The Mighty Architecture of Nature

“All that I can say is that without warning or preparation I
looked into a gulf seventeen hundred feet deep, with eagles and
fish-hawks circling far below. And the sides of that gulf were
one wild welter of color–crimson, emerald, cobalt, ochre, amber,
honey splashed with port wine, snow white, vermilion, lemon, and
silver gray in wide washes. The sides did not fall sheer, but
were graven by time, and water, and air into monstrous heads of
kings, dead chiefs–men and women of the old time. So far below
that no sound of its strife could reach us, the Yellowstone River
ran a finger-wide strip of jade green.”

~Rudyard Kipling

The word that comes to my mind when I remember my first view of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is “overwhelming.”  Morning sunlight was illuminating the canyon walls as we hiked down to Inspiration Point, making them glow as if the light was emanating from within the sheer cliffs rather than from the sky above.  As I grew accustomed to the bigger scene before me, I began to hone in on more details such as jagged spires rising from ridges within the canyon, and glimpses of the Yellowstone River’s rapids flowing far below me.

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At the end of the trail, we reached an overlook with an unobstructed view of the lower falls.

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Even from a distance, the sheer power of the water cascading over the steep drop-off was impressive.  We watched the falls for a bit, and then headed back up the steep trail to the parking lot.  Our next stop was to look at the falls from another vantage: Artist Point.

The aptly named lookout was teaming with tourists and we had to wait for an opening to see the view.  When we finally stepped up to the guard rail, it was apparent what all the fuss was about.  From this spot, we could see the full-scale grandeur of the canyon.  The Yellowstone River snaked toward us, seemingly originating at the distant falls while a rainbow of colors gleamed from the canyon walls.  There was even an artist painting the view.

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The crowd kept us from staying at Artist Point for too long, and our next stop was the upper falls.  We went to a lookout that was close to the parking lot, and was directly above the huge waterfall.  We were very close to the falls and could fully appreciate how powerful they were.

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As we looked closer at our surroundings, we noticed something strange on the other side of the river below the falls.  A bison carcass had washed up on the river bank, and it served as a grim reminder of the power and danger that nature can hold.

We spent more time at this lookout.  There is something mesmerizing about viewing a large waterfall up close, and I became distracted just watching the water cascade into the abyss.  Eventually I looked up, and didn’t see any familiar faces.  At some point my family had left the lookout and I hadn’t noticed.  I backtracked to the main trail and noticed that it continued upriver in the opposite direction of the parking lot.  I thought that the family might have headed in that direction so I went to investigate.  I did not find them, but I did find an historic bridge with a fantastic view of the river.  I may not have accomplished my mission of reuniting with the group, but I was certainly not going to let that get in the way of a photo op.  I stopped and set up my tripod and neutral density filter to take some long exposure shots.

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I found my family back at the RV, all wondering where I was too.  After explaining the situation we piled into the vehicle, ate lunch, and then started driving south through the Hayden Valley.

Eventually we started to see cars parked along the roadside and people gathered in a group looking out into the valley.  This could only mean one thing: wildlife.  We parked the RV along the road and approached the large group of people who had scopes set up on tripods.  We asked a bystander what was out there, and he pointed at a small dark speck on the grass far away across the river.  It was hard to make out, but it was a grizzly bear.  My parents had gone to find a better place to park and it wasn’t long before they texted that they had found a spot and there was a herd of bison nearby.

I took one last look at the bear, then started to jog down the road in the direction my parents had gone.  After about a quarter mile I trotted up to the RV and met my parents around its back where I saw a few bison in the distance.  We watched the large animals for a bit, but they were still quite far away.  A little way down the road, we could see a small crowd of cars gathering, and I surmised that there may be more bison in that direction, so my mom and I set off walking down the road once again.

When we reached the spot, we could see a herd of bison rambling sleepily along the Yellowstone River, grazing on the sun dried September grasses and rolling on the ground, stirring up clouds of dust. We stayed a safe distance away and watched in silence, me with my camera in hand, as the behemoths went about their business, ambivalent to our presence.

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Eventually the rest of the family found there way to us and we all watched the scene together.  We got into a conversation with a ranger who was making sure that nobody wandered too close to the herd.  He pointed at a large bull that had singled out a cow as his mate. It was the tail end of the rut, and the male was keeping other hopefuls away from the cow. The pair stuck close to each other, and we observed them for the better part of an hour before their course shifted in our direction. The change was abrupt, and we knew it was time to get out of there. The once-slow animals had picked up their speed as they moved toward us.  We waved at the ranger and thanked him for all of his information as we to retreated to the safety of our respective vehicles. I was able to snap my favorite shot of the big male through my open window before we drove away, leaving the herd behind us.

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After the excitement with the bison, we made a quick stop at the mud volcano area, and saw some more interesting geothermal features, my favorite of which was the Dragon Mouth Spring.

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By now, it was late afternoon, and we were all feeling the pressure of our time in Yellowstone drawing to a close.  We still had a lot of ground to cover if we were going to find a campsite in the Tetons that night, so we continued out southern trek.  We made one more brief stop at the fishing bridge to discuss a game plan for the rest of the day, and decided to stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin on our way out of the park.

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From here, we had intermittent glimpses of Yellowstone Lake as we drove, and we arrived at the basin just as the sun was starting to set.  David and Courtney offered to stay behind to cook dinner since they had seen the basin just a year earlier, so the rest of us piled out for one last short hike in Yellowstone.

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This loop was shorter than most of the other hikes we had done so far, but it was very interesting to see geysers and springs with the large lake in the background.  We walked the loop at a leisurely pace, chatting with some other hikers who talked about snowmobiling through the park in the winter (which is now on my ever growing list of trips I want to take).  We looped around taking one last look at the microbial mat, and the deep turquoise pools as the sun turned the landscape to a brilliant burning orange.

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Returning to the RV was bittersweet.  I wasn’t nearly ready to leave Yellowstone, but I was excited to wake up in the Tetons the next day.  As we left the park, a large full moon rose over the mountains, either bidding us farewell, or welcoming us to our next adventure.

Prints from this post are available for Purchase in my Etsy Store!


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