The day started bitter cold even if beautiful and cloudless. On the stiffly frozen ground our coach departed from the hotel and turned past the springs into the gorge of the Gardiner River where the road rose so steeply that our four good horses could only advance with great effort. Despite furs, blankets and the life-preserving cognac we were freezing quite hard during the first hours of the 68 km long drive.
After some time the end of the gorge is reached at some kind of pass that has been named Golden Gate after the yellow moss growing on the rocks. The route continues alongside a rock wall over a wooden bridge.
The Golden Gate is found as an illustration in all travel guide books. Countless photographs of it are sold. But there are hundreds of much more beautiful gorges and passes in our mountains that nobody mentions. I noticed here too that in America, the humbug is extended to natural wonders too and many very unimportant feature and point is pressed upon the visitor as an admirable sight. I am certainly a great friend of nature and its charms and am rightfully said to be an enthusiast for nature and can while away for days in a beautiful area or forest and still find new features in every tree, every mountain, in short in everything. If, however, guide books, guides and travel organizers and coachmen in a way command me to find something „beautiful“, my admiration vanishes and I start to examine with a critical eye and make comparisons with those at home which most of the times favor the latter.
Unfortunately the whole gorge is littered with dead trees, witnesses of earlier forest fires, and the government could at least here in the national park undertake reforestations next to the road. The Gardiner river crashed down as a small waterfall from the ledge of the pass from which we came over a plain prairie-like plateau. In its midst lies Swan Lake that is actually only a puddle despite of its presumptuous name. Behind us rose the Electric Peak at 3400 m the highest mountain in the Yellowstone Park. To our right loomed the snowy peaks of Quadrant Mount, Bannock Peak and Mount Holmes, three mighty steep mountains that were all above 3000 m high.
After the monotonous prairie of the high plateau we were welcomed by a living forest which however was not comparable in beauty to the forests in our latitudes but still had only a few spots of burned trees or trees knocked down by the snow pressure. Spruces and fir trees made up its stock almost exclusively. Only now and then a few dwarfish trembling poplars or willows were casting out a glance out of the dark green of the conifers. As there had fallen today a splendid new snow, we entertained ourselves by discovering and following the numerous tracks crossing the road. Among these were excellent elk (wapiti) tracks of considerable size as well as those of wolfs, foxes and hares. Squirrels of three different species among which one very small striped cute animal were scurrying around as swift as an arrow and were sunning themselves on the fallen trees only to disappear lightning fast among the branches or roots when the wagon came too close.
The richness in game of the park is quite respectable thanks to the severe hunting prohibition. The last specimen of the once innumerable wild buffalo herds spared the senseless destructive urges of the rude farmers and cowboys are living here. Besides them are wapitis, moose, big-horns, mountain sheep, smaller deer species, six bear varieties (grizzly, cinnamon, black, silvertipped, smutfaced and silk bears), one mountain lion, wolves, foxes, coyotes, beavers, — elsewhere close to extinction if their hunt is not stopped — Otters, martens, muskrats, ermines, hares, rabbits, badgers, iltisses and even some species of porcupine. Among the birds one finds grouse, eagle and other predators, owls, many geese and ducks, pelicans and allegedly swans. Then cranes, crows, ravens, a species of blue nutcracker and frequently spotted nutcrackers that are very similar to ours in voice, flight and behavior.
Despite the tables affixed everywhere displaying „No Shooting“ and even though the army battalion is also tasked with prohibiting any hunting, there is much poaching going on. Thus I have heard that a gang has killed 500 wapitis and transported them across the border. And I would have to leave the question open whether there were not some captains who would take up the rifle from time to time with their soldiers during the long lonesome winter months while the park was closed.
Three kilometers from Swan Lake one crosses Indian Creek and Willow Creek that flow here into Gardiner river and then stands face to face to the obsidian rock which I had imagined to look quite different. The cooled stream of volcanic glass can be indeed noticed on the rock and on the many broken pieces lying around but the light effects and reflections are in no way as extraordinary as they are described. The most interesting is the fact that the rock served as a good orientation marker for the Indians who considered it holy. In its hard mass it once had provided excellent material for arrow heads. When the road had been laid out here, one did not want to destroy the beautiful rock by powder or dynamite explosions but heated it up and then quickly poured cold water over it — a method which made the rock crack on its own.
