The three-mile loop road known as Firehole Lake Drive is amazing in the autumn. At sunrise we see the warmth of the sun battling the cold air, low clouds, massive amounts of thermal steam, and fog. It can take hours for the sun to finally break through. During that process, we meander through an eerie, cloaked landscape that envelops us. Welcome to a Firehole sunrise.
It is 25°, not at all cold by Yellowstone standards, but certainly cold enough for the landscape to be covered in ice and frost. The very warm air in this thermal area makes the frost cling to every blade of grass. When the light does break through, the landscape sparkles.
It is a challenge to even see Firehole Spring this morning. This time of year the thermal mats are a bit less colorful than in warmer seasons. The colors around hot springs are actually microorganisms called thermophiles and they live and thrive in very hot water. The different colors are different types of thermophiles that live only in a particular water temperature. As the air cools, cooling the water sooner as it runs from its source, the colors weaken or disappear until warmer weather returns. Thermophiles typically live in water ranging from about 100° to 250°. Don’t stick your fingers in there!
Firehole Spring is considered a small geyser or perpetual spouter. The name exactly explains what happens, it continually shoots water up from the spring. If we could see the water more clearly, we would see what looks like baby blue bubbles, mostly rather large. They are actually escaping gases which may disappear or erupt as we see here.
The sun isn’t up yet, but the light is peeking through a bit. This area is called the White Creek Group and includes many thermal features without individual names. I think you can guess why this area is named White Creek Group. Yes, this is White Creek. The names along the drive are pretty obvious, remember that for later.
This entire Firehole Lake area is a very active and ever-changing thermal landscape. There are no fences or gates, just occasional warnings and the expectation that you will stay smart and stay on the road. Walking in thermal areas can be deadly. Is the ground really ground, or a thin crust of ground that has been eaten away beneath by the the super-heated, acidic waters that we see in hot springs, pools, and geysers. I may be a wimp, but we will just walk the road and not take any risks. Boiling to death is not my idea of a good time and a terrible way to start the day!
Here White Creek has flowed under the road and will continue to wind its way back to the main loop road and end in the Firehole River. I just love sunrise across the western sky. The angle of the sun as it rises hits the clouds along the western horizon and creates a gorgeous western view.
We are parking near White Dome Geyser and head out for a walk along the road. This area has some new features, particularly this small geyser that seems to be erupting about every five to ten minutes. I don’t remember seeing this feature the last time I was here.
Here we are at Tangled Creek where it crosses under the road on its journey to join the Firehole River. Another obvious name, don’t you think? The creek at this point is mostly runoff from many unnamed thermal areas as well as the lake that’s up ahead.
It looks like the clouds and fog are getting denser again. The sun does not win easily. Can you see that thermal area straight ahead in the trees? It is across unsafe terrain however, so we will not get a closer look. I just saw a geyser erupt though and it looks like a hot spring by the size of the steam at ground level.
The frost is just amazing, carefully covering every angle of the grasses.
The sun is finally rising, it is about 8:45am, but I don’t think we will see much more than this for a while yet. The landscape can be amazing with sun rays across the features highlighting different areas. Today, though, we just have too much–clouds, steam, fog–in the way. We seem to be getting more socked in as we look down the road toward the lake, but back up the road near the car we can see some blue sky.
Oh my! Great Fountain Geyser is erupting! No point running down there, we will be staring straight into the steam. From this side view we should be able to see the geyser itself. Great Fountain is relatively stable, making eruption predictions reliable within one or two hours. It typically erupts every 9 to 15 hours, but at times there has been up to four days between eruptions. This sure was a blessing this morning!
Great Fountain Geyser has a beautiful sinter formation (hard deposits of silica or calcite) surrounding it. The sinter forms concentric reflective pools around the geyser’s 16 foot diameter vent. This geyser does not form a beautiful vertical stream like Old Faithful, which is a cone geyser. This fountain geyser has a wide blast of water that ranges from 75 to 220 feet high, but its usual height is about 100 feet. Still not too shabby. I have only ever seen it erupt one time before. Wow, see the water toward the back (right) of the steam plume?
This is too great, we turn around and White Dome Geyser is also erupting! What a day. White Dome erupts every 15 to 45 minutes so you can be pretty sure, if you take your time, you will see at least one eruption. White Dome is a cone geyser, having taken hundred of years for the thermal water to build the cone. This is one of the largest cones in Yellowstone, about 20 feet tall. The geyser ranges from 20 to 30 feet making quite a nice show for us.
It is now almost an hour later and Great Fountain Geyser is still erupting. What a show!
Down a ways along Tangled Creek is a wonderful picture for a Halloween card, don’t you think? I can almost see the Headless Horseman riding along the steamy creek at the back of the picture.
Looking back up the road we see that White Dome Geyser is giving us another show. Still pretty socked in, but it is getting brighter. Although it is after 10am now, the clouds and fog are really holding on today.
On the road again, we can barely see the lake. Although often called Firehole Lake, this is actually Hot Lake. The Firehole Lake area is a conglomeration of features which includes Young Hopeful Geyser, Artesian Geyser, Firehole Lake, Steady Geyser, Black Warrior Lake, Hot Lake, and Hot Cascades. The view here is always changing. Some days it is so clear, with not a single bit of steam, that you can’t believe there are actually thermals features in and along the lake. Then there are days like today, and other days are so steamy you can’t even see this far.
This is a large runoff creek coming from a group of thermal features along and in the forest behind us.
Check out this dead evergreen and its amazing frost-covered artistry.
Here we are on the other side of the lake area. We’ll walk the boardwalk a bit, but guard your lenses including your glasses. This silica laced, mineral laced steam will pit glass in no time! We walked by Black Warrior Lake and Steady Geyser. It was so steamy we could see nothing, but we could hear the hisses and water splashing. This is Hot Cascades, the major runoff path for Steady Geyser.
Hot Cascades races down to Hot Lake which we cannot see because of all the steam today. OK, cover your glass and let’s head along the boardwalk.
Every once in a while the steam blows away a bit and we see the ground clearly. What lovely water droplets clinging to the grasses.
Well, there’s Steady Geyser from the back side. It’s right there, we can hear it right on the other side of the wall of steam, but no view today. We will have to try again another day.
One last view of the lake area. It is getting bright, but the fog is not giving way. There is still lots of frosty grass all around the area too.
The last mile or so of the drive is through the forest. The clouds, fog, and steam are dropping down again. They are not giving up without a fight today.
Well, here we are a few hundred feet from the main loop road. We are in the clear now, but looking back from where we just came, the sun is still struggling. It is about 11:20am now, so it is inevitable that soon that the sun will overcome. Checking the air temperature shows it is above freezing giving the sun more ammunition to win the day. Of course tomorrow morning the “battle” between sun and steam/clouds/fog begins again.
Time to head toward the blue sky, bask in the sun, warm up a bit, and break out a sandwich for lunch. Until next time . . .