How to escape the crowds at Yellowstone National Park

 

The crowds on the boardwalk of Yellowstone's West Thumb Geyser have turned their backs on the bubbling mudpots and spouting fumeroles, and are pointing their cameras instead at a group of kayakers paddling on Yellowstone Lake.

We have been promised a different perspective of Yellowstone National Park's famous geothermal activity during our day trip with Geyser Kayak Tours; but we hadn't expected to become a tourist attraction ourselves, colourful foreground subjects in photographs of the sparkling body of water, flanked by distant snow-capped peaks.

Although it's technically summer during my early-June visit to America's first National Park, the snowdrifts of a brutal winter have only just melted, along with a metre of ice that covers the lake for six months of the year.

"If you fall in, get out quick," our guide Jonathan wryly warns us as we push off from the beach at Grant Village, on the southern reaches of Yellowstone Lake.

Not that we're in much danger of falling in – on this five-hour paddle we'll be staying close to shore, maximising our chances of spotting wildlife on the lake edge and getting as close as possible to the incredible geothermal features that make Yellowstone such a distinctive and fascinating destination.

One of the largest active "super volcanos", the Yellowstone caldera - formed by eruptions over the past 2.1 million years – boasts two-thirds of the planet's entire collection of geysers, as well as 10,000 brilliantly-coloured hot pools, steam vents and pits of oozing mud.

In layman's terms, it's all one big, boiling plumbing system. As rainwater and snowmelt seeps through the bedrock, it is superheated by a massive core of underlying magma, gushing back to the surface in spectacular fashion in nine distinct basins throughout the National Park.

Located on the edges of Yellowstone Lake – itself a flooded volcanic caldera with a 180 kilometre shoreline – West Thumb Geyser Basin may not contain the most dramatic of Yellowstone's geysers, but its comprehensive collection of opalesque pools, painted mudpots and steaming fumeroles, as well as its scenic lakeside location, make it one of the most popular amongst the four million visitors who flock to the park each year.

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On the water, however, it's a far more tranquil scenario; and as we bob over the wind-whipped breakers, all that can be heard is the swish of our paddles and our guides' commentary as we pause to watch birds of prey hovering on thermals or an otter playing in a becalmed inlet, silvery whiskers dancing in the morning light.

As we head north towards West Thumb, so the pebbly beaches give way to a landscape more sinister, an apocalyptic vision of a toxic, steaming wasteland, bubbling and boiling like a witches cauldron.

But there's beauty in this Bosch-like painting; abyssal ultramarine pools, treacherous mermaid castles described by 19th century observer F.V Hayden as "the most dazzlingly beautiful sight I have ever beheld"; mud pots in various shades of pink, yellow, red and violet, popping and bubbling; and acidic flows tinged by microorganisms called thermophiles.

It's not just on the shore that the Earth continues its act of creation; beneath the surface of the lake, a similar scenario is under way, with hot springs, steam vents and geysers all recorded beyond the depth of 100 metres, with activity indicated by ripples in the water.

In front of the boardwalk at West Thumb is the basin's most famous feature, the Fishing Cone - a submerged hot spring where early tourists used to cook fish they'd caught from the lake. In 1903, a magazine reported that "no visit to the park was complete without this experience", with tourists dressing in a cook's hat and apron for photo opportunities at the site.

Of course, any contact with the geothermal landscape is prohibited these days; but in our kayaks, we have the opportunity to get closer than ever possible on land, paddling into an alcove and dipping our hand into the water, where the boiling overflow of the geysers temper the icy currents to a bath-like consistency.

It's fascinating, educational, enlightening – and an intimate and fun way to experience Yellowstone, far from the madding crowd.

Julie Miller was a guest of RMI International.

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traveller.com.au/north-america

GreatAmericanWest.com.au

FLY

Delta Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne (via Sydney) to Los Angeles, with domestic flights to Jackson Hole in Wyoming. See delta.com

DRIVE

The easiest way to explore Yellowstone is by driving, with car hire available through DriveAway – see driveaway.com.au. Entry into Yellowstone National Park costs US$35 per vehicle; or pay US$80 for an annual all-park pass.

TOUR

A day kayaking trip on Lake Yellowstone with Geyser Kayak Tours costs US$200 for a single kayak, or US$350 for a tandem. See geyserkayak.com

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