Yellowstone National Park's stunning vistas of mountains, valleys, lakes, and wildlife cover a terrible secret. The park's variety of thermal features and igneous rock layers in turn betray it. 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. The caldera of this much smaller eruption was filled in by water from Lake Yellowstone, forming the West Thumb. The shore at West Thumb is dotted with thermal springs and minor geysers that have entertained and entranced generations. In the early days, when such activities were permitted, guests could fish in Yellowstone Lake and then swing their line over to a geyser, drop the fish in, and cook it on the spot.
|The "Black Pool."|
|The shoreline at West Thumb Geyser Basin,|
dominated by the "Big Cone" geyser.
|"Fishing Cone," where visitors would boil fish on the line.|
|Springs drain into Yellowstone Lake.|
Nowhere is the energy of the Yellowstone Hotspot more apparent than in the famous geyser basins. As that 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.|
|Enjoying an evening curled up in front of the fire.|
|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.|
One of the "old house" rooms with bed and wash basin,
but no bathroom. Shower and washroom facilities were
(and continue to be) shared between guests.
|Looking upwards into the hotel's cavernous canopy.|
|Wet shingles on a cool morning.|
|The Old Faithful Inn's visually dynamic exterior,|
in parts resembling a village of the European Alps.
|The side of the hotel facing Old Faithful Geyser.|
The far section is the East Wing, added to the hotel in 1913.
|External doors of the West Wing, added in 1928.|
|A board in the lobby predicts the next eruption of Old Faithful.|
|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.
|Entrance to the Old Faithful Lodge.|
Across the parking lot from the Old Faithful Lodge is the Old Faithful Upper Store. Built in 1929-30, it and the adjacent gas station echo the style and the substance of the Lodge. Resembling Underwood's signature style, they served the independent automobile traveler.
|Inside the store.|
|The gas station, now run by Sinclair.|
The oldest structure in the Old Faithful Historic District, as it is called today, is Lower Hamilton Store. Originally built in 1897 as Klamer's General Store, it was snatched up in 1916 by Charles Ashwood Hamilton. A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Hamilton eventually found himself down in Yellowstone to join the Yellowstone Park Company. He struck out on his own as an entrepreneur with his new store and eventually held sway over the many stores and gas stations throughout Yellowstone. The Historic District includes many other original dormitories, gas stations, and government buildings. More recent buildings include the Old Faithful Snow Lodge opened in 1999 and the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center opened in 2010.
|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. As meltwater from Yellowstone's winter snows percolates through the ground, it enters into deep chambers from which the geyser's mouth is the only escape. In those depths, the water becomes superheated, far beyond the boiling point of water on the earth's surface. Some of the water converts to steam, but blockages and narrow passages in the geyser's mouth prevent the steam from escaping. Pressure builds higher and higher. More water builds up behind the steam, but cannot convert to steam because of the intense pressure. Then the pressure builds so much that some of the water is forced past the steam and out of the geyser. Suddenly a massive amount of water violently flashes into steam, exploding to the surface in a catastrophic eruption. When Castle Geyser erupts after its 10 hour interval, it explodes with water for about 15 minutes, followed by a powerful blast of steam that can last for an hour or more.
|Castle Geyser erupting.|
|Beehive Geyser, one of the unpredictable ones.|
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.|
|As the heated water passes through the geyser systems,|
it picks up dissolved silica minerals. These are deposited
as "sinter" around the geyser's mouth. Some make grand,
strange cones and terraces, others, like this, make small marbles.
|A mat of bacteria, like the surface of an alien world.|
|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 Midway Geyser Basin.|
|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.
|Hopeful Geyser, feeding 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 unpredicatble, 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. Like its fellows at Fishing Bridge, Old Faithful, and Madison, the Norris Geyser Basin Museum was 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.|
|Ledge Geyser, erupting in billows of steam.|
|The basin is far too hot and acidic for trees to grow within it.|
|More pastel strains of thermophile bacteria.|
|Another view of the Norris Geyser Basin Museum.|
Not far from Norris is another type of evidence for Yellowstone's volcanic past. Lava floes 180 millennia ago spilled over the caldera and solidified as a massive cliff of pure obsidian, up to 200 feet high and stretching for a half-mile. This volcanic glass was collected by Native Americans who distributed it as an important product in their continent-wide trading networks. Speartips and arrowheads made of Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as Ohio, Washington state, and Saskatchewan, Canada. The cliff has been inscribed as a National Historic Landmark within a National Park.
|The forests and streams around Obsidian Cliff.|
|Obsidian Cliff itself, fractured in|
columns and glinting in the sun.
|A boulder of obsidian.|
|Here, a kiosk built of stone and timbers in 1931 informs|
visitors and reminds them not to take souvenirs.
It was the first "wayside exhibit" in the National Parks System
and is itself on the National Register of Historic Places.
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. Any of the wide, open valleys are welcoming to buffalo, including those near the Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin. 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.