Lower Loop of Yellowstone's Grand Circle

Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The Lower Loop of Yellowstone’s Grand Loop I the more popular loop as it has the lion’s share of Yellowstone’s thermal features, Old Faithful being one of them as well as Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

There are more things to see on this loop that you could see in a week so I will cut to the chase so you are sure to see the three most important features. 1.Everyone has to see Old Faithful once. 2. The Fountain Paint Pots trail showcases all four types of thermal features in a half-mile walk and is home to the largest Mudpot. 3. The most breathtaking and most often missed place in Yellowstone is Lower Yellowstone Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, this is always the highlight of all of my tours in the geological wonder category. Be sure to see these three things.

Depending on where you enter Yellowstone determines where on the Lower Loop you start. If coming from West Yellowstone you start at Madison Junction, form Jackson Hole you enter at West Thumb, from Cody and the east gate you start from Fishing Bridge. From Cooke City and the Northeast Gate you would enter at Canyon, from Mammoth you would enter at Norris Junction.

Madison Junction To West Thumb Junction

Madison Junction and National Park Mountain

The boiling mud of Fountain Paint Pot

At Madison Junction, the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers converge to form the Madison River, one of the three rivers that combine to make the Madison River in Three Forks Montana. Overlooking the confluence is a promontory known as National Park Mountain. It is 7560 feet in elevation and part of the Madison Plateau lava flow. As legend has it, it is here that history was made when a few men sat around a campfire and discussed the future of this special place we know as Yellowstone National Park. The Washburn exploration party is said to have camped at the base of this mountain during their expedition through the Yellowstone region in 1870. 
Supposedly as they sat around the campfire, they talked of all the wonders they had seen and what should become of this spectacular landscape. And they came up with the idea to create a national park.

Firehole Canyon Drive

Clepsydra Geyser is always erupting on the Fountain Paint Pot trail

Above the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers, is Firehole Canyon. At Firehole Falls the river plummets 40 feet, then races downstream over the black lava steps of the Firehole Cascade, eventually carving a foamy path through a forest of lodgepole pine where you can see rapids, flats, cascades and pools. Beginning just below Madison, Firehole Canyon Drive follows the twisting course of the Firehole River for a distance of two miles. The sheer canyon walls rise to a height of 800 feet above the river.

Fountain Flats Drive Fountain Flats Drive is an old, two-way freight road that runs behind Lower and Midway Geyser Basins. This three-mile spur passes meadows of purple gentian where elk and bison graze. While this is another interesting side trip off the main road, it does dead end for auto traffic after three-miles and then continues as a bicycle and foot-trail to rejoin the Grand Loop. The Imperial Geyser and Fairy Falls can be reached from trails along this road.

Fountain Paint Pots and the Lower Geyser Basin

Fountain Geyser

Take the easy ½-mi loop boardwalk of Fountain Paint Pot Nature Trail to see fumaroles (steam vents), blue pools, pink mud pots, and mini-geysers in this thermal area. The Fountain Paint Pots are named for the reds, yellows and browns of the mud pots in this area. The differing colors are derived from oxidation states of the iron in the mud. As with hot springs, the heat in the caldera forces pressurized water up through the ground, causing the mud to boil. The bubble action in the mudpots varies with the seasons. In the early summer, the mud is watery from the high water table due to rain and snowmelt. By the end of summer, the mud is much thicker as the water table drops. The Fountain Paint Pot is one of many mudpots found in the park and is the largest and is a must see. In early summer the mudpots are thin and watery from abundant rain and snow. By late summer they are quite thick. The mud is composed of clay minerals and fine particles of silica. In this area the rock is rhyolite, which is composed primarily of quartz and feldspar. Acids in the steam and water break down the feldspar into a clay mineral called kaolinite.

Firehole Lake Drive

Grand Prismatic Spring from the air

Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way northbound loop off the main road; this three-mile drive takes in part of the Lower Geyser Basin, which boasts the park's second-highest concentration of geysers. Check the ranger postings to avoid missing the rival eruptions of Great Fountain Geyser (one of the world's grandest) and White Dome Geyser (with its massive, imposing cone). The turnoff onto the Firehole Lake Drive is only eight miles North of Old Faithful but most people are too busy to get there and miss out on this great loop leading to some really impressive features including: Firehole Spring is constantly bubbling, early explorers thought the large bubbles looked like flashes of light hence the origin of the spring’s name. Great Fountain Geyser whose eruptions average 100 feet but can reach up to 200. And can last 45 to 60 minutes in a serious of bursts. It is somewhat hard to predict the next eruption since it can take anything between 9 and 12 hours for the pool to slowly refill. White Dome Geyser’s eruptions are even harder to predict than Great Fountain’s, they vary from 10 minutes to 3 hours. Pink Cone Geyser, Eruptions of Pink Cone Geyser last 11⁄2 to 2 hours and are 30 feet high. The interval between eruptions is 9–22 hours. Pink Cone Geyser was

