“Yellowstone” originated from a term used by Minnetaree Tribe to describe Yellowstone River: “Mi tse a-da-zi,” which literally translates to “Rock Yellow River.” French Tappers quickly picked up the name, and called the area “Roche Jaune,” or “Yellow Rock.” An explorer-geographer David Thompson used the English translation, “Yellow Stone,” and the name just seemed to stick after that. Today a number historians assume that the First Peoples’ of the area were referencing the bright yellow rocks and formations along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
When we visited the Canyon Area, we expected just to see the canyon itself, but the area includes many more wonders. Just south of Canyon Village, Hayden Valley bison herds graze on lush fields. Beyond that, Mud Volcano and Sulphur Caldron bubble with hydrothermal volcanic activity.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Hitch and I hiked along the Grand Canyon twice, but of all the places along the rim, the Lower Falls is the most photogenic. With several vantage points from both the North and South rim, you can’t go wrong with Lower Falls. For a real show-stopper, visit Brink of the Lower Falls: the height of the cliff and roaring rush of water will just leave you awestruck. Uncle Tom’s Trail will also provide another great view where you can feel the thunder of the water.
Looking down from the rim, the canyon looks so vast and deep, its hard to get a sense of distance. The Yellowstone river carved this 20-mile long, and 1,200-foot deep canyon, cutting through rhyolite rock laced with iron and sulfur – the two elements which give it that yellow-pink hue.
At Brink of Upper Falls, we had a dramatic view of Yellowstone River stepping downward over the cliff. Not as stunning as Lower Falls, but the crash of water cascading down 109 feet is worthy of a visit. From this viewpoint, Hitch and I took a short hike along a paved portion of the North Rim Trail upriver. We caught a delightful view from the old Canyon Bridge and even found access to the river bank.
Leaving the Yellowstone River, we drove southward along the Grand Loop. Along this beautiful broad valley, we saw herds of bison and scatterings of elk. In the shimmering waters of the river, we spotted a variety of ducks, geese, and even pelicans. Often a bison bull would stop traffic and use the road to reach another field of grass. Hayden Valley was once filled by an arm of Yellowstone Lake nearly 13,000 years ago. Now drained, the soil contains lake sediment and clay glacial till which prevent water from draining away quickly, leaving the land marshy and protected from tree growth.
If you want to see a volcanic bubbling brew filled with reeking yellow boiling water, then visit Sulpher Caldron. The Sulphur Caldron is filled with liquid that is as acidic as battery acid. Regardless of this caustic soup, bacteria live within the ultra-hot waters, creating the lemony and chalky colors. Beyond the boiling grey-yellow mess and closer to the river, muddy globs fly into the air, ejected from hot holes in the ground.
The aroma of hydrogen sulfide assaulted my senses, and over the din of tourist chatter, I could hear the plop, bubble, and fizz of hot rolling mud. The thermophiles of Mud Volcano feed on the hydrogen sulfide, converting it into an acid that dissolves the surrounding rock and soil. The same sulfur minerals paint the landscape in hues of jaundice and ash.
We first encounter Dragon’s Mouth Spring and the billowing steam from its cave maw. Green chalky water surged forward in a rough and angry rhythm, like a bull bison snorting against his opponent. Nearby, Mud Volcano churned in its crater, the cone having blown off in a violent eruption.
Up a set of newly refurbished steps, a sleeping bison behind a tall guard rail surprised us. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully and absorbing the heat from steamy Grizzly Fumarole. Although we were well within the 25-yard limit, a ranger told us to move along.
At the hill top, we found a greenish-blue lake calmly surrounded by trees. Sour Lake may look like a refreshing swimming hole, but the water would burn flesh like battery acid. The only thing thriving in this lake are the thermophiles which excrete sulfuric acid in their metabolic process.
We started moving toward Black Dragon’s Cauldron but pause a good distance as a large bison bull trod across the boardwalk, supposedly heading for the warm grounds. Having made his way to his destination, we quietly move to gaze at the thermal wonder bubbling with mud. Here we spot several bison milling about the far rim of Black Dragon, sleepily chewing their cud near the steamy waters.
Mud Geyser seemed to be a bubbling mud-oozing spring, surrounded by sizzling pots. In contrast, nearby Mud Cauldron actively churned and splashed with murky and steamy water.
We spotted more bison in the distance, lounging around Mud Geyser. Further across the river, we noticed scattered dots of a bison herd near another steaming vent. Bison seem to favor this area and its thermal features. Bison and geysers – a picture perfect combination for a Yellowstone trip.