Before we started our tour of the Big Three thermal features – before we even checked into our first hotel room – we got a preview of the park’s active landscape.
From the East Entrance
Our first stop (after patiently navigating the landslide repair work inside the East Entrance) was at the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Steamboat Point provided our first glimpse of magma-fed steam, with a light fog gently wafting over the broken ground. In spots the earth produced a steady hissing sound like the boiler room exhaust at the back of a downtown skyscraper.
On our way to the hotel at Mammoth we stopped for a walk at Mud Volcano, a network of pools and springs just north of the lake. We hit the Wall of Smell head-on here, as the boardwalk that rings the hill passes close to several boiling gray ponds. Woof.
So this was our first comprehensive thermal feature of the trip, but it doesn’t really count against our Big Three itinerary because a few minutes up the road we were blown away by the commanding beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and forgot all about Mud Volcano.
Our Other Geothermal Preview
As we froze in the brisk wind at Inspiration Point (less inspirational since an earthquake pitched a hundred feet of it into the canyon) a British couple asked if we’d seen “Steamboat geezer… oh yes, you Americans say guy-zer.” I said yeah, we’d passed Steamboat on the way over. “It erupted for the first time in years at two o’clock – spectacular.” I pictured jets of water arcing into the lake, the entire shoreline spouting like those fire boats in New York Harbor. I cursed our timing. At that point in the day I just wanted to get to the hotel at Mammoth, not go all the way back to the lake. The thing was probably all tapped out anyway.
As we descended toward Norris Junction on our way to Mammoth I could see steam towering over the trees from miles away. This place is pretty active, I noted. We rolled past Norris on the way to the hotel, slowing… slowing… should we turn around and check it out? Just for a minute and if it’s nothing special then we head for the hotel?
Forget Steamboat Point; this was Steamboat Geyser, reknowned for its unpredictable and cataclysmic blasts. The eruption itself was spent by the time we arrived but steam continued to roar high into the air, blown all the way into the parking lot by the stiff breeze. We stepped briskly, worried the vent would sputter out before we got a good look.
There was quite the buzz at the basin. Park rangers held court and dozens of sightseers dotted the benches. A 300-foot Steamboat blast – the tallest active geyser in the world – is an event in the park, and while we missed the initial eruption we were happy to attend the after-party.
One ranger with a digital camera gazed at the steam, happy to relay the news to each fresh knot of visitors. Melanie’s Forest Ranger Ladies’ Auxiliary training must have kicked in about the time I took that picture.
On the way back to the car I considered muttering “quick, it’s about to go out” as fresh onlookers hurried in. Oh come on, the thing vents for days.