Imagine a paradise… Where lakes have intense vivid hues, where fountains shoot up hundreds of feet unannounced, where dark grottoes make gurgling noise like the breath of a slumbering dragon, where waterfalls’ plunge is so massive that it raises a plume of mist half a kilometer high. And then add lots of bison, elks, moose, beavers, marmots, wolves, osprey, and eagles that call it home, along with a full complement of exotic fauna. Wonderland — one may say. Evidently, this is how nature created this marvel, over a few million years.
Not only that, the Gods have been partial in bestowing its largess-While there were few hot springs in California, some bubbling mud pots in Italy, and a scattering of geyser fields in Iceland and New Zealand, there is nobody on earth like Yellowstone. It has ten thousand thermal features: more mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers than exist in all the world, combined.
Science — the eternal spoilsport, strips some of this romance away. The Geologists tell that we are standing on top of an active and restless supervolcano. It’s an immense hot spot, a reservoir of magma (superhot molten material below the earth’s surface), 45 miles across and 8 deep! Also, Yellowstone Park is the caldera of a series of giant volcanoes that blew up millions of years ago. The previous eruption was big enough to bury New York State under an ash cover of 67 feet!
Other hot spots have created oceanic islands like Iceland, Hawaii, Canary Isles, and the Galapagos islands, but Yellowstone is the only one that sits beneath a continental plate. The push that such a pool of magma exerts on the crust above has raised the park and miles of neighboring terrain, about 1,700 feet higher than they would otherwise be. The area experiences 1500–2000 earthquake tremors each year; this is a land that’s constantly on rattle and shake!
Scientists have worked out that the pattern of Yellowstone’s eruptions averages one colossal blowout every 600,000 years. Evidently, the last one was 630,000 years ago; Yellowstone, it appears, is overdue — it’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. Suffice to say that the heat from the hot spot powers all the park’s vents, geysers, hot springs, and mud pots.
For this reason, it’s essential to recognize this is not a recreation park, and we should exercise care. For instance, people have fallen off cliffs, frozen to death, and died in avalanches here. Again, this is a place where the unwary or unlucky can get mauled by a bear, gored by a bison, stomped by a moose, or bitten by a rattlesnake. Serious third-degree burns are suffered by visitors who leave boardwalks and marked trails. They break through the delicate surface crust up to their knees and their boots fill with scalding water.
The joy of walking in the Yellowstone is that it’s still an untamed wilderness; follow the rules and it’s no riskier than driving a car. For context, the average number of visitors to the park is about 4 million, and fatalities, a few dozens.
Now that caveats are out of the way, let’s recap history–As is usually the case with the narrative of North America, the centuries of coexistence of Native Americans with local flora and fauna get short shrift. Hence, the promised story of the place should begin with French Beaver hunters and fur trappers ‘discovering’ the region in the late 1700s, turning up from the Canadian north.
In 1803, the USA bought present-day Montana from the French but, because of the hard approach and inclement weather, appeal to the area remained tethered to hunters and trappers for ensuing decades. Those rugged early European mountain men formed beneficial relations with Native Americans and gradually opened up the routes and access to the land.
For a long time, mainland America rejected the tales and exploits of these intrepid fortune seekers as hyperbole–since the west even then had a healthy tradition of tavern gossip, falsehood, and deception. There is a reference of two pelt hunters’ (David Folsom and Charles Cook) submissions of their experiences in the territory, being refused by New York Tribune and Harper’s Magazine because “the publications had a reputation they could not risk with such unreliable material.”
Things again took a positive turn in the 1870s, when petitions of adventurer Hayden and his team got the US president to declare the land as the First National Park. ‘Yellowstone Act’ followed soon, and it resolved that geysers and geothermal features should be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy or sale” and “set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Certainly, this singular foresight saved the region from the scourge of uninhibited private ownership, exploitation, profiteering, and ultimately, destruction.
Many have called the creation of the park “the best idea America ever had.”
Despite this, the congressional act did not come with the required money, and thus the park had to seek private investment to develop infrastructure and promote tourism. In the initial decades, it led to rampant squatting, wildlife poaching, wanton vandalism of thermal features, and general lawlessness.
