Yellowstone—Crucible of Water, Rock, and Fire
By Awake! writer in the United States
Speak of firsts and superlatives—the world’s first national park, the world’s best-known and tallest geysers, and North America’s largest mountain lake. Then speak of Yellowstone.
WITH unbridled curiosity my wife and I drove to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, U.S.A. Since our childhood, the name Old Faithful and terms such as “geyser” and “hot spring” had intrigued us. Would reality match our expectations?
At the main entrance to the park, we saw a massive stone arch. Inscribed across its top were the words: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Opened in 1872, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park.
We started at Mammoth Hot Springs, just over the border from Montana. Here the heat from the earth was visibly hard at work. Water boiled and bubbled up from pools and basins. Plumes of steam rose from fissures. Terraces of the pink mineral called travertine looked like dripping candle wax.
What’s Cooking Under Yellowstone?
Yellowstone contains as many as 10,000 geothermal wonders. The Continental Dividea cuts across this high Rockies plateau. Waters flow westward and eastward but also sink downward. We learned that it is with these sinking waters that Yellowstone works its wonders. Great volcanic eruptions once wracked the plateau. Thousands of years ago, one left a giant caldera (crater) measuring 47 miles [75 km] by 28 miles [45 km]. The magma, or molten rock, that still lurks beneath the surface keeps Yellowstone cooking.
Park exhibits explain that surface water works its way down through porous rock until it reaches a layer of rock that is extremely hot, just above the magma. The heat forces the water back upward. Where it finds a vent, a hot spring forms. When obstacles in the rock restrict the upward flow of heated water, pressure builds up and a geyser forms. In other places the moisture is expelled as steam. These vents are called fumaroles. Mud pots bubble where acidic gases and water decompose soil into mud and clay. What a spectacular display!
Seeing all the geothermal activity around Mammoth Hot Springs, we assumed that we were in the vicinity of the famous geyser Old Faithful. Only when we checked our travel map did we realize that Old Faithful was 50 miles [80 km] to the south. Yellowstone is much larger than we thought; it covers 2.2 million acres [900,000 ha].
To reach Old Faithful, we took the road that meanders down the western part of the park; it conducts tourists past five geyser basins. We soon began to accept as normal the smell of sulfur and the sight of escaping moisture.
Like the millions who had visited Old Faithful before us, we wanted to know when the geyser would go off. We had always thought that it erupted with precise regularity—exactly every 57 minutes. But looking around, we saw a sign saying that the geyser’s next eruption was predicted for 12:47 p.m. That was well over an hour away, and the time was a mere prediction! We asked Rick, a park ranger, about it.
“The precise regularity of Old Faithful is a myth,” he said. “The time between eruptions has always varied, and over the years it has lengthened because of earthquakes and because of vandals’ throwing objects into the spouter. Today the average interval is about 80 minutes. Our staff can only predict the eruptions one at a time.”
It was now 12:30 p.m. We walked toward Old Faithful to catch its next predicted show. Hundreds of people were sitting in the spectator area or were on their way there. Old Faithful kept us waiting ten minutes. But when it erupted, it had a beauty that no photograph can convey. After clearing its throat with a few fitful bursts, it gained momentum. Everybody clapped. The eruption lasted about three minutes, and to our delight it was exceptionally high. The water and the spray rose and fell in crescendos, reaching from 120 feet to 150 feet [37 to 46 meters]. The spray caught the sunlight and drifted away in shifting patterns.
When it was over, we went to the lobby of the nearby hotel. Old Faithful, however, continued to assert its presence. For the rest of the day, whenever its predicted moment drew near, all the guests stopped what they were doing and walked out to watch it. It gave us several eruptions of exceptional length and height and beauty, especially one in which the dancing waters were silhouetted against the setting sun. We found the old geyser to be duly faithful.
“There are fewer than 500 geysers on the planet, and about 300 of them are in Yellowstone,” Rick, the park ranger, told us. “And 160 of those are in this one little valley, the Upper Geyser Basin, which is only a mile and a half [2 km] long. Other geysers come and go—they’re active or they’re dormant—but Old Faithful is still here.” Even so, Old Faithful’s neighbor, Grand, sends jets as high as 200 feet [60 m]. Steamboat can shoot up nearly 400 feet [120 m], three times as high as Old Faithful—but it can remain inactive for years. At Norris, a geyser named Echinus occasionally showers its admirers with warm water.
