Above: Firehole Lake Drive damage. Photo by NPS
Update Monday, July 14: Road crews have finished the road repair and Firehole Lake Drive has now reopened to park visitors.
Thursday, July 10, Firehole Lake Drive closed because the asphalt has turned into a “soupy mess,” said park spokesman Dan Hottle.
Firehole Lake Road is a 3-mile one-way side road off the Grand Loop located between the Old Faithful geyser and Madison Junction. Geothermal heat radiating from underground was 30 degrees hotter than usual on Thursday. Combined with the summer sun, the heat has melted the asphalt.
Hottle noted that the road problems do not mean the volcano is showing signs of an impending eruption. "The supervolcano is not going to blow," he said.
Yellowstone hopes to reopen the road within a week. During that time, park visitors will not have access to the White Dome Geyser and Firehole Lake but they are just a tiny portion Yellowstone's thermal features, so the closure should not affect attendance at the park.
Below is a video of the road on June 14, a few weeks before the closure. The section of road at 0:20 shows the same area that is pictured at the top of this article, but we can see no damage here.
(To see the best video resolution, click on the gear symbol in the lower right of the video while it is playing)
Potholes and buckling are not new hazards to asphalt roads that spend half the year under snow and ice. But Yellowstone's roads have additional challenges. Much of Yellowstone sits on top of a giant caldera from a super volcano. The magma chamber underneath expands and contracts in a "breathing" motion. Add to that, 1,600 small earthquakes each year, and acidic sprays from nearby geysers. It's a miracle that the roads function as well as they do.
Although the photo of the damaged Firehole Lake Road is making news, more notable road repair is happening on the Grand Loop Road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin. A 16-mile stretch of road receives constant beatings from thermal features. Within the next five years, the Park Service plans to relocate this part of Grand Loop Road that takes visitors past Frying Pan Spring. "That area of the road is always buckled up and being repatched and repaired, so we're moving it away from the thermal area," Hottle said.
For status of Yellowstone roads, visit the NPS Park Road page at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkroads.htm or call 307-344-2117.