26.8 mi / 11.9 mph / 920 ft. climbing
Home: Madison Campground hiker/biker site
Two nights in a Roosevelt cabin, three nights at Canyon Village campground, and now it’s time to move onto our third Yellowstone home. Of the ten campgrounds in Yellowstone that have hiker/biker sites, four of them are closed this season (Pebble Creek, Tower Fall, Mammoth, and Norris) due to continuing effects from last year’s flood, and construction staging, so that has put a limit on our options, for better or worse (sometimes reducing choice is actually good). So a short ride west to Norris isn’t possible, and instead we’ll continue on to Madison.
We returned to moving-mode, waking at 5am and hitting the road by 7:45. Potatoes and onions pre-cooked yesterday sped along our still-fancy breakfast. And it was relatively warm in the morning, with zero condensation on the tent, so our weather-timing strategy continues to make our time in Yellowstone far more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
We would be crossing the middle belt of the figure-8 made by the Grand Loop road, and it’s one segment that has a consistent shoulder. Unfortunately the surface quality was far worse than the surprisingly-smooth roads we’ve been on in the park so far, so riding in that shoulder wasn’t always possible, but again the early birds beat the traffic so it wasn’t too big of a problem. And then once we got to the mid-segment summit and began the long downhill to Norris, we got perfectly-timed fresh asphalt so were able to fly down it through the dense and endless forest.
At the junction with the north/south section of the Grand Loop, we continued straight across into the parking lot of the Norris Geyser Basin. This was another of the stops I made in 2007 in my transit through the park, but it was cold and gray that afternoon, so seeing it in the clear morning light was an entirely different experience.
We walked nearly the entire system of boardwalks and trails in the basin to see as many features as we could. Seeing a couple dozen bubbling pools would have been amazing on its own (like, where else do you see small deep pools of water at all, much less ones with wild colors, much less ones bubbling and steaming with the earth’s heat?) Likewise, it would have been amazing if we only saw a couple dozen noisy and sulfur-smelling steam vents. Or a couple dozen geysers tossing water in the air. But what we saw was a couple dozen features running a gamut much wider than that list, and much wider than even human imagination.
I can’t think of a similar class of objects where there is such extreme variety between members of the class. A forest usually contains a variety of tree species (though ironically, not Yellowstone forests!), but even if every tree in the forest was a different species, and even if they were all wildly-different species (a redwood next to a palm tree next to a baobab next to a saguaro), that still wouldn’t capture the variety of the hydrothermal features we saw.
My thought-experiment was this: if I hired 50 creative designers, told them the general characteristics of a hydrothermal feature (water, rock, heat, etc.), showed them five examples from the park, and then told them each to “invent” five new hydrothermal features, I think the range and variety of the actual features in the park would still exceed the range of the 250 inventions that the designers came up with. And if I presented them with additional real examples, many would be thrown out: “c’mon, no one is going to believe that’s real!” “that one is totally unrelated to the examples you showed!”
On our way out it was much more crowded, with cars overflowing out onto the road. That made me half-wish we had shown up later just so that we could roll our bikes right up to the geysers while they all had to hike in, but more-seriously it showed that even as we’ve gotten into these busier areas of the park, it’s still not that hard to avoid being overwhelmed by crowds.
We continued a few miles and then made a shorter stop at the Artist Paint Pots, another hydrothermal zone, with, guess what, completely different features than any we’d seen so far.
On our ride on to Madison the Gibbon River canyon felt vaguely familiar fro,,m our 2021 drive, but it wasn’t until we did the entire loop through a picnic area while scouting for a lunch spot that I realized it was the exact picnic area we had looped through on that drive too! We couldn’t remember if we’d stopped then, but if not, that would make us 2-for-2 on wasting time at that picnic area!
We ended up just continuing to the Madison campground, where we got a really nice welcome at the office. Most workers we’ve encountered at campgrounds seem pretty positive towards hikers and bikers, but they really go above-and-beyond at Madison. The hiker/biker site is right behind the office, so they provide a large tarp-covered shelter with picnic tables we can use (and a hiker/biker guestbook), they’ll charge devices in the office, and they even provide us coffee in the morning! Unlike amenity-filled Canyon Village, there is not much nearby besides the campground, so the kindness is extra-appreciated!
Showers were one of those missing amenities, but we took a walk down to the Madison River at the back of the campground where we found a perfect spot on the bank with an underwater ledge that you could sit on just like a chair and have a nice seated bath.
Back at the hiker/biker site we were sitting on our chairs and doing stuff on our phones (despite no cell reception), and the biker who had already been set up there appeared for the first time and said “phones work here?” as he passed by. Since he didn’t wait for an answer, it really felt much less like a question than a negative commentary on the fact that we were using electronic devices. Further interaction (or lack thereof) confirmed that he was a weird guy, but at least he kept to himself after that.
Subsequently a much more-normal French couple set up next to us (he was pleased to learn about the river-bath from us, she less-so), and then a very friendly CDT through-hiker from Texas (insanely doing the CDT for his first-ever through-hike!) filled out the site for the evening. But suddenly we noticed that the afternoon sun was even dimmer and oranger than it had been during our smoky days in Glacier, so hopefully this smoke will be as transitory as that was…
By the morning the smoke seemed to have cleared out, so our luck with smoke continues during this summer in the mountains. The campground has a mini-store set up in a trailer, similar to the store in Roosevelt with enough food-essentials to get by, but less than a normal Yellowstone or Glacier store. But they had frozen breakfast burritos, a microwave, and muffins, so we treated ourselves to an easy breakfast (augmented with the coffee from the office!)
We didn’t really plan it, but our lack of motivation told us it was fine to make this into a do-nothing day, our first genuine rest day since leaving Red Lodge. Thus we went back to the store to get some beers. We already knew it had been short-staffed with shortened hours, but then were surprised when the employee they had found today was under 21 and thus not able to sell us beer. But for unknown reasons she made an exception for us, calling over someone older from the campground office, who then put up a sign saying there would be no more alcohol sales this afternoon.
With the limited supplies, we used some of the dehydrated vegetables Rett carries to make soup for dinner. Our only neighbor tonight was a cool and interesting marine biologist riding the Great Divide route. He got a bag of ice for his beer that he then shared with us in our Scotch, and then also let me look over his Great Divide maps so I could see if we wanted to risk taking that route south through Wyoming.