Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How I Spent My Summer, 2012 Part IV: Travelogue: Yellowstone Canyon

Lower Fall of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

I grew up with Yellowstone National Park literally in my backyard.  When I was young, though we mostly went into Old Faithful and then returned home because of the family business.  When I was about fourteen I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with Dad and my brothers to fish.  I did that two summers in a row.  The joke was that it took fifteen minutes to get down to the bottom of the canyon and two hours to climb out.  It wasn't a joke.  Other than that, I had been to Artist's Point and a few of the other scenic overlooks over the years, but I had never really experienced Canyon.  I found out for the first time last summer that Canyon is Chimene's favorite part of the park so I determined that we would do Canyon right this summer.

My oldest sister, Cynthia and her husband Byron and son Chad were in town last week and wanted to have a picnic in Yellowstone with as many family members as possible.  Since I was out of school, it was possible for us to attend.  We decided to meet at noon on Tuesday at the Wapiti Picnic Area on the south rim of the canyon.  My Mother was there as well as my sister Paula and her husband, Ferron and two of their daughters, Emily and Shelley.  I brought Chimene and two of my sons, Haydn and Garrett.

We met for the picnic and enjoyed one anothers' company for an hour or so and then we went our seperate ways.  Mom and Cynthia had tickets for The Playmill and were headed that direction, Paula and her clan were headed to Cody, Wyoming for a vacation.  That left us to explore Canyon.

Picnic in the park

I bought a book last year called "Day Hikes in Yellowstone National Park--82 Great Hikes" by Robert Stone.  We consulted the book and found that the Crystal Lake hike had it's trailhead at the Wapiti Picnic Area.  It was a loop hike that started and ended at the picnic area.  I like loop hikes better than there and back hikes because I always want to see something new.  The Clear Lake Trail seemed like the right thing to do.  Last season, a man was killed by a grizzly bear on that trail, so naturally we had to take it.  The trailguide called it a moderate hike, nearly level.  It started out in a sub-alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and snaked it's way toward the forest for almost a mile before we ended up in the trees.  Throughout the meadow we saw numerous buffalo wallows, where bison paw and scratch at the dirt and roll around supposedly to keep biting insects away.

Chimene, Haydn and Garrett on the trail

I was there too

Sub-alpine meadow covered in wildflowers

Wildflower covered hillside

Beautiful view

One of many buffalow wallows

The trail entered the forest and we came almost immediately upon a thermal feature called Clear Lake.  There was no inlet and no outlet and we could see a steady stream of gas bubbles out in the middle of the lake.  The water was cool to the touch, though so it wasn't a particularly hot lake. 

We followed the trail past Clear lake and entered into a barren, almost alien looking landscape where thermal activity had once flourished.  There were remains of exploded geysers and the rubble that ejected from them littered about the ground.  There were also a few active mudpots, but nothing so impressive as Fountain Paint Pots or some of the others.

After we passed through the alien landscape we came to another thermal lake covered in lily pads and aptly named "Lilypad Lake".  It was a pretty little lake out in the middle of the forest with a marshy area at one end and a floating bridge spanning it.  After that the trail wound through the forest past interesting rock formations.

Clear Lake

Barren landscape

Lichen covered boulders ejected from an exploding geyser

Lilypad Lake

Floating bridge over the marsh

The boys in front of a rock

After Lilypad Lake, the trail wound through the forest for a quarter mile or so and suddenly burst out onto the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Up until this moment, I had kind of considered the hike to be a bit of a letdown.  The scenery was pretty, but not outstanding.  Chimene and I both commented that we were glad we chose to hike the direction we went instead of going in reverse because it would have been anticlimactic otherwise.

The view of the canyon was breathtaking and astonishing.  Words and pictures don't do it justice, they just whet the appetite for future travels to the canyon.  From the rim to the bottom of the canyon is about 1000 feet.  The Yellowstone River is a mighty stream that has carved this canyon and continues to carve it.  The rocks on the walls of the canyon are colorful but the predominant color is yellow, which is where the park got it's name.  There is a high sulphur content in the rock because of all the thermal activity and vulcanism of the region.  All along the canyon walls were remnants of harder rock eroded into spires and minarets.

We followed the trail along the canyon rim and emerged at Artist Point for a wonderful view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.  That is the iconic view of the falls and one of the signature images of Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Yellowstone River

Where the park got it's name

A colorful canvas of rock

Rocky outcroppings all along the canyon wall

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point

A random tourist snapped this for us

After we had enjoyed the view from Artist Point, we made our way along the south rim toward the Wapiti Picnic Area.  The trail passed by the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River as well.  The scenery was spectacular all along the trail.  The beginning of the trail was okay, and I'm glad we took it but once we arrived at the canyon it was fantastic.

First view of the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River

Lush undergrowth along the trail

Moss on the rocks near the brink of the upper falls

The old road, now a walking path

When we arrived back at the car, Chimene said she wanted to go to Inspiration Point on the North Rim.  I mentioned that it would be sad to come all this way and not see Crystal Falls which was at the Brink of the Upper Falls pullout just across the river from where we were.  We walked down to the brink of the Upper Falls, then did a short hike to Crystal Falls, then we drove to Inspiration Point.  On the way we spotted a large bull elk in a meadow along side the road.

Bull Elk

Wildflowers that found purchase in the rocks at the brink of Upper Falls

Crystal Falls

The south rim from Inspiration Point.  We hiked all along that, right on the edge

On the way home, we decided to take a scenic drive along the Virginia Cascades Loop Road.  It had been years since we had seen the Virginia Cascades and we wanted to photograph them.  It's a two or three mile one way road past the cascades and opens up in a beautiful meadow where moose ought to roam.  We didn't see any of them this trip, but I'm still holding out hope that we will this summer.

The Virginia Cascades

The meadow

The sun setting over the Madison Plateau

In total, we hiked around 7 miles in the canyon area.  It was a pleasant hike that I would not be opposed to doing again.  We had a wonderful time with our family.  It was a good day.

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