silica, which means that it has a very high viscosity and does not flow well. Imagine watching peanut butter flow from the jar. Because it is sticky and highly viscous, when it decides to go, it explodes. When the pressure that is constantly held on the magma is suddenly released, water and carbon dioxide degass extremely rapidly. This causes the explosion.

Here’s another fascinating phenomenon about rhyolitic magma:  Take a suitcase and fill it with this type of magma. Add 5% water to the magma, zip it closed, and set it in your living room. Ok, stand back. Pop the bag and boom! Not only does it explode, but it expands. Rhyolitic magma + 5% water expands over 670 times! That suitcase worth of magma is now filling your living room and busting out the windows like a foam experiment gone wild.

So now that you’re crossing into a caldera that is 45 miles by 30 miles in diameter, you can imagine how much magma was erupted into the air and, when it expanded, how dramatic an eruption it really was!

West Thumb Geyser Basin Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

If you keep driving past Lewis Lake, a few miles up the road you’ll come to Grant Village and West Thumb Geyser Basin. Off to your right, you can see the wide expanse of Yellowstone Lake, fringed by the once volcanic Absaroka mountains. The round section of lake closest to you is actually a 150,000 year old explosion caldera that filled with water and expanded the lake. And in between you and the lake is an active geyser basin just waiting for you to explore it!

You’ll find a little bit of everything here – geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles – a great sample platter to sink your teeth into! This geyser basin erupts 3,100 gallons of water per day into the nearby lake. Talk about active! You can wander through many of the feature on the shore, but don’t forget to take a peek out into the lake. Many of the geysers sit just offshore and only make guest appearances when the lake levels fall in the summer. And, if you have some extra time, stick around for a tour led by a naturalist.

One thing to remember before you go exploring: STAY ON THE BOARDWALK. Look me in the eye and promise me you won’t set foot off of it. The ground is unstable, and everything (water, steam, ground) is insanely hot. It WILL kill you. Got it? I don’t want to hear about you getting scorched to death on the evening news.

Ok.  Now that you’re off and running, here are some notable feature to check out:

Fishing Cone

Fishing Cone Geyser Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

This is a conical geyser that sits just offshore of the geyser basin. Legend states that a fisherman could stand atop the geyer and catch fish from the lake, turn around, and dunk it in the boiling waters of the geyser to cook it. That’s about as fresh as you can get! Many people tried this in years past and some succeeded, but they also succeded in causing damage to the geyser. Nowadays, it’s illegal to fish from the geyser.

Lakeshore Geyser

Lakeshore Geyser
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

This geyser sits just offshore and is dormant when the lake water covers it. Lakeshore Geyser, when not submerged, tends to be rather rowdy and can shoot water up to 30 feet in the air.

 

 

Big Cone Geyser
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Big Cone

Like Lakeshore Geyser, Big Cone sits just offshore and is dormant when submerged.  Big Cone often causes holes to melt and open in the lake ice during the winter.

 

 

 

Black Pool
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 

Black Pool

This is one of the most beautiful pools in Yellowstone. It once had a low water temperature that allowed dark green and brown thermophiles to grow inside it, giving it its name. The temperature in this pool rose dramatically in the early 1990’s, which killed off all of the thermophiles and changed the color of the water to a deep, clear blue.

 

Abyss Pool
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Abyss Pool

At 53 feet deep, this is one of the deepest hot springs in the park. The pool is deceptively quiet – in past years, its eruptions spewed water violently up to 80 feet in the air. It has since grown tranquil and quiet with intermittent eruptions few and far between.

Thumb Paint Pots
Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Thumb Paint Pots
These brightly colored little mud volcanoes used to be 3-4 feet in height and would spit mud up to 25 feet in the air. They are far less active today then when first discovered in 1871.

Just past the geyser basin and West Thumb, the rest of Yellowstone Lake spans the near horizon. The fishing here is excellent, but it’s a terrible place to take a swim. The water temperatures in the summer are only a mere 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and your body could only take that amount of cold for 20 minutes. Better to admire it from dry land, or a boat.

Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America, sitting at 7,733 feet above sea level. It is approximately 136 square miles, and its deepest point is almost 400 feet below water. The cold temperature and depth make it difficult to explore, but with recent advances in robotic technology, scientists have been able to take a deeper look at what lies beneath its waves. They have found active gas pockets that make the water bubbly and hot, and have found a huge variety of other thermal activities beneath the waves.

A few years ago, a boat wreck that had previously been submerged under water rose up out of the lake like a ghost ship. Scientists found that the ground beneath the lake had been uplifting as the volcano breathed and the ground expanded. The ground lifted the boat right out of the water! The rising and falling of the land here beneath Yellowstone Lake causes trees to be submerged and beaches that were long underwater to be exposed.

As you drive to the northeast from West Thumb, the road winds along the lake, offering fantastic views of the water and mountains beyond. Wildlife is common here, so drive slowly and enjoy the scenery. We had an elk or two bounce across our path in this section of the park. You can stop along the way at the Bridge Bay Marina if you plan on boating, or at the Fishing Bridge if you want to try your hand at catching dinner.

Once the sun goes down, it’s blacker than black out here in the park. But if you can stand the night chill, bundle up and take a peek up at the sky. The stars are absolutely brilliant out here. Nothing cuts a cup of hot cocoa while gazing up at the band of the Milky Way.

We cozied up in a little cabin at Lake Lodge to spend the night. No tv, no radio, no cell phones or Internet. We were off the grid. And it was wonderful. Nothing like some time away from the general hubbub of life to refresh your mind and spirit.

Off to sleep, now… And up again at first light to do more exploring!

Volcano Hopper at Black Pool, Yellowstone

Up Next: The East Side of Yellowstone: Hayden Valley, Mud Volcano, and the Sulfur Cauldron

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