Everyone so often in Yellowstone I find myself off the beaten path, on an older track less traveled, sometimes by choice and sometimes by accident (and hopefully not face first into a hot spring). A few weeks ago, my path took me beyond the boardwalks and well-traveled trails of the Park, into an area of Hayden Valley where few people venture.
The old road less traveled in Hayden Valley
However, another ranger and I were not hoping to see wolves, or grizzlies, or any other habitués of Hayden’s lush, green, sage-covered hills. The wildflowers were nice, I must admit, and we did see a few bison, plus a nice surprise fly-by at the end of the hike. Nevertheless, they were all just background compared to the real show at Crater Hills.
Our hike took us first across damp open meadows, about a mile or so from the Park road. We contoured around the base of a tree-covered hill and soon were inhaling the familiar, headache-inducing aroma of sulfur. Mesmerized, we peered through branches and carefully stepped across pick-up-sticks of downed timber to a landscape so desolate it could almost be lunar. There are no boardwalks or general stores here, my friends.
Our first view of Crater Hills
There were a few bison in the thermal area
View past the trees
It is not easy to resist the urge to explore thoroughly a place like this. However, the deceptive ground surface definitely obscured certain thermal secrets that I did not care to experience. The bison did not seem to mind where it went, but we humans stayed along the perimeter of the basin and admired the steaming, sulfurous landscape from a safe distance. I did not buy a new camera with a 42x optical zoom for nothing.
We also stayed beyond a safe 25-yard distance from a couple of one-ton behemoths we discovered lounging in the scant shade.
Taking a break from grazing
There is not much information in the popular geyser guidebooks about Crater Hills. There is no map of the thermal basin, nothing to identify which feature is which. There is some data from 1935, though, in a wonderfully thick text published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington entitled “Hot Springs of The Yellowstone National Park” by E.T. Allen and Arthur L. Day. The authors mention that the area is of more interest to science than to tourists, that there is a paucity of water because the crust here is not conducive to bringing it up from depth.
I suspect this is Crater Hills geyser, at the base of the hill.
They mention “pyrite scum,” describe Crater Hills geyser, and talk about “fumarolic action” but state that no steam vents are present (OK…I am officially confused. I thought fumaroles are steam vents). They declare that Crater Hills probably has more sulfur than anywhere in the Park. There are photos looking directly into muddy springs, gas blowholes, and frying pans. Eighty years ago, these guys were all over the thermal basins like bees on a clover blossom. I can only dream about doing that now.
A trickle of thermal water runs between the barren hills
That black dot is a reclining bison.
We moved slowly and carefully along the edge of the basin, avoiding the behemoths and gazing in amazement at the scene before us. Still in mesmerized mode, eventually we said farewell to Crater Hills, exited the basin, and headed for the lush meadows and our cars. We stopped for a moment to survey where we had been when two large airborne critters caught our eyes. A pair of sandhill cranes was inbound for a landing in the meadow where we had just walked. They touched down among the sagebrush and went about their business, a safe distance from the two nonthreatening observers who paused for a few final moments to enjoy the unique landscape of Hayden Valley.