Grand Prismatic Spring, but now for real
Difficulty of this location is the sheer size of it (100 meters in diameter) and that you are walking on ground level here. Steam is the only thing you see. From the air it is really beautiful. The only alternative to see the spring from altitude are a couple of hills to the south. I have been looking around on the internet. The place to be is on the other side of the river south of the spring. There is a trail to a waterfall. There are no trail on the hills themselves, though. I am not completely sure whether or not I want to ascent these hills because of the bears in this area.
When are Bears Dangerous?
In the past days I learned some things about bears and their behaviour. They tend to avoid people in general, vocal sounds in particular make them go away. Bears are to be considered dangerous in 4 cases:
- a mother with cubs seeing you as a danger
- a bear that is surprised because it did not hear (or see, or smell) you coming
- a bear guarding a carcas
- a bear that is hungry and sees you as lunch
Chances for the latter happening are very remote. The other situations can be avoided in general by making a lot of noise. Bears tend to avoid generally (but not always) areas with lots of people.
To Climb or Not To Climb
In the south there are two hills offering a good vantage point on the Grand Prismatic Spring, a low one and a higher one. Both hills are quite barren with relatively few trees. The high one in particular, is covered in burned and fallen tree trunks. I decide to just go there and take it from there. I agree with myself to try but to abort as soon as I do not feel like going there anymore.
It is reasonably busy in the parking area, but luckily I can find a spot for the car. Just in front of the little bridge over the river stands a large sign, containing some warnings. ‘There are bears in this area. Your safety can not be guaranteed. Do not go alone.’ So, what do you do? The path on the other side is wide and I can see other people walking a little further. They are going to the waterfall most probably.
Starting with The Low Hill
I cross the river, enter the path but stay cautious. I tell myself that I can return anytime if I do not feel like continuing any further. I meet a woman and we talk a bit. She asks me whether I am looking for the path that goes uphill. A bit surprised by that question, I confirm. She tells me that a couple of hundred meters down the path, just around the corner, her busband and son are photographing the spring from the hill. My hopes are rising and I feel a bit more comfortable.
After a while I notice them on the hill, around 40 meters high I think. I can oversee the terrain quite good and pay them a visit. The view is nice and I shoot some photographs. The view from here is already much better than from the walkways at the other side where one normally walks.
By zooming in I can shoot a photo that is almost clear of trees. If this is what I am taking home, I will by reasonably happy. The angle we are photographing from here is quite small and therefore the influence of the steam is a bit too much. The colours are much better visible then from ground level, but I have seen better photographs.
I ask them whether they want to accompany me climbing the much higher hill behind us. We do have a nice view from here but it must be much better from a higher vantage point.
They have already thought about that as well, but do not dare to go because of the…bears. Hmmm, how nice. They intend to climb a desolate cliff at the east side of the spring, which seems to be easily climbable. I have not noticed that one before as a possible viewpoint. Lets keep that one in mind for the time being. Currently my thoughts are dedicated to the hill behind me.
Both men leave and let me alone with my thoughts and doubts.
Delicate Decision Making
The high hill is a lot closer now and seems to be doable. I reconsider my plan again. The hill is completely overseeable. There are no bears in sight and according to my estimation it must be possible to be at the top within fifteen minutes. I decide to go, as fast as possible uphill, have a good look from the top, shoot some photographs and back down again.
Climbing the Hill
I have to admit that my hart is racing in my throat and not only because of the steep hill (-; It is a heavy hike and I can not proceed as fast as anticipated. The hill is dotted with fallen burned trees and is much steeper than I thought in advance, 45 degrees at least. Halfway up, I see a couple of footprints from a black bear.
Almost up, I notice a thick forest at the top. I am a little reluctant to go all the way, because from here I can not see what it looks like and what is possibly wandering around up there. I could stay just under de top to shoot my photographs, but than it is impossible to see what is happening above me. I decide to go all the way up. It is a bit more scary, but this way I can at least see whether or not there is a bear overthere.
It must be just horrible to encounter one. I am very far away from the care and I wouldn’t know what to do really. Best I think is to look to the ground and walk backwards very slowly, but what to do when it start following you?
Enjoying Peak View
At the top, I have a good look around me. Luckily, there are no dangerous mammals around. The view on Grand Prismatic Spring is really amazing from here. It is even more beautiful than I imagined. From here you are looking on it from an angle and you can barely see the enormous amount of steam coming off it. From the side on ground level in particular, the steam is very thick. The many tourists on the north side of the spring are so small from here that they look like ants. This hill is really high.
I place my tripod and shoot a couple of photographs. Almost unreal and so beautiful…
It is impossible to shoot completely free of trees. I could wander around the top of the hill looking for a unobstructed view, but I do not want to increase the risk I am already taking. They are good enough for me.
I have a look around me between each and every set. This way I will have a chance to get away in time, should a bear approach me, particularly if I see it coming from a distance.
After I have shot all compositions I can come up with, I check them again for sharpness and lighting, because I do not want to climb this hill again.
Racing Down Hill
After this, I pack everything as quickly as I can and start running down the hill. I do want to leave this area as fast as possible. I stumble a couple of times over fallen trees, hurting one of my legs. As I am halfway down already, I realize I better ease down a bit, before breaking a leg after all. There are no bears here and I feel a lot safer already.
Somewhat later I am back at the low hill. Now it is only a couple of minutes to the path and there I already see people walking. Safe!
Once down I enjoy the sweet victory. I did it! I take a look at the photographs again and am feeling very satisfied. These will become very beautiful photographs once the various lighting sets have been combined, I am sure of it. What a photographs, Wow! I never have experienced such an adrenaline rush from a photoshoot. Pure euphoria!
Soon I start talking to a Swedish girl, that is living in Colorado for three years for microbiological research in the park. As one of few, she is allowed to take samples from the various springs. She tells me that the microbe layer is sometimes 5 centimeters thick and consists of various layers. It is actually a kind of micro rainforest. In the upper layers live microbes that create sugar with the help of sunlight (like plants do). De layer underneath lives from the garbage produced by the layer on top of it. In the lower layers are microbes that convert all kinds of chemical substances.
Her sisters live in Iceland en she will visit them for holiday very soon. Here she is guiding a group of students that conquer the hill with a lot of noise. The bears most probably have found a more quiet place already (-;
A Desolate Toxic Soup
Being with myself again, I take some photographs from ground level. This provides again a complete different perspective. Here you are not standing on a wooden structure, but balancing on the edge of the spring. The destructive effect of the hot acid water is very real here. The trees around are still standing, but the discolouring of the trunks is already visible. On the edge, dead trees lie down in the blue white water.
This is the other hill, that I might climb as well for a few from the east.
Far away blue colored steam rises from the spring.
Even the clouds are reflected in the toxip soup.
A nice Surprise
After this I walk back to the car. Almost there, I am stunned by a vividly colored spring I did not expect there to be: the Opal Pool.
At the east side I sea the barren hill where the other men headed for. For a few seconds I think about going there as well, but the sun is already too high in the sky. Maybe I will visit that one later in the week, who knows. For now, I have the photographs that I have been wanting to shoot for a long time…
Maps, Charts & Downloads
GPS Map with color coded altitude information
Color coded distance/altitude chart
Download the original gpx file here.