Thursday, November 9, 2023


 Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Steam rising from a boiling spring

Intellectually, we know that our galaxy is heading away from the source of the big bang at around 600 km/second; within the galaxy the sun is moving and the earth moves around the sun. So we are whizzing along. However, if you step outside your house, everything is fixed and stationary, and we have to watch the sun and the stars over time to detect movement. Not unreasonably, our ancestors assumed it was the sun that was moving rather than the other way around. 

Similarly, we know that the planet consists of a molten core of liquid metals - mainly iron and nickel - at temperatures going up to 6,000°C. All this happens some 3,000 km below the surface of the planet, and in most places we walk on stable rock and soil whose temperature really only depends on the weather.

Yellowstone is not such a place.


After the wonderful time with friends and readers at Bouchercon in San Diego, Pat and I embarked on a tour of some of the American West's most amazing national parks. Joshua Tree, the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yosemite, all wonderful. But for me the highlight was Yellowstone. There one can actually feel the earth’s internal heat as one walks on the surface of an active, if long dormant, volcano's caldera. The amazing geysers are famous and unusual, but almost seem a natural feature of that extraordinary landscape. It’s an almost incredible experience.

One of the "paint pots"

Bison have right of way. Always.

Nevertheless, Yellowstone is not only about the geology. It also boasts wonderful flora and fauna ranging from huge herds of bison, grizzly bears, and pronghorns to bacteria that thrive only in superheated water and are responsible for many of the colours. There are grass plains, lakes, waterfalls, mountains and canyons. No wonder 2 million visitors make their way to the park each year. However, it's so large and there are so many different places and attractions to experience, that it doesn't feel crowded. At least that was true a couple of weeks after Labor Day when we were there.

The geysers are, of course, a major attraction and there are plenty of them. No one leaves Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful erupt, which it does on a pretty accurate 90 minute schedule. In our case, we arrived at the Old Faithful Visitors' Center just minutes before a scheduled eruption, and it lived up to its name.

There are more than twenty geysers on the walk from the Visitors' Center, although most of them are far less frequent than Old Faithful and may be less prompt. Castle Geyser was spectacular when it erupted, but it required a wait of an extra hour from the scheduled time. Needless to say, the park ranger keeping an eye on things had to parry a lot of questions that started "When...?"

Riverside Geyser was fascinating, spewing hot water and steam from multiple vents.

Riverside Geyser

Up north the park stretches into Montana and to Mammoth Hotsprings. We stayed at the hotel there that was hosting a party of Elk at the time.

The hotel has been around for more than a century. Judging by the photo at reception, not much has changed except that you now carry that luggage yourself!

Travertine layers at Mammoth Hot Springs

This bison popped up to Old Faithful after the regular event, and seemed pretty relaxed about its company. Occasionally, animals and tourists don't mix too well, however. The Visitors' Center has a video clip of a bison chasing a group of tourists back and forth around a clump of bushes. The clip was rather amusing, but wouldn't have been if you'd been one of the tourists. Selfies with bison (or grizzlies for that matter) are strongly discouraged.

Bison with the end of an OF eruption in the background

The canyon cut by the Yellowstone River is pretty impressive too...

Yellowstone canyon


But it's the popping of boiling mud pools and the dramatic colours that will stick in our minds...


  1. This post is so gorgeous, it practically gave me a nosebleed! Thank you so much for sharing, Michael.

  2. Been there twice, once as a kid (when we fed candy to bears through the partially opened windows of the car; yes, long ago :-), and once as an adult with our kids. That time was the week after Labor Day, and we were tent camping. Beautiful, warm, sunny day. Alas, we'd forgotten we were high in the Rocky Mountains. That night it went down to 22 F. Brrr.) Absolutely magnificent place, and thanks for bringing it back to mind!

    1. I noticed somewhere that in the early days of Yellowstone people were actually encouraged to feed the bears to make them easier to see and more friendly. That worked well till they became too friendly!

      We had a similar problem with baboons in South Africa at Cape Point. Once they realize there is something they want in a parked car (i.e. food), they will learn to open any car door. When people started locking the doors, they started removing the windscreens... Bears are a better option, I think.

  3. Thank you for preparing Barbara and me for returning to Iceland next week, Michael. I agree 100% that walking among erupting geysers in active volcano territory is an experience that sticks with you. It also reminds me of a quip that I delivered to a famous Scottish crime writer as we stood in Iceland awaiting an Old Faithful like eruption. I believe what I said was, "How to you like this scene, ___, two old geezers waiting for an old geyser to show up." He actually laughed, which endeared him to me forever.