Friday, July 6, 2012

Yellowstone National Park Day 5 - June 11, 2012

It is about 1.2 miles to the Monument Geyser Basin from the trailhead. The bulk of the 650 foot ascent is done on steep switchbacks like this one over 0.65 miles. You do get some nice views of the valley and Gibon River.

Today dawned with sunshine and pretty cloudless skies. The forecast was for a high temperature of around 61F and partly cloudy skies. That would be quite a change from the previous day if it came to pass. We decided we would again do a few shorter hikes to get a better sense of the geography and ecology in the area. The drive into the park this morning was not that bad - no real slowdowns for gawking as we drove towards Madison Junction and then along the Gibon River to the trailhead for Monument Geyser Basin Trail.

The trail to Monument Geyser travels along the narrow Gibon River for a short time and then quickly ascends to the top of the mountain where the geyser basin is located. At the outset you are walking through densely packed lodgepole pine forest. I believe this is young forest that has been growing since the 1988 forest fire. You can still see plenty of signs of that fire in the form of bare burnt tree trunks and downed logs. After about 0.7 miles the trail turns away from the river and road and begins its quick steep ascent along dirt switchbacks: gaining about 650 feet in about 0.65 miles. It is steep climbing but the footing is prety good. If the trail has a flaw it is the traffic sound you can hear as you climb (a problem anywhere really given how road-accessible the park is). We got some great views of the Gibon River winding its way across the valley as we continued the ascent. In due time we reached the summit. We could smell sulfur so we knew we were nearing the geyser basin. The sun warmed us but we also lost some of the shelter from the trees so the effects of the breeze were more pronounced. When the geyser basin came into view we saw a few places where steam was rising and water was bubbling. No doubt there are times when geysers erupt in a showy fashion but for us at this time their was not that much obvious activity.

The geysers here at Monument Basin did not put on much of a show for us but they are active.

Until we were nearing the end of the descent back down the switchbacks we had not encountered anyone on the trail. In the last third of the descent we passed three couples heading up. That seems to have been our pattern: seeing very few if any people on the outbound leg and then seeing many people heading outbound as we retrace our steps. Persoanlly, I am glad we pretty much had this trail to ourselves. It is nice to view even a less-active geyser basin that is a bit more remote and not mobbed by throngs of people.

Of course, some of the best geothermal areas of the park are mobbed by people. Our next stop was the Artist Paintpots basin whcih is full of mudpots, bubblers, and maybe a geyser or two. The minerals in the bubbling water have colored the immediate surroundings in reds, yellows, and even milky blues. If you pause to listen you can hear rushing boiling water sounds as well as the distinctive bubbling sound that escaping gas makes as it causes mud to bubble. Artist Paintpots is a popular place.

Artist Paintpots Basin has it all. From bubbling mud pots, colorful blue pools, to steaming geysers and not springs all surrounded by trees. The top photo looks from the trail junction of the loop and path to the parking lot. The bottom photo peers back towards the parking lot from one of the high overlooks.

Like many other geyser basins trees and the like grow right up to the point where they cannot do so. We strolled down the wide accessible path for about a third of a mile to the boardwalk and gravel paths that loop around the paintpots. If you trek the whole way around you will hike a little more than a mile: anyone can do this it is totally accessible except for a few steps. Although the parking lot was quite crowded once we began walking the loop it did not seem all that bad except at a couple of the grander viewpoints. I am sure during the high season things would be different but we did not feel overwhelmed.

After lunch at Madsion Junction where the chipmunks have definitely figured out that if they hang out by the picnic table they can fatten up on leftovers we set out for our final hike of the day. We had heard about Purple Mountain from a park ranger as an interesting place to explore so we decided to check it out.

Purple Mountain Trail runs from the road at Madison Junction to the top of Purple Mountain about 1,500 feet above the road. The trail is about 3.2 miles long. At first you gently wind your way, slowly ascending, through sub-alpine forests. In fact the trail made us think of hiking trails through forest back east. It was quite enjoyable hiking through the surprisingly quiet forest. The loudest sound, sadly, was the road but now and then you would catch the twitter of birdsong.

Perhaps a bit over 1.7 miles in the switchbacks really begin. At first you are switchbacking back and forth through the forest on a dirt trail but soon enough this changes. The trail become more sandy with small stone, a bit akin to scree slopes, and the forest begins to give way. Trees and shrubs cling to the edge of the mountain and you begin to get views out to the south. On a clear day we were told you can see all the way to the Tetons but I don't think we saw anywhere near that far this time. For the next mile or so the trail gains about 800 feet traversing rather long switchbacks. The footing is pretty good even though the trail is at times a bit narrow.

When you get to the mountaintop you may be a bit dissapointed as there are no real views on the tree covered summitt. However, there are places to sit down and enjoy a snack on a warm afternoon and we did that before beginning our journey down the switchbacks. I am sure that a person with normal vision and balance could zip down the 9, I think that's right, switchback far more quickly than I did. It took me about 45 minutes to reach what I would call the non-switchback portion of the trail. For the next 25 minutes we worked our way down the forest path before crossing paths with the first other people we would see on the trail. Perhaps that small group is hoping to see a nice sunset from a switchback. We spent a bit more than 3.5 hours on the trail taking a few nice breaks along the way. We enjoyed the trail.
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