Yellowstone To Southwest Montana Autumn Field Photo Snaps

Montana’s autumn is my favorite time of the year to do field work. Daytime temperatures are usually cool enough to encourage one to keep moving and the lighting is simply gorgeous. It is also one of the best times to visit areas in and around Yellowstone National Park (YNP) because most of the tourists have gone home. So no huge bear traffic jams or jostling for parking spots at the better known thermal spots in YNP and surrounding environs – it’s just a wonderfully introspective time for field forays. What follows are several photos that chronicle some of my fall wanderings in the greater Yellowstone area, both in terms of wildlife and geology.

Some of my favorite sightings in YNP are bison at any time of the year. But the autumn snows bring on the bison’s technique of using its head to clear snow away from any vegetative food source. The result of their snow-clearing activity is a snow-masked face.

Snow-caked face of a bison in YNP portends the winter food retrieval.
Snow-masked bison near Soda Butte Creek, YNP.

And where the snow hasn’t stacked up much, the YNP bison calmly graze and occasionally congregate on a ridge line to watch what remains of the YNP visitor traffic.

YNP bison contemplating passing vehicles.

Geological features in YNP take on new dimensions with the golden low and slanting light of autumn. I’ve spent much time re-photographing geologic features at all scales that seem to glow in this season’s light.

Tertiary sediments and Quaternary sediments/basalts of “The Narrows” cliff face adjacent to the Yellowstone River, northern YNP. Columnar basalt capped by auto-brecciated basalt makes a morel-like image for these geological units.
An early morning at -7 F on the Lamar River with steam fog resulting from the fall’s chilled air moving over water still warmed from summer.
A rodent trackway disappears into microterracettes of Palette Springs, Mammoth Hot Springs, YNP.
Microbial growth near the proximal part of Mound Springs, Mammoth Hot Springs, YNP.
The proximal end of Mound Springs abounds in various colored microbial life. It’s hard to stop photographing these features because they are so intriguing!
The lipped margin of Mound Spring’s pond facies, Mammoth Hot Springs, YNP.

 

 

 

 

The fall staging areas of sandhill cranes in southwestern Montana are mesmerizing. Staging areas are those locations where cranes annually congregate during late September into October, spend several days foraging through fields for food, and eventually continue on their migration southward from Montana to Colorado and the southwestern U.S.. The staging area that I usually go to is near Dillon, Montana, where hundreds of cranes can be viewed.

Sandhill crane interaction during their fall staging near Dillon, Montana.
Sandhill cranes doing a dance routine in the Dillon, Montana staging area.

As I said initially, it’s hard to surpass a Montana/YNP autumn!

Greater Yellowstone Area Eocene to Recent Hydrothermal Springs

The Gravelly Range spring deposits depicted in this photo are late Eocene (probably 34-36 million years in age).

Geologic field work is always fun, but especially so when it turns up something unexpected. Working on Eocene to Recent geology and vertebrate paleontology in the Gravelly Range, southwestern Montana promised to be enthralling because the volcanics, sedimentary units, and vertebrate fossils are at elevations of about 9,000 feet. But to come across extensive, unmapped calcareous spring deposits of probable Eocene age is topping off research efforts.

At this point, I’ll just say that our field team is still at work on the Tertiary spring deposits. We’ve found numerous leaf impressions including those of ginkgo, palm, metasequoia, Fagopsis (extinct member of Beech family), and alder – just to name a few. We’ve shown the plant assemblage collected to date to several paleobotanists, and, at least for age, their take is that the assemblage is probably latest Eocene in age, and bears many similarities to Florissant, Colorado fossil plant assemblages.

Palm frond impression from Gravelly Range spring deposit.
Ginkgo leaf impression from a Gravelly Range spring deposit.
Alnus cone from a Gravelly Range Spring deposit.

The spring deposits in the Gravelly Range are extensive, covering an area roughly 2 miles in length with deposits up to 120 feet in thickness. The springs are best characterized as travertine, although the spring systems’ edges contain clastic fluvial units and both the springs’ edges and pools have features such as plant impressions, root systems, and small travertine balls.

