41.5 mi / 10.1 mph / 2554 ft. climbing
Home: Grant Campground hiker/biker site
One of Rett’s main goals in the park was to see Old Faithful. I was all for that since I hadn’t seen it in my previous two visits either. The problem is that, despite being in the most-visited area of the park, it’s 20 miles away from the campgrounds on either end of it, and that’s not just because of the many campground closures in the park; even in fully-operational times, it’s oddly the biggest stretch by far with no campground. There are multiple lodging options there, but I’d been searching for days and hadn’t had the luck like we did at Roosevelt to grab last-minute cancellations (at least not if we wanted to spend less than $500/night). Well, and we hadn’t had any Internet at all for our last three days at Madison anyway. We were running out of supplies too if we wanted to eat (marginally) healthily, so staying longer and doing a second, much-longer-than-yesterday’s out-and-back ride from Madison didn’t make much sense with its limited grocery store..
So a day or two ago we decided that the best approach would be to ride the 40 miles straight to a new campsite at Grant Village where we could resupply, and then the next day backtrack an unloaded out-and-back to Old Faithful. The weather forecast (printed every morning and posted at the campground office) showed strong afternoon headwinds and possible rain, so we were up at 4:30am to allow us to finish our ride on the narrow, hilly, busy road (did I mention it goes through the most popular area of the park?) as early as possible.
Of the 10 people in the hiker/biker site, only two others were even out of their tent by our sunrise departure, and surprisingly it was the hard-drinking, hard-riding Canadian guys! The latest weather forecast revealed that tomorrow had chances of rain all day, so suddenly our plan was blown up again, because riding 40 miles through cold rain, even unloaded, wouldn’t be a fun way to see Old Faithful. Well, let’s see what we can do on-the-fly! The latest weather reality had us riding through 43-degree air (much colder than yesterday’s 50F), which was plenty cold to see steam rising off the much-warmer Firehole River.
As part of that on-the-fly attitude, we pulled off into the Fountain Paint Pots geyser basin on a whim, after we could hear fumaroles hissing and then whomping big bass booms as we pedaled by on the road. Yep, none of my hydrothermal designers imagined that, and of course there were several more completely-unique hydrothermal features to be found on the short boardwalk loop.
Rett had wanted to return to the Grand Prismatic Spring to see it from ground-level, but I felt that the combination of cloud cover and cold air temperatures (which would maximize the clouds of steam rising from its surface) would prevent the colors from popping with anywhere near the brightness we had seen yesterday, such that pulling in to the parking area would just be a disappointing waste of time.
Instead we said what the heck, let’s use the time to try to see Old Faithful today. Several more miles brought us to the off-ramp(!!), and into one of the big parking lots for the monumental log structure that is the Old Faithful Inn. I took my phone out of airplane mode to see if I could hook into the Inn’s WiFi, but much to my surprise I had a full Verizon cellular signal. I had previously researched where cellular coverage existed in the park, and knew Old Faithful wasn’t one of those places, so I don’t know if they had just turned on a new cell here? The fact that the signal was actually able to smoothly deliver data midday (unlike most other overloaded National Park cells) supported the idea that no one else knew this one existed yet. Anyway, Luck #1 enabled Luck #2, which was the online geyser predictor showing that Old Faithful was going to blow in just 20 minutes! (we could have been facing a wait time of 90 minutes or more).
The guidebooks seem to downplay the awesomeness of Old Faithful, and point to other geysers in the park that blast bigger or longer or both. But I dunno, despite its fame and hype (I feel like “Old Faithful” was a concept I’ve been aware of since I was five years old), and my predilection to dismiss popular stuff, it didn’t feel like a letdown to me. So I wonder if some of that downplaying is just to spread people around to other parts of the park and keep Old Faithful from being overwhelmed? But despite my desire to experience natural wonders in solitude, I admit that some of the awesomeness of Old Faithful comes from the fact that it is a giant communal experience. Because I can’t think of a better way to highlight the mystifying regularity of this violent explosion of water and steam than to set up a giant semi-circle of benches where people gather to sit as if waiting for the next bus, but with their eyes all pointed to the center of the circle as if the intensity of our communal stare might trigger the explosion on its own.
