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Traffic jams in fascinating Yellowstone

Written by Birgit, pictures mostly by Sam

sunny 28 °C
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We left the Grand Tetons early in the morning, as we wanted to have a chance to get a spot for the next two nights at the first come – first serve campground at Lewis Lake. The last two days it had filled by 2pm, so with being there around 10:30am, we figured we should be fine.
While the theory sounds good, practical life proved us wrong. We had not factored into our equation the long waiting time to even get into the national park, nor the fact that on this Monday morning Lewis Lake should already be full at 10:49am. Fine, so a change of plans was needed. We decided to spend our day to explore the south western bit of the park to see Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring and to head out of the park to West Yellowstone to find a campground for the night.
Old Faithful performed as expected: shortly after 1:17pm we were among the big crowd of people watching it erupt nicely. After a couple of minutes, the show was over and within minutes the area was empty again, as people had dispersed in all directions.

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We headed off as well and hiked along the bike path and a boardwalk to see more of the geysers and hot pools of the area. All over the place there was something going on: geysers were spitting steam, hot pools were boiling and there was just a fine note of sulfur in the air.

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At Biscuit Basin the looks of emerald pool were tempting us to take a dip. But looks can be deceiving: we probably would not have enjoyed being boiled in there and anyhow there were enough signs around to tell us that leaving the boardwalk is not only dangerous, but also unlawful. So we enjoyed the looks of the volcanic features without touching or getting closer.

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Our next stop was supposed to be the Midway Basin, the location of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones with this plan. And many others before us were so adamant to stick to their plan that by waiting in the left lane to turn, they caused an enormous traffic jam which backed up more than a mile. Eventually we figured that with us being stuck in traffic anyhow, Sam should have a goo on foot to see the Spring, while Max and I stayed in the car, inching our way forward very slowly. Eventually Sam got back to the car and we headed on to our last destination for the day, the volcanic features along Firehole Loop Drive.

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And then it was time to leave the park in order to find a place to stay for the night. The drive from Madison junction to West Yellowstone is just 14 miles / 23 km, but it took us well over an hour to cover the distance. We’re not really sure why we were stuck in an enormous traffic jam again, but we suspect that it was either people watching some deer or some deer crossing or standing on the road. Still, no matter what it was, as we were quite tired and keen to get to a campground, we were really happy once traffic started moving again.
We tried our luck at a National Forest Campground north of West Yellowstone, which was full already. As the next free governmental (and consequently affordable) campground would have been over 20 miles further, we opted for a private one 5 miles down a gravel road. It was just already way too late for another long drive.

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At night I tried my luck to still reserve a space in a campground in Yellowstone, such that we’d not have to go through the ordeal of getting out of the park just to get in again the next morning. It seemed that there was still availability at Fishing Bridge RV Park (where we had already a reservation for Wednesday night), but somehow I did not manage to reserve it and half an hour later, even that one slot was already gone. Hmmm….
The next morning, I used the WIFI at the campground and spent lots of time on German tax questions. That is not really what I consider fun and it’s just so energy draining. So I was happy when I was done. And it felt like a reward for the work I had done, when I got a call from someone in Yellowstone welcoming me for this evening to stay at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Somehow I must have managed to reserve a site after all and just did not see the confirmation page or got a confirmatory email.
That was so great news! After our first experiences with traffic in Yellowstone we were already at the point to just spend a day outside of the park without having a reservation inside… But now, as we had a reservation after all, we were ready to hit the road, get some groceries and gas in West Yellowstone and to explore the area between Madison and Norris. We stopped at all the key sites along the way: Terrace Springs, Gibbon Falls, Beryl Spring and Artists Paintpots.

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Still, the best came last: a stop at Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest one in Yellowstone. It features not only geysers and hot pools, but also fumaroles and mud pools, i.e. all types of volcanic that exist. The landscape was fascinating and we were happy that we had made the stop at Norris.

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From there it was only a short drive via Canyon to Fishing Bridge through the Hayden Valley which is one of the prime spots for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. We figured that it was perfect timing to go through the valley in the late afternoon / early evening as we hoped to see some wildlife.
And yes, our plan worked out. We got to do much more wildlife viewing than what we expected. It took us over 2 hours to drive the 16 mile / 25 km stretch from Canyon to Fishing Bridge, as we got stuck in a gigantic traffic jam.
While traffic was still moving, we got to see already the first bison in the distance. When traffic first started stopping, we attributed that to the three dark wolves up in the hills and the grey / white wolf just on the other side of the Yellowstone River. But after we had passed the craziness of that bottleneck, traffic did not get better, but worse. It got to the point that we only got to move forward the distance of those cars in front of us which gave up and turned around.

