Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Uncharted Again! Until School Starts, of Course

Sneaking up on Old Faithful

Spend extra time exploring the fascinating landscape around this venerable Yellowstone monument, and your time at Old Faithful will be more meaningful.

As my family waited in line for ice cream, I sat next to The Grump.

“I’d much rather be in New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah,” he said to the woman next to him. She flapped open her copy of USA Today, read earnestly. “I’ve been here three times,” he added. “Don’t know that anyone could ever talk me into coming back here again.” The woman muttered behind her paper. “Just look around,” he said. “Nothing to see here. I’m never coming back.”

I sat in my chair next to The Grump, contemplating the last few hours. Yes, we were sitting in chairs in front of a snack bar and souvenir shop, amidst a sea of automobiles and herds of slightly cranky humanity. Yes, there are more impressive vistas aside from the low, rolling hills to the northeast, the only vista unobscured by lodgepole pines and row after row of rented recreational vehicles. The place, I had to agree, felt more like a shopping mall than a national park.

But we’d just seen Old Faithful spew its quota of boiling water, only four minutes off schedule. We’d shared lunch with a curious, courageous finish which descended to our picnic table to filch cheese puffs. We’d exchanged e-mail addresses with a couple from Long Island whose digital camera battery petered out minutes before Old Faithful blew, so we could send them pictures we took as we sat next to them.

And, on my umpteenth visit to the Old Faithful area, I saw things I’d never seen before.

My wife and kids arrived with the ice cream, our youngest already sporting a chocolate goatee. I left The Grump with his baggage and reading companion on the rocking chairs in front of the snack bar. We enjoyed our ice cream. And, on the way out of the parking lot, we saw a coyote. Another first.

Folks like The Grump are common as crows at Old Faithful, the most visited spot in the most visited national park in the nation. They’re the ones you hear, from the back of the crowd, saying things like “Is that all the higher it goes” as Old Faithful blows. They refuse to take pictures because “the water was a lot higher the last time I was here.”
Then, Old Faithful finished, they stomp off to their vehicles, apparently anxious to keep their vacations on schedule.

They’re missing a lot.

There’s a lot more to Old Faithful than Old Faithful – and, cynicism aside, I’m still impressed every time I see Old Faithful go off, knowing that the natural mechanics beneath my feet have kept this geyser chugging nearly on schedule for who knows how long. Taking just a few steps away from the photo-snapping masses on the plastic boardwalk to the south of Old Faithful will give this venerable stop on any Yellowstone trip a different flavor.

The Trail: For our visit in 2008, we took the 0.7-mile loop trail that goes to the north of Old Faithful. First time for me. I never knew the Firehole River ran so close to Old Faithful. Our six-year-old daughter spent a lot of time observing a boiling pool right at the foot of the boardwalk, its waters steaming and flowing into the river below. “Is that all hot water,” she asked, staring wide-eyed at the river. Dozens of questions ensued, ranging from why the rocks are white where the water doesn’t flow, but orange where rivulets from the geysers and hot pools trickle to the river. Weeks later, we’re still finding answers for her. She’s anxious to go back. So am I. The trail offers views of Old Faithful just as spectacular as the boardwalk to the south, but with far fewer people crowding the edge for views and pictures. The trail is also an excellent place to pass the time waiting for Old Faithful to blow, especially if you’ve got kids with you. The kids can look at all the other features along the trail until Old Faithful is ready to do its thing.

The Inn: The Old Faithful Inn is as ubiquitous as Old Faithful itself, but fewer people visit it than the geyser. That’s a shame. This delightful building – the largest single log-built structure in the world – is marvelous. Natural light streams into the lobby from windows four, five stories up, illuminating the naturally-twisted and sculpted pine logs that make up the building’s staircases, railings and other folderol. Our kids raced up the stairs, forgetting that on the walk to the inn from the loop trail, they were all bone-weary, ready to be carried. For the first time, I went out onto the inn’s second-floor balcony, which offers a view of Old Faithful, but through a sea of heads of other observers.

Next Time: For our family, there’s always a next time for Yellowstone. True, we live only three hours southwest of the park, so it’s an easy day trip for us. Next time, we plan to make the 2.1-mile hike to Observation Point, a 250-ft hill overlooking Old Faithful, to watch the eruption from there (our eight-year-old desperately wanted to make the hike this time, but his tired four-year-old brother just couldn’t do the journey). The time after that, we plan to bring our bicycles and make a grand tour of the dozens of major geysers and pools in the Old Faithful area (Seeing them all would take some time indeed; there are more than 200 of them). And the time after that, we’ll find something else to do. There’s enough to keep us finding new things for years to come.

Take that, Grumpy.

What to bring: Time. Lots of time. If you’re fortunate enough to live close enough to the park to make frequent visits a reality, it’s best to savor one area of the Old Faithful basin at a time. For those who have traveled a far distance to come to the park, plan on at least a day at Old Faithful, and then again, only an hour at the geyser itself. With at least two dozen major geysers and springs within two miles of Old Faithful, there’s plenty to see. These National Park Service interactive maps will help you explore what the Old Faithful/Biscuit Basin area has to offer.



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