A visit by civil war hero — Philip Sheridan changed the course of history again. Once he was given charge of the park, Park Rangers and army patrols were appointed on regular payrolls. The arrangement lasted from 1886 to 1918, during which these soldiers fought fires, developed roads, protected wildlife from poachers, welcomed visitors, and safeguarded the thermal features from vandalism. It was during this time that the US Army Corps and engineers completed Grand Loop Road. Their barracks still stand near the Mammoth Hot Springs, near the North Gate, and house park staff.
In 1918, National Park Service (NPS) was created and assumed charge from the US army.
In the absence of government finance, Park and the Railways remained intimate bedfellows, and together they brought in the era of mass tourism to Yellowstone. Railroad’s grand aspirations to monopolize public access to the park even went as far as a plan to extend rail tracks through the park itself, but Congress put its foot down.
Ultimately, it was automobiles that scuttled the railroad’s ambitions. The first car (a Ford Model T) was allowed into Yellowstone in 1915; in the next decade or two, the other means of transport (i.e. the Stagecoach) was driven out of the park.
Fun fact — To clamber up hilly roads in the park, people drove up in reverse, because Model T Fords didn’t have fuel pumps and one couldn’t get gas to the engine on these steep slopes!
Our personal Diary
We visited the park in June 2017, when the daylight extended past 9 pm and temperatures varied from the mid-20s in the daytime to 4○ C in the night. The elevation of the area varies between 6K to 10 K feet.
Following are some remembrances, pictures, and trivia from that trip log.
Grand Loop Road
The park has seven distinct regions within an area of about 3500 square miles. Most tourist attractions are accessible through a 142-mile, Figure 8, easy to navigate, Grand Loop Road. Though driving can be a bit of nuisance — people who see a moose or an elk or a bear or a herd of bison — simply slam on the brakes in the middle of the road. Anything over 45 miles an hour is silly and illegal. And one often witnesses tourists, getting too close to wildlife, in search of that Instagram moment; much closer than bounds of common sense or park warnings.
Fires in the park
This is often the first sight upon driving into the park–stubs of burnt-out trees. Fires occur naturally, from time to time because of lightning; the last major one was in 1988. The point debated within park conservation circles is—fire should be stopped, or it shouldn’t be stopped, or it ought to be purposely set? And the park has taken to all these directions at different points of time, in its 150 odd years of administration. The present dispensation is that fires are natural and necessary for the regeneration of the forests. Thus one sees new lodge poles rising, at a pace of 10 inches a year, while the old burnt stumps crash to the surrounding ground. And the circle of life continues…
The world’s most famous geyser — it has sprouted 8000 gallons (or 150 bathtubs volume of water) up 180 feet in the air, every 90 minutes, 24 by7. The spray at this point is a sizzling 95○ C and accompanying steam about 170○.
When we visited it there had been a light rain, and the skies were overcast. The Old Faithful Inn had raised the lightning warning, and the Ranger was quite convinced that we should not be on the boardwalk, for it has iron nails that attract the charge. We spent about an hour at the Inn’s impressive balcony with a warm cup of coffee and watched the geyser do its thing. And once the warning was taken off, we took a long hike to the Morning Glory Pool.
Morning Glory Pool
A favorite and well worth the walk. This pool is named after its flower shape. Unfortunately, the pool is slowly changing temperature and therefore color, because of the trash thrown into it by past visitors.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This is where Yellowstone River plunges over Upper Falls (109 feet) and then the much larger Lower Falls (308 feet) before snaking through a thousand feet deep Grand Canyon. Much of the canyon’s beauty comes from its subtle range of colors, from an egg white to a sulfurous salmon pink, a byproduct of iron oxidization in the rocks. Whiffs of steam rise from the vents in the Canyon wall, hinting at the thermal activity just below the surface. At the base of the falls, the Reds, and creams of the Canyon walls turn to a mossy green, fed by the thundering spray of the River.
