Wednesday 3 April 2019

America's Wonderland: Yellowstone National Park

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...
With these words spoken on May 1, 1872, the United States Congress created what has been called America's best and only truly original idea: the world's first National Park.

Native American peoples have been using the rich resources of the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Obsidian from the caldera of this supervolcano provided the Apsáalooke (Crow) and Shoshone people with material for speartips, arrowheads, and trade with other tribes. Projectile points made from Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones, an unbelieving public called it "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The last of these - the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 - brought in a veritable army of geologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. Afterwards, Northern Pacific Railway attracted the well-heeled with promises of  a real-life "Wonderland."

Though the railway station has long since withered away, along with the decline in the railway as a means of mass public transportation across the continent, the town of Gardiner, Montana still serves as the northern gateway to Yellowstone. Carriages would line up along the station's boardwalk to receive the newly arrived tourists, ferrying them to distant points of scenic beauty and wilderness romance within the vast expanses of the park. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the triumphal arch that the carriages would pass through, like Alice through the rabbit hole, demarcating this preternatural landscape from the ordinary. The Roosevelt Arch, inscribed with those words sacred to democracy - "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - still beckons travelers today.

The Roosevelt Arch.
All photos in this article by Cory Gross.

The United States in the mid-19th century had two conditions that were fertile for the development of the national parks idea. One was wilderness, and the other was an impending threat to the sanctity of that wilderness. Unlike the nations of Europe whose civilizations were measured in millennia, the United States was a new country born in the wilderness of North America. Whereas England, France, Spain, and Germany had monumental Gothic cathedrals, crumbling Roman ruins, and lands long-since carved up by feudal aristocrats, North America had pristine forests, expansive prairies, and towering mountains with the perception that they belonged to no man, Indigenous peoples notwithstanding. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Henry David Thoreau began to recognize that just as democracy was essential to the political health of the individual, so was nature essential to their spiritual, emotional, and moral health. To quote Thoreau, from his 1854 memoir Walden:
We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
As the population of America grew and the line of frontier expansion was declared closed in 1890, the nation's collective attention turned from moving outwards to moving inwards and upwards: settlement, development, industrialization. It became apparent to another generation of conservationists and nature transcendentalists like John Muir that America was quickly in danger of losing its natural heritage to the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. The more threatened wilderness spaces became, the more industrialized and urbanized the nation became, the more apparent the need for nature became and the more desperate the need to take legal action to preserve it. Wrote Muir, in the introduction of his 1901 classic Our National Parks:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil's spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half wild parks and gardens of towns.   
Thus was born the National Park. A wilderness space preserved as inviolate as possible, as a common trust for the common good of the nation and, indeed, the world. Today there are over 3032 national parks spanning over 100 countries. In the United States alone there are 61. The first was Yellowstone National Park.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Just on the other side of the Roosevelt Arch and down the road is the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, which includes the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and former Fort Yellowstone. Prior to the creation of Yellowstone, the Yosemite Valley had been turned over to the management of the state of California, who had allowed it to descend into a carnival atmosphere that was defacing and denuding the landscape. Yellowstone was destined to follow the same course until 1886, when administration of the park was turned over to the US Army, which led a troop of cavalry into Mammoth Hot Springs. Originally intended to be a temporary measure to restore order and quell poaching, the permanent buildings of Fort Yellowstone began construction in 1891. The cavalry would stay until 1918, when administration of the park was turned over to the newly-formed National Parks Service.

Albright Visitor Center, former Bachelor Officer's Quarters.

Double Calvary Barracks, now headquarters for Yellowstone.
Known originally as the National Hotel, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was completed in 1886 when it began receiving guests from Northern Pacific Railway. Originally possessing a fetching profile of gables and towers, a series of renovations and reconstructions in 1911 and 1936 brought the hotel to its current shape. In 1937, a grouping of cabins was added to the complex to provide accommodation for that new class of visitor: the motorist. Most distinctive about the hotel is the manner in which it stands out from the surrounding landscape while still attempting to reflect the colour palette of the surrounding mountains. Within Yellowstone there is a consistent tension between the lodges designed to harmonize with nature and those acting as beacons of civilization in the wilderness.

The gray and yellow of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
mirrors the sedementary layers of nearby Mount Everts.

The lobby's small fireplace. As we will see,
they will get much, much bigger.

The lush, wood-paneled Map Room.
The map of the United States for which the Map Room is named. It was
constructed with 2,544 pieces of 16 different types of wood from nine countries.
A row of cabins.
Inside one of the charming cabins.

The dining, lounge, and grill building. After its rennovations in 1936,
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel became a complex that included the main
building, a recreation hall (now serving hotel employees), cabins, and
this building.

Inside the dining room. More recent renovations affect an
Art Deco style that mirrors the terraces of the hot springs.
Each of Yellowstone's lodges and historic districts are built around a stunning natural feature. In the northwestern corner of the park, this feature is Mammoth Hot Springs. Superheated, mineral-rich water travelling along one of the park's many fault lines issues forth from the ground at Mammoth, depositing travertine terraces in a surreal moonscape. Like a coral reef, the terraces seem almost to be alive: new terraces grow where springs erupt, leaving old terraces to decay and weather away.

Liberty Cap, an extinct dome spring.
Palette Spring from below.
The source of Palette Spring, at the top of the terrace.
The gnarled remains of a tree killed by
the calcareous waters of a growing spring.

The variety of colours are caused by different species
of thermophile bacteria that live at different temperatures.
The ridges and rills of dried-up springs.
Wide view of Mammoth Hot Springs with Liberty Cap.
The fields surrounding the hot springs, the fort, and the hotel are attractive resting areas for Yellowstone's population of stately elk. These may also be the safest elk in the park, as their main predators - wolves and grizzly bears - are reluctant to pass into human-occupied spaces. Thanks to unenlightened attitudes towards wildlife, native grey wolves were exterminated from Yellowstone in 1926. Shortly thereafter, park managers worried that elk populations would grow unchecked, destroying the park in the process. The National Parks Service then engaged in an annual elk cull designed to keep their numbers at the sustainable level of three to four thousand animals. Under pressure from animal rights groups, the cull was ended in 1968. As predicted, elk populations exploded up to 19,000 by the mid 1990's. Recognizing the importance of keystone predators, a group of grey wolves from Northern Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Their arrival set off a "trophic cascade" restoring health to the entire ecosystem. Elk numbers have been brought back down to 3-4,000, which has allowed aspen and other woody browse to grow, which has in turn allowed beavers to flourish, who build dams that create wetlands, which provide homes for more birds, fish, and mammals. Wolves have also helped out smaller mammals by suppressing coyotes, and wolf kills provide scavenge for bears, ravens, and eagles. 

Elk investigating the hot springs terraces, in pursuit of salt.

West Yellowstone

Whereas visitors arriving by Northern Pacific Railway came into the park through Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs, those arriving by Union Pacific Railway came in through the town of West Yellowstone. At the station they would be ushered onto stagecoaches, trail rides, and tally-hos for a tour of the park. In the very earliest days, before the construction of the grand lodges that exist today, many stops were serviced by permanent camp companies. Over 1300 visitors traveled the "Wylie Way" in 1901, staying under the Wylie Camping Company's famous striped tent roofs. A number of their sites would go on to become Yellowstone's grand lodges. The original Union Pacific station in West Yellowstone now houses the Yellowstone Historic Center with its collection of vehicles and artifacts from those bygone days.

One of the original stagecoaches.
Collection of Wylie Camping Co. pamphlets.
Shaw & Powell Camping Co. artifacts.
A mannequin demonstrating the women's dressing room.
While most visitors today take a vacation as an opportunity
to dress their most slovenly, visitors in the park's early days
came with multiple suits of clothes for each hour of the day.
The Union Pacific station's dining hall, designed by architect
Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who went on to design many
buildings in Yellowstone and other National Parks.

The Grand Loop and Roosevelt Lodge

Travel through Yellowstone typically follows the "grand loop": a highway encircling the park. At each cardinal point is another magnificent wonder. In the beginning it was stagecoach and weary trail riders who made this trek. Today it can be made far more comfortably by car (which were first allowed into the park in 1915), but the old days of the stagecoach still carry on at Roosevelt Lodge in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. President Teddy Roosevelt was said to have camped in the vicinity on his tour of Yellowstone in 1903, and a Wylie permanent camp was named in his honour in 1906. Roosevelt Tent Camp became Roosevelt Lodge in 1920 when a central log reception and dining hall was built. Complemented with numerous cabins added between 1924 and 1947, it continues to welcome visitors keen to head into Lamar Valley for rich wildlife viewing. Some choose to go into Lamar Valley on foot, while others opt for the Old West Dinner Cookout via wagon, stagecoach, or horseback.

A portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, flanked by
elk antlers, overlooks the registration desk.

Roosevelt's cabins.
The cabin's central heating system.
A reproduction tally-ho at the nearby corral.
Wagon's lined up at the cookout site.

In line for steak, corn bread, beans, and cobbler.
Calcite Spring, near Roosevelt Lodge.

Tower Fall from the upper viewpoint.
The feature is named for the rocky spires
that rise above the water.

The high-country plains and forests of Yellowstone's north.

A gentle evening on Roosevelt's expansive verandah or in front of its roaring fire and the intrepid explorer is ready for the next day's journey south to Yellowstone Lake, the roaming bison herds of the Hayden Valley, and the mighty Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

At 24 miles long and up to 1200 feet deep, hewn by the Yellowstone River and its two rumbling waterfalls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone south of Roosevelt Lodge has inspired reverence and awe from the moment of its discovery. Charles Cook described the moment he accidentally happened upon it in 1869: "I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke." The Hayden Geological Survey included the artist Thomas Moran, whose painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone provoked Congress and the public to create the national park.

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

Early explorers believed that the distinctive yellow colour of the cliffs indicated the presence of sulphur. Further study by geologists have found that the cliffs are made of the volcanic rock rhyolite exuded by the powerful geological forces at work under Yellowstone. After these rocks were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, they were slow-cooked by the park's geothermal features into the rusty yellows and reds that are so distinctive today. A sprawling hotel was built near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in 1911 on the designs of Robert Reamer. Sadly, it was allowed to fall into disrepair and a new, post-WWII parks masterplan put the emphasis on motel accommodations for motorists, withdrawing scant funding from maintaining the old railway lodges. Large amounts of money were poured into the construction of the modern Canyon Village with its motel, visitor centre, and services. To their apparent surprise, guests still preferred the grand old hotel. In retaliation, Canyon Hotel was closed down in 1959 for "structural problems" and slated for demolition. Before a year was out, a mysterious fire completely destroyed it. This fiasco is widely regarded today as one of the greatest architectural losses in the entire National Parks system.  

Looking towards the Lower Falls from Artist Point.

Looking downriver from Inspiration Point.

A closer look at Lower Falls from
Red Rock Point, in the canyon.

Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake

Following the Yellowstone River and the "Grand Loop Road" south brings visitors into Hayden Valley, one of the best places to see native wildlife. Distant millennia ago, Ice Age glaciers dammed up Yellowstone Lake, making it much larger than it is today. During that time, Hayden Valley was a northward stretching arm of the lake. After it drained, fine-grained lake sediments became fertile ground for marshy habitats that in turn favoured bison, wolves, and waterfowl. Hayden Valley also houses several unique thermal features, like Sulphur Caldron with acidic waters of pH 1.3, nearly the same as battery acid. This acid breaks down rock and minerals, creating bubbling mud pots.

Hayden Valley.
Mud pits at Sulphur Caldron.
Sulphur Caldron itself.
The Dragon's Mouth, belching steam and throbbing
with noise, like the cavern of some terrible monster.
Herd of buffalo in Hayden Valley.

Near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River is Yellowstone Lake. This lake, at 136 square miles, is the largest lake above 7000 feet elevation in North America. A frequent stopping point for Native American tribes, the lakeshore is now home to a complex of hotels, lodges, visitors centres, and other amenities. Beneath the relatively shallow lake lies a landscape of hydrothermal vents and underwater geysers whose strange lifeforms may help to shed light on the origins of life on earth and potential for life on other planets.

Sunset over Yellowstone Lake.

The original Lake Hotel was a simple structure erected by Northern Pacific Railway in 1891. In 1903, while he was working on the iconic Old Faithful Inn, Robert Reamer was hired to expand and renovate the hotel. Instead of matching the hotel to the surrounding environment, he added Ionic columns to give it a Colonial Revival style more befitting a building from Boston or New York. His idea was to offer guests the more familiar comforts of a grand Victorian seaside resort instead of backcountry romance in some fanciful log-hewn lodge. Where once horse-drawn carriage conducted guests back and forth, the porticoes of Lake Hotel are now the departure point for bus tours of southeastern Yellowstone.

Lake Hotel, from the lake.
The hotel's port cochere. To the side is one of the
"modern" touring buses introduced to the park in 1975.

The elegant lobby.

The lobby's tiled hearth, in keeping with the Craftsman style
but far removed from the rough, raw rock of fireplaces in other lodges.
Etched glass separates the lobby from the dining room.

Very shortly after automobiles were allowed into Yellowstone in 1915, the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company purchased a fleet of open-top touring buses from the White Motor Company. As these 1917 vehicles aged and technology progressed, they were phased out in favour of newer models. Beginning in 1936, this new fleet plied the highways of Yellowstone and many other National Parks, including Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, Mt. Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite. After being withdrawn from service in the Sixties, the buses have since been refurbished and continue to serve in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Buses from Glacier are painted a distinctive red (causing considerable confusion when they are called "White Buses") and those in Yellowstone are painted yellow.

The 1936 model touring car, ready to depart from Lake Hotel.
A pair of 1917 models maintained by the Jammer Trust.
The red car originates from Glacier National Park, the yellow from Yellowstone.

The White touring buses worked well for guests arriving by rail. For those under power of their own automobile, they just needed a place to park. A rustic log structure named Lake Lodge opened near Lake Hotel in 1920, replacing a Wylie tent camp and designed once again by Robert Reamer.

Lake Lodge on a misty morning.
One of Lake Lodge's fireplaces.
Lake Lodge's cafeteria.

The automobile fundamentally changed how visitors experienced Yellowstone National Park. At first, the railway brought the intrepid, who were then ushered to stately hotels and put at the mercy of experienced trail guides who could interpret the park's natural and geological history. Automobiles freed visitors to explore at their whim, staying overnight in lodge cabins and going by day wherever the road took them. To address the lapse in proper education, the National Parks Service commissioned architect Herbert Maier to design a series of four "trailside museums" that were built between 1929 and 1931. The Old Faithful Museum of Thermal Activity was demolished in 1971, but the three remaining museums - Norris, Madison, and Fishing Bridge - still serve their intended function. Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center is designed in such a way that views of Lake Yellowstone can be seen through the structure, emphasizing that the park's natural wonders are its true attraction.

Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center.
They use antlers in all of their decorating.

The museum is named for Fishing Bridge, situated where Yellowstone Lake empties into the Yellowstone River for it journey towards the Missouri. This was a very productive spot for catching native Cutthroat Trout when fishing was encouraged in the National Parks. From the nearby Lake Fish Hatchery, Yellowstone's waters were stocked with Brook, Brown and Rainbow Trout, to the detriment of Cutthroats, Grayling and Whitefish. This practice was ended in the Fifties and Fishing Bridge, built in 1937, is only used to watch fish rather than catch them. Sadly, events beyond the park's control still happen. Irresponsible anglers illegally introduced larger, more aggressive Lake Trout to Yellowstone, causing a crisis for the native Cutthroat that parks managers are trying to wrangle. 

Fishing Bridge.
The view downriver.

No longer reliant on hotels and guiding companies to supply their needs, motorists took advantage of Yellowstone's chain of general stores. The Lake General Store, a stone's throw from Lake Hotel, was built in a novel octagonal style in 1919. Of particular note inside are the chandeliers with animal and nature motifs: squirrels, acorns, and owls.

The Yellowstone Geyser Basins

Continuing west along the Grand Loop Road brings visitors to what are ostensibly the park's main attraction: the famed geyser basins. Roiling beneath Yellowstone is a magma hotspot; an up-swelling of material from deep within the earth that fuels the park's system of geysers and mineral springs, as well as the 1000-3000 earthquakes that happen there per year. Periodically, this hotspot has become so unruly that it vents itself in a pyroclastic fury of unimaginable scale. In its last major explosion 640,000 years ago, 240 cubic miles of ash and debris were thrown into the atmosphere, falling back to earth as far south as the Mexico border. Its caldera measures 34 miles by 44 miles across.

What exactly causes the Yellowstone Hotspot is unknown, but it has lain beneath North America for approximately 16 million years. As the continent moved through plate tectonic action, a succeeding number of volcanic blasts carved out the Snake River Plain that cuts a swath through southern Idaho, terminating at Yellowstone. Moist air from the Pacific channelled up this valley condenses and collapses on Yellowstone, dumping 150 to 300 inches of snow each winter. Some 2.1 million years ago, the hotspot arrived beneath Yellowstone. That was when the first of four eruptions happened that shaped the park as it stands today. A second and smaller explosion happened just outside the park's modern boundaries about 1.3 million years ago. The third happened 640,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption happening about 174,000 years ago.

As that annual 150-300 inches of snow melts and sinks into the earth, it becomes superheated by the magma beneath. Returning to the surface, it explodes in magnificent geysers, bubbles out hot mineral springs and mudpots, or evaporates out in billowing fumaroles. There are an estimated 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, with the world's highest concentration of geysers. More than that, these geysers are nearly half of all the known geysers in the world.

The most famous of Yellowstone's geysers is, of course, Old Faithful. Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful was the first of Yellowstone's geysers to be named. That name derives from the predictability of its eruptions, which were hourly when it was first discovered. Earthquakes since then have disrupted the system so that the geyser has two different eruptions times: if an eruption lasts for under 2.5 minutes then the next eruption will be in 65 minutes, but if the eruption lasts for more than 2.5 minutes then the next eruption will be in 91 minutes. The plume of boiling water can shoot 106 to 185 feet in the air, discharging from 3,700 to 8,400 gallons. Parks officials observe that trips in this region of the park are not scheduled by the clock, but by when Old Faithful erupts.

As the signature attraction of Yellowstone, Old Faithful was eventually joined by one of the grandest National Parks lodges of all. Designed by Robert Reamer and opened in 1904, the Old Faithful Inn is a commanding structure. Celebrated as the largest log hotel in the world and possibly even the largest log building period, the steeply pitched roof covers a cavernous seven-story lobby. Reamer purposely designed the interior to follow the natural contours and branching patterns of the logs used in construction, to give guests the feeling of being under a mighty forest canopy. Off to one side of the lobby is an immense stone fireplace with a 16 square foot base, around which visitors can warm up, read a book, or regale each other with the wonders and adventures of the day.

Old Faithful Inn, with a 1936 White touring car parked picturesquely out front.

The grand lobby fireplace from ground level.
View of the same from above.
A view into the dining room.
Writing desks invite guests to partake in more antiquated forms of communication.
Double-chairs welcome guests to tarry on the third floor.
Looking upwards into the hotel's cavernous canopy.
The Old Faithful Inn's visually dynamic exterior,
in parts resembling a village of the European Alps.
The geyser itself is visible from the balcony of the Inn.
One of the 1917 White touring cars parked
in front of the Old Faithful Inn.

Adjacent to Old Faithful Inn is Old Faithful Lodge. Begun in 1923 with the construction of several detached cabins meant to serve auto-tourists, the complex was united by a central lodge designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in 1926-27. By this time, Underwood had already made a name for himself, and helped define National Parks Rustic style, by designing Cedar Breaks Lodge, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and Yosemite's Ahwahnee hotel. Afterwards he would go on to design Zion Lodge and the Grand Canyon Lodge. The inside of Old Faithful Lodge cleverly resembles a collection of cabins in the woods, echoing Reamer's intention with the Old Faithful Inn to bring the outdoors in.

The exterior of the Old Faithful Lodge.
Whimsical bear lamps along the ceiling inside.
Carved bear totem in the Lodge's public space.
Another grand fireplace warms guests.
Large picture windows provide views of Old Faithful Geyser
and a dazzling Yellowstone sunset.

The oldest structure in the Old Faithful Historic District, as it is called today, is Lower Hamilton Store, originally built in 1897. The Historic District includes many other original dormitories, gas stations, and government buildings.

A pair of buffalo roaming outside Hamilton's Store.

The Upper Geyser Basin, which includes Old Faithful, is also home to over 150 other geysers, springs, and thermal features. Some are a small as a single droplet spurting from a hole no bigger than a dime while others, like Castle Geyser, are massive fissures built up over thousands of years and erupt, like Grand Geyser, to a height of 200 feet. Some are constantly spurting and burbling, while others have intervals of 10 to 15 hours. There are only a small handful that are predictable, like Old Faithful, Castle, Riverside, and Grand, while others erupt whenever they please, like Beehive Geyser.

