Day 3: LIGHTNING CRASHES
It was freezing cold in our cabin at Canyon Lodge when Julie and I awoke at 6am. After packing our stuff and checking out at the front lobby, we were off to Mammoth to try to secure campground reservations (knowing we this day we didn’t pre-book anything).
Then, we headed back towards Mammoth and towards the terraces. The terraces were quite impressive, but the majority of them were a ghostly white and brown. This included the famed Minerva Terrace, which was pretty much dead except for a little bit of color at its very top.
I guess we were a few years too late in terms of seeing the full color of this terrace, which was a bummer because a lot of the postcards showed this very terrace in full color and vigor. Oh well, that’s life sometimes.
It turned out that Minerva Terrace wasn’t totally dead even though the vast majority of it was white. Actually, the very top of the terrace was still active and had some color. Still, it seemed like this terrace had seen its best days, and I guess that comes with the ebb and flow of Nature.
The Canary Spring wasn’t quite as shapely as the Minerva Terrace, but the hot water spilling across the rounded cliffy mounds providing that orange and reddish color to the surface certainly made this section perhaps the most interesting of the terraces that we’ve seen on this trip.
On the short one-way drive in the Terrace area, we also saw the Palette Spring and the Orange Mound, which also had color though they were far smaller in scale than the Canary Springs and Minerva Terrace.
By the time we were done visiting the terraces, it was about 11:15am and still sunny and clear.
Next, we intended to see Osprey Falls so we parked the car at its trailhead at the base of Bunsen Peak. But before we started on this hike, we walked along the Grand Loop Road to get closeup views of Rustic Falls.
We were able to park the car near the top of this waterfall, then walk along the road as we gradually went from an angled profile view of Rustic Falls to a more direct view of the 50ft bulbous waterfall rippling alongside the Grand Loop Road.
It was a little past noon when found trailhead parking and we started the hike to Osprey Falls. The skies remained sunny and wildflowers were growing all over the four-wheel-drive track converted hiking trail. The trail passed through an open grassy field as it went around the base of Bunsen Peak.
So Julie and I merrily hiked along this mostly flat trail, which lasted the first 2 miles. We didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the skies had suddenly went from fine weather to ominous and foreboding as dark thunderheads quickly overtook us.
Then, we started to hear thunder. Along with the thunder, we started to see flashes of lightning suddenly popping up in the sky with alarming frequency.
I was amazed at how quickly it went from sunny and fair to the lightning show we were now experiencing. Then, I quickly realized the danger we were in when I noticed there wasn’t anything but grass and low-lying bush around us on the trail. With the lightning flashing with such frequency, I wasn’t sure what we should do.
So Julie and I continued walking along the trail. We knew there were other people on the trail too and wondered what they would’ve done in this situation. I especially wondered about those folks on Bunsen Peak during this storm (as I noticed some people were also on the peak itself earlier on in the hike).
It was around that time that we finally made it to the spur trail that descended into the steep Sheepeater Canyon. The trail was narrow and the dropoffs ramped quickly towards the Gardiner River far below. Burnt trees were everywhere, reminding us of the consequences of the lightning show we saw firsthand.
Once the switchbacking descent ended, we then followed the Gardiner River upstream towards the waterfall. The trail still remained narrow, however, we wondered how much trail erosion must be going on given how much fire damage might have reduced the amount of foliage that would’ve retained the stability of the soil.
It was almost 2pm when we finally made it to the base of the impressive 150ft Osprey Falls. The trail got steep towards its end beneath the falls. There was even a natural overhanging shelter which would come in handy should the skies dump rain again.
It wasn’t easy taking a satisfying photo of this falls because the waterfall twisted on its way down. So even though it was quoted as being 150ft tall, it sure felt quite a bit shorter than that. Nonetheless, the sun started making a reappearance while we were at the falls.
Anyways, we enjoyed this falls and left when the next large party of hikers made it to the falls.
Now that it seemed like the coast was clear concerning sudden thunderstorms and lightning strikes, the hike back out was long, but at least we got to do it in a relaxed state of mind again. When we got up to the top of the climb and rejoined the trail around Bunsen Peak, we could look back into Sheepeater Canyon and be amazed that we had actually climbed in and out of that steep canyon!
Fortunately, the remainder of the hike around Bunsen Peak was pretty flat. And now that we were headed back in the other direction (west), we started to notice the snow-capped mountains in the distance that we suspected were part of the Absaroka Ranges.
It was after 4pm when we returned to the car park and fortunately no further incidence of lightning in the open occurred (though it was always on our minds). As a matter of fact, the weather started to clear again and afternoon sunlight prevailed.
Julie and I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a shower in the Mammoth Hotel (something that wasn’t advertised when I did my trip research). Then, we had a nice dinner in one of the restaurants in town.
It was 8:30pm when we returned to our tent in the Mammoth Campground. There was still late afternoon light at this hour. Both Julie and I spent time reading and tending to our personal hygiene. We both marveled at how nice their restroom facilities were. We figured it probably had to do with being close to the National Park Headquarters 🙂
When night time fell, we both peacefully slept in our tents. The moon was full and I swore I could hear howling that woke me up from my semi-conscious state in the middle of the night. I couldn’t tell if they were coyotes or wolves, but either way, their eerie howls somehow reminded me of werewolves. And with that thought, I eventually drifted back into my subconscious and slept the night away…