The Lower falls are twice the height of Niagara and the water volume is literally hypnotic. Watching the fall is like watching a fire: the same thing keeps happening and happening, but just a little differently every time, so that it holds the eye and empties the mind. Spray rises from the plunge pool at the base like smoke from a fire, and the thunder of falling water is all one can hear.
We did the base of Lower Falls on Uncle Tom’s trail–a switchback descent of 500 feet with 328 metal steps. This is where entrepreneur ‘Uncle Tom’ in the 1890s took tourists through a series of trails and rope ladders for views of the falls and a picnic lunch. The Park Service has turned down an application to build an elevator here, and one may resent that decision when climbing those 300 steps back up!
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone’s most beautiful thermal feature! The shimmering waters are impressive enough, but it’s the surrounding multicolored rings of algae that push it out of this world. As the water temperature changes, so do the colors, creating a rainbow of oranges, yellows, and greens. From above, the spring looks like a giant eye weeping exquisite multi-colored tears.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This is where the mountain is in effect turning itself inside out, depositing over a ton of limestone (travertine) every year. The multi-hued runoffs from the naturally white terraces are because of the bacteria and algae that multiply in the warm waters. Some decks are bone dry, while others sparkle with hundreds of minuscule coral-like formations and fabulous shades of Canary yellow or Blues that could match an impressionist painting.
The trees here are few and all stunted and gnarled, barely clinging to life on the slope of the terrace, silhouetted against a perfectly blue sky. Some were the color of tarnished pewter, others were black and sported a few fire-shortened branches, twisted like arthritic fingers raised in supplication.
At the bottom of the terraces is the phallic, dormant 36 feet high hot spring cone called the Liberty Cap, named after the hats worn during the French Revolution. Several elks lay lolling in the gardens. Park marshals made sure that the tourists stay away from where the animals are perched. The park staff now used the old army barracks in the background.
Mud Volcanoes & fumaroles
These are an assortment of mud pots and other gurgling sulfurous pits. The superheat and high acidity break down rocks into mud pots and the best of the lot are at Artist Paint Pots. While some bubbles burst like boiling water, rather soundlessly, others break in a flatulent manner, creating a sound that invariably makes people laugh. Rusty reds, cornflower blues, and chalky grays are the colors in this artist’s palette.
Steam rises out of a few holes in the ground, where the water sloshes around deep inside. These fumaroles (excuse the extended metaphor) sound like a giant’s toilet constantly flushing itself. A vague odor of rotten eggs hangs in the air–that’s a burp of a lot of hydrogen sulfide. Fumaroles, Lonely Planet Yellowstone says, are actually dry geysers “bursting with heat but without a major water source, whose water boils away without reaching the surface.” At a closer distance, one hears the thumping and crashing from a hidden lair that’s guarding the gateway to the underworld.
For all you know, it might be a witch’s cauldron. We were told a bison had recently fallen into one such boiler, and the witch feasted on the stew for days together; — ).
The Lamar Valley is nicknamed the Serengeti of North America for its vast herds of bison, wolves, and coyotes
Our brief stay at Lamar Valley was rewarded by such sights. One early morning we sighted a lone moose in a river. Later, we witnessed a pack of wolves gorging on a kill at a distance.
During the day trek, cute little Pikas were hiding from Ospreys hovering in the sky, scores of Pronghorns roamed at a distance, loads of mangy looking mountain goats (some kind of skin disease perhaps?) and of course the pièce de résistance was coming face to face with a juvenile black bear!
With a topography so diverse and water flowing everywhere, it’s not surprising that the park has some impressive waterfalls. Other than the huge Upper and Lower waterfalls at the Grand Canyon, we saw a few more–Kepler Cascades, Gibbon Falls, Virginia Cascades, Tower Falls, Firehole falls, Undine Falls, Rustic Falls, and Mystic Falls.
Yellowstone offers viewing wildlife at close quarters, in their natural surroundings. Such encounters are common on long treks, and necessary safeguards are essential. Though, an impromptu traffic jam on the Grand Loop is a guaranteed sign of a sighting.