Orange Thermophiles at Grand Prismatic Spring

named after the color of its cone. It has the same pink color as Pink Geyser and Narcissus Geyser indicating that the three are tied together although they do not seem to affect each other. Right before getting back onto the main road, you pass Firehole Lake. Several vents supply water that averages 158°F. The water contains high levels of carbon dioxide. This allows the water to transport more calcium, which forms deposits of travertine around the lakes edge and in pearly deposits around its geysers.

Midway Geyser Basin

A wooden footbridge over the Firehole River overlooks Excelsior Excelsior Geyser pool which discharges 4,000 to 4,500 gallons of 199 °F water per minute directly into Firehole River Until 1890, Excelsior Geyser was an active geyser that often erupted to 300 feet high. It is believed that powerful eruptions damaged its internal plumbing system, and it now boils as a hot spring most of the time. In 1985, Excelsior returned to activity for a 45-hour period from September 14 to 16 and will likely do the same in the future. Continue along the boardwalk for a look at Grand Prismatic Spring, at 370 feet wide Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot water pool in Yellowstone and third largest in the world ringed by throbbing, brilliant bands of yellow, green, red, and orange algae. When you look at Grand Prismatic Spring from the road on a sunny day you will observe an unusual optical phenomenon, the steam above the spring turns the color of the water below, blue in the center and brown/orange around the periphery

Old Faithful Area

Beehive Geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin

Old Faithful is only the main attraction, the Upper Geyser Basin, is an area rich in hydrothermal activity. Besides the famous Old Faithful, more than a dozen other geysers can be found along the nearby hillside, along with hot springs and pools.

A short loop walk around Geyser Hill passes six geysers, a pool and a spring. Total distance around the loop is about a half mile. Anemone Geyser: Anemone Geyser is a good place to watch an eruption cycle. Every seven to 15 minutes, the empty pool fills up and overflows. Large bubbles rise to the surface, and it erupts, up to ten feet (three meters) high. Beehive Geyser: This geyser can lie dormant for a long time, but when it's erupting, it sends water up to 180 feet (55 m) high, rivaling Old Faithful. Giantess Geyser: When Giantess is in one of its eruption cycles, when it goes off twice hourly, up to 200 feet (60 m) high. The trail between Geyser Hill and Biscuit Basin is littered with geysers. They include: Castle Geyser: Castle Geyser's large cone rests on older platforms, and is one of the world's largest sinter formations. Grand Geyser: If the pool is full at Grand Geyser, hang around and you can see the world's tallest predictable geyser erupt, throwing bursts of water up to 200 feet (60 m) in the air. Giant Geyser: Giant Geyser has one of the tallest geyser cones in the world. In the Old Faithful area, geyser cones grow about one inch per century. Can you guess how old Giant Geyser is? Riverside Geyser: One of the most picturesque and predictable Yellowstone geysers, Riverside Geyser spouts an arched water column over the river every six hours.

Upper Geyser Basin is the best place in Yellowstone to see geysers erupt. What's more, Upper Geyser Basin boasts the highest concentration of geysers in the world. There are more than 150 of these hydrothermal features in just one square mile! But before you journey to this richly rewarding corner of America's first national park.

Old Faithful Inn

Robert Reemer's Masterpiece - Old Faithful Inn

The Old Faithful Inn has been a showcase for rustic architecture for nearly 100 years. In 1902, Robert Reamer was commissioned to design and build a first-class hotel to attract visitors to the Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park is the largest log structure in the world - a giant log cabin, of sorts - and features an 85-foot tall lobby, huge rough stone fireplace, overhanging balconies and railings made of spectacular twisted gnarled logs. With the chimney/fireplace as its central support, the lobby rose to a height of nearly 76-1/2 feet, mostly constructed of lodgepole pine harvested nearby. The inn’s architect was a 29-year-old Ohio designer named Robert C. Reamer, who took immense pride in his creation. He must have, because his spirit may very well remain at the inn. Construction of the Old Faithful Inn commenced in June 1903. Not withstanding that much of the hotel was constructed in the bitter cold of the winter of 1903-04, it opened on time on June 1, 1904. The facility featured all of the modern amenities of the time including electricity and telephones. The building is situated so as to require guests to leave the hotel to see the eruptions of old faithful.