Gravelly Range Eocene spring deposit. Field backpacks in lower left corner for scale.

Because the Gravelly Range is so close to Yellowstone National Park, it is extremely interesting to compare its Eocene spring deposits to hydrothermal units at both the currently active Mammoth Hot Springs (which probably began its activity about 7,700 years ago), and to the fossil travertine found just north of Gardiner, Montana, that formed about 19.500 to 38,700 years ago (Fouke and Murphy, 2016: The Art of Yellowstone Science: Mammoth Hot Springs as a Window on the Universe).

The Gardiner travertine is fairly well exposed because it has been extensively quarried for several decades. Of interest for comparison are numerous plant impressions that occur within microterracettes. Fouke and Murphy (2016) suggest that these may be impressions of sage brush. A photo of the quarried wall with the plant impressions is shown below.

Plant impressions in Gardiner travertine. These impressions may be from sage brush. The travertine in this quarry face is estimated at about 30,000 years in age.

Other features in the Gardiner travertine, now partly covered by graffiti, include a quarry wall that shows terracettes and microterracettes that are outlined by darker lines within the travertine. These features are probably indicative of a proximal slope facies.

Gardiner travertine with its slope facies depicted well in smooth quarry face. The dark, irregular lines delineate terracettes and microterracettes.

Jumping forward in time to the extensive spring deposits of Mammoth Hot Springs (just within the northeast park boundary of Yellowstone National Park), is mind boggling. As in any comparison with rocks as old as Eocene to active deposition, one realizes how much detail is lost over time. But it is still worthwhile to try to compare spring features, so I’ll show a few photos of the Mammoth Hot Springs that may match up with various features of the fossil springs.

Branch and plant fragments in the process of becoming calcified at Mammoth Hot Springs – main terrace.
Calcified plant debris – Mammoth main terrace.
Terracettes – Mammoth main terrace, proximal slope facies.
Trees engulfed by prograding spring activity – Mammoth main terrace.
Travertine balls in small pond – Mammoth main terrace.

Suffice it to say, that the upcoming field season should be a good one, with more work to be done on the Gravelly Range spring deposits. And – it’s always fun to get a trip in to Yellowstone!

Tertiary geology and paleontology of the central Gravelly Range – a project update

The 2017 field crew working at Lazyman Hill. The strata are late Eocene (probably 34-36 million years in age) tufa deposits.

It’s time for our yearly update talk on field work and data compilation for the Tertiary geology and paleontology of the central Gravelly Range project in southwestern Montana. The Madison Ranger District in Ennis, Montana (5 Forest Service Road) will be hosting my talk on Monday, April 2nd at 10am in the Madison Ranger District conference room. We have a project permit from the US Forest Service because our project area lies within the Madison Ranger District – and the USFS District people have been really helpful with our project logistics. Thus, this is the perfect way to let them know what we did this past field season and how the whole project is coming together. The Madison District just sent their public announcement for the talk:

Dr. Hanneman and Dr. Don Lofgren, PhD (Director, Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA 91711) and their team have been executing a multiyear study in the Gravelly Range near Black Butte resulting in many interesting paleontological findings right here in our own back yard.  Please join Dr. Hanneman and the Madison Ranger District for an update on this project and what they hope to unearth this year!

It’s a very intriguing project on high-elevation, mainly Eocene-Oligocene Tertiary geology and paleontology (mostly vertebrate and floral). So – anyone with an interest in this and who is in the geographic area, is welcome at the talk!

Winter Trekking Through Yellowstone’s Thermal and Glacial Features

Cross country skiing in one of the glacial melt-water channels on the Blacktail Plateau.

Some winter days in Yellowstone National Park are so amazing with clear blue skies and sparkling snow that they just take your breathe away. Luckily enough, I just experienced several of these kinds of days which I packed full of cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and animal watching.

One of the groomed trails that held a good snow base until about early afternoon is the Blacktail Plateau Loop. The trail follows melt-water channels that are associated with “Retreat Lake”, which was formed by the Beartooth glacial ice mass blocking the lower end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone during the Pleistocene.

