Yellowstone's Mighty River
National Park: Yellowstone Map
The final post in this series focuses on the Yellowstone River’s dramatic impact on the Park. With enough geologic time, water has inevitably conquered rock and forges an entirely unique landscape and ecosystem.
Heading south from Tower Junction, you will first encounter Tower Falls. After taking a short walk from the parking lot, you get an excellent view of Tower Creek plunging 13 stories, pummeling the ever-eroding rock beneath it. As impressive as it is, the Falls, which are fed by a tributary of the Yellowstone River, is just a preview of the wonders that lie ahead.
Next, the Park’s main road takes you to Canyon Village. Centrally located, the area can be reasonably accessed from most reaches of the Park and provides visitors with a full complement of amenities, including showers, a small grocery store and a few basic restaurants.
Just a few miles away, one of our country’s most powerful waterfalls digs a thousand foot trench through the Earth. Three points of entry give you unique views of the area’s three main features: Upper Yellowstone Falls, Lower Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. It is easy to spend a day hiking the area’s trails, enjoying beautiful vistas and even looking over the precipice of the both the Lower and Upper Falls. While all are short jaunts from the parking lot, some can be deceivingly strenuous with formidable elevation changes. However, a number of trails are wheelchair accessible, flat and easy. Therefore, the Canyon Area can be fulfilling for any visitor. It always serves as an excellent opportunity to sit in silence and become humbled by the powerful walls of water surrounding you, which have been at work on the landscape for longer than you can fathom.
Still farther south, more thermal features demand to be seen. Bison meander through rising steam while mudpots boil and hiss. One of Yellowstone’s most unique features, Dragon’s Mouth Spring, is simply enchanting. Water vapor billows from the hidden depths of a rock cave while waves of water lap into an adjoining murky pool. After hearing its groans and hisses firsthand, it’s easy to see how it was named.
Completing the Park loop takes you to Yellowstone Lake, a body of water so massive that you could fool yourself into thinking you’re on a sea’s sandy shores. In truth, the Lake lies nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and is guarded by three feet of ice for half the year. While driving, you can see steam rising from its banks, a final reminder of the Park’s intricate relationship with the magma brewing beneath its surface. And indeed, the Lake’s immensity is just another testament to Yellowstone’s grandiosity.
Yellowstone must truly be experienced in person. Nothing matches the opportunity to see its boiling cauldrons, hear a wolf howl or feel like one of the drops of water beginning its descent into Yellowstone’s deepest canyon. Yellowstone is our Nation’s first national park and arguably its most breathtaking. It is the result of diverse natural forces and the ecosystems it contains are almost inexplicably pristine. If it’s the first park you visit, it will overwhelm you with the wildness of America’s West and inspire you to see more of America’s wonders. But it also functions excellently as a park to build up to; once you think you’ve seen all the amazing landscapes our country has to offer, journey to Yellowstone and find a renewed passion for the outdoors. Either way, every American must see Yellowstone and will undoubtedly be glad for it.
Yellowstone's Northern Range
National Park: Yellowstone Map
The next theme of Yellowstone is that of vast, intractable wilderness that hosts the most intact ecosystem in the continental United States. Bison, which used to number in the hundreds, now graze by the thousands alongside elk, pronghorn, deer and moose while eagles and osprey circle over miles of lush grassland. Coyotes, black bears and grizzlies scour mountainsides in search of a variety of vegetation, ground squirrels or a distracted marmot. And Yellowstone’s returned kings, the wolves, have now reclaimed the entire Park and some of the West but are most commonly seen in their original reintroduction site, the remarkable Lamar Valley.
In these grand mountain valleys, the visitor is treated to the most extraordinary wildlife viewing our country has to offer. In 2 days, one could quite easily see a majority of the animals listed above. This environment functions like it should and you feel it; spending time in the northern reaches of Yellowstone is a spiritual experience where you are forced to acknowledge the beauty of wild, untamed nature.
North of Mammoth, you can quickly access the town of Gardiner and the small sliver of Yellowstone that resides in southern Montana. If you’re heading from Mammoth towards Gardiner, the alternate route (a one-way, easily missed dirt road) is certainly the way to go. Immediately, you are removed from any crowds and are treated to magnificent views of the wild expanse of Yellowstone’s rolling mountainsides. In general, any time there is a one-way, off-the-beaten-path road in the national parks, take it. During the leisurely drive, I saw pronghorn and a nursery of mother elk and their calves; locals say they see wolves hunting along the hillsides frequently.
The large stone arch that marks Yellowstone’s north entrance is of significant historical note. The first heavily used entrance to the Park, Gardiner also served as the gateway to Yellowstone for President Roosevelt during his multi national park tour in 1903. The arch was under construction during his visit to Yellowstone and Roosevelt was asked to place the structure’s cornerstone, which covered a time capsule containing a bible, picture of Roosevelt and local newspapers. Roosevelt gave an impassioned speech in defense of the parks, re-iterating Congress’ pledge to protect these places “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” That iconic phrase, which exemplifies the democratic qualities of the National Park Service, now adorns this portal to our Nation’s first park.
I overheard a Yellowstone ranger calling the Lamar Valley the absolute best place to view wildlife in the lower 48 states. If you are interested in seeing the West’s large (and small) creatures, you need to spend time here. A single road stretches from Tower Junction to Yellowstone’s northeast entrance; expect to stop for bison crossings, bear jams or the sight of the Park’s dedicated cohort of wolf trackers. With almost no development, this is one of Yellowstone’s most wild and accessible regions. The rich and immense grassland supports large numbers of the Park’s bison, pronghorn, deer and elk. Consequently, coyotes, bears, wolves and scavengers are also found in abundance.
Wolves rejoined the ecosystem in 1995 after 7 decades of absence as a result of one of the world’s most successful reintroductions. Ushered into the park underneath the Roosevelt Arch, the wolves first (re)touched Yellowstone ground in the Lamar Valley. It is still the most likely place to see wolves in Yellowstone and being on the lookout at dawn and dusk increase your chances. If you see a clump of spotting scopes, pull over; wolf watchers either have a wolf in their sights or are eagerly awaiting one to re-emerge from the brush. Following these wolf enthusiasts is your best chance to see a wolf as anything more than a speck moving across a distant mountainside.
Even if you do not see a wolf during your time in the Lamar Valley, you will still be amazed by its diversity and concentration of wildlife. You will surely leave thankful that the National Park Service and previous generations were able to have the foresight to save these magnificent creatures who were so close to the brink of eternal destruction. Traveling to Yellowstone gives people the chance to see what the American West once was and what it could return to if we amp up conservation efforts in our country.
Yellowstone's Thermal Features
National Park: Yellowstone Map
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.