Lands Alive: My First Day in Yellowstone

Yellowstone, with gurgling mud pots, colorful pools, hot springs, and geysers shooting into the air, it’s nature’s wonderland. Herds of bison, elk, the curious badger, and ravenous wolves call it home. Cascades and waterfalls, sprawling valleys, rivers, and lakes are pocketed in all corners. It’s so huge and magnificent that it’s daunting to even write about. It is the first National Park, founded in 1872, and among the larger ones at 3,471 square miles, larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Central Park is to New York City as Yellowstone is to the United States of America. It is America’s park. 

I wanted to give myself plenty of time to make acquaintance, so I had given myself three days, but one could really spend a lifetime exploring its vast wonders. I had bought a book in the gift store at the visitor center of the neighboring Grand Teton National Park titled “Yellowstone in a Day,” published by the Yellowstone Association. It really spelled out an itinerary for Yellowstone in 3 days with optional additional days itineraries.. It was precisely what I needed, and so truly I visited Yellowstone by the book. It calmed my worry that I might miss something of importance. I knew assuredly, before all else, that I needed to see Old Faithful. That was a must, along with the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I knew I wanted to see Grand Prismatic Spring, but at this point, arriving at the park, I didn’t even know its name nor if the images I had seen of a grandiose and colorful pool were of various springs around Yellowstone or one specific. I’d learn that Grand Prismatic is definitely that one that sticks out from the rest, boasting its own character, photographed many times. 

West Thumb Geyser Basin

I entered Yellowstone from the south from Grand Teton National Park via the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway which connects the two parks together. I beheld the entrance sign and took my photo by it and then proceeded to the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Here a half mile boardwalk meanders atop of a delicate landscape where a number of geothermal springs display extravagantly bright turquoise pools which steam into the cool air. Signs warn that the ground may be thin and advise visitors not to step on it but to stay on the boardwalk. Thus the ground appears to the eye like a thin pebbly and crispy crust just atop a earth that bubbles and steams, alive and breathing. The boardwalk descends down along the side of Yellowstone Lake, where one can see over three miles across to the snow capped mountains. Just aside the boardwalk are a few geothermal features within the lake water visible to the eye. There is one called the Fishing Hole. It is not more than a mound that pokes up in the lake with a couple-foot hole in the top where boiling water feeds into the lake. It got the name as the Fishing Hole because there is a tale of a man who would go fishing right here in Yellowstone Lake. Once he caught his fish he’d dip the line over in the hole and cook his fish right there and have himself a meal.

When I came near the completion of the West Thumb Geyser Basin Loop, a female elk popped out of the adjacent pine forest and stepped onto the boardwalk. She simply crossed over the boardwalk and meandered between the geothermal pools. People stopped and gathered to take pictures. I was surprised how unfazed the elk was with all the visitors- but most animals in Yellowstone are rather comfortable with visitors. It’s as if the animals are trying to say. “This is my home, I am quite comfortable here. You are on my turf.” As a visitor, I really do feel like I’ve come inside the animals’ home in Yellowstone. I truly am a visitor here- more so than in any other park. This is the animals’ park.

Leaving the West Thumb Geyser Basin in car, I traveled to the Upper Geyser Basin, the home of Old Faithful! This is perhaps the most prized feature of the National Park Service. The parking lot conveys so with its enormous size. Here a village sprawls horseshoe alongside this feature. Here in this park within a park, is the Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge, main park visitor center, Snow Lodge Cafeteria, and a large gift shop and general store. I wanted to see it all, and so I did. When I left my car, I saw a number of noisy crows perched atop a few vehicles. Were they welcoming me, or was their pestering cry their attempt to tell me to go away? Probably they were just looking for handouts. I rushed into the village in excitement. I just had to see Old Faithful erupt! I learned she did so about every hour. Enormous crowds gathered around a boardwalk which outlined the site of the geyser. Some wood benches were built into the boardwalk, but they were already taken. Intently observing, before its eruption there were a few brief spurts, leaving me wondering is that it? Sometimes tourist attractions can be overhyped, but when Old Faithful did erupt, she DID erupt, unmistakably, shooting into the sky pillars of water. People oohed and aahed, and it was everything I hoped for. Water towered upon water, hissing and boiling. It was an overcast day so unfortunately Old Faithful didn’t contrast against a blue sky, but she was still visible with great billows of steam. When the tower of water sunk back into the ground, the tourist quickly disappeared. Many headed back to the parking lot or into the gift shop. I was hungry and ready for lunch. I ate in the Old Faithful Lodge cafeteria, which has an exposed log frame and overlooks the site of Old Faithful through its big windows. This was one of five choices for me to eat just in this village, but at the time I did not know. 