Rounded cobbles and boulders left behind from melt-water flow sit on the volcanic bedrock in many areas along the trail. Ski tip in the lower right for scale.
Looking back to the northwest on the Blacktail Plateau ski trail. Notice the scoop-shape of the landscape which is the result of this area being part of a glacial melt-water channel.
Calcite Springs overlook is accessible during the winter via the Tower ski trail.

The Tower ski trail provides access to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area. A favorite stop of mine is the Calcite Springs overlook where the thermal springs lie south of the overlook, on the west side of the Yellowstone River and Pliocene/Pleistocene sediment and basalt are on the Yellowstone River’s east side.

 

A groomed ski trail also accesses the Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. However, after a few days of spring-like temperatures, the snow was so melted back that I just used my snowshoes to trek through the icy slush.  Some thermal features were still covered by snow and slush, but others appeared much more vibrant against the white snow/slush blanket.

One of the fissure ridges along the upper Terraces trail is called White Elephant Back Springs and Terrace.

Aphrodite Terraces lie a short way north of the White Elephant Back Springs:

My favorite thermal feature of the Upper Terraces is Orange Spring Mound. The spring is supported by a fissure ridge and is intermittently active. Because of its low water discharge and subsequent slow growth, it has built up a characteristic cone shape.

Orange Spring Mound of the Upper Terraces in Mammoth Hot Springs.

All in all, it was perfect wintertime fun trekking around in Yellowstone. Can’t wait to get back there when the bears come back out from hibernation!

 

Yellowstone’s Firehole Lake Drive Reopens

Last Thursday (July 10),Yellowstone National Park (YNP) temporarily closed the 3.3 mile-long Firehole Lake Drive, a paved road that traverses some of Lower Geyser Basin. Melting asphalt on a part of the road near the start of the loop drive became a “soupy mess”, according to Dan Hottle, YNP spokesman. Hottle told Live Science that Firehole Lake Drive’s surface reached 160° Fahrenheit (70° Celsius) on Thursday, roughly 30° to 40° F (17° to 22° C) hotter than usual. Hot gases from area thermal activity that were trapped by the asphalt road surface and warm weather combined to cause the road damage.

YNP said that the road would reopen soon and sure enough, by the time I was there on Monday (July 14), the road was driveable. One of the YNP information rangers at Canyon Village told me that the road repairs included road crews removing damaged pavement and applying a mixture of sand and lime to soak up some of the thick bubbly road oil.  The road section was then graveled so that the hot gases could better escape a more permeable road surface.

I drove over a part of the Fire Hole Lake Drive that was repaired due to melted asphalt last Sunday, soon after the road was reopened.  The damaged road section is now graveled. Note the absence of steam rising from the road surface - even though it was cool and rainy that day.
I drove Firehole Lake Drive loop last Monday, shortly after it was reopened, and stopped to photograph some of the damaged road. The section of the road that contained the melting asphalt is now graveled, and judging by the absence of steam rising off the road (the day was cool and rainy, so I expected to see some steam billowing above the road surface), it looks like the YNP road fix is working.

Thermal activity affecting YNP roads and parking areas is not uncommon. During my Monday travels in Yellowstone, another Canyon area YNP ranger told me that about 10 years ago, a new thermal feature melted a small part of the Mud Volcano parking lot. This area is now fenced off, but the rest of the parking lot is still used. YNP spokesman Hottle also informed Live Science that YNP has closed Firehole Lake Drive in the past for repairs due to heat damage, but that these closures are not frequent.

A small part of the parking lot at Mud Volcano fell victim to thermal activity several years ago.
A small part of the parking lot at Mud Volcano fell victim to thermal activity several years ago.

And – just for some perspective on this latest road meltdown: the YNP website home page says “Yellowstone contains approximately one-half of the world’s hydrothermal features. There are over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including over 300 geysers, in the park”. Given the profusion of thermal activity, I’m not surprised that a small section of asphalt melts once in a while. I guess I’m amazed that the YNP can keep park infrastructure maintained such that millions of people can visit the park every year.