To our right was Beaver Lake, a small pretty forest lake with a blue surface and beaver lodges. Here as in all places with much water were many ducks that were not at all timid and swam around with great familiarity close to our rolling wagon. At a lake close to Beaver Lake we were greatly surprised. When we were unsuspectingly driving alongside the lake we suddenly saw a brown mass move in a meadow at the edge of the water. Approaching to finally only 150 paces we recognized to our great pleasure a mighty beaver. To see such an animal walking around freely during clear day is certainly a considerable rarity which was confirmed also by our coachman who is driving this route for a good part of the year.
We had the wagon immediately stopped and observed the animal that did not let itself be interrupted. Even when we shouted and whistled, it continued in its slow wobbling walk only now and then stopping and glancing back. How much did I regret the vexed „No Shooting“ that prevented me from firing a shot at this rare animal — what a valuable hunting trophy this apparently very old gentleman would have made! It had been so close that I could very clearly distinguish its beautiful dense fur with the long silver grey tinted ends, the cone-shaped strong tail and the plump legs. This break lifted our somewhat „frozen“ spirits all the more as the warmth of the sun became more noticeable.
It astonished me greatly that the coachman stopped the coach from time to time and made the steaming horses drink snow water despite their hot condition, something I would not have dared to do with my own horses. When we asked him, he said that the company had ordered that he had to water the horses always in the same places during the year. In the summer this may be reasonable but I find the blind following of such an order in this season and the current circumstances to be very audacious or very stupid.
Again there followed two small lakes called Twin Lakes, then it went through a wooded valley on a sometimes quite bad road until we reached the lunch station, the Norris Hotel. It had burned down already twice and thus there was just a great tent erected in its place. In it were innumerable flies that had sought shelter from the coming winter cold and tortured the guests who are offered a bad cold breakfast. The landlord acts as a joker and tomfool but also has moments of an felicitous kind when he shook the hand of his guests and greeted them like friends and old acquaintances. Thus he called Wurmbrand „Oh, how do you do, my dear Duke!“ and other similar childish acts.
At the same time as we arrived from the opposite direction various groups one of which was composed of ladies that were the opposite of young. During the drive we encountered quite many riders with baggage horses and small family wagons, mostly poorer people that had travelled across the Yellowstone park in the warmer season and had camped there and where now fleeing quickly from the coming cold. One wagon with a very corpulent mother and a flock of hopeful children of various ages who were sitting on beds and cooking apparatus looked like a gypsy wagon.
The armed forces were represented by a patrol that came toward us singing but chittering in the cold. They were dressed in theatrical sombreros and cuffed gloves. As soon as we had satisfied our hunger and thirst with cold meat and a bottle of the famous American Zinfandel wine, we rushed on foot to visit the sources and hot springs nearby. Here I saw for the first time an active geyser, the so called Constant Geyser or Minute Man, that was one of the smallest among his brethren but that attracted our attention as it was the closest. In the midst of a calcareous sinter terrace it rises especially eager every four minutes 6 m high into the air and thrusts out a crystal clear water jet like a strong spring fountain, developing considerable amounts of steam and sending hot water into the whole surrounding area.
Very close nearby is the Black Growler, a no longer active geyser that still thrusts out a steam jet with a forceful subterranean noise. A few steps off the road in a cave lies the Mud Geyser, an apparently quiet spring with a smooth surface. Every twenty minutes however bubbles are forming on the surface and suddenly the water rises with a strong whiz up to a height of 2 m and forms a cone like one can see in many artificial water works. Eight minutes does this strange spectacle of nature last, then the whole hot water masses fall down as quickly as they appeared and the spring is as smooth and clear as before.
Continuing we arrived at Emerald Pool, a dead geyser whose water in the crater had such a beautiful green and blue color as I had never before seen it at any other spring. In the unfathomable depth the refracturing of the light is unique in its kind.
