West Yellowstone – Day 3.

By admin on December 13, 2011

After setting up camp at West Yellowstone Airport we had breakfast at the restaurant in the airport terminal, the Smokejumper Cafe, and arranged a hire car from Avis so that we could visit the Park. During the busy months it’s well worth booking a car in advance as although there are three rental outfits at the airport and the town they do not hold a large number of vehicles. We’ve found that it’s best to spend a bit more money on a larger car as the usual compact range do not have engines that cope very well with the higher altitudes in the area. We were given a Lincoln MKT SUV which was a bit extravagent for just two of us, but it was nice to drive a luxury $40,000+ car around for a while.


The West Entrance Road to Yellowstone Park following the course of the Madison River. The high peak on the right is Mt. Jackson which has an elevation of 8,231ft.

The west entrance of the park is just a mile or two from the nearby town which is just a couple of miles south of the airport. A payment of $20 at the Park Gate gave us a pass which lasted all week, great value and much cheaper than we thought it would be. The West Entrance Road follows the course of the Madison River to the east and every few miles we were stopping to take in the scenery. Wildlife was easy to spot even while driving along the road which thankfully was not that busy. We have heard that during the summer traffic is bumper to bumper throughout the park, we were there after all the children had returned to school so traffic was not an issue at all.


Maidson River that runs out of Yellowstone Park to the west, flowing into Hebgen Lake.

On the western side of the park is an area of geothermal activity with numerous pools and geysers to visit including Old Faithful and we were keen on seeing these from both the ground and the air. We decided to give Old Faithful a miss this time as even at this quiet time the place was swarming with visitors and we prefer to avoid the very commercial attractions. If you have never been to Old Faithful before you may well be suprised at how the place looks, more like a small town surrounded by car parking areas.


One of the many geysers on the west side of Yellowstone Park. This one is Cliff Geyser in the Black Sand Basin.


Sunset Lake also located in the Black Sand Basin.

The smaller geothermal areas are very interesting to walk around with their boiling and bubbling water and vivid colours from the chemicals being brought up from below and of the microbes feeding on them. If you do not like the smell of sulphur then you may find some of them a problem (including Mud Volcano and Sulphur Cauldron) but generally the smells are bareable. We occassionally saw signs warning us of bears hanging out around the hot pools but unfortunately we didn’t see any during our trip. Bears are definately a worry if you decide to walk off into the wilderness from the many trailheads, not long before our visit a man was killed by a grizzly (although it later transpired that a camera found showed that he had tracked the bear for a long time before the attack!).


Unmistakeable Bison, one of over 3,000 in the park. When visiting Yellowstone Park it is very easy to see some amazing nature without trying too hard.


Forest fire on the eastern shore of Yellowstone lake.

As we drove around Yellowstone Lake the smoke from a forest fire on its eastern shore was very noticeable. If the fires that regularly crop up around the park are started by natural causes and the fire is not threatening human habition then the authorities let them burn. Unknown to us this fire would impact our scenic flight of the area that we were planning for the following day!


Gibbon River. Yellowstone has many pristine rivers like this flowing through it.

After a day of touring the park we stopped in West Yellowstone on our way back to the airport. It’s a small town with the obligatory souvenir shops and a fair number of eating places. There is a museum, the Yellowstone Historic Center, which is worth a visit and several nature centers. There is also an IMax theatre which shows an excellent film all about the area.

The following day the weather was forecast to change to windy, showery and overcast after bright skies very early on. We decided to get up at the crack of dawn to see if we could do a scenic flight over the Park. As we climbed out of the tent we were confronted by a sub-zero temperature, something that we were expecting for the time of year but which was still a shock to the system. I moved Tango Charlie into the sun to get as much heat into the engine as possible and strolled over to the FBO office for a coffee. Once feeling had returned to our hands and feet we boarded the Cessna and got under way.

The recommended altitude to fly over the park at is 10,500ft, this allows for the 2,000ft terrain clearance required for the area. Once airborne we climbed to the west of the airport for the additional 4,000ft required before turning towards the park. In front of us was a very murky scene caused by the smoke from the forest fire we had seen the previous day. We could make out columns of steam eminating from the geothermal areas, we could see mountains in the far distance but much of the park and especially Yellowstone Lake were hidden below the murk.


The scene that greeted us over Yellowstone Park.

Luckily many of the things that we wanted to see were clearly visible once overhead. The colours of the many geysers and hot pools were really impressive, especially those of Grand Prismatic Spring which is located in the Midway Geyser Basin and is the largest in the United States of America. The number of geysers was suprising even though we had visited many the day before. The vast majority of the features are located away from roads and have to be approached by foot, maybe next year we will spend more time here and do just that.


Excelsior Geyser Crater and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The Excelsior Geyser pool discharges 4,000 to 4,500 gallons of 199 °F (93 °C) water per minute into the Firehole River that flows along side it.


Close up of the Grand Prismatic Spring showing its stunning colours.


Geothermal areas like this are scattered throughout the western side of the park.



The famous Old Faithful, quite a busy tourist trap nowadays.


A couple of geysers in the Lower Geyser Basin.


Steam from geysers standing out against the forest fire smoke.

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