Safety first: off the road by 10.30am: Mammoth to Madison Junction Campground
Tuesday June 11, 2013, 37 miles (59 km) – Total so far: 2,061 miles (3,317 km)
As I pack up the tent in the pre-dawn chill, I keep stealing glances up at the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff that tops Mt Everts, the flat-topped mountain across the valley from the campground. That same rock is also exposed about 5 miles away at a similar elevation. I keep looking up, thinking, I’ve got to go that high in five miles. Sheesh.
I’m not the only one moving at 4.45 am. Two cars creep through the campground, headlights illuminating the trees. I tell you, the wildlife watchers are keen.
I’m off at 5.10am – the quickest I can pack up my gear, even if I pre-pack a bunch the night before, is about 30 minutes. It is close to first light.
The climbing begins immediately, with a switchback climb up to the hot springs area. Sunlight illuminates the top of the travertine terraces. I pedal alongside the steep eastern faces before starting into the next switchback and the long sweeping curves which carry you above the terraces.
After climbing through forest unburnt in the 1988 fires, we round a corner to find excellent views of Bunsen Peak. Further along, we ride through Silver Gate, an area with massive blocks of fallen travertine creating a disorderly assemblage of strange shapes and figures.
Still climbing, we finally reach Golden Gate. As the road ascends through a narrow canyon, the road clings to the side of vertical cliff faces on decking. The cliffs are the same Huckleberry Ridge Tuff that rise high above the campground at Mammoth. Tuff is hardened volcanic ash. This tuff is 2.1 million-years-old and is part of the pyroclastic flow associated with the first and largest caldera-forming eruption in Yellowstone. The tuff here came from a vent about 12 miles away.
Finally, I pop out of the canyon through a gap in the rock. Phew – that was a lot of climbing to do first-thing this morning on an empty stomach! It is so chilly up here, I’ve got to break out the warmie jacket.
Our ride now takes us through a broad, open valley. It still lies in shadow, but the sun casts rays upon the Gallatin Range to the west. The contrast of shade, sun and snow-capped peaks is quite brilliant. The peaks rise high above this valley. They will only rise higher over time. There is a major north-south fault along the edge of this valley, uplifting the range and dropping the valley down.
I stop at Swan Lake. Steam rises off the lake into the cold, calm air. There is quite a ruckus going on down at the water’s edge. Some early morning squabbles are taking place down in the duck population. With a flutter and a pronounced quacking, several of them take off into flight, wing-tips pushing and then just lightly touching the water as they become airborne. There is also another species of duck down there that I don’t recognize. Canadian geese strut about in the grass above the banks. Several other smaller species of waterbirds are also present, but I’m not a birder, so I don’t know their names. All of the wildlife watchers slow down when they see me taking a photo, but they soon speed off when they ascertain that no big mammal is on display.
The road eventually enters a narrower valley near a campground still closed for the season. It is still quite cold – I’m still riding in the shadows of the valley walls. The road follows a tributary of the Gardner River upstream. It is flowing swiftly, carving out big bends in the wider and flatter parts of the valley and cutting down into rock in the narrower, restricted valleys.
As I progress upstream, I’m surprised by how extensive the fire damage looks here. It has the same prolific regrowth on the slopes as other areas, but it still just looks absolutely flogged here. The answer appears on an interpretive sign board near Grizzly Lake. This area was burnt in a fire before the famous 1988 fires. Ah, no wonder some areas look slow to recover if the 1988 fires wiped out some areas of new trees before they had begun to develop cones and seed!
I stop for a few minutes to take in Roaring Mountain. It’s not overly loud this morning, but it’s definitely grumbling, hissing and talking. Most people who stop don’t even get out of their cars or roll down their windows, so I’m sure they missed the auditory aspect of this unusual sight. It’s amazing to me that the traffic starts building from 7am (between 5 and 7am it’s just me and the wildlife folk), growing exponentially to absolute crazy by 10am. I’m slowly beginning to wonder if this is a national park or an amusement park.
From Roaring Mountain, the road climbs more steeply into a narrow valley. Next to the road, steam wafts out of vents. Small hot springs bubble and gurgle up out of the ground, sending streams of water into the creek.
I absolutely love how you can just be riding along in what appears to be the type of forest you’d encounter anywhere in the West, then all of a sudden, you can spot steam rising up through the trees in the distance, or see vents or hot springs just doing their thing right by the side of the road. I can’t imagine the wonder and surprise that greeted those early white expeditions into what is now the park. Did they draw straws on who got to lead that day? Or did they just send the guy they liked the least out the front, in case he dropped through a thin crust into something geothermal below? This truly is an amazing place, and this ride from Mammoth to Madison becomes my favourite section of the whole park.
Shortly before Norris the road begins to drop down to the geyser basin. Just as you start to drop down, there are several gravel pull-outs on the west side of the road. The views down into the geyser basin are quite good. It shows the size of the basin and how it has eaten its way into the surrounding vegetation. The large plumes of steam are dotted about the basin, billowing upwards from different features.
I don’t ride into Norris geyser basin, because I want to be off the road by 11 am at the latest, and I’ll be returning here with my mom in a few days. I find this geyser basin to be the most intriguing of all that we visit. It happens to be the hottest and most changeable area in Yellowstone. The hot and fractured rock lies closer to the surface here than anywhere else because it is located at the intersection of several volcanic vents, several active faults and fractures along the rim of where the caldera collapsed. Uplift and subsidence of the ground also occurs here. The ground actually lifted 5 inches between 1997 and 2002.
At Norris, I gain a road shoulder as I enter into the southern loop road. This is good. The traffic is still nuts, and it seems like most people are looking everywhere but the road, but at least I now have a place to be! It is disturbing to see how few drivers of on-coming vehicles I can make eye contact with – is this the largest concentration of distracted drivers on earth?
The road has been all downhill since Norris. I stop for a snack at a pull-out. I sit on the rock wall while the guys investigate the hot spring pouring water into the river. Several cars fly into the gravel parking area, scream to a halt right next to me, then take off again when it appears that I’m not looking at anything interesting. There is a fine layer of dust all over me and the bike when I go to leave. Considerate behaviour is most definitely lacking in Yellowstone as I come to find repeatedly.
Just after Gibbon Falls, the road crosses the Caldera Rim. Ooh, Nerd Em is excited about that. I try not to be a distracted rider as I parallel the caldera rim and think nerdy thoughts.
Soon enough, I’m at Madison Junction campground in the throng of people trying to secure a spot for the night. The campground fills by 10.45am, even this early in the season. Hiker biker spots are always guaranteed though, and the staff here treat cyclists like family members, so I experience none of the angst that besets those arriving via internal combustion.