The real hot spot

July 3, 2010

June 27
I spent the day inside a volcano cone. Most of Yellowstone National Park is located within the Yellowstone caldera, the crater that was formed during a “catacylismic volcanic explosion” over 600,000 years ago. Without being told, or seeing it on a map, you would not know you are in this situation, since most of it has been filled in over time. What is still evident, and what brings millions of people to Yellowstone each year, is that this area is a hot spot. No WiFi here, just about 4 times closer to the earth’s magma than most other places on earth.
Typically magma is about 40 miles beneath the surface of the earth. In Yellowstone, it is between 3 and 8 miles below us. That proximity is why we can enjoy all the gushing, hissing and bubbling thermal activity. It is estimated there are 10,000 geothermal features in Yellowstone; included in that number are 200-250 geysers, the most in the world.
I made plans to slow down travel and spend some time in the park. I made the Madison campground my base camp. It is at a juncture in the road that circles around the park. The National Park Service is very accommodating to hikers and cyclists. They designate parts of most campgrounds as hiker/biker sites, recognizing that these modes of travel do not allow one just to hop 20 miles down to the next campground. The cost per night–$6.71. Granted, that just gets you the basic necessities, but that is all most people need.
Soon after I got inside Yellowstone I saw a traffic jam ahead of me. In places like Yellowstone, that usually means one thing–there is some animal to see. In this case it was an eagle jam.

A young bald eagle learning how to fly. Its parent was watching from a distance.

Not far from the road an eagle’s nest had been built in a tall dead tree. In it, a young eagle was learning how to fly. It would rise up, flap its wings to catch some air, then settle back down into the nest. About 50 yards away, the parent eagle was perched in another tree. It was close enough to be watchful, but far enough to help the young bird begin to develop its independence.

I arrived at Madison in the early afternoon. After lunch and camp setup, I had the rest of the day to explore. I decided to head north to Norris to see what I could see.

About four miles into my excursion I ran into road construction. I rode up to the head of the line where I was greeted by the flagwoman who told me while I am first now, I had to wait until all the cars behind me passed before I could go. Between waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass and my line of vehicles to go, I stood there for a half an hour. But I never had the chance to chat with a flagperson before. I learned she worked 14 hour shifts just holding the sign, or walking down the row of cars informing people what was going on. She told me the day before she got to shake hands with Lisa Kudrow, the actress, whose celebrity status did not exclude her from this boredom. Partway into the wait, the flagwoman decided it was time for lunch. I asked her if I could hold the Stop sign while she fetched her lunch out of her car. She agreed. Another unusual experience made possible by cycling! Finally I was released. The benefit of being last in line was that I had the whole road to myself for about 20 minutes–a rarity in Yellowstone.

Colorful runoff from a hot spring

My first stop was an area called the Artists’ Paint Pots. After walking through a tunnel-like trail created by head high pine trees, I came into a clearing that looked paleolithic. Steam was rising out of the ground above me. In front of me, flows of water from blue, green, orange and brown beds came at me. Following the path upward, I came to a boardwalk that led to a noisy, animated sight. I had come upon mud pots. They bubble and spit, launching their “mud” with enough force to hit a person standing 4 or 5 feet away. Mud pots are essentially hot springs with a little acid water mixed in. The acid in the water breaks down the rock into a clay, or mud. Gas bubbles rising from beneath the earth pop at the surface, launching the mud into the air. The mud is siliceous sinter, a form of silica, from which glass is made.

Mud pots. If you look closely just to the right of center you can see mud spurting up into the air

I then cycled on through some huge meadows, broken up by snaking streams and populated by a few fly fishermen and bison, each with plenty of distance between each other. I ended my northward journey at the Norris Geyser Basin.

Norris Geyser Basin. It seemed as if I was walking down onto the moon.

Descending down into it from above, it seemed as if I was walking into a moonscape. From side to side the basin was white and barren. Directly in front of me, plumes of white smoke came out of the ground. These steam vents, or fumaroles, are characterized by high heat and low water. The underground channels, or fissures in the rock, extend deep down into the hot rock masses. When water gets into these channels, it quickly gets converted into steam and rises up to the surface.


Thermophilic algae. These algae living in the extremely hot water in the geyser basin. You can determined the temperature of the water by seeing which color/type of algae are present.

I again came upon the eerie multicolored stream beds. Here I learned what they are. Thermophilic algae. Algae that has adapted to living in high heat. The different colors–green, blue, orange, brown–are different types of algae that can survive in different temperature zones. The greens and the blues can stand hotter water than the browns and oranges. These green algae living in temperatures ranging from 100 to 133 degrees Fahrenheit. So by looking at the colors you can determine the water temperature of the hot spring.

Since I had gained about 600 feet in elevation on my trip up to Norris, the journey back was fast and easy-until I hit that construction zone again. The flagman at this end of the zone was less talkative than the flagwoman, but my overall wait was shorter.

Back at camp I took a walk down to the broad meadow that held the Madison River. Not far (for Yellowstone) beyond the river, National Park Mountain rose high above me. The sun was setting in the western hills, coloring the few clouds in the sky. On the river fish were jumping out from the depths in search of their dinner. A lone fisherman was vainly trying to catch one. His odds were probably diminished because a flock of kids were splashing in the ankle deep water nearby, playing an unsubmerged version of Marco Polo.

Click this link for an illustrated map of today’s travels: TransAm trip-Day 26–Yellowstone



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