Join me on a photographic tour of Yellowstone! Wonders await. All images were taken by me (unless otherwise noted) and are available for for download/print here. Images are not to be copied, reproduced or otherwise used without my permission. Just contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Yellowstone National Park is one of those magical places on earth that you can't imagine until you see it, or see pictures of it. And even then, to think of standing on top of an active volcano, which last erupted some 640,000 years ago (with a history of erupting every 600,000 years or so) is otherworldly. The central part of Yellowstone Park sits within the Yellowstone Caldera, miles beneath which is the Yellowstone Supervolcano. A caldera is a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption (Wiki). You don't want to imagine too vividly what would happen if that volcano erupted again anytime soon, or you might pause to visit Yellowstone National Park!
[M]ost damage would come from "cold ash" and pumice borne on the wind. Lowenstern [Jake Lowenstern, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory] and his colleagues consider it "disastrous" when enough ash rains down that it creates a layer of 10 or more centimeters on the ground — and that would happen in a radius of about 500 miles or so. This ash might reach so far that you'd see a fine dusting of it on your car in New York. - What will really happen when the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts?
I had the immense pleasure of visiting Yellowstone after graduation this year. I packed up all the photo gear I thought I would need, and set off on a journey that took me and a few family members from Baton Rouge, to Denver, to Salt Lake City, and by car up through Jackson and the Tetons to Yellowstone National Park. Quite a trip! Our pit stops in Park City, Utah and the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, were beautiful enough to warrant entire photography trips to themselves.
Day 1 - We Reach the Park
After driving through the Grand Teton National Park, we entered Yellowstone National Park through the south entrance. Our drive through Yellowstone to get to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge took us in a big loop around the central plateau. We drove around West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake, making pit stops at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Mud Valcano area and Hayden Valley at dusk. At Canyon Village, we cut across heading to the west side of the park on Norris Canyon Road, and at Norris Geyser Basin headed down Grand Loop road in the dark to reach Old Faithful Snow Lodge late at night. The whole loop took us near 3 hrs to complete - so if you visit Yellowstone, plan for long drives!
I got my first sighting of a Yellowstone thermal feature at West Thumb Geyser Basin. I literally ran down the boardwalk shouting, "wow, look at THAT!" Dozens upon dozens of steaming hot springs, bubbling chalk-colored pools and spurting vents sprawled out in front of me. The cool, rainy afternoon only added to the mysterious feel of these steaming thermal features that rose from mysterious depths to the park surface.
The bright blue color of many of the hot springs in Yellowstone comes from the mineral deposits in the boiling or near boiling waters that rise to the surface once superheated by the volcanic magma that lurks miles deep here. When this superheated water rises from underground, it passes and often partially melts old lava flow deposits of rhyolite, a volcanic rock of silica-rich composition. The result is silica-rich water, due to the silica (the mineral from which glass is made) in the rhyolite. Hot spring water rich in silica and other minerals absorbs all the colors of sunlight except for the deep blues that make many of Yellowstone's hot springs so beautiful. The silica is also often deposited on the edges of these hot springs, forming elegant formations of sinter or geyserite that create the scalloped edges around hot springs or the hard white cones and air-tight plumbing systems of geysers. Geysers are the famous thermal features of Yellowstone that shoot superheated water into the air.
Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of coloring of these remarkable prismatic springs... Life becomes a privilege and a blessing after one has seen and thoroughly felt these incomparable types of nature's cunning skill. - Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, 1871
Each thermal feature in Yellowstone is unique in temperature, pH, nutrients and dissolved minerals, leading to unique microbial communities in and around the various hot springs, geysers and mud pots. These different minerals and microbial communities give rise to unique colors and color gradients - imagine if every rainbow you saw were unique in its assortment and arrangement of colors, and you might get an idea of the appearance of Yellowstone's thermal features.
Above: Photo gallery of West Thumb Geyser Basin. Hover (or hold down your finger if on your phone) for photo descriptions.
As the rain drew nearer, we left West Thumb Geyser Basin (me dragging behind, not wanting to miss a single shot of these beautiful and mysterious thermal features) and continued our trek north. Thankfully I DIDN'T have to miss any shots due to rain, thanks to the heavy-duty camera rain-cover I bought specifically for this trip after seeing the weather forecast.
Our next stop was at the Mud Volcano region just north of Yellowstone Lake.
You never forget your first visit to Mud Volcano. This chalk-colored thermal feature "boils" and bubbles violently with the thick smell of rotten eggs. In the cold and rainy air of an early May evening, the steamy stench is at the same time terrible, mysterious and wonderful.