To Outrun a Buffalo
The next morning we reviewed a tourist brochure. It said: “Scalding water underlies thin, breakable crusts; pools are near or above boiling temperatures. Each year, visitors off trail in thermal areas have been seriously burned, and people have died in the scalding water.” Another read: “Warning: Many visitors have been gored by buffalo. Buffalo can weigh 2,000 pounds [900 kg] and can sprint at 30 mph [50 kph], three times faster than you can run.” We hoped we wouldn’t have to outrun a buffalo anytime soon!
At Yellowstone, animals have the right of way on roads. When an animal is sighted, cars suddenly stop and traffic jams form at unexpected points. One was just ending as we arrived, and tourists were climbing back into their cars. When we asked a woman what everyone was looking at, she said: “A big bull moose, but he’s gone.”
Afterward we watched some elk trying to coax their two-week-old calves across a stream. They were moving into the lower park from the mountains where they had spent the winter. The calves didn’t want to go—they hadn’t bargained on crossing water. The mothers kept calling to their young, and the calves eventually crossed.
“My Own Littleness, My Helplessness”
Next we drove to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We got out of our car at various lookout points along the 1,200-foot-high [360 m] rim and peered—not always willingly—down. In his expedition journal of 1870, Nathaniel Langford spoke of “my own littleness, my helplessness” as he gazed at this 20-mile-long [32 km] gorge with garish ocher walls—the source of the Yellowstone River’s name—and two lofty waterfalls. We felt as little and helpless as he did.
The next day we swung east. Once again the park’s landscape changed. Here it became high forest, and the road twice crossed the Continental Divide. We continued to see buffalo and other big animals, the buffalo often standing in classic profile. Regrettably, we didn’t see any bears—Yellowstone’s other big tourist attraction. What happened to them?
Over the years the close proximity between humans and bears there resulted in some tourists’ getting hurt or killed. The situation was not good for the bears either. So in the early 1970’s, the National Park Service closed the garbage dumps, thereby weaning the bears from dependence on human food. This sent the bears into the wild. The program has succeeded. The bears are now on a natural diet, and they are healthier. However, they continue to meet tourists in certain places, like Fishing Bridge, where the eating, sleeping, and fishing interests of man and bear coincide.
We had made Fishing Bridge our last destination. It was there that the park sprang its last big surprise on us. As we looked across Yellowstone Lake—the largest mountain lake in North America—to the snow-topped Tetons, we thought for a moment that we were in northern Italy; the lake and its setting had that same alpine majesty. No bears around, however.
It was time to leave Yellowstone. The eye and the spirit had been abundantly rewarded. Reality had surpassed our expectations.
a The Continental Divide is a stretch of high ground running along North and South America. The river systems on each side flow in opposite directions—to the Pacific Ocean and to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Arctic Ocean.
[Box/Picture on page 17]
The Fires of 1988
In late July and August of 1988, minor Yellowstone fires quickly developed into eight devastating blazes beyond human control. Drought was one reason, as the summer of 1988 was the driest in Yellowstone’s recorded history. High winds were the other reason. Gusting to 50 miles [80 km] an hour, they propelled the fires as much as 14 miles [20 km] in a day. They blew embers ahead of the fire for distances that fire fighters had never experienced. These embers started new fires.
At its peak the $120-million effort to fight the fires involved almost 10,000 civilian and army fire fighters and more than 100 fire engines. Helicopters and aerial tankers dropped about 1.4 million gallons [5,000,000 L] of fire retardant and 10 million gallons [40,000,000 L] of water. Mocking these efforts, the flames hurtled through the park, narrowly missing a number of communities. Day after day a thick blanket of smoke hung in the air. By late summer the park resembled a war zone. Not until mid-September, after 1.4 million acres [600,000 ha] had burned, did cool air, autumn storms, and light snow put the fires out.
The fires scarcely harmed the animal population, and the tourist population has since risen steadily. When the smoke lifted, autumn foliage brought color to newly opened vistas, and in the spring wildflowers bloomed profusely where none had been seen before. In the years since the fires, an abundant new growth of trees has blanketed the formerly burned-out areas.
[Pictures on page 15]
[Picture on page 16, 17]
[Picture on page 17]
Morning Glory Pool