Old Faithful Inn Became a model of "park architecture" or “Parkitecture” an influence reflected in many of our national parks' grand hotels.

Isa Lake

Isa Lake is believed to be the only lake in the world which drains to two different oceans backwards. The east side of the lake drains by way of the Lewis River to the Pacific Ocean and the west side of the lake drains by way of the Firehole River to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the opposite of what one would expect since the Atlantic Ocean is east of the lake and the Pacific Ocean is to the west.

The lake is easy to visit, as it is adjacent to the road that now connects the Old Faithful and West Thumb geysers basins, on what is known as the "lower loop" of the figure-eight roadway that traverses through Yellowstone.

Black Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin

Shoshone Point

This point on the Grand Loop Road is located halfway between West Thumb and Old Faithful. It was named in 1891 because Shoshone Lake could be seen from here, The Grand Tetons can be seen in the distance also. In that year, Hiram M. Chittenden began constructing the first road between Old Faithful and West Thumb, and he probably named the point himself. Shoshone Point was the scene of a stagecoach holdup in 1914. One bandit, armed and masked, stopped the first coaches of a long line of vehicles and robbed the 82 passengers in 15 coaches of $915.35 and about $130 in jewelry. Edward Trafton was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to five years in federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.

West Thumb Junction to Fishing Bridge Junction

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Yellowstone Lake and the Absaroka Mountins are in the background

The West Thumb Geyser Basin, including Potts Basin to the north, is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The heat source of the thermal features in this location is thought to be relatively close to the surface, only 10,000 feet down. West Thumb is about the same size as another famous volcanic caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon, but much smaller than the great Yellowstone Caldera which last erupted about 640,000 years ago. It is interesting to note that West Thumb is a caldera within a caldera. West Thumb was created approximately 162,000 years ago when a magma chamber bulged up under the surface of the earth and subsequently cracked it along ring fracture zones. This in turn released the enclosed magma as lava and caused the surface above the emptied magma chamber to collapse. Water later filled the collapsed area of the caldera, forming an extension of Yellowstone Lake. This created the source of heat and water that feed the West Thumb Geyser Basin today.

fishing cone, yellowstone lake
Fishing Cone in Yellowstone Lake, fishermen used to fish from the cone then after catching the fish they would cook it in the boiling water of the cone while still attached to the fishing line. The kill joys of the park service have stopped all this kind of fun.

The thermal features at West Thumb are not only found on the lakeshore, but extend under the surface of the lake as well. Several underwater hydrothermal features were discovered in the early 1990s and can be seen as slick spots or slight bulges in the summer. During the winter, the underwater thermal features are visible as melt holes in the icy surface of the lake. The surrounding ice can reach three feet (one meter) in thickness.

Perhaps the most famous hydrothermal feature at West Thumb is a geyser on the lakeshore known as Fishing Cone. Walter Trumbull of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition described a unique event while a man was fishing adjacent to the cone: "...in swinging a trout ashore, it accidentally got off the hook and fell into the spring. For a moment it darted about with wonderful rapidity, as if seeking an outlet. Then it came to the top, dead, and literally boiled." Fishing Cone erupted frequently to the height of 40 feet in 1919 and to lesser heights in 1939. One fisherman was badly burned in Fishing Cone in 1921. Fishing at the geyser is now prohibited

Yellowstone Lake

Mt. Sheridan reflects in Yellowstone Lake in a cool June morning

Yellowstone Lake is very large at fourteen by twenty miles. Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park; The Lake is 7,732 feet above sea level and covers 136 square miles with 110 miles of shoreline. While the average depth of the lake is 139 feet its deepest spot is at least 390 feet.

Gull Point Drive

Roughly 15 miles north of West Thumb, in the shadows of a beautiful climax forest of spruce and Douglas-fir, Gull Point Drive leaves the Grand Loop to wind along the lake's edge, offering numerous opportunities for picnics and lazy walks along the shore.

Bridge Bay Marina

Bridge Bay Marina
Bridge Bay Marina

Several miles beyond Gull Point Drive is the turnoff to Bridge Bay Marina. Here, there are hour-long scenic boat rides around Stevenson Island, with interpretive guide services available. This is also the place to rent fishing gear, non-motorized boats, and small powerboats with crew and guide. If you want to try your hand at fishing in Yellowstone, you can pick up the necessary permit, along with catch guidelines, at ranger stations, visitor centers, and general stores throughout the park. Bridge Bay Marina has experienced guides to tailor a boat trip to suits your interests, whether it be fishing or just relaxing. Rowboats, outboards, inboards, and dock slips are also available to rent. There is also an on-site first-aid station. Bridge Bay Marina-Dock Rental is located south of the Lake Village Area at northern tip of Yellowstone Lake. Located 21 miles NE of West Thumb area.