The Monarch Geyser situated in a side gorge is fairly young and quite unreliable in its eruption intervals as it sends its water jet in longer unequal periods but then to a notable height of 30 m. This geyser had been damaged like many others in the park by throwing soap into it. The latter one has the strange effect of forcing a sudden eruption. But the too frequent use of this violent chemistry has exhausted some geysers, so that some had gone out completely or became irregular or provided only a very small jet. The effective prohibition of such mischief has come too late as many geysers had already been put out of commission by „soaping“.
Apart from the just named the Norris Geyser Basin includes a large number of smaller geysers and hot springs that would be very interesting all of their own but in the company of so much more spectacular sights they lose in importance as one starts to make comparisons.
On the day before my arrival a Northern German who wanted to impress a group of ladies as a „tough guy“ had the inconsiderate idea to stand straddling the Constant Geyser. When the eruption occurred, he was completely burned and is now in a life or death struggle as a victim of his childish act of bravery.
During the rest of the drive we arrived at Elk Park, a large meadow enclosed in a forest through which the Gibbon River flows quietly. At the shore of it we saw multiple beautiful American geese with dark blue, nearly black heads and necks as well as white stripes. They showed themselves very familiar in contrast to the custom of their European relatives and let us approach quite close. Apart from them we saw only a few representatives of the bird world during the whole journey. Now and then a harrier or buzzard, quite frequently small falcons with grey blue bodies an red wings, some nutcrackers, thrushes, grouses, finches and tits. In the very sparse flora I spotted only a gentian with long stem and purple flowers.
Our stage coach rolled into a wooded valley alongside the Gibbon River following the route that was snaking its way through the forest marked and interrupted by dark sharply cut rock formations. Finally the valley became narrower and gorge-like. The route ascended steeply up to a point from which we could see deep below us the picturesque Gibbon Falls. The river falls there almost 25 m over a tall rock and combines itself down in the valley with the Firehole River to form the Madison River. At a turn in the forest we could see the immense forest areas that reached in the far distance up to the three white sentinels of the Teton Mountains that lay outside the park and were 4270 m high. These mountains form the border between Wyoming, the equality state where man and woman enjoy the same political rights, and Idaho.
Descending down the steep mountain we arrived in the valley of the Firehole River, passed a station as well as a tent camp of the cavalry squadron doing police duty and are at 5 o’clock in the evening after a drive of eight hours at the Fountain Geyser Hotel that is surrounded by aa ring of steaming springs and geysers.
Here we had arrived in the true center of the volcanic surface activities and used the remaining part of the day to quickly visit the largest geyser that was only a few minutes away from the hotel and was active every two to three hours. There we found numerous visitors who also were awaiting the moment of eruption. To my great surprise I saw a common snipe walk around and jab at the edge of a crater in the hot water of a smaller nearly continuously active minor geyser.
A general „Ah!“ of the waiting audience called me to the edge of the great geyser in which soon rose, with strong bubbling and whizzing, a mighty 10 m wide water jet up to a heigh of 45 m. The rays of the setting sun were broken and reflected in the massive water jet and offered a gorgeous color effect that a vivid Frenchman present compared not incorrectly to a fontaine lumineuse.
Soon after the show of the Fountain Geyser had ended and the water had quieted down, we were faced with a new spectacle of the Mammoth Paint Pots, large mud springs that are in constant motion. Snow-white, viscous mud, resembling freshly slaked lime, is thrown up here in numerous places in form of hemispherical masses, cones, rings or also as a jet and falls down again with a thud.
The vivid Frenchman and I could not refrain from poking our sticks into the mass and throwing pieces from the cooled edge into it. But immediately the watchful eye of the law appeared in the form of a soldier who complained that this action was a violation of the „Rules and Regulations“. These guards of whom one is always found at each prominent point are of the most meticulous exactitude and keep rigorously watch that not one pebble of the national sanctuary goes missing.
Returned to the hotel we enjoyed the splendid view for a while longer that the clear shine of the rising moon wove into the smoke pillars of the geysers and much more than the dinner which was just as awful as we found it prepared everywhere else in America. Only this time the impolite waiters had been replaced in an agreeable way by a group of pretty girls who were guarded by a very old and very lean female „boss“ like a hawk.