Our Nation's Treasures

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Yellowstone National Park

I wake up and look over to Mark in the single bed next to mine. On his stomach, cocooned in his comforter, he is looking at me. “It’s pretty cold,” he says.

Does he think I haven’t noticed? “It’s FREEZING! How long have you been awake?”

“Just a couple minutes.”

“Why haven’t you turned the heater on?” which would require him getting up.

“I’m fine,” he answers with mock innocence.

Knowing that Mark can wait me out and wanting to start our first full day in Yellowstone early, I throw back the covers, and the coldness steels my breath. I recover, hustle to the heater, turn it on, grab my bag and run to the bathroom, which has its own heater.

Yellowstone is our nation’s first National Park, established in 1872. Its 2.2 million acres holds the world's largest collection of geothermal features, with some 10,000 mudpots, fumaroles and hot springs and more than 200 active geysers.

On this clear, September day we aim north then west, stopping frequently to hike. Our first unique site is a wall of perfectly stacked, gray, stone cubes that we learn is basaltic rock, or cooled lava.

At the Mammoth Hot Springs area, near the entrance from Montana, we see an area of cascading shelves of white, like a frozen fountain only 100 times bigger than any fountain I’ve ever seen. In this area can be deposited up to two tons of limestone a day! Turning south, we get to the Norris Geyser Basin, which smells of sulfur and is the most geyser-active area of the park.

Since the west side of the access road is closed due to a controlled burn, we reverse direction back to the cabin.

We’re hoping for a good vegetable tonight at the village restaurant. Only one a day is offered. Last night was carrots and tonight is squash. We opt for fish and chips.

The next morning Mark and I, with lots of others, go on a ranger-led walk around the Old Faithful area and then take off on our own to see further points. The area around Old Faithful is chock full of geothermal features and many geysers that erupt more frequently. Mudpots bubble and steaming pools beckon for a soak though I never dip my toe in. Visitors are warned never to leave the boardwalks that surround the geothermal areas because the ground may be only a thin crust above boiling hot springs. Also, one may encounter a concentration of toxic gas. That morning, the geysers we see erupt are Anemone-big and little, Plume, Lion and, of course, Old Faithful. Old Faithful Geyser blows up to 184 feet high, every 80 minutes, roughly. Eruptions can last from one to five minutes.

We wait nearly an hour for Bee Hive Geyser, which blows twice a day, before deciding to leave, but as we circle the boardwalk, I notice its indicator gurgles. In 15 minutes we are rewarded with its full eruption, which I find most spectacular. Most geysers erupt out of holes nearly level with the ground so their spray is wide, like through a fire hydrant. Bee Hive’s blow is through a feature that looks like a large bee hive so its stream seems more forceful, like through a firefighter’s hose.
Further west we stop for a picnic lunch and watch buffalo. Through binoculars, Mark sees one limping badly. At our next stop, I inform a ranger of the injured bison.

We see lots of eruptions today and would like to go further west in the park, but smoke is too thick, so we drive back to our cabin and hike to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone got its name from the yellow rock walls of this canyon into which the Yellowstone River falls twice—109 feet at the upper falls and 308 feet at the lower.

Our final day we park at different spots on the access road and watch for wildlife. We tour museums and Visitor Centers we hadn’t visited before, and we hike to solitary geothermal attractions.

Back at our cabin, we nap and shower. At 6:50 pm Mark puts our name in at the village restaurant. We wait only 10 minutes, our shortest yet. However, like every other dinner we’ve had, the food lacks flavor.

The eats at Yellowstone stink, but you can’t beat the attractions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Off the beaten path on the Olympic Peninsula

Having been to rainforests in Costa Rica and Ecuador, which are really just jungles, I am surprised, impressed and a little awestruck with the beauty of the trees on the Olympic Peninsula. Washington State is home to the only rainforest on the continental United States.

After our ferry ride from Seattle, our first hike on the Peninsula in Olympic National Park is up Hurricane Ridge to see the foggy view of Puget Sound and Canada. The mile-and-a-half path is up, up, up. Mark and I set off at a quick, steady pace, resting once or twice and make it in 35 minutes. A thick, gray cloud is fast approaching from the north so I get a few shots off with my camera before it blankets the sky.

For some reason, the two-and-a-half-mile hike to the hot springs from Elwa Station takes a lot longer and seems much more strenuous though it is mostly flat. It’s known that many people bathe in the springs, but at the trail head a ranger posted a notice: bacteria levels in the springs are high due to stagnant water—and dirty bathers, we presume.

Further west into the Peninsula is Sol Duc hot springs with cabins and a small restaurant—more of a concession stand. We order burgers and sit at a picnic table by the thermally heated pool where a couple youngsters swim.

After eating, we hike a short trail to some unremarkable falls before heading back east to Port Angeles.

On our return we stop at Crescent Lake midpoint ranger station with the Salmon Cascades. No fish, let alone salmon, though there are deer so tame they practically pose for pictures. From the station we hike a mile-and-a-half trail to some pretty falls with a good 40-foot drop.

Back at our motel in Port Angeles, we clean up and go out for dinner. We find the uncrowded Carmichael’s, with good food, friendly service and meal-ending, complimentary, homemade cookies.

The next morning we drive lazily east so we can catch the afternoon ferry across the Sound to Seattle.

On our way, we stop at a state park at the Northeast of the Peninsula with a lighthouse at the end of a spit. The beach is easy to walk on with packed sand and gravel-sized, smooth gray rocks.

Everyone walks to a different beat, and while we pass some people, others pass us. A woman and her teenage son walk with us a bit. They say they have enough provisions for us if we want to accompany them to the lighthouse, which they say is five miles out though it doesn’t look that far. But when nothing but sea surrounds the destination, the distance is deceiving. Since we have to catch an afternoon ferry to Seattle, we decline and reverse direction.

Though we don’t have time to hike five miles out and then back again, we do have time to explore the peninsula further. We see a sign for The Olympic Game Farm, which sounds like it’s worth a visit.

The Olympic Game Farm is like a zoo with roaming animals—except for the lions and tigers and a rhino in cages. The grizzly bears, behind electric fence, are our favorites, and the bunnies hopping around with yellow, pink, white and purple hair are adorable. Mark doesn’t like the llamas near the beginning of the path that stick their heads into our car, sniffing out treats. The zebras we happen upon next aren’t at all interested in what we might offer them. Just before exiting, we drive through a field of buffalo and deer. The deer are different from what we’re used to. These deer are a pale cream color, and their fairly new-born bambis have long, white eyelashes. So cute.

We drive through twice. Then we stop at a casino for lunch and a bit of blackjack before our boat departs.

In the late afternoon, Mark drives our rental onto the ferry, and we nap in it for the 30 minutes east to land, dreaming about the fun, full day we just had.

A visit to the Olympic Peninsula is worth the ferry fare across Puget Sound if you make it as far west as Seattle.