Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 2

When stories of a surreal wonderland of geysers and mudpots began to surface, the American public could not believe what they heard. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones it was called "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The first was financed and led by David Folsom. Charles Cook, and William Peterson of Monatana. There was still fear that explorers into Yellowstone wouldn't be taken seriously, so Folsom was reluctant when invited to speak to a group of prominent citizens in Helena, Montana. He eventually did, and that speech along with journals from the expedition inspired Montana's Surveyor-General, Henry Washburn, to mount an expedition of his own in 1871. With funding from Northern Pacific Railroad, expedition member Nathaniel Langford went on a speaking tour that led to the formation of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was a geologist, and his expedition was a veritable army of botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. For his part, Langford was made the park's first superintendent.

Just south of Roosevelt Lodge is one of the great scenic spots of the park. On Tower Creek just before its confluence with the Yellowstone River, Tower Fall is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. At 132 feet, it was a picturesque stopover for the Washburn Expedition as they explored the region for several days en route to Lake Yellowstone.

Calcite Spring, near Roosevelt Lodge.
Tower Fall from the upper viewpoint.
The feature is named for the rocky spires
that rise above the water. 
Mount Washburn.
The high-country plains and forests of Yellowstone's north.
Following the path of the Washburn Expedition and past the mountain named in Washburn's honour, visitors arrive at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. At 24 miles long and up to 1200 feet deep, hewn by the Yellowstone River and its two rumbling waterfalls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has inspired reverence and awe from the moment of its discovery. Charles Cook described the moment he accidentally happened upon it in 1869: "I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke." The Hayden Geological Survey included the artist Thomas Moran, whose painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone helped promote the creation of the park to the public and the Congress.

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

Spurred on by Moran, tourists flocked to this area and were in need of accommodation. The sprawling Canyon Hotel was built in 1911 on the spot occupied by two previous, smaller and more temporary hotels. Designed in the streamlined "Prairie" style by Yellowstone's resident architect Robert Reamer, the hotel featured a lounge that was 100 feet by 200 feet and looked out onto the wild vistas with giant panoramic windows. Unfortunately it was allowed to fall into deliberate disuse by the National Parks Service. After WWII, a new parks masterplan put the emphasis on motel accommodations for motorists and withdrew scant funding from maintaining the old railway lodges. Large amounts of money were poured into the construction of the modern Canyon Village with its motel, visitor centre, and services. To their apparent surprise, guests still preferred the grand old hotel. In retaliation, Canyon Hotel was closed down in 1959 for "structural problems" and slated for demolition. Before a year was out, a mysterious fire completely destroyed it. This fiasco is widely regarded today as one of the greatest architectural losses in the entire National Parks system.

Historical photo of the Canyon Hotel. Photo: NPS.
Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls pour into the sharp, craggy valley of the Grand Canyon. Early explorers believed that the distinctive yellow colour of the cliffs indicated the presence of sulphur. Further study by geologists have found that the cliffs are made of the volcanic rock rhyolite exuded by the powerful geological forces at work under Yellowstone. After these rocks were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, they were slow-cooked by the park's geothermal features into the rusty yellows and reds that are so distinctive today.

Looking towards the Lower Falls from Artist Point.
Looking downriver from Inspiration Point.
A closer look at Lower Falls from
Red Rock Point, in the canyon.
Climbing down to Red Rock Point
means climbing back out.
Following the Yellowstone River upstream brings visitors into Hayden Valley, one of the best places to see native wildlife. Distant millennia ago, Ice Age glaciers dammed up Yellowstone Lake, making it much larger than it is today. During that time, Hayden Valley was a northward stretching arm of the lake. After it drained, fine-grained lake sediments became fertile ground for marshy habitats that in turn favoured bison, wolves, and waterfowl. Hayden Valley also houses several unique thermal features. Sulphur Caldron bubbles and churns with acidic waters of pH 1.3, nearly the same as battery acid. Because of the acidity of the water, rock and minerals can be broken down to a soupy muck that fuels springs like Mud Volcano. The Dragon's Mouth is a horizontal vent that belches steam and pulses with ominous noises, much like the cavernous home of some terrible monster.

Hayden Valley.
Mud pits at Sulphur Caldron.
Sulphur Caldron itself.
The Dragon's Mouth, which seems like
it should be an attraction at Disneyland.
Mud Volcano, once a geyser cone that
blew itself apart, leaving only this bubbling pool.
Spattering mud in Mud Volcano.
Herd of buffalo in Hayden Valley.

Finally, near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River is Yellowstone Lake. This lake, at 136 square miles, is the largest lake above 7000 feet elevation in North America. A frequent stopping point for Native American tribes, the lakeshore is now home to a complex of hotels, lodges, visitors centres, and other amenities. Beneath the relatively shallow lake lies a landscape of hydrothermal vents and underwater geysers whose strange lifeforms may help to shed light on the origins of life on earth and potential for life on other planets.

