The Hillsides and Grasslands of Yellowstone National Park

All photos courtesy of Josephine Matyas

In 2016, the U.S. National Park Service celebrates its centenary. Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones, a musician-writer and a writer, are taking their expertise on the road.

By noon of the first day, we abandoned counting. There didn’t seem to be any point to keeping a running tally of the hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots and steam-spewing geysers that pockmark the hillsides and grasslands of Yellowstone National Park.

This is one of those rare places that is truly like no other. It’s not just “the best” in a collection of geothermal features. It is the world’s largest concentration of hydrothermal wonders; more than any other place on Earth. Consider the numbers: there are more than 10,000 geothermal features inside the park’s boundaries, including half the world’s geysers, hot springs that dramatically erupt in columns of superheated water and steam.

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The landscape is the remnant of an ancient volcano; evidence of the park’s furious geologic history. Think of Yellowstone as a conduit to the heart of the planet—the source of heat fuelling all these bubbling and steaming geothermal features is a body of partially molten rock that still exists close to the surface.

A day was not going to be enough, so we set aside almost a week to explore the expansive parkland. It’s a large territory to cover (3,472 square miles), with twisty roadways, dozens of scenic viewpoints and pullouts, hiking trails ranging from rough pathways to maintained boardwalks, small museums and interpretive centres. A week gave us time to lazily crisscross the Continental Divide (that imaginary line separating water flow: west to the Pacific Ocean, east to the Gulf of Mexico), dawdle in the bison jams, picnic streamside and mess up our sleep cycles by rising in the wee hours to gaze at a sky dotted with constellations.

The national park—in the northwest corner of Wyoming—sits atop the Yellowstone Volcano, its raison d’être. Scientists believe the active volcano deep below is due to blow again “soon” as defined on a geological timescale, which could mean another few thousand years or so. Or, it could happen next week (not likely). When it does erupt, predictions are that the epic geological force will wipe out life across most of North America. It will be cataclysmic. So, while we wait, Yellowstone is a national park with a ticket booth.

 

At ground zero is a huge crater (the caldera) marking the centre of the park. The caldera is so large (70-kilometres from rim to rim) that you don’t realize it exists while driving the roadways and walking the trails, but dotted lines on a park interpretive map give an idea of scale. The caldera rim—the collapsed edges marking the most recent eruption 640,000 years ago – are the towering, grey cliffs skirting the Madison to Canyon Village roadway. The primal event sculpted the land at this part of the continent.

Yellowstone has entry gates at all compass points, but once inside the main roadways follow a large figure-eight that crosses the full range of ecosystems, from fragrant lodgepole pine forests, dipping into open grasslands and rivers at lower elevations. Parts of the loop drives follow the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers, popular casting spots for fly fishermen.

Next: Somehow, there is life in what is one of the planet’s most highly acidic habitats…

For bus tours and RVs (and yes, there are plenty, even in the shoulder seasons) Old Faithful is the magnet. Cash registers ring in the gift shops, until people saunter out to grab a front row seat at the Old Faithful Geyser (its eruptions follow a fairly predictable schedule, posted on info boards at the inn and the Visitor Center). While the 17-storey high, sudden whoosh of scalding hot water and steam is impressive, we found even better sights a short walk along the nearby boardwalk trail. There were extraordinary geysers—Grand (the world’s tallest predictable geyser), Castle and Beehive—as well as the vivid colours created by microscopic lifeforms somehow surviving and thriving in the steaming chromatic pools.

Waking early was the key to finding pockets of quiet, uncrowded times at the different geyser basins. At Mud Volcano (on our way to wildlife watching for bison and elk in the Hayden Valley), the air was filled with rising steam, evidence of one of the Earth’s largest volcanos, hidden below the surface. At the aptly-named Dragon’s Mouth Spring, the dramatic whooshing of scalding water is accompanied by a loud rumbling of steam and other gasses exploding from the belly of the beast.

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Somehow, there is life in what is one of the planet’s most highly acidic habitats. Thermophiles—microorganisms that thrive in intense heat—survive in such massive numbers that they create startling pools of blue, green, yellow and red. They are so tiny that scientists estimate the number of thermophiles living beneath a 10-inch square may exceed the world population. Spots like the Porcelain Basin Boardwalk at Norris Geyser Basin or the nearby Artists’ Paintpots can only be described as a landscape of beauty, touched by the otherworldly. The mudpots are like nature’s double boiler, where super-heated acidic steam heats the rock above, causing it to dissolve into bubbling, muddy clay. In the wetter springtime, the bubbling mudpots are soupy and splashy; in the drier seasons the mud is thicker and burps more than splashes.

We needed to keep reminding ourselves that this extreme environment is part of a larger picture – one of lush forests and grasslands that are home to bears, packs of grey wolves, herds of bison, deer and elk who manage to go about the business of life in such precarious surroundings. Our first days at Yellowstone were consumed with the attention-grabbing geothermal. After a few steamy days, we began to observe Yellowstone’s other major draw, its wildlife. Ahead, more early mornings with some big payoffs.

Yellowstone Geothermal 101
• Set an alarm and start your day early. The geothermal sights are magical in the morning light, without crowds.
• Go beyond the Old Faithful Geyser and explore some of the lesser known, but dramatic, geothermal activity.
• Stay on the designated paths and boardwalks. Much of the ground has a thin crust and can be unstable.
• Join one of the free programs offered on ranger-led walks or in the interpretive centres.
• All of the geyser and geothermal pullouts had trails and boardwalks marked with interpretive signs.

For more information
www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com provides info and online reservations for lodging and campgrounds in the park
www.nps.gov/yell for general park information
www.visittheusa.com for planning information

A seven-day Yellowstone park pass is $30 USD. Or an annual National Park Pass that gives unlimited entry to all National Park System sites is $80 USD.

There’s more on our website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, how to buy an RV, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.