Geyser and grizzly gazing in Yellowstone

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Glenda C. Booth

Buffalo roam across a road in Yellowstone National Park. The park is also home to big horn sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, moose and antelope, not to mention its famous geysers.
© Roussien | Dreamstime.com

They spew, they gurgle, they boil, they froth. Some spurt, some burp, some suddenly erupt. Geyser-rich Yellowstone National Park is the land of hydrothermals and thermophiles, a geologist’s paradise, where deep forces inside the earth seem to both eke out and leap out at will.

Early 19th century adventurers who happened upon the mysterious area, such as American author Washington Irving, told tales of “hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious steams, and the all-pervading smell of brimstone.”

Old Faithful, which gurgles and steams steadily and jets out a 150-foot-or-so plume, is Yellowstone’s most famous geyser. But there are more than 10,000 thermal features in the park — geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles — making it the largest collection of hydrothermal features on the planet. Among them are scalding pools, hissing vents, bubbling chocolate-colored puddles, seething crevices, and squiggly streams that look like skim milk or runny scrambled eggs.

In this land of extremes, each has its own “personality.” The magmatic heat that powered volcanic eruptions approximately two million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago, continues to power this broad cauldron of geologic activity. Rangers say that every year new hot springs and geysers appear and others become dormant.

Mesmerized by a shallow, baby blue pond resembling a child’s finger painting, my friend Julia said, “I want to jump in the jacuzzi.” Tempting, but it’s a no-no.

These are very hot spots that can scald humans and most animals. The hottest temperature recorded is 459 degrees Fahrenheit, 1,087 feet below the surface. You wonder how anything could live there, yet rangers say that the colors are created by microbes living in extreme conditions.

A geological wonderland

Established in 1872, 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park and certainly qualifies as a “bucket list” candidate. It lies in northwest Wyoming, with one percent in Idaho and three percent in Montana.

The Grand Loop Road, circling 142 miles inside the park, can be traveled in a day and a half, but full immersion in the Yellowstone experience takes several days. You will miss much of it if you don’t leave your car and set out on foot.

The geyser basins — Norris, Porcelain, Upper and others — are other-worldly landscapes. Steam rises from seen and unseen holes, cracks and vents. Broad desert-like expanses are tinted with shades of turquoise, emerald, yellow, red and brown. Aquamarine, limey green and orange rivulets snake across what to Earthlings seems like Martian land.

Geysers have names like the Morning Glory pool, Grand Prismatic Spring, Dragon’s Mouth, Sapphire Pool, Mustard Spring, Black Growler and Whirligig. All live up to their names. Even the glop, glop, glop of the mudpots bedazzle. This liquidy netherland tickles all the senses. Some exude a sulfury rotten-egg smell.

Old Faithful spits out 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water every 60-100 minutes (a sign predicts eruption time), expelling steam, water and microbes on a more reliable “schedule” than any of the other big geysers.

A circular bench attracts a regular audience of geyser watchers fixated on steamy wisps and puffs that spurt out, speed up, then become five-foot splashes, and climax into a roaring watery column reaching 106 to 184 feet and lasting one to five minutes. The person next to me commented, “It’s like someone pushed a button.”


Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park is the largest hot spring in the United States and one of the biggest in the world. Microbes in the hot spring produce the vibrant hues.
© Lane Erickson | Dreamstime.com

Hot springs, frigid lake

Mammoth Hot Springs is a staircase resembling a wedding cake with white frosting and skim milk flowing over the layers, one of the world’s best examples of limestone travertine terraces. Some formations look like soft, cottony mounds. Water constantly seeps over and down the layers.

The volume of water remains relatively constant, but the terraces — like living sculptures — change constantly. Here, too, heat-loving microorganisms flourish, creating tapestries of white, orange, green and tan. Visitors can climb to the top on a series of boardwalks. Bison and elk usually wander nearby.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a 20-mile-long canyon of yellow, pink and orange-brown cliffs that plunge down 1,200 feet on each side. Two waterfalls roar through the canyon. Visitors can get great views from overlooks along the rim.