The original Lake Hotel was a simple structure erected by Northern Pacific Railway in 1891. In 1903, while he was working on the Old Faithful Inn, Robert Reamer was hired to expand and renovate the hotel. Instead of matching the hotel to the surrounding environment, he added Ionic columns to give it a Colonial Revival style more befitting a building from Boston or New York. His idea was to offer guests the more familiar comforts of a grand Victorian seaside resort instead of backcountry romance in some fanciful log-hewn lodge. Where once horse-drawn carriage conducted guests back and forth, the porticoes of Lake Hotel are now the departure point for bus tours of southeastern Yellowstone.

Lake Hotel, from the lake.
The hotel's port cochere. To the side is one of the
"modern" touring buses introduced to the park in 1975.

The elegant lobby.
Enjoying views of the lake through the trees.
Guests are welcome to take up a chair and admire the lake.
Or find a warm spot in front of the fire.
Etched glass separates the lobby from the dining room.
Very shortly after automobiles were allowed into Yellowstone in 1915, the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company purchased a fleet of open-top touring buses from the White Motor Company. As these 1917 vehicles aged and technology progressed, they were phased out in favour of newer models. Beginning in 1936, this new fleet plied the highways of Yellowstone and many other National Parks, including Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, Mt. Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite. After being withdrawn from service in the Sixties, the buses have since been refurbished and continue to serve in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Buses from Glacier are painted a distinctive red (causing considerable confusion when they are called "White Buses") and those in Yellowstone are painted yellow.

The 1936 model touring car, ready to depart from Lake Hotel.
A pair of 1917 models maintained by the Jammer Trust.
The red car originates from Glacier National Park, the yellow from Yellowstone.
The White touring buses worked well for guests arriving by rail. For those under power of their own automobile, they just needed a place to park. A rustic log structure named Lake Lodge opened near Lake Hotel in 1920, designed once again by Robert Reamer. Though replacing a Wylie tent camp, it still augmented its rooms with tent accommodations until these were replaced by cabins in the Thirties.

Lake Lodge on a misty morning.

The lake is beyond the trees, somewhere.
Lake Lodge's cafeteria.
One of Lake Lodge's fireplaces.
A duplex cabin.
The automobile fundamentally changed how visitors experienced Yellowstone National Park. At first, the railway brought the intrepid, who were then ushered to stately hotels and put at the mercy of experienced trail guides who could interpret the park's natural and geological history. Automobiles freed visitors to explore at their whim, staying overnight in lodge cabins and going by day wherever the road took them. To address the lapse in proper education, the National Parks Service commissioned architect Herbert Maier to design a series of four "trailside museums" that were built between 1929 and 1931. The Old Faithful Museum of Thermal Activity was demolished in 1971, but the three remaining museums - Norris, Madison, and Fishing Bridge - still serve their intended function. Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center is designed in such a way that views of Lake Yellowstone can be seen through the structure, emphasizing that the park's natural wonders are its true attraction.

Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center.
They use antlers in all of their decorating.

The museum is named for Fishing Bridge, situated where Yellowstone Lake empties into the Yellowstone River for it journey towards the Missouri. This was a very productive spot for catching native cutthroat trout when fishing was encouraged in the National Parks (and found itself as the inspiration for the Disney cartoon Hooked Bear starring Humphrey the Bear and Ranger Woodlore). From the nearby Lake Fish Hatchery, Yellowstone's waters were stocked with brook, brown and rainbow trout, to the detriment of cutthroats, grayling and whitefish. This practice was ended in the Fifties and Fishing Bridge, built in 1937, is only used to watch fish rather than catch them. Sadly, events beyond the park's control still happen. Irresponsible anglers illegally introduced lake trout to Yellowstone, causing a crisis for the native cutthroat that parks managers are trying to wrangle.

Looking back from Fishing Bridge to Lake Yellowstone.
Fishing Bridge.
Admiring the solid construction
beneath Fishing Bridge.
The view downriver.
No longer reliant on hotels and guiding companies to supply their needs, motorists took advantage of Yellowstone's chain of general stores. The Lake General Store, a stone's throw from Lake Hotel, was built in a novel octagonal style in 1919. Of particular note inside are the chandeliers with animal and nature motifs: squirrels, acorns, and owls.

Like the motorists of old, modern visitors follow the Grand Loop Road westward along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, eventually arriving at Old Faithful and the Upper, Midway, Lower, and Norris Geyser Basins. There one may get a true appreciation for the frightening volcanic powers underlying the world's first National Park.

Sunset over Yellowstone Lake.

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