Castle Geyser erupting.
Beehive Geyser. It goes off about once a day, but no one knows when.
The almost constantly erupting Sawmill Geyser.
One of the small geysers bubbling away.
Lion Geyser making an attempt.
The Upper Geyser Basin lines the Firehole River.
The eerie mouth of Grotto Geyser.
Crested Pool, near Castle Geyser.
Another bubbling pool.
Thermophile bacteria impart strange, vivid colours.
A mat of bacteria, like the surface of an alien world.

Morning Glory Pool, one of the most vulnerable thermal features in the
Upper Geyser Basin. Trash thrown into the pool for decades altered
its thermal character. Originally the pool was a hotter,
more uniform blue colour. The park is working to restore it.
Sunset on the Upper Geyser Basin.

North of the Upper Geyser Basin, along the Grand Loop Road, is Midway Geyser Basin. Here visitors can find one of Yellowstone's most stunning of all thermal features: Grand Prismatic Spring. This immense feature is so large - 370 feet in diameter - that it is only barely visible from ground level. For adequate views of its gorgeous colours, one must head up to one of the hilltops along the adjacent Fairy Falls Trail. The colouration for which it was named do not come from the refraction of light as through a prism, but from thermophile bacteria. The very center is deep blue because it is too hot for bacteria to thrive. As the water cools, different coloured bacteria occupy different strata.

Grand Prismatic Spring from above.
Grand Prismatic Spring from the shore.
The little things in Yellowstone are beautiful too.

Lower Geyser Basin, further north along the Grand Loop Road, is the largest of the basins in acreage. Visitors may travel down the one-way Firehole Lake Drive to access sights like the predictable Great Fountain Geyser and steaming Firehole Lake.

The terraces of Great Fountain Geyser.
Old Faithful once had similar terraces, but they
were disassembled long-ago  by greedy tourists.
Firehole Lake.
Hot Lake, fed by Firehole Lake.

The hottest, most dynamic, most active of Yellowstone's geyser basins is Norris. The tallest active geyser in the entire known world is Steamboat Geyser, in Norris' "Back Basin" area. Since it is unpredictable, with an interval between major eruptions of a year or more, most visitors content themselves with the more easily accessible "Porcelain Basin" area. Here, more acidic waters encourage a different breed of thermophile bacteria, giving the basin its more milky, pastel colours. Access to the Porcelain Basin passes through the Norris Geyser Basin Museum, built in the Thirties to provide education to automobile tourists. Accenting that its natural wonders are the true attractions of Yellowstone, the building is constructed as an archway framing the basin.

The view through the Norris Geyser Basin Museum.
Porcelain Basin.
Ledge Geyser, erupting in billows of steam.
More pastel strains of thermophile bacteria.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Despite these hostile, volcanic origins, life flourishes in Yellowstone. After near extermination, great herds of bison roam throughout the park. Yellowstone boasts the only truly indigenous herd of plains bison in North America, herds elsewhere having been reintroduced artificially. Looking for the easiest routes of migration often bring bison directly onto Yellowstone's network of roads, giving a special thrill to visitors caught in a "buffalo jam." Nevertheless, a bull bison weighing 2000 pounds is powerful enough to flip a car on its side, let alone the damage it could do to a person. Caution is always advised when humans and wildlife share spaces.

Bull bison keeping a watchful eye.
Thanks for the scratching posts, humans!

Bulls attract mates by urinating and wallowing in dust.

Always give wildlife the right of way.
Not that you'll have much of a choice.


It is sometimes said that National Parks in the United States are preserved because of what time and erosion have destroyed. One thinks of such places as the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks, where water has worn away phantasmic pillars of rock. Or of Glacier and Denali National Parks, carved out by the actions of rapidly disappearing glaciers. Or Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and Badlands National Parks, where are found the remains of long-disappeared human and fossil life. Yellowstone is different. In this place - a novel place preserved "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" - powerful, pulsating geothermal processes make water dance and create stone while open fields are theatres for the timeless drama of America's unspoiled wilderness. Yellowstone National Park is a celebration of life.

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