If you are squeamish about driving steep, narrow mountain roads, you might be nervous passing through Golden Gate. The curvy, sloped road hugs the side wall of Glen Creek Canyon creating a narrow passageway from Mammoth to the higher elevations of the Yellowstone Plateau. But at least you aren’t traveling around the face of the cliff on a one-lane, rickety, wooden-trestled bridge like the stagecoach passengers of 1884.
Though the roadway has changed over time, the light colored sheer rock walls of Golden Gate provide a great glimpse of the past. It’s Huckleberry Ridge Tuff from the first of three major volcanic eruptions in Yellowstone. The thick sheet of volcanic rock formed when hot ash fell to the ground and fused, hardening as it cooled.
At the top end of Golden Gate, just before the landscape opens up to Swan Lake Flats, beautiful Rustic Falls tumbles 47 feet over the edge of the erosion-resistant rhyolite rock cliff. At the lower end, a distinctive rock pillar flanks the outside edge of the roadway. Interestingly, the 23-ton pillar was moved each time the road was rebuilt.
Golden Gate offers a wonderful view of Bunsen Peak, a 50-million-year-old cone volcano named for the German physicist who invented the Bunsen burner and also developed theories on how geysers work.
If you’re uneasy about the curves and sheer drop-off of Golden Gate, have someone else drive while you look for the stunning yellow and orange lichens on the rocks. Instead of thinking about the engineering of the roadway, focus instead on the beauty and history of these ancient and rugged canyon walls.