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So we opened our roof and Sam started heating up the remainder of yesterday’s soup. After all we were standing more than driving and when moving our speed did not surpass 2 mph anyhow.
Eventually Sam and Max headed off to get some exercise along the road. With Max biking and Sam running, I soon lost sight of them as they passed the cars in front of me. A bit later I got to see lots of ducks and Canadian wild geese along the river and eventually in the rear view mirror a couple of bison. And to keep myself busy in this somewhat frustrating standstill, I at least took a couple of pictures.

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Some more time passed and, a guy that eventually had started running along the traffic jam just like Max and Sam came back and reported to everyone who was interested the reason for the traffic jam: a big herd of bison was crossing the road somewhere in front of us and as they were not just crossing, but also idling on the road, there was simply no way to move forward. I must say that it was a big relief to hear that it was wildlife stopping us and not necessarily just sightseeing tourists. Even though realistically it is always a combination, as those people close to the wildlife cannot hesitate to take pictures and consequently slow everything down.
A couple of hundred yards / meters before the actual bottleneck Sam and Max waited for me and got back into the car. And eventually we started moving again and got to our campground around 9:30pm, so much later vs. what we had planned for.
After so much driving and so many traffic jams we were a bit hesitant about how to spend the day. The ranger at the information center convinced us that our plan of going to Canyon to see the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a must see item. You should not have come all the way to Yellowstone without having seen that… So after spending a bit of time on the beach of Lake Yellowstone, back we went through the Hayden Valley to do as he suggested. And this time we were held up a bit by sightseeing tourists just stopping in the road or partly blocking the roadway, but it was just so much better than the day before. We did stop ourselves a couple of times at various pull-outs to take pictures and observe the wildlife. We specifically liked to watch the bison. With their huge size they are just impressive and at the same time they are surprisingly fast when chasing a competitor or their preferred female – after all this time of the year is mating season for them.

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The Upper Yellowstone Falls from Uncle Tom’s Point along the South Rim were already quite impressive. But nothing could beat the view of the much higher (300 ft / 100 m) Lower Yellowstone Falls from the bottom of Uncle Tom’s trail. It was quite an adventure to get down the over 300 steps and steep grades, but the view was definitively worth it – specifically as the sun was coming in at such an angle that part of the waterfall looked just light green instead of white.

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After having seen the Lower Falls so close, we still wanted to see how they look from the Artists Point Overview. While the view was nice, we were not too impressed by the crowds of people there and left quickly after having taken a couple of pictures.

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The way back to camp proved to be much more relaxed and fast than yesterday evening and despite a bit of backed up traffic here and there, we got to Fishing Bridge in a mere 35 min.
Our next day in Yellowstone was dedicated to the Northern part which we had not seen so far. So we went up through the mountains along Mt. Washburn and the Yellowstone river to Mammoth Hot Springs. As the campground there was full by the time we arrived, this would be our last day in the park.
So we visited the lower and upper terraces – a phenomenon we had not seen so far. With their lively colors and a constant stream of hot water trickling down the active springs, it was a really nice sight. But also the older and now dormant features were quite impressive – a white and grey landscape surrounding dead trees.

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And with that it was time to say good bye to Yellowstone and to head towards the next adventures.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:00 Archived in USA Tagged traffic lake terrace spring geyser yellowstone elk wolf bison jam sulphur Comments (0)

Volcanoes, thermal springs and geothermal energy

Tongariro National Park, Taupo

sunny 26 °C
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Once again, we found ourselves back to typical NZ roads: it was very windy towards Tongariro National Park and seemed to take ages to finally reach the town of National Park. According to our guidebook, it was the fourth National Park worldwide, but a quick internet search revealed, that there must have been at least more before that (and hey, no one in Yellowstone talked about being the second oldest national park with one in Mongolia of all places being almost 90 years older). It definitively is one of the few mixed cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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We had intended to stay in the national park at the DoC campsite. As it was more than full, we backtracked to National Park and found a nice uncrowded spot next to a backpackers lodge. Contrary to the DoC campground, we’d be able to enjoy the luxury of flush toilets, warm showers, a fully equipped kitchen and cozy lounge area – a much better value for money.
Sitting in the lounge editing pictures, Sam felt the earth shake twice. And indeed, there were three tremors that evening out of which Sam had felt two. None of them had a big magnitude, but just enough to feel them.
Contrary to most other people staying in our campground, we did not plan to hike the Tongariro Crossing which is often dubbed the best day walk in NZ. So we did not have to get up to catch the 6am or 7am shuttle, but were able to sleep longer in the next morning.
We took it easy and realized that we took a good choice. After all, the foggy clouds only vanished between 9 and 10 am. And that’s when we headed off towards Whakapapa Village. We took the short Nature Walk along a creek and then headed into the info center of the National Park. The displays were very informative, specifically in regards to the volcanic activity in the area, but also in respect to the local Maori culture.