Despite their intriguing bubbles, most mudpots are not actually boiling. The explosive action is due to gases - steam, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide - erupting through the viscous mud. It is the hydrogen sulfide which gives these features their distinctive sulfuric aroma. - Yellowstone, The Story Behind the Scenery
Mud Volcano and its surrounding "muddy" thermal features are hot and acidic - supposedly some acidic enough to eat through the soles of careless visitors' shoes. Some hyperthermophiles (extreme heat-loving microbes) and acidophiles (microbes that can thrive in acidic environments) such as Sulfolobus use the sulfur compounds in these springs and mudpots to produce energy with sufuric acid as a by-product. "This acid and the churning action of the hot water breaks down the underlying rock into fine, suspended clay particles, making the water muddy" (Yellowstone, The Story Behind the Scenery). Sulfolobus, a microorganism belonging to the archaea domain and likely resembling some of the earliest microbes on earth, has been isolated from many habitats in Yellowstone National Park as well as thermal and volcanic areas in Italy and at Mount St. Helens. Its optimum pH range is 2-3 (just a bit less acidic that your stomach acid), and it thrives at temperatures ranging from 158 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just craziness. Some species of this microbe family have been harnessed to treat industrial waste water.
But my favorite thermal feature in the Mud Volcano area was the Dragon's Mouth Spring. A rocky and muddy cavern covered in what appear to be green bacteria or algae films roars and steams as if a dragon were lurking deep inside. The murky water of the spring periodically rushes into and out of the cavern, given the impression that something breathes inside. It's incredible and slightly terrifying.
Dragon's Mouth is a turbulent hot spring with a cavernous mouth. Water sloshes rhythmically in and out of the cavern giving the impression of a large overflow; however, the actual discharge is quite small. Much of the activity and energy is located within the cavern. As hot water rises to the surface, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and water vapor gases expand creating a pressure explosion in the cavern. The resulting activity is sloshing, belching, and steaming. - yellowstonenationalpark.com
Because pictures alone can't tell the smelly and noisy experience that is a visit to Mud Volcano, Dragon's Mouth Spring and other thermal features in Yellowstone, I filmed several of these features while I was there. Enjoy the video below!
As daylight waned over Yellowstone Park, we pressed on to get to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for bedtime. We passed Hayden Valley during the late dusk hours. This valley, famous among wildlife watchers who visit the park, was studded with bison and white-tailed deer as we passed through. My camera struggled to keep up with the fading light, but the reflected light on Yellowstone River provided the scene with a beautiful ambient glow.
And then it was night in Yellowstone Park, and we continued driving with no stops to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Day 2 - Old Faithful Area and Midway Geyser Basin
We woke up early on Saturday morning, ready to get out to the famous Old Faithful. We ate breakfast in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge - for me, lots of coffee, scrambled eggs and toast with honey. I geared up, prepare with warm layers and a rain jacket, and headed out to photograph the Upper Geyser Basin, which you can walk to from the Old Faithful Inn area.
We saw a sign that the next Old Faithful eruption was scheduled for 8:48am, so I set up shop. After a successful photo-shoot of Old Faithful, we continued down the boardwalk, crossed the Firehole River, and hiked up to Observation Point.
On the hike up to Observation Point, I got to photograph several yellow-bellied marmots (was so glad I had brought my 100-400mm lens out with me that morning!) an a chipmunk. The yellow-bellied marmots, or rock chucks, hang out on the rocky hills just beneath Observation Point, so keep your eyes peeled if you hike that way.
Firehole River is quite a sight, far from your average river. Below (upper left corner), you can see run-off from Old Faithful and other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin flowing into the river. I'm guessing Firehole River is much warmer than other rivers in Wyoming this time of year as a result?
Above: Photo gallery of Upper Geyser Basin. Hover (or hold down your finger if on your phone) for photo descriptions.
We walked around the Upper Geyser Basin until around noon, watching several geysers erupt, including Old Faithful again and Sawmill Geyser. We sat waiting for Grand Geyser to erupt (it shoots higher than old faithful and can supposedly get visitors on the boardwalk wet), but with no activity and a 9-15 hour window, we eventually gave up and moved on. But the rich orange bacterial mats around Grand Geyser alone were magnificent to photograph. These mats are likely composed of, among other bacteria, Chloroflexus, a filamentous photosynthetic microbe (yes, it produces energy from sunlight like plants do!), and cyanobacteria that use carotenoids (like the pigments that give carrots their color) to protect themselves from the bright sun. Chloroflexus is the primary component of the orange bacterial mats especially around the thermal features in Yellowstone that are rich in sulfur.
Anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria, such as Chloroflexus, which do not produce oxygen during the process of photosynthesis, evolved millions of years before oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria, such as Synechococcus [a cyanobacterium], which generate oxygen as a by-product of the photochemical reaction. - Science
I also had the chance to see a lovely mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides, image above) while photographing the South Scalloped Spring on the east bank of the Firehole River. This bird was flitting around the geyser basin near Firehole River, seemingly foraging for insects or other food. I grabbed my 100-400mm lens on my cropped sensor, and photographed this bird handheld from a distance. Mountain Bluebirds are one of the most recognized birds in this region, as the only bluebird normally found above 5000 feet in elevation. Males are a bright sky blue while the females have dull gray bodies with blue wings.
Like other blue colored birds they [mountain bluebirds] have no pigments in the feathers. The microscopic structure of the feathers reflects sunlight in the same way that molecules of air in the sky make the sky look blue. Just like the sky looks gray on a cloudy day so bluebirds appear to "fade" when clouds hide the sun. - National Park Service
That afternoon, we headed for Midway Geyser Basin, because I was dying to photograph the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, it starting POURING on our drive there! We waited in the car for a bit for the rain to die down, but eventually ventured out. I had my trusty sea-to-summit umbrella, which protected my camera from the rain.
The cold rain made the foggy steam over the giant hot springs in Midway Geyser Basin almost impenetrable (meaning no rainbow shots of Grand Prismatic), but it also added a sense of dynamic heat and movement, as well as a sense of unknown depth, to my photos of them. For Grand Prismatic Spring, I chose to focus my shots on the colorful strands of bacterial mats swirling outwards from the spring, instead of on its giant cloud of steam rising into a similarly gray sky above. But if you look closely, you can still see a rainbow effect in the steam just above the water surface of Grand Prismatic Spring!
Communities of microbes, adapted to specific temperatures, grow in [geyser] runoff channels and their pigments create characteristic bands of color. The colors can vary during different seasons of the year depending on the amount of sunlight falling on the mats. This creates a light gradient. The photosynthetic microbes at the top of the mat produce deep red and orange pigments for protection from intense sunight during the summer. During the winter months when less light penetrates the mat, the green photosynthetic pigments predominate. Some cyanobacteria can move to places in the mat with light and temperature conditions favorable for their growth requirements. - Seen and Unseen: Discovering the Microbes of Yellowstone
As we left Midway Geyser Basin, we walked for a bit alongside the Firehole River, where I completely soaked my boots in the muddy grass scattered with bison tracks (and poop). But I got a lovely shot a man fishing waist-deep in Firehole River, not 20 feet away from a grazing bison. From there we explored Firehole Lake Drive before heading back to have a fancy dinner at the Old Faithful Inn. (I got wild-game spaghetti!)
Above: Photo gallery of Firehole Lake Drive and Midway Geyser Basin. Hover (or hold down your finger if on your phone) for photo descriptions.
Day 3 - Photo Safari
The final day of our stay, I woke up at 5am to head out on a photo-safari in Yellowstone's famous historic yellow bus! The tour was wonderful, and the rain held off for us. We first visited the Kepler Cascades on the Firehole River. The cascades drop approximately 150 feet over multiple drops, the longest drop measuring approximately 50 feet. The early sunlight, cloudy conditions and my use of a circular polarizer made perfect conditions for a long exposure of the falls. Doesn't the water look smooth and fast?
The rest of the day was a whirlwind of photo opportunities: A bison traffic jam (they walk the roads because it is supposedly easier on their feet that the rocky terrain along the river shore), early-blooming Indian paintbrush, and an eruption at White Dome geyser. I took pictures of Yellowstone's famous lodgepole pine forests, which thrive after periodic (every few hundred years or so) wildfires in this region.
Much of the soil within the Yellowstone Caldera is the product of hardened lava flows from the region’s volcanic past and is unsuitable for many types of trees. The central part of the park is characterized by miles upon miles of lodgepole pine, a tree which thrives in the slightly acidic soil of the caldera. The roots of lodgepole pine extend sideways rather than deep into the ground—an advantage in the caldera where the topsoil is very thin and contains few nutrients. - National Park Service
And you can't leave Yellowstone without pictures of "bobby sock" trees.
Dead lodgepole pines near some hydrothermal areas look as if they are wearing white anklet socks, at one time called “bobby socks.” The dead trees soak up the mineral-laden water. When the water evaporates, the minerals are left behind, turning the lower portion of the trees white. - National Park Service
And just like that, it was time to go home. We packed up and headed out of Yellowstone, this time going out the West entrance and down the interstate back to Salt Lake City. The "non-scenic" drive was much faster, but still beautiful.
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More reading on Yellowstone Geysers: