Friday, October 27, 2023

Yellowstone National Park - Waterfalls and Mud Volcanos

After showing my good friend Kim all around the Black Hills area, it was time to head home.  But instead of traveling directly back to Oregon, I planned a detour to Yellowstone National Park.  Kim had never been, and the last time I'd visited was back in the 90s.  

We made it!

Reaching Yellowstone NP required a drive across the entire state of Wyoming.  From the Black Hills I headed westward down Interstate 90 through the Powder River Basin.  However, our relatively flat route was soon broken up by the lofty Bighorn Mountains, running through the center of the state.  Although from I-90 there were several routes, I chose US 14 west of Sheridan to cross the the Bighorns.  It was a windy, steep highway but the views were incredible.  We followed Shell Creek as it meandered through a deep canyon.  The multi-layered rock walls were breathtaking, as was the extremely curvy road down the other side.  (A brake-burning descent!!)

Bighorn Canyon

From the excitement of the Bighorns, we traveled through 60 miles of basically nowhere before finally arriving at the town of Cody, our stop for the evening.  This cute town, the gateway to Yellowstone, was named for a very famous western man - William Cody, aka "Buffalo Bill."  Cody, Wyoming is the home of a most excellent museum honoring all things western.  The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is five museums in one - a Buffalo Bill Museum, featuring artifacts from Cody's famous Wild West show, a Plains Indian Museum, a Firearms Museum, a Natural History Museum, and a Western Art Museum.

Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Wyoming

Kim and I purchased tickets and spent the rest of the afternoon roaming around the Buffalo Bill Museum.  It was well done - so many interesting things to see!  We toured four of the five museums (I had no interest in seeing the Firearms museum.)  While inside, a huge thunderstorm blew in and dumped copious amounts of rain.  We killed time in the gift shop waiting for the rain to abate.  Kim and I finished off our evening with dinner in a unique brew pub.  The back wall was lined with taps and customers could pour their own beer.  The glasses came in three sizes and customers were charged per size of glass.  It was a great way to taste many different varieties of beer.  But boy did we make a mess!  (Neither one of us was any good at using a tap.)

Kim's "official" park entrance sign pic

The following morning Kim and I rose early.  It was park day and we wanted to beat the crowds.  Yellowstone NP was a scenic hour's drive from Cody.  Luckily, there wasn't much of a line at the East Entrance and in no time we were driving by the well-known park sign.  Of course we stopped for photos!

Still some snow on the passes!

It being early June, there was still some snow on the high mountain passes.  But all the vegetation was a brilliant shade of green.  Absolutely stunning!

Beautiful roadside stream

We made many stops along the park road to take in the scenery.  I especially loved this gorgeous stream gushing through the forest.

Yellowstone Lake viewpoint

Before long we arrived at gigantic Yellowstone Lake.  A huge water body that stretched for miles - it looked like a large inland sea.  I drove up a steep road to an overlook where visitors could get a bird's eye view.

A few lakeside geysers

At 7,733 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America.  The lake is about 20 miles long and 14 miles wide with 141 miles of shoreline.  Despite its huge size, this massive water body completely freezes over every winter.  Since the ice doesn't completely melt until May or early June, water temperatures remain chilly year-round, averaging 41 degrees F.

Kim taking it all in

Underwater geysers and hot springs can be found along the lakeshore.  The road around the lake had numerous pull-outs, enabling visitors to view the lake and steam from nearby geothermal activities.  Good photo ops too!

A particularly steamy geyser

On the lake's west end, we saw a few cars pulled over.  It was the first of many animal traffic jams we'd encounter.  These folks had stopped to view a small bison herd that was quite a distance away.  Having just come from Custer State Park, where the buffalo were right next to the road and in much larger numbers, Kim and I weren't impressed.

The scenery was absolutely gorgeous!

From Yellowstone Lake, we turned north towards the Canyon Village.  This road followed the very scenic Yellowstone River.  The surrounding vegetation was glowing green, and the meadows full of wildflowers.  I made a couple of stops just to photograph it all.