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We could not resist to drive up all the way to the Mt. Ruapehu ski area. Along the way, we had excellent views of the conical and perfectly symmetrical Mt. Ngauruhoe (which is also known as Mt. Doom of the Lord of the Rings) and Mt. Tongariro.

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As we passed the northern slopes of Mt. Tongariro one of its many side vents smoked and fumed. We could not resist to play mind games on ‘what if it erupted just now’. I’m not quite sure if I would have really wished to see a live eruption. Anyhow, after some minutes of observing, we concluded that Mt. Tongariro was just going about its normal business and that there was not more coming and headed on.

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We stopped for lunch in Taurangi which features a small skate park in its center - just like most NZ small towns. From there we enjoyed a pleasant drive along the shores of Lake Taupo. At a viewpoint overlooking the lake, we were more impressed by the group of skydivers being dropped close to us. And indeed, Taupo claims to be the world capital of skydiving with over 30,000 jumps per year.
It was perfect weather and pleasantly warm. Consequently, the beach was very crowded. And also Reid’s Farm, our campground for the night, was similarly crowded. We were there early enough to still find a spot next to the Waikato river. Sam and Max could not resist to take a dip in the clear water and Sam even swam against the current which exactly matched his swimming speed. What a great sunny day. So there is nice weather in NZ after all!

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While our spot along the river was indeed very scenic, it did put a damper on our enthusiasm that every half an hour one of the drinking backpackers decided to relieve himself in the river. Seeing this and how many of the other campers behaved, we do understand why many freedom camping sites in NZ get closed. It’s sad to see that many people do not honor the luxury of being able to camp for free and fail to return the favor by following even the simplest rules.
We got up early enough to see the early morning fog raising above the river. As soon as the fog had vanished and the sun was coming through, we were on our way to Huka Falls – the impressive and probably most visited natural highlight of a trip to NZ. We were not surprised that there were busloads of tourists around. At least, the viewpoints were designed in such a way that it was possible to admire the falls without having anyone else blocking the view.

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Our next stop was a Waikirei Terraces, which is a nice little spa using the hot thermal water discharged by a close by spring. We took the walk around and were reminded so much of what we had seen in Yellowstone a couple of months earlier. But the Maori carvings helped to remind us that we were on a different continent after all.

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From there we headed further into the valley to the Waikirei boreholes viewing platform. In total, there are over 160 boreholes to source the geothermal power plant a bit further down by the Waikato river. It was impressive to see how many pipes led down the valley with all kinds of appliances helping to control pressure and flow of the hot water.

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Having seen the sheer extent of how geothermal energy is being used and knowing that there are seven more of these geothermal power plants in the surroundings, it is not surprising that as a result places like the Waikirei Thermal Valley are seeing the effects. We liked the walk anyhow and all over the place it was steaming and boiling. And with the laser thermometer we had been given at the entrance, we were able to check temperatures ourselves. That was fun for Sam and Max alike. And I had fun watching the two of them. Still, it seems that the valley has lost much of its appeal since reduced water levels changed the dynamics and none of the previously 15 geysers is active anymore.

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The other attraction of the place were the animals. We got to feed the chicken, fowls and peacocks until eventually Max was overwhelmed by how vigorously they requested more food. The sheep, goats, rabbits and lamas were much more laid back, but happy to be fed none the less.

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Otmar had recommended to us that we visit the Taupo bike park. And indeed, Max enjoyed again having a dirt track to ride on and try his skills at doing bunny hops. While he rode and I watched, Sam took a quick dip in the hot waters springs down where it meets the cooler waters of the Waikato River.
Once we left, all three of us were ready for some exciting days to come. We hoped that the next two days would justify the couple of hundred kilometers detour we were planning to drive.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:36 Archived in New Zealand Tagged volcano valley waterfall spring geyser thermal tremor Comments (0)

More thermal activity

Taupo, Waikite, Rotorua

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Heading north towards Taupo, we once again passed along the Tongariro National Park. This time, we got to see the Eastern slopes of the volcanoes from the so called ‘Desert Road’. And while not necessarily desert like, there was not too much to be seen. And due to the fact that large areas are closed to the public and serve as a military training area, it is advisable to stay on the road and not to venture further out.

