Travertines & Thermophiles

The weather gifted me with a warm fall day of sun and temperatures in the sixties, which almost banished the painful memory of being buried in three feet of snow last weekend. Wanting to take advantage of the beautiful day, I hiked from my home up the Old Gardiner Road, one of the first roads built in Yellowstone. I could envision the yellow Tally-Ho coaches, pulled by six horses, rambling up the road and filled with eager (and dusty) tourists visiting the park.

"This is an extremely large foot"The wet weather had created mud last week, and I observed a parade of assorted animal tracks on the dirt road as I walked.  Bison and elk prints were in abundance.

About halfway up the five-mile hike, I noticed a set of distinctive prints—grizzly tracks. A line from Mary Oliver’s delightful poem, Bear, suddenly resounded in my head: “This is not my track, and this is an extremely large foot.” I suddenly began contemplating the possibilities of being in the middle of the food chain.

Luckily or unluckily—I couldn’t decide—I encountered no bears. Once I arrived in Mammoth, I decided to extend my hike and explore the Mammoth Terraces. Yellowstone has settled into a quietness with the approach of winter as most of the facilities are closed until December, and as a result the visitors were scarce on the terrace boardwalks.

Dead Tree on Main TerraceAlthough Mammoth Hot Springs is located outside the caldera boundary and lacks the showy geysers that populate the southern region of the park, it still boasts some pretty neat thermal features. The terraces, or travertine formations, decorate the hillside above Mammoth, creating nature’s version of a Greek temple.

Travertines are formed by geothermal water rising to the surface and depositing calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in limestone. Thermophiles, microbes who thrive in heat, paint the travertines with rich colors from pigments used in photosynthesis.

Liberty CapSince the underground hot springs that form the terraces may shift direction or stop flowing, the resulting travertines can change rapidly. For example, last winter the water flowing out of Orange Spring Mound suddenly changed direction and began feeding into Upper Terrace Drive. And Liberty Cap, the 37 foot, 2,500 year-old formation that greets visitors at the start of the Lower Terrace Trail, flowed for hundreds of years before becoming dormant.

F.V. Hayden named Liberty Cap in 1871, citing its resemblance to the peaked caps worn during the French Revolution that represented freedom. G.L. Henderson wrote a poetic description of Liberty Cap in 1888: "It looks like a silent sentinel guarding the gate of Wonderland; or like an ancient witness who could, if it would, reveal the sealed secrets of the past. It has more faces than Janus and more eyes than the fabled Argus."

You can visit my photo gallery for more pictures of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Bunsen Peak & Sheepeater Cliffs

trilobite holmes dome antler.jpg.jpgSpring decided to make an appearance today in Yellowstone and I relished the intermittent sun peaking through the rapidly forming cumulus clouds. I climbed Bunsen Peak (8,564 ft), and my feet traveled over rocks some geologists think are 50 million years old and the remnants of an ancient volcano. The 360-degree view from the top proved to be quite spectacular and the horizon revealed a number of mountain ranges including the Gallatin, Washburn, and what I think might have been the Grand Tetons.

sheepeater canyon.jpg.jpgAs I noted in a prior entry, Bunsen peak is named for the German physicist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, who invented the Bunsen burner. His scientific work on geysers contributed greatly to their study, but he never actually visited Yellowstone.

The name Sheepeater Cliff at first struck me as something out of a horror movie, but I later learned the designation refers to the Sheepeater Indians, or “Tukudeka,” the only Native Americans thought to spend the entire year in Yellowstone. According to Anderson’s great guidebook, A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes, “there’s evidence that the Tukudeka herded bighorn sheep off steep cliffs.”

On my hike along Sheepeater Canyon and the Gardner River, I met three Israeli young men who were traveling on a five-month road trip in North and South America. We hiked together for the last few miles and I enjoyed their company. Two of them had just finished their military service and were taking this trip before beginning university.

view of gallantin range.jpg.jpgOne of my companions asked me, “aren’t you scared hiking alone in grizzly country?” My answer was yes. During my hike today, I exhausted my entire repertoire of U2, Eagles, Beatles, and Counting Crow songs. At some point I wondered if a grizzly offended by my poor musical ability would attack me, so I switched to reciting T.S. Eliot and Yeats poetry. Nothing like a recitation of “The Second Coming” to put the potential of being mauled into perspective. For the record, I do realize hiking alone in grizzly country is risky, but solitary wandering is one of my joys in life.

By the way, if you want to see some stunning photography of Yellowstone by a talented artist, visit

Hey, Grizz!

The grizzly bears have awoken after their long winter slumber, which means my semi-carefree days of hiking alone are over until next winter. I say semi-carefree, because bison present a year-round potential hazard.

As risky as hiking alone can be, I'm not willing to stop my solo backcountry wanderings--it's one of my great joys in life. So today I hiked alone (sorry mom), armed with binoculars, pepper spray, and a full repertoire of U2 songs. Instead of yelling the recommended "hey, grizz" every 100 feet, I prefer singing "Bullet the Blue Sky."
dainty pronghorn.jpg copy.jpg

For the first couple of miles, I thought every rock in the distance a grizzly, but I soon became adept at distinguishing rocks and trees from live bears. Being in the middle of the food chain heightened my awareness of my surroundings and my appreciation of being in true wilderness.

No bear sightings today, but I did encounter some dainty pronghorn, an elk hangout, and a herd of buffalo on the march.
buffalo march.jpg.jpg