We returned to the parking lot and our bikes, and then had Luck #3: in the distance, Grand Geyser (one of those “alternative” geysers recommended) began exploding, larger and longer than Old Faithful. The unluck was that it went off before we were able to move closer, but since it goes off much more irregularly than Old Faithful (more like once every six hours, +/- 75 minutes), the fact that we saw it go off at all, and just minutes after seeing Old Faithful fire, was pretty amazing.
I’ve been using the National Parks app for its Yellowstone guide, and it has good information about many of the features in the park, such as Old Faithful and Grand Geyser. But another feature it included stood out because it was perhaps the only non-natural feature described in the app: the Old Faithful Inn. But wow, they are right to include it! As lovers of rustic architecture, we might have enjoyed it even more than the geysers! The architect of the 120-year-old enormous log building reportedly included elements from his childhood fantasies, and it’s obvious that he must have been giggling the whole time, not truly believing that someone was actually paying him to do such a thing, and in this place! We did check at the desk to see if they had any cheaper rooms available at other lodging on-site, but all they had were the $500 rooms in the main historic Inn. At least now we could understand how people would pay such prices, which was much more of a mystery before we saw the grand old building for ourselves.
We skipped exploring the rest of the geyser basin because we still wanted to beat traffic and weather, and had no idea what we would be facing in the 21 miles of road construction reportedly stretching from Old Faithful to Grant Village. Well, that was Luck #4. The construction was basically completed. There was a small section of one-way road at the beginning where they were doing a final bit of paving, but from then on we had new smooth asphalt the rest of the way, and then, completely unexpected, shoulders (or at least a road wide enough for shoulders in places where it hadn’t been striped yet)! So this ride that I’d been sort of dreading turned out to not be bad at all. Luck #5 was that the predicted headwinds never really came up.
We had gotten to Old Faithful around 9:30am, and part of the reason I figured it wouldn’t hurt to spend time there was because we were already past the time when we could “beat traffic”. But, somehow after our 11:30am lunch at an under-construction picnic area, it got much heavier. Well, again, thanks to the shouldered road, we were still ok. Especially because we definitely had some hill-climbing to do, including two crossings of the Continental Divide in one afternoon (and #4 and #5 of our summer)! Essentially there is a valley between two high points that drains southward to the Tetons (and then out to the Pacific), so it wasn’t like we did two 5000 foot climbs back-to-back, but we’re still happy to claim two crossings in a day (especially when they post a nice big sign!)
At Grant campground, they have three separate sites designated for hikers/bikers, and we assume they’re intended to be shared, though that’s not really clear until we notice a couple of hikers have set up after us. We took Site #408, partly because it’s right next to the bathroom. We rode back out to get showers at the combo laundromat/shower building outside the campground, again with access managed by human attendants and paid for with credit cards. A large pavilion covered the space between two operations, and conveniently that’s where our bikes (and us) were parked when a heavy rain came through. We continued out to the general store/diner to get the same overpriced $16 burgers that we got at Canyon just before their 5pm close, and then endured multiple rounds of rain in the tent back at camp.
It rained as we were falling asleep, it was raining when I woke at 5:30am, and it was still raining at 8:00am when we got out of bed. But there were some spots under the trees that were completely dry, including parts of our bikes, so at least it wasn’t a heavy rain. We donned our rain gear and rode to the lodge restaurant for their buffet, getting in after a 15 minute wait but before a significant rush (we had been concerned that the rain would send a deluge of normally-breakfast-in-camp people, like us, to the restaurant instead). While the buffet table was small, it was densely-packed, frequently refreshed (right up until the 10am closing time), and at $16, a far better deal than last night’s $16 burger. Compared to the similar-but-more expensive version at Glacier, their fruit selection was worse, but, they had fresh-baked scones, so overall it was a big winner.
The rain was a bit more committed to getting us wet by the time we finished, so we walked to the Visitor Center a short trail away. This center focuses on the 1988 Yellowstone wildfires, which I thought was strange at first since we had left the fire-burned areas in the western part of the park yesterday and traveled over the Continental Divide where the forest now was clearly more than 35 years old. But a map revealed that the 1988 fires were so widespread across the park that there was a major burn in this southeastern area too, that nearly roasted Grant Village.
We looked at all the displays (something we rarely do, so it was nice to be “forced” into it by the rain), and then watched the film in the auditorium (something we never do).
My vague 11-year-old’s memory of the 1988 fires was confirmed by the 1998 film: the event was portrayed in the media nearly as the end of Yellowstone, the destruction of the nation’s oldest, grandest, and most-beloved National Park. It wasn’t just a terrible tragedy, it was nearly a crime, and the media (and the nation) were looking for someone to prosecute. A fellow visitor we talked to (who had been to the park a year before and five years after the fires) told us how no one really believed what the science nerds were saying, which was that life would return after the char, that fire is part of the natural cycle of the land. The fire-suppression era of forest management had been going on for so long that literally almost no one alive had actually observed what happens after destructive (er, transformative) fires like this.
The film’s point-of-view was that already within 10 years, the nerds had been proven right. Yes, Yellowstone was dramatically changed by the fires, but maybe some of that change actually made the park better! (e.g., it opened a view from above of the Grand Prismatic Spring that we saw yesterday, as well as creating the pasture where we tiptoed around the bison herd that definitely wouldn’t have been there if it was still dense forest).
Now we’re another 25 years after the film was made, and more time has proven the nerds to have been even more right. In 1987, 2.6 million people visited the park. In 2021, 4.9 million came. Did a 35-years-dead corpse of a park really attract nearly twice as many people as came to see the 1987 version when it was still living? Of course not. But the film showed 1988 man-on-the-street (er, trail) media clips of people who were essentially preparing a funeral for the park; I wonder how many of them know that they and their terrible predictions have been immortalized and shown to park visitors 20 times a day for the last 25 years?
But I remember feeling that death-in-the-family sadness myself at the time, and I hadn’t even been to Yellowstone, and wouldn’t make my first trip for another 19 years. So I can’t really fault the mourners for their bad takes. I liked the scientist near the end who likened the fires to winter: in Earth’s higher latitudes there is a massive die-off of life every year, and then…it all comes back. That’s actually a pretty miraculous resurrection if we stop to think about it. But we don’t, since we experience winter 80 times in a life, and so that form of restoration doesn’t surprise us. But the fire-cycle is much slower, less-compatible with our human timescales, so it requires much more faith to believe in.
But I think the 1998 scientists actually underestimated the speed of the restoration, or at least the speed that us humans would adapt to loving the park as it is, rather than mourning the park as it was. Most of the Negative Nostradamuses in the 1988 clips are likely still alive, and I think they would be hard-pressed to even notice any of the 1998 destruction if they were to return today, “just” 35 years later, well within the scale of a human lifetime. If not for the off-trail detour that the bison herd forced us on yesterday, we likely would have taken no note of the decaying 35-years-dead trees, because 99% of them have fallen over by now, and it’s only when we needed to clamber over their criss-crossed corpses that their history was revealed to us. When you’re instead on an actual trail that traverses a burned area, the park service keeps the path clear of fallen logs (a job that must have seen a significant peak 10-20 years ago when the burned trunks finally began toppling), and that makes it easy to assume the dense young forest surrounding you is just how it’s always been.
So the extra learning at the Visitor’s Center amplified the lesson we got in the field yesterday. A lesson we would not have received without a herd of bison pushing us into the untended land, bison who would not have even been in that area if the fires of 1988 had not opened that land for them. I think it would be hard to argue that today’s version of Yellowstone is any worse than Ronald Reagan’s, except perhaps that it’s inhabited by far more humans who want to see it.
Well, it would be better if it wasn’t still raining. Nonetheless we hopped on the bikes to get more food at the General Store. Outside we met Bob and Paloma, a couple from Hawaii who gave a pretty good argument to make a stopover there on the return from New Zealand, partly because they offered to open their home to us within a few minutes of meeting us!
The rain continued without a pause until…morning? We certainly had at least 24 hours of non-stop rain, something we’ve never even come close to experiencing in two years of our nomadacy (at least not through two nights in a tent). Luckily the overall volume wasn’t too extreme, but we definitely had some good pooling around the tent, even though I had very carefully stayed away from the convenient (but water-collecting) spots when I pitched it yesterday. It’s good to know that we can at least mentally survive such a day, and sure nice that we can make the choice to do nothing rather than forcing ourselves into a miserable day of activity.