The crazy multi-coloured geothermal wonderland that is Yellowstone National Park

From Portland we flew nearly 600 miles east to visit two of the USA’s 58 National Parks: Grand Teton and Yellowstone. We landed in Bozeman, Montana and drove south through Idaho (mainly known for potatoes) and then into Wyoming, where both parks are located. This was our first taste of small-town Americana and we enjoyed ticking off the clichés en route: cowboys hats, motels, diners, big trucks and “Hilary should be in prison” bumper stickers.

The following day we headed into Grand Teton National Park and drove the ‘loop road’, stopping to marvel at the gorgeous mountain scenery and to hike to a beautiful lake.

The next day we continued into Yellowstone National Park for the main event. Here’s what we saw over the next three days…

Hot springs

These amazing colourful boiling bodies of water were what first caught my attention when initially researching the US. In person, they were even more spectacular than I expected; some a palette of bright colours and some deep shades of a single hue, all of them steaming hot. All of them surreal.

We took a tour with a park ranger who explained that the colours are not from minerals, but from microbes (called thermophilic archaea and bacteria) which can tolerate or even thrive in temperatures that many organisms are not well adapted to. The dangerously hot water temperatures ranged from 70C to 90C but he showed us some incredible old photos of tourists throwing their handkerchiefs into the water to clean them!

And then there was Mammoth Hot Springs, which were completely different but equally as amazing…

They have been created over thousands of years from the spring-cooled and deposited calcium carbonate; over two tonnes of which flow into Mammoth each day. Dead trees are situated in the deposits giving this area an almost post-apocalyptic look.

Geysers

The most famous feature in the park is the Old Faithful geyser. It was the attraction that the first explorers of the area initially noticed and is named so as it erupts consistently every 90 minutes. Each eruption is attended by thousands of people who sit on benches to watch the boiling water and steam shoot up to 55m into the air, and then clap when it’s all over (after five minutes).

But the park contains 500 other geysers (in fact half of all the world’s geysers), some of which erupt every few hours, some every few years and some which not have erupted for decades. We stopped to have our lunch next to one. As I went to take a bite of my sandwich it suddenly erupted furiously and covered our car in hot water! A ranger explained that geysers erupt when super heated groundwater, confined at depth, becomes hot enough to blast its way to the surface.

We walked and drove around several different areas of the park and wherever you looked you could see clouds of steam billowing into the sky. It was an otherworldly sight and looked like another planet.

Wildlife

As well as all the thermal activity, the park is a wildlife mecca and we saw many prehistoric looking bison as well as big-horned sheep, elks, a black bear in the undergrowth and a wolf in the distance.

History of the park and the US National Parks Service

One evening we attended a talk on the beginnings of the park and the NPS (2016 is their centenary) as Yellowstone was the first park in the service.

We saw loads of old images of early tourists travelling the park by horse and cart, camping in posh yurts, bear feeding performances (organised by the rangers) and the still functioning Old Faithful Inn.

The hotel opened in 1905 and is still the largest log structure in the world. The idea of the design was to reflect the park in its construction materials so it is made from the lodge pine trees which cover the area. It is full of quirks such as wonky branches, a tree house above the lobby and purposeful anachronisms hidden within the artwork.

On our final day we stopped at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone which is up to 370m deep, 1.2km wide and 24 miles long. and contains two waterfalls:

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The scenery we saw over the week was out of this world and it made you feel very small as you realised that just under the earth’s crust is hot magma that is alive and constantly trying to burst through to the surface.

Next stop: a side trip to Peru…

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