A new generation of lodgepole pines is replacing those destroyed by the 1988 fires that scorched 1.2 million acres in Yellowstone. Lodgepole pines are adapted to, and indeed depend on, the natural cycles of fire. Their pine codes release seeds, to start the next generation, only when temperatures reach 113 to 120 degrees.

Yellowstone Lake — 20 miles long, 14 miles wide and 132 square miles of surface area — is North America’s largest mountain lake (Lake Tahoe is bigger, but lower). An 1869 visitor, David Folsom, described the lake’s “crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom.”

Even though the lake has 110 miles of shoreline, the National Park Service discourages swimming because summer water temperatures rarely get above 60 degrees. Interesting Yellowstone factoid: The lake drains into the Gulf of Mexico, via the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Wowed by wildlife

The Northeast section of the park, from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Northeast entrance, is the least visited part of Yellowstone, the quieter side. It has broad vistas, sagebrush-dotted valleys, fields and ponds.

The area is a favorite place for spotting wildlife, including elk, moose, bears and sandhill cranes. Don’t miss the petrified tree.

“Yellowstone animals are not tame,” National Park Service materials make clear. People have been gored by bison and elk. That aside, wildlife viewing is the lure of Yellowstone for many. At least 67 types of mammals live in the park.

The park’s grizzly bear population has rebounded, with probably around 700 in the region — the second-largest concentration in the lower 48 states. The park has black bears, too. Hikers beware: Always carry bear-repellent pepper spray.

Bison graze and wander freely, often near people and buildings. While they can seem docile and tame, bison can sprint three times faster than people can run, say officials.

Yellowstone is home to bighorn sheep, wolves and pronghorns. Pronghorns, America’s antelopes, can sprint 60 miles per hour. There are also bats, pikas, beavers, marmots, voles and porcupines. Brightly colored dragonflies swirl.

Killdeer, a bird with a double banded “necklace,” nests on bare ground in the geyser basins. Its name reflects the sound of its call. Rangers can advise where to see wildlife and optimal times.

How to visit Yellowstone

The towns of Cody and Jackson Hole, Wyo., Bozeman and Billings, Mont., and Idaho Falls, Idaho, have airports. The park has five entrance stations in Montana and Wyoming. See http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/entrances.htm to plan your travel. United has flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Jackson Hole in mid-May for around $550 round trip.

You need a car to explore at your own pace. Some commercial companies provide bus tours in the park in summer. See http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/transpinpark.htm.

From early November to early May, most park roads are closed. Services re-open in mid-May. Temperatures may be cool then.

In the spring, rejuvenation is underway. Wildlife rear their young. Reddish baby bison emerge. Grizzlies are fresh out of hibernation, perhaps digging gophers out of holes. In June, wildflowers display their splendor.

Summer is the most popular season to visit, when the geyser areas are without snow. Summer activities include fishing (permit required), hiking, horseback riding and wagon rides. Roads are often under construction and crammed with crawling, family-filled vehicles, as the curious scan for wildlife.

Fall weather can be unpredictable. The elk rut, or mating period, peaks in late September. Visitors may catch some antler wrestling and bugling as male elk try to establish dominance and attract females. Fall is also the height of migration of birds of prey.

Winter transforms Yellowstone into broad snowy landscapes, with crisp temperatures and steaming geyser basins. Visitors can take snow coach tours.

Winter can be optimal wolf-watching time because the wolves stand out against the snow. After being extirpated, there were no wolves in the park in 1994. Now, after they were reintroduced, there are over 300.

For winter travel, thoroughly research Yellowstone and the National Park Service website for road conditions and services.

The park has nine lodges and five reservation campgrounds. See www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or call 1-866-439-9375. The Old Faithful Inn, a national historic landmark that opened in 1904, brings the outside in, with its multi-story lobby of lodgepole pine, including twisted lodgepole supports, and an 85-foot stone fireplace. There are many lodging options outside the park in the gateway communities.

Information is available at the four visitor centers in the park, online at www.nps.gov/yell and www.yellowstoneassociation.org, and by calling (406) 848-2400.