Upper Geyser Basin

When I was done with lunch I took the couple mile boardwalk loop from Old Faithful along the Firehole River to the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk. Here there were numerous geysers, the highest concentration in the world. There was lots of hissing and bubbling all around, and the air was filled with the repugnant smell of warm sulfuric acid evaporating into the cool mountain air. Seemingly at random, a geyser would erupt for a few minutes, tourists rushed to it, but then moments later elsewhere along the boardwalk, another would erupt and the tourists were drawn to another direction, each tourist reveling in the presumption that perhaps they were the first one to have seen the geyser erupt in maybe hundreds of years, but most of these geysers like Old Faithful are pretty consistent.

When I neared the farthest end of the path, I was desperate to go to the bathroom. The hissing and bubbling eruptions, and the flowing water taking place all around, did not help my predicament. There was a line for an outhouse of about a half-dozen people.  I couldn’t fathom having to wait so long with the urgency I was experiencing, but I did and in the meantime I helped a few tourists open a bear proof garbage can. They were struggling and did not know how to open it. I felt quite experienced. 

When my walk through the Upper Geyser Basin was complete, I was back next to Old Faithful and walked into the Old Faithful Inn. I get goosebumps on the verge of writing about this place, because it is the most impressive structure and most magical hotel in all of the National Park Service. It is the first “grand” lodge in all of the National Park Service. Shabby accommodations did exist beforehand, but this inn took everything to another level. This became the largest log hotel in the world. This inn was also the birth of the National Park Service Rustic architecture style, which sought to create buildings which harmonized and fit in with the natural surroundings. Imperfections and asymmetry, rebellious to the styles of the industrialized world, were welcomed. Hand labor contributed greatly to this style, and Robert Reamer who designed this hotel went on to create a number of other lodges in National Parks. When Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs toured Yellowstone in 1903 they saw plans for the lodge, and it’s been noted that Theodore Roosevelt praised the plans extensively.

Old Faithful Inn

When one walks into the lobby he or she is greeted by an enormous stone stacked fireplace in the middle of the atrium. Its chimney is extremely bold, larger than the rooms would be in many houses, and it extends six levels up through the rustic log roof. The logs which make up the whole building are not shiny and refined, but rough and rustic, unpolished and wild. Each level has a balcony which looks down into the main lobby. Just standing in the lobby looking around the place impressed me greatly. It truly looked handmade, and most of it was. It’s a mighty fortress of a structure and the epitome of a childhood dream of a fort in the woods. The top two levels in the lobby were small crows nests for musicians. Back in its earlier days, dances were held on this lobby floor to the live music above. 

I wanted to spend some time here and enjoy this building and its architecture, so I went to the small cafe adjacent to the lobby and bought an overpriced cinnamon scone and a cup of orange spice tea. I walked up the rugged uneven stairs, noticing families on vacation climbing the stairs causally, hauling their suitcases. I couldn’t even imagine the delight of spending a night in such a place. I’d be so elated you’d see it all over my face. On the third level I stopped and sat on a rocking chair which faced the railing before me and the lobby below. A violinist up in the crow’s nest began to play soothing and relaxing music. This moment was so perfect. I just reveled in and savored it. The sights, the sounds, and the comfort of my hot tea were all perfect. 

Resting here I imagined what it was like back in the day when the only way to this remote lodge was through the great wilderness on coach. There weren’t any roads nor the infrastructure of today. What a magnificent place to come upon in the wild after days of travel by horse, foot, or coach. The warm fireplace would have been so welcoming, and although rustic in style, this would have been luxurious. I imagined the visitors all dressed up dancing across the wooden floor below to the sound of the fiddle in the rafters. 

Kepler Cascades

Then, stop, I reminded myself: Be still. Be calm Be quite, and be ever present in this moment, savoring it completely for what it is. I so thoroughly enjoyed my break of peace and quietude here and often think back to it at the mention of Yellowstone. After sitting here for probably a good half hour, I resumed meandering around and found myself outside on a rooftop terrace facing Old Faithful. She was erupting again and I enjoyed it all a second time. This was a great vantage point of Old Faithful without the herds of people. It was cold outside so I didn’t loiter for too long. I went back in and went into the gift shop in the inn. I bought two post cards- one vintage one for my parents and another artistic one for my friend Ricky in California. I took them with me to the second floor where a few small old wooden desks outlined the walls. The desks had built in lamps and cozy wings for privacy. I filled out the postcards and then decided I better head to camp. I took a short stop by the Kepler Cascades, as the book instructed, on my way to my campsite at Bridge Bay, which I had reserved months in advance. 

I arrived at the campground just before dusk. The campsite was mostly an open field with no privacy and very few trees, but I didn’t mind. By the time I was done setting up camp, the sun had set and I could hear a ranger giving a talk over at the campground amphitheater. I thought about joining but felt my time was best spent getting reorganized in my car and off to bed. After cleaning out my car and getting organized, I made my trip to the campground bathroom to brush my teeth, and then I settled into my tent with my park map and my “Yellowstone in a Day” book to see what the plan would be for tomorrow. 

Read the previous entry “The Mighty Tetons” here: The Mighty Tetons – on the verge (

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here:

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