Along the Gibbon River, between Norris and Madison Junctions in Yellowstone, is the often ignored Gibbon Geyser Basin. Unless there are bison, elk, other ungulates (hoofed animals), or the occasional coyote feeding in Gibbon Meadows, people pass by this area on the way to Old Faithful or Norris Geyser Basin. The most popular and most beautiful collection of thermal features in the Gibbon Geyser Basin are found along the 1.1 mile loop trail called Artist Paintpots. We walk about 1/3 of a mile through a young lodgepole pine forest which is reestablishing itself after the 1988 fires. So let’s head out and take our time in this colorful collection of thermal features.
You can see the weather we’ve been having for the last month. This part of the park has had primarily rain, but in higher elevations there is already snow that will likely be with us until spring. Watch your step.
We’ve seen these trees before–bobby-sock trees. As thermal runoff floods the trees, the minerals in the water plug their base killing them and leaving their bottoms white. It can take decades for dead trees to actually fall over. There are still many dead trees standing from the ’88 fires and many look like they could be upright for another 28 years.
Our first look at Paintpot Hill. What colors! There are two areas here–the ground-level walk with beautiful hot springs and the terrace walk 125 feet higher where the mud pots, or paintpots, are found. Of all the features found here, only two have names. I think we’ll find, however, they speak for themselves even if nameless. Let’s get a closer look at some of the features.
This “creek” consists entirely of thermal runoff. There are no creeks running through this area. All the water we see is coming from the different thermal features, and by the looks of the steam, this water is very hot. Now don’t stick your fingers in the water to see if it is really that hot. More people than you think succumb to that temptation and are rarely happy with the result. Just believe.
Here is one of the two named features, Blood Geyser. That name has no gory history, it is named after the red rock that surrounds it. The water contains a high concentration of iron oxide which precipitates out, staining the surrounding rocks a rich red. This geyser can erupt up to six feet high, but not today. It discharges 150 gallons of water a minute and does so continuously.
A few steps higher and we stand in front of the second named feature, Flash Spring. Sometimes this spring looks like it is erupting, but its activity is mainly caused by large carbon dioxide bubbles rather than geyser-type activity. It sure is a beautiful color, don’t you think?
Well, time to head up. These ferns on either side of the steps are called Bracken. After the first freeze, they turn a bright rusty color brightening up the forest floors all over the park.
It’s just a little further to the overlook. Lots of steam up there. More Bracken to our left.
From here, looking northeast, we can see the lakes that have formed from the area’s thermal runoff. Some of the pools below us are usually lovely blues, but the overcast day and cooler air temps have made the color a bit muted from this distance.
Looking in the other direction, we can see some of the more colorful springs. These amazing colors across the landscape is why the area is called Artist Paintpot.
The views are great, but let’s turn around and see what the terrace has to offer. This dead tree has become protection for a colony of light green reindeer moss, sitting up and away from the hot water and mud. Looks a bit like a nursery amid a hot, acidic environment, don’t you think? Actually reindeer moss is not a moss at all, but a lichen. Lichens are complex composite organisms that result from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae.
This limber pine has a yellow edge facing the mudpot. Must be the result of the highly acidic steam that rises in its direction bleaching the needles.
Here are the “official” paintpots. It is the slight elevation gain of this area creating a limited water supply that is one of the biggest factors in the formation of mudpots. When hydrogen sulfide gas (rotten egg smell) is present, the thermal microorganisms convert the gas to sulfuric acid which breaks down the surrounding rocks into clay forming mudpots. Gasses continue to escape through the mud resulting in pops and bubbling.
How thick the mud is and how high the mud shoots into the air depends on the available water from all sources, including runoff and rain. In hot summer weather, the mud can completely dry leaving gas/steam vents known as fumaroles. We have quite a bit of water this time of year, so we see lots of bubbling mud today. Mudpots are not actually boiling, as many of the hot springs are, but you can get a serious burn so no touching!
Taking a closer look you can see all the activity on the water’s surface. Yes, the surrounding mud is tinted pink, I did not do that to the picture 😉 .
Remember the iron oxide we talked about at Blood Geyser? We have the same phenomenon here. The colorful mud is why this area is called paintpots. This mud can spout up to 15 feet high, so watch for flying mud as we enjoy this unique view.
It’s time to head downhill through the woods on the west side of the basin.
Here you go, the perfect example of a switchback. Remember we talked of switchbacks on our drive down the west side of Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road in September? The switchbacks allow you to walk back and forth down the hillside by way of sharp turns at the ends of long, horizontal trails. This avoids having a straight downhill walk or slide as the case may be. Let’s not even think of a long, steep uphill. Either up or down, switchbacks make steep climbs much easier.
Coming out of the forest we see Paintpot Hill and our walk back to the exit. The boardwalk lets us walk safely through some pretty amazing thermal areas.
This pool gives us a closer look at the activity beneath the water. We have different types of rock show their colors under the acidic water and a white vent bringing up hot water and gasses. The smaller pool is milky white and I have no idea why. Well, I don’t know everything——yet. Anyway, there’s more reindeer moss (lichen) to the left. As these pools expand, they kill off all plant life, but there are plenty of extremophiles living and thriving in this environment.
What did I just say? Extremophiles are organisms that thrive in physically or geochemically extreme conditions. Most life on earth cannot live in such environments. Extremophile literally means “lovers of extremes.” In Yellowstone you usually hear the term thermophiles meaning heat loving extremophiles. A fascinating science and another that can bury you in technical talk in no time unless you search out easier explanations. After an overview allowing us to “get it,” we can look deeper. You never get bored with all the new and interesting things to learn in Yellowstone. I don’t think it is possible to ever learn it all, but perseverance is the fun-filled challenge!
These beautiful baby blue springs are slowly eating away the red rock creating pink edgings. The lovely blue color is the result of very fine and light silica, which is white, staying suspended in the water.
A vent spewing steam and water.
Walking this stretch of boardwalk there is not much action, but do you hear that gurgling sound? It is obvious in the quiet of this area. Where, what–there it is. You can barely even make it out about ten feet off the boardwalk. A new feature with boiling water below our vision but in our hearing. No, we stay on the boardwalk and just listen. Safety first in thermal areas. We’ll see if it has grown or changed on a visit next summer season.
Another beautiful reflecting spring, this one green. The various colors result from the chemistry of the water and the types of thermophiles that live at each water temperature. Many of Yellowstone’s hot springs bubble well over the boiling point of 199℉ (elevation slightly reduces the boiling point). The record temperature for any thermal area in Yellowstone was recorded inside a scientific drill hole at a piping hot 459℉.
Here we are back at the trail that takes us through the forest to the car. One last look at Artist Paintpots overlook and the runoff coming from various vents across Paintpot Hill. It would be interesting to visit this area again in different seasons to see how the changing air temperature influences the thermal features. In winter, aside from needing a snowcoach tour to reach thermals, the drastic difference between air and water temperatures produce abundant steam making it difficult to see many thermal features. The frigid winter temperatures can also make the water a different color on the surface. We saw that on our trip to Porcelain Basin last winter. Sounds like we need to visit Artist Paintpots next spring and summer to compare what we see then with our experience today. Oh, so much to do, so little time. It’s all an adventure my friend!
Until we walk again . . .