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A bit later we knew the roads already from our visit three days earlier. And it did not take Max long to realize that we were stopping again at the bike park where he had ridden his bike already. Once we had eaten and Max had biked some rounds, we ventured out to hike along the Waikato River – New Zealand’s longest. The hike was really nice and we even got to see from above the spot where we had camped a few days ago.

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After we had enough exercise, we turned back. This time all three of us took a dip in the River at the spot where the Otumuheke hot stream joins it. We found a spot with just the right temperature – not too far up the hot stream and not too far towards the cool Waikato. Sitting there and enjoying the soak in the sunshine, Sam once more felt a small tremor. After all, we are in a zone known for its volcanic and seismic activity!

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Still, we all agreed that there’s no need for a larger shake or eruption just now. We’d rather be far away in such an event. The world’s largest eruption of the last 5000 years took place in 186 AD in Taupo. In one of the visitor centers we had seen the comparison of the ash clouds of various outbreaks: Mt. St. Helens was a spec, Krakatau’s eruption sizable, but still half the height of Taupo’s ash clouds, which were allegedly 50km high. Thanks to the notes of Roman and Chinese historians, the date of the eruption can be dated. After all, at that stage there were no humans living in New Zealand yet with the Maoris only arriving almost 1000 years later.
Despite the soak in the hot stream, we had plans for even more soaking and left for Waikite Thermal Pools. We had reserved a spot for the night at the campground which belongs to the pools. Once we arrived, we had a quick dinner and then headed straight to the pools. We had six different pools to choose from at temperatures between 35 and 40 °C. It was a magical atmosphere – specifically as the sun set over the steaming valley with the pools. The next morning, we went to the pools once more to have a look at daylight.

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We did not spend too much time, as we were keen to be at the ‘Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland’ at 10am. This is when the daily eruption of the Lady Know Geyser is taking place – perfectly timed due to the help of a little soap that sets the eruption off. As we had seen our share of geysers in Yellowstone with the similarly predictable Old Faithful (even without soap or other helping agents!), we did not go to the geyser, but took the tour of the rest of the area. Thanks to the simultaneous geyser show, the parking lot was empty and there were hardly any people around. The strategy that our excellent guide book ‘NZ Frenzy’ had suggested, worked perfectly.

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Just like we had in Yellowstone, we enjoyed the multitude of thermal features enormously. The Champagne Pool was the predictable highlight of the area, but also the Artist’s Palette, Primrose Terraces and Sulfur Pool were absolutely impressive. By the time the other visitors came returned to the thermal area after seeing the geyser, we had seen already completed most of our sightseeing and were happy to leave.

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We headed straight into Rotorua. We were hungry and had a couple of errands to run – tasks that are easily completed in a small town like Rotorua.

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On the way back to our car, we took the scenic tour via the Government Gardens with its bowling lawns. A tournament with international participation was going on over four days and the enthusiasts were taking their sport seriously. We were fascinated by the accuracy of the bowls and also by the unusual attire these older men were wearing.

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Scattered throughout the gardens were fenced off steaming pools – proof that Rotorua is a town that is located on top of a huge caldera. And there was a not just a slight hint of sulfur in the air. At times, it got so strong that we started to understand why some of the campgrounds in suburbs far away from the center make a big point around the fact that there are no sulfur in their locations.

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The campground where we stayed for the night, was located close to the airport. We were not bothered by the few airplanes making their descent into the airport and there were no wild sulfur smells either. Max was happy to have a trampoline and playground just next to our spot and we were happy about the excellent wifi.
The next day, we spent some more time in Rotorua. The Kuirau Gardens are much more than a normal city park. There were lots and lots of hot pools, steaming vents and mud pools. All of that, along with warning signs about staying on the paths. After all, as the area is subject to geothermal activity and due to its nature previously stable ground might become unstable. Together with some locals and other tourists, we took a footbath in the thermal water.

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At the skatepark, there were no other tourists around and actually no locals either. Max had the place for himself and enjoyed the solitude. A bit of shopping and back to the campground to enjoy the rest of this quiet day. And yes, after the many kilometers we had driven over the past days, we deserved a bit of rest.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:10 Archived in New Zealand Tagged park pool hot geyser thermal bowling Comments (1)

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