Yellowstone has both — the Black Bear and the Grizzlies. The legendary Grizzlies are more fearsome, with a length of up to 8 feet and a weight of 700 lbs for a male adult. The black bear is smaller and could be shades of brown or cinnamon. Bears have a sense of smell stronger than a bloodhound and can detect food from miles away. The park is well posted with notices and warnings about how to store food while camping (suspended upwind with ropes tossed over 12 feet high lodgepoles). Grizzlies are omnivorous; male Grizzlies live alone, require over 800 square miles of territory and when provoked, they can outrun a horse.
The bear warnings inside the park are plenty and often make for funny readings — THERE IS NO GUARANTEE OF YOUR SAFETY. IF YOU ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THIS SITUATION, YOU MAY CHOOSE TO HIKE ELSEWHERE. “Thanks for telling me now, after I have hiked a dozen miles!” YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR, STAY CALM. DO NOT RUN–“Ehm… stay calm? Are you serious??!!” MANY CHARGES, ARE BLUFF CHARGES. “Ah, you mean many of them are with deadly intent? And they don’t declare it upfront?”
Jokes aside, “Bear Spray” with a range of 30 feet is an indispensable requirement if one is leaving on a trek. Bears attack and can turn lethal when protecting their cubs or a carcass. Again, for context, death by bear mauling is quite rare–less than a dozen since the park opened.
The continent’s largest land mammal, the American bison (also called Buffalo), roamed the American West in great numbers (est. at 40–60 million!) in the mid-nineteenth century. But in two short decades from 1870, US government, army, railroads, and private hunters colluded to kill and to bring this magnificent beast to near extinction. They considered all that mayhem essential to deprive the Native Americans of a food source, and towards their subjugation! In 1884, the wild bison population reaches its lowest point of ~325 in the United States–including 24 in Yellowstone.
Today about four thousand of these majestic mammals roam the National Park. And they are the real deal, original ancient wild stock, unlike others which are reared as livestock.
The animal itself is one ton of cartilage and muscle! Full-grown, it has a length of 12 feet, stands over 6 feet at the shoulder, and weighs over 2000 pounds. And it can match a horse at a full gallop. Yet there are stories of visitors trying to take selfies, or putting kids on their back to create some devastating Instagram moments! Every year several visitors are gored or seriously injured by these animals and sometimes fatal.
Pro tip — A raised tail presages one of the two subsequent events -a charge or a discharge–forewarned is forearmed!
Coyotes & Wolves
Wolves flourished in the West until the late 19th century when poaching and predators made them extinct. They were reintroduced in Lamar Valley in 1995 and have since thrived. Yet, their re-introduction has met with resistance from the local ranchers, for their loss of livestock, and they often hunt wolves down when they crossover the Yellowstone park limits.
We saw them hunting in a pack, one early morning in Lamar Valley
To an untrained eye, Coyotes look like Wolves, but they are smaller and less muscular (15–50 lbs to a wolf’s 70–150 lbs). Several years ago, there were reportedly more coyotes in the Lamar Valley than any other place on earth. That has all changed since then — the gray wolves that were reintroduced to the park in 1995 have killed half the coyotes.
Elk & Moose
Elk is an abundant large mammal here, weighing up to 700 pounds and standing five feet tall at the shoulder. It has a Golden Brown coat and males have a darker throat mane. The most impressive feature is the multi-point antlers, four to five feet long and weighing up to 15 KGS, that grow during the mating season when the male bull can round up to 60 females. Those impressive antlers also make them coveted for a trophy Hunter.
Moose is the bigger brother of elk, and just about 200 of them at the park make for a rare sighting. They typically stand at up to 7 feet at shoulder, 10 feet long and weigh up to 2000 pounds. The bull has massive cupped antlers, each weighing up to 20–25 KG, which is shed after the fall rut. It can become aggressive if cornered or if defending cows, and they strike out with powerful blows from their front hooves.
After WWII, the greater Yellowstone region has transitioned from a resource-based region to a tourist-driven economy. Indeed, there are detractors to this government policy; some have even called it “a petting zoo with a highway going through it”. The challenge of drawing a line between solitude, wilderness, and maximum social benefit (i.e. mass retail tourism) remains moot- the number of tourists visiting the park now exceeds 4 million every year.