Yellowstone 1 of 3: The Thermal Features, Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs
National Park: Yellowstone
Yellowstone is simply one of the strangest and most breathtaking places in the world. It refuses to stop leaving you in shock; no matter how many photos or documentaries you’ve seen on “The American Serengeti”, nothing prepares you for the surprise of seeing its wonders firsthand. A journey to Yellowstone truly expands your preconceived notions of what constitutes reality in this world. And to best serve all Americans, nearly all of Yellowstone’s famous sights can be seen by visitors of all ability levels.
In the morning you can watch thousands of gallons of boiling water rocket from a small hole in the Earth; in the afternoon you can chance to see a wolf in the most intact ecosystem in our continental United States; and in the evening you can witness a powerful waterfall carve a deep canyon of yellow and red. And while you could do all this in one day, why not give yourself more time and immerse yourself in this unparalleled wilderness? A fulfilling vacation to Yellowstone demands at least three days. Thus, I’ve broken Yellowstone into three themed reviews, each of which encompasses approximately one third of the Park.
The first entry is on the Yellowstone the volcano. One of the world’s most currently active volcanoes, Yellowstone is home to roughly 10,000 thermal features and the highest concentration of geysers in the world. It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of these statistics without seeing for yourself miles of steam rise over the Firehole River while you weave between translucent pools that bubble and groan. The landscape is darkly fantastical and is equally as frightening as it is beautiful.
Yellowstone’s wilderness is traversed by a single road that transects the Park in a figure-eight formation. The most notable thermal features lie to the West and are divided into three general areas: Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs. They contain a variety of different thermal features. Before you continue on, you can read a few important definitions by clicking here.
The Old Faithful area is way more than the single, reliable geyser we all hear about in popular culture. While that feature is impressive, there are miles more of spitting, hissing and scalding geothermal drama unfolding just steps away. As far as the eye can see, the Earth is scorched barren by the unsettled works of nature that brew below. Boiling water drains into the Firehole River, which cuts through the landscape like a serpent. Every feature is has its own name that gives insight to its unique qualities that distinguish it from any other thermal feature on the planet. In truth, each geyser, hot spring, fumarole and mud pot are more remarkable than the last. As a visitor, you’re filled with regret that you must leave one but boundless enthusiasm at the prospect of seeing another. While you could spend a day getting acquainted with a single feature, it would be wise to spend at least 3 hours exploring this area.
Norris Geyser Basin
As you head north from the Old Faithful area, you encounter a variety of smaller hydrothermal pull-overs. If you have time, stop at all of them. But surely don’t miss Grand Prismatic Spring and Fountain Paint Pots- their likeness is not to be seen anywhere else in the World. Finally, you will arrive at the Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest and hottest collection of thermal features in the Park. This area is divided into two sections and to do both thoroughly would require approximately 2 hours. The features here build upon what you’ve seen at Old Faithful so time could be shaved off here if needed.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Back when the Army used to protect Yellowstone’s borders, this served as their base camp. Historic buildings sit at the base of a giant terrace of sinter, the white calcium carbonate deposits that build up around geysers and hot springs. This mineral, carried from deep below the Earth’s surface, builds upon itself to form the grand staircases of Mammoth Hot Springs. While an area is actively discharging hot water, the ground is covered in thermophiles but once the site becomes dormant, the bacteria die and reveal the bright white sinter that has developed underneath. You can easily spend 2 hours scouring the shelves of Mammoth Hot Springs and seeing the strange formations that surround the area.
There are too many pictures, grandeur and awe to share with others after a visit to Yellowstone’s thermal areas. You must simply see it for yourself. And as if you weren’t already impressed enough by Yellowstone, you’ve only covered a third of the Park. What else is there to see? Wait for the next post…
Geyser- Requires heat, water and pressure. Magma thousands of feet below the surface heat large underground reservoirs of water. Water slowly rises through small fissures and cracks in the Earth’s crust, collecting and cooling towards the surface. This cooled water effectively caps the exit cracks, allowing the subterranean heated reservoirs no route to expel water. This creates sufficient pressure on the underground reservoirs to the point where they remain liquid while their temperature exceeds that of boiling. Once enough pressure has built up, the superheated water instantly vaporizes and explodes upwards, launching the cooler water up to hundreds of feet in the air. What we see when a geyser erupts is the mixture of water-turned-steam from deep beneath the surface and the cooler pools of water that have gradually collected at the surface.
Hot Spring- Essentially a geyser without the built underground plumbing that causes extreme pressure. As a result, water heated underground constantly forces water and steam to spill out of the surface.
Fumarole- The hottest thermal feature, fumaroles are formed when water slowly trickles down from the surface, eventually encountering rock superheated by the magma below. The water flashes to steam and, because steam takes up much more room than water, the gas must expand to a size greater than the underground cavity and is propelled to the surface. The result is a relatively constant vent of steam that rises from small holes in the ground.
Mud Pot- These strange features develop from a fumarole that has been covered by a layer of water at the Earth’s surface. The water suppresses the rising steam and other gases that eat away at the surrounding rock. That dissolved rock mixes with the water to create giant cauldrons of mud. The underground gasses bubble and hiss as they slowly push their way through the gelatinous layer of mud above them. During periods of intense rain, mud pots are watery while times of drought increase their viscosity.
Thermophiles- Directly translated “Heat-Loving Bacteria”. These microscopic organisms thrive in extremely heated water, which they find in the discharges from geysers and hotsprings. Each variety of bacteria thrives in a specific range of water temperatures. Each variety of bacteria also looks a different color. Consequently, water towards the edge of hot springs and geyser pools (which has cooled down) supports an entirely different world of bacteria. The result is brilliant layers of color in these steaming pools of water. Scientists can tell if the hydrothermal feature is getting hotter or cooler based upon the colors (and thus, bacteria) that are present.