Natural Bridge
a one-mile hike or bicycle ride departing directly south of the Bridge Bay Campground leads to a natural rhyolite bridge at the brink of Yellowstone’s backcountry. Formed by erosion and spanning Bridge Creek, the natural feature rises fifty-one feet above the scenic stream. Although visitors may follow a trail to the top of the rock bridge, travel across the feature is strictly prohibited in an effort to preserve the bridge for future generations.

Lake Hotel

Lake Hotel
Lake Hotel

About 18 miles north of West Thumb on the Grand Loop Road, a turnoff to the right leads to Lake Village, where you will find a store, hospital, ranger station, Lake Lodge, and the beautiful Lake Hotel. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, it is definitely worth a closer look. The Ionic columns, dormer windows, and deep porticos on this classic yellow building faithfully recalls the year it was built: 1891. It's an entirely different world from the rustic Western style of other park lodgings. The facility was restored in the early 1990s, and its better rooms are the most comfortable and roomy in the park, with soul-stirring views of the massive lake.

Elephants Back Mountain Trial

Trailhead: Pullout 1 mile south of Fishing Bridge Junction 
Distance: 3 mile loop 
Level of Difficulty: Moderately strenuous this trail climbs 800 feet in 1-1/2 miles through a dense lodgepole pine forest. After a mile, the trail splits into a loop. The left fork is the shortest and least strenuous route to the top. Although the ascent does not afford much in the way of scenery, the overlook at the end of the trail does provides a sweeping panoramic view of Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding area.

Fishing Bridge

Fishing Bridge gains its name from a 1902 bridge that once served as Yellowstone's most popular angling location. During Yellowstone's early history crowds of fishermen would inundate this small fishing hole, which was popular for cutthroat trout. Fishing is now limited to "catch and release" recreation. The area surrounding Fishing Bridge is, like many parts of Yellowstone, a jumble of historic and natural wonders. It also is the site of one of Yellowstone's most recent volcanic eruptions some 600,000 years ago.

Fishing Bridge Junction to Canyon Junction

LaHardy Rapids

Dragon's Mouth
The Dragons Mouth, a pulsating hot spring in the Mud Volcano area of Yellowstone.

LeHardy Rapids is a scenic waterfall situated three miles north of Fishing Bridge on the Yellowstone River. Drawing its name from 1873 Jones Expedition topographer Paul LeHardy, the cascade fills each spring with cutthroat trout journeying to Fishing Bridge for annual spawning. Witness one of nature's epic battles as cutthroat trout migrate upstream to spawn in spring by catapulting themselves out of the water to get by, over, and around rocks and rapids here on the Yellowstone River. The quarter-mile forested loop takes you to the river's edge. Also keep an eye out for waterfowl and bears, which feed on the trout.

Mud Volcano

The sizzling basin known as Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcano is one of the most volatile hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone National Park. And it is one of the most eerily intriguing. Sulfur is responsible for the peculiar sights, sounds and smells. - Iron sulfide paints mudpots and fumaroles shades of brown and gray. Hydrogen sulfide gurgles and hisses and produces a pungent rotten egg smell. Sulfuric acid, twice as acidic as battery acid, cooks the terrain creating a graveyard of skeleton trees. - Sour Creek Dome, a volcanic vent called a resurgent dome, is the source of instability. It's of little consequence that Mud Volcano, the hydrothermal feature for which the area is named, no longer throws mud nor rumbles noisily. The short loop from the parking lot past the Dragon's Mouth and the Mud Volcano is handicapped accessible. The half-mile upper loop trail via Sour Lake and the Black Dragon's Caldron is relatively steep. Two of the most popular features in the Mud Volcano front country are the Dragon's Mouth and the Black Dragon's Caldron.

Hayden Valley

Grizzly Bear at Fishing Bridge Junction

Hayden Valley is a large, sub-alpine valley in Yellowstone National Park straddling the Yellowstone River between Yellowstone Falls and Yellowstone Lake. The valley floor along the river is an ancient lakebed from a time when Yellowstone Lake was much larger. The valley is well known as one of the best locations to view wildlife in Yellowstone. The Hayden Valley is known for its wildlife, particularly large herds of bison at certain times of the year. It is also an excellent location to look for grizzly bears, especially in the spring and early summer when they may be preying on newborn bison and elk cubs.