Yellowstone River

Soon Kim and I arrived at our first official geyser area in the park - the Mud Volcano.  This place boasted a collection of hot springs, fumaroles, and of course, bubbling mudpots.

We made a stop at the Mud Volcano area

Several boardwalks led visitors around this active geothermal area.  The original mud volcano crater blew out many years ago and helped to form several other nearby steaming mudpots.  We climbed up a barren hillside where all the trees had been killed by hot sulfuric steam from calderas.  Apparently the hydrothermal features here are the most acidic in the park.

Churning Caldron

And boy did the place smell nasty!  The mudpots use hydrogen sulfide, rising from deep beneath the earth, as an energy source.  The microorganisms found here help convert this gas to sulfuric acid, which in turn breaks rock down into wet clay mud and creates the pungent rotten egg smell.

Each geothermal feature had an interesting name.  The above video is of a mudpot called "Churning Caldron." 

And in this video you can hear Kim and I's commentary on the revolting smell of the place.

Black Dragon's Caldron

Beyond Churning Caldron, Kim and came upon a large, steaming lake called Black Dragon's Caldron.

Kim waving off the smelly steam

It smelled just as bad as Churning Caldron.  Phew!

My opinion of this mud pot

Beyond this another boardwalk led us through some green forest not yet affected by the geothermal action.  A bunch of yellow wildflowers were even blooming.  It was a nice break from the stinky mudpots.

Delightful stroll along the boardwalk

The boardwalk contoured along the top of a hill with some nice views of the river valley below.

Nice views from the top

Then Kim and I walked steeply downhill to the site of the original mud volcano.  Thick, gray mud bubbled up and splattered around its edges.  Another unique, but smelly sight.

The famous Mud Volcano

The final geothermal feature we visited was a steaming water body called Dragon's Mouth Spring.  It sported an interesting looking cave, probably eroded into the hillside over time by the hot water and acidic steam.

Dragon's Mouth Spring

By now we'd  had enough of the rotten egg smell.  Time to move on!  Leaving Mud Volcano I headed further north towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Overview of the Mud Volcano area

Along the way I stopped at a pull out with sweeping views of the Yellowstone river valley.  Another bison herd was grazing far below.  A few peaks, still snow-covered, anchored the skyline.

Bison wayyy in the distance

After checking out our first geyser-like features, it was time for some fresh air and beautiful scenery.  The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was next on our agenda.  I turned into a side road that led to the south canyon viewpoints and headed towards Artist Point.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lower Falls

In the middle of the park, the Yellowstone River roars through a large, colorful canyon that boasts two mighty waterfalls, simply named Upper and Lower Falls.  The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is more than 1,000 feet in depth. Upper Falls is 109 feet in height and Lower Falls drops 308 feet.

Stunning views from Artist Point

Hydrothermal activity weakened the rocks in the canyon, allowing the Yellowstone River to easily erode them.  The beautiful multi-hued rocks are due to hydrothermally altered rhyolite, the main mineral of the canyon walls.

Colorful canyon

I parked in the Artist Point lot, then Kim and I followed the crowd down a pathway that led to some impressive viewpoints of the canyon and Lower Falls.

Upper Falls

It was now midday and the viewpoints were packed with tourists, all jockeying for that perfect Instagram selfie.  But we found most people were polite, snapping a few pics, and then moving aside so someone else could enjoy the view.

Another view of Upper Falls

A short path led to a partial view of the Upper Falls, so Kim and I took a walk to check it out.

Viewpoint at the brink of Lower Falls

Spotting people crowding at an overlook on the opposite side of Upper Falls, Kim and I decided to drive over and see what it was all about.

Upstream of Upper Falls

We found a really nice viewpoint situated at the very spot where Upper Falls dropped over its precipice.  Upstream of this dropoff, the waters of the Yellowstone churned a frothy green hue before tumbling down in mix of splashing water and white mist.  I tried to capture the scene, but I wasn't able to do it justice.  Some sights are just better viewed in person.

Yellowstone River winds through the canyon

There was also a viewpoint at the brink of Lower Falls, but when we drove by the parking lot, it was full.  So we headed down the road, stopping at every viewpoint until we found one that still had open parking spaces.  I don't remember which overlook this was, but it had nice views of Lower Falls and the canyon from the south side.

Another Lower Falls view from the north side

By now the sun had come out, illuminating the canyon and heating up the temperatures.  Walking up and down staircases to overlooks was starting to become a sweaty affair.  It was now past noon, and along with being hot and tired, we were also hungry and thirsty.  Kim suggested getting a few selfies for posterity and then finding someplace for lunch.

Selfie time!

Kim does such a good job with selfies - not only did she get both our faces in the frame, she also managed to center the waterfall in the picture!

Walking down to yet another viewpoint

Having had our fill of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, we hopped into the car and headed over to nearby Canyon Village to find some grub.  

I'll continue our Yellowstone Trip wrapup in my next post with our afternoon explorations of Norris Geyser Basin, ending our day at the most famous geyser of them all.  Stay tuned!

Friday, October 20, 2023

Kim Visits South Dakota (Part 2)

I didn't intend to go so long between posts.  But ironically, another trip to visit family in South Dakota has kept me busy for the past (almost) two weeks.'s time to play catch up once again!  And continue the recap from my May/June visit to South Dakota.

See Mt. Rushmore through the tunnel?

From the last post (if you all still remember), after showing my friend Kim around the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Badlands for the first two days, it was time to return to Custer State Park and explore some more of this fabulous area.  I started out early the third morning to drive the famous Iron Mountain Road that begins near Mt. Rushmore and winds into the park.  Designed purposely to be driven slowly to take in the spectacular scenery, it's one of the great byways of America.  Also known as Highway 16A, this 17-mile route features 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, 3 wooden bridges, (known as "pigtails") and two places where the road splits.

How about now?

About those tunnels.....the three tunnels built along Iron Mountain Road were all aligned so that they perfectly frame Mt. Rushmore as you drive through (in the correct direction, that is!)  How cool is that?  

There's a tiny amount of parking space adjacent to each tunnel to allow visitors to park, hop out, and get photos of this unusual sight.  Just watch for traffic!  

A young buffalo in Custer State Park

After traversing the entirety of Iron Mountain Road, I turned my car further into Custer State Park and headed towards a scenic drive known as the "Wildlife Loop."

Mama buffalo and her youngster's rear end

Besides breathtaking scenery, Custer State Park is also known for the plethora of wildlife that resides within its 71,000 acres.  I've seen pronghorn (antelope), prairie dogs, elk, deer, and many different bird species (including the Western meadowlark).  Bighorn sheep and mountain goats also reside in Custer State Park, however I've yet to see either one.  But most famous of all is the park's massive buffalo herd.  It often numbers as many as 1,450 head.

Sticking close to mommy

Spotting the buffaloes is easy.  The huge, shaggy beasts normally hang out along the Wildlife Loop.  The day of our visit was no different.  I drove about 5 miles before coming upon a large group of buffalo.  Not only were they right along the road, many of them crossed in front of my car!

Lots of buffalo babies!

It being late spring, there were tons of babies.  Not only much smaller, these little ones could be identified by their red-colored coats (young buffalo are sometimes referred to as "red dogs.")  It was fun to watch the little guys frolic around or follow their mothers begging to nurse.  It was such a thrill to be able to view the buffalo so close - they were oftentimes right by the pavement edge.  Of course, Kim and I safely stayed inside of my car with the windows up (most of the time anyway!)

Western bluebird

After a good hour of buffalo viewing, I continued along the Wildlife Loop to see what other type of critters might be about.  I spotted several Western meadowlarks singing their distinctive song as they sat on the fenceposts.  But I was never fast enough to catch one.  Then a lovely Western bluebird perched on a strand of barb wire and held still long enough for me to fire my shutter.

An antelope resting near a fence

A bit further down we both spotted a graceful pronghorn antelope walking through the grass.  It wasn't very close though.  Then we came upon another pronghorn laying in the grass near the roadway edge.  It was so close not only did Kim and I get a great view, I also was able to capture several images of this unique animal.

We ran into Custer State Park's famous "Begging Burros"

There is one other animal species running wild in Custer State Park.  A herd of burros make this place their home.  Not native to the area, these beasts have descended from burros that were historically used to carry tourists up to the summit of nearby Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak.)  When the rides became discontinued, the burros were released into the park and have since prospered.  

Handing out burro snacks

These burros are affectionally known as the "begging burros."  That is because they approach vehicles and beg for food from the occupants.  Most people can't resist the burro's cute, furry faces and share whatever goodies are in their car.  (I have great childhood memories of feeding the burros cookies out the back window of our family station wagon.)  Although Kim and I didn't cave in to their demands, we watched two young girls offer some snacks out their car windows - while mom took photos from the sunroof.

Crazy Horse mountain carving

Finishing up the Wildlife Loop, we stopped for lunch in the nearby town of Custer.  Then I took Highway 385 north to reach Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a massive mountain carving to honor the great Indian Chief Crazy Horse.  When finished, it will dwarf nearby Mt. Rushmore and become the world's largest sculpture.  The project was the idea of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear.  Because the Black Hills are considered sacred to the Lakota people Chief Standing Bear wanted to locate a memorial here to honor a Native American hero.  He stated "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also."  Chief Standing Bear invited prize-winning sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (who coincidentally worked on Mt. Rushmore) to carve a monument to his people

The mountain vs a small scale of the finished product

Korczak arrived in the Black Hills on May 3, 1947.  He worked on the mountain sculpture until his death on October 20, 1982 at age 74.  During this time he refused any salary or government assistance.  After his passing, Korczak's wife Ruth and his 10 children continued the work he had started.  Today his grandchildren carry on their grandfather's dream.  The Memorial still refuses any federal or state funding and relies strictly on donations and admission revenues.

A native woman demonstrated hoop dancing

In addition to an amazing view of the sculpture work in progress, the memorial also features a wonderful Indian Museum, Native American Educational and Cultural Center, conference facilities, and the Korczak's original home and studio.  There is a place for Native artisans to showcase their art and visitors can view them working on creations.  Outside on a large wooden deck, Kim and I watched a local Lakota woman demonstrate the hoop dance.  She twirled over 20 hoops for several minutes.  It was impressive to watch!

The memorial's website, is a gold mine of information, including photographs of the mountain carving progress throughout the years.  One thing I couldn't find however, was any information on the estimated completion date.  Although much work has been done since 1947, sculpting Crazy Horse is such a massive undertaking I doubt it will be finished in my lifetime.  

A most impressive dance!

Our final day in the Black Hills, my dad took Kim and I out to Ellsworth Air Force Base to see the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.  Although the indoor museum wasn't open that day, outside the main building was an impressive collection of military aircraft.  In the 1960's my dad spent five years in the Air Force as a navigator on a B-52 bomber.  He went on to become a private pilot, as well as a flight instructor, for many decades.  From all his experience, my dad knew every one of those airplanes on display and had flown many of them as well.  When we reached the B-52 bomber display, I took a few photos of my dad in front of the aircraft he'd come to know extremely well.

Street scene, Deadwood South Dakota

That evening my family, Kim, and I traveled up to the historic mining town of Deadwood for dinner and a bit of gambling.  Although I'm glad to see legalized gambling has restored main street to its past glory, I'm not much into losing my money to one-armed bandits.  So Kim and I perused a bunch of the shops and watched my parents and brother pull slot machine levers (however nowadays, they just push buttons.  What's the fun in that?)


My dad poses in front of a B-52 bomber 

It had been a fun, but whirlwind visit, showing Kim some of my favorite hometown places.  But our vacation wasn't over quite yet.  On our return trip, I'd planned a detour to Yellowstone National Park.  So stay tuned, there's more to come!  I promise the next post won't take two weeks to write....