The Hayden Valley is outstanding wildlife habitat and is frequented by Buffalo, Elk, Grizzly Bears, Coyote and a host of smaller mammals and birds. To protect this habitat and prevent disturbing wildlife, the valley is closed to off-trail foot travel. Two trails make the valley accessible for hikers—the Hayden Valley trail and the Mary Mountain trail. The valley trail parallels the river on the eastern side of the valley from Lake to Canyon, while the Mary Mountain trail skirts the northern edge of the valley along Alum Creek on its way to the Canyon-Lake road. All the rivers, creeks and ponds in the valley are closed to fishing

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

You can hear it long before you see it: a swelling natural fanfare that prepares you for the drama to come. It's the sound of white water rushing ever faster through a narrowing passage before tumbling into the great golden gash known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. “It is grand, gloomy, and terrible,” wrote one early visitor. Another spoke of the “mingled awe and terror” he felt in its presence. There is certainly something extraordinary about this gargantuan, 20-mile slice etched in the earth's crust, whether contemplated from a dizzying lookout at 1,200 feet or from a rainbow-framed perch at the water's edge. For the best view of the 109-foot Upper Falls, follow the trail that parallels South Rim Road; then descend Uncle Tom's Trail 700 steps toward the canyon floor and feel the spray of the thunderous 308-foot Lower Falls. For an unsurpassed view down the center of the glistening yellow canyon itself, hike the trail or drive along South Rim Road to Artist Point. On the opposite side of the river, a one-way road from Canyon Village leads to Inspiration Point for a final glimpse of the Lower Falls.

Lower Yellowstone Falls

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is an unexpected treat amongst the thermal wonders. The Yellowstone River has carved an impressive canyon through the rocks, over which two falls drop. The Lower Falls is over twice the size of Niagara Falls! It is in this area that you can catch a glimpse of the yellowish tinge to the rocks, from which the Yellowstone River got its name, but at a different location. You can check out the canyon and falls from a number of different locations. You get so close to the Upper Falls that you almost feel like you can reach out and touch the thundering water.

Canyon Junction to Norris Junction

Virginia Cascade A quick detour to the east leads to one-way Virginia Cascade Drive, which skirts the 60-foot waterfall that gives the road its name. A visit to the nearby willow meadows in the quiet of early morning or late afternoon may yield a glimpse of elk or moose, which regularly appear at the edge of the clearing.

Two wolves cast a fine reflection in a snow melt pool beside the Gibbon River in Gibbon Meadows

Norris Geyser Basin

According to geologists who have been monitoring the area for years, Norris Geyser Basin is perhaps the hottest hot spot on earth, and certainly one of the most geologically active. Puffs of steam rise from the ground like involuntary sighs all day long, and the basin is richly endowed with active geysers: Dark Cavern, which erupts several times an hour; the fan-shaped, silica-spraying Whirligig; and Steamboat, the world's tallest geyser, with plumes of up to 380 feet—about three times higher than the eruptions of Old Faithful.

Although not as well known as the other geyser basins, Norris is the most thermally active part of Yellowstone. It is divided into two separate areas: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. You will have the opportunity to stroll around both, enjoying the pristine beauty. Back Basin is home to Steamboat Geyser, the highest geyser in the world.

Norris Junction to Madison Junction

Artists Paint Pots

Gibbon Falls

Three miles south of Norris Geyser Basin, the equally large but less active Gibbon Geyser Basin contains several dispersed collections of thermal features of which the most popular is Artists Paint Pots, a group of over 50 springs, geysers, vents and especially mud pots. These exhibit varying shades of blue, grey and brown. This is one of the overlooked yet wonderful very short hikes of Yellowstone. The trail, beginning as a boardwalk, meanders through a partially burned lodgepole pine forest, climbing slightly in elevation once reaching the thermal area. The thermal area within the short loop at the end of the trail features colorful hot springs and several small geysers. Two mudpots at the top of the hill allow closer access than Fountain Paint Pots. The mudpots continuously spurt mud into the air and are a favorite of park visitors.

Gibbon Falls

Gibbon Falls is located on the Gibbon River about midway between Norris Geyser Basin and Madison Junction. The falls are situated where the Gibbon River falls off the Northern escarpment into the Yellowstone Caldera.

There is a parking area near the top of the falls that offers a great viewpoint, and is often crowded. Gibbon Falls are 84 feet tall.


Yellowstone Landscape - Images by Daryl Hunter
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