What is it about Yellowstone?

Norris Geyser Basin at Dusk

Happy Memorial Day weekend (almost)! This is the weekend I used to spend driving west to check in for my summer job at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. In honor of all the summer travel days ahead, I thought I’d share a few words from my Yellowstone manuscript.

What is it about Yellowstone? Friends and family have often asked. For many of them, I imagine the word Yellowstone alone is enough to conjure bad memories of endless hours in a car, a road trip passed too close to too many family members for too many miles, too many hours. Yellowstone means Old Faithful, sure, but perhaps also monotonous memories of dozens of other geyser basins—each one an obligation to compete for a parking space, then plod through throngs of other tourists across a network of endless wooden boardwalks, all for another sulfur-reeking basin of steam.

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Yellowstone, the Park you hated. Yellowstone, the Park you loved. Either way, you’re not alone. Visitors have been turned off and turned on by their experiences here since before this region was designated a Park by an act of Congress in 1872, the first national park in the world. Look only to the nicknames assigned by early white travelers in the region: Yellowstone as Wonderland! Yellowstone as Hell.

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Yet both nicknames agree: this is a country of superlatives. Larger than the combined area of two states on the East Coast, Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres span a landscape of mosts, greatests, and extremes. From the cacti and rattlesnakes of the Park’s driest, lowest flats (still over a mile above sea level), to the tiny lavender forget-me-not blossoms on alpine tundra near peaks as tough as the elements that shaped them (more than 11,000 feet high), this place can contain any color, can peel the skin off any mood. Steppes of sage, grassy valleys, glossy rivers. An enormous frigid lake rimmed by high white peaks. Jagged canyons, hundreds of waterfalls, churn after churn of whitewater. Forests frost mountains with lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, whitebark pine. Willows line the creeks. Colonies of aspen rise from floodplains, march up foothills. Crags fill with juniper, and every open reach scatters in gray-green sage.

Sweet Light of Dusk, Blacktail Plateau, Yellowstone's Northern Range

This region we think of as Park is singular in the world, yet only a map reveals its boundaries. Yellowstone as a national park is just the beginning—the heart of  one of the most diverse interconnected natural systems remaining on Earth, extending well beyond formal boundaries. Straddling the Continental Divide in the heights of the Northern Rockies, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is where three major river systems of the United States start their flow, some to the Gulf of Mexico, some to the Pacific. From here, the headwaters of the Missouri lead eventually to the Mississippi, the Snake to the Columbia, and the Green to the Colorado. And, at 28,000 square miles, Yellowstone’s region of mostly state and federal lands is home to systems of interdependence and interconnection that reach well beyond water: geology to weather to habitat.

That habitat. The Greater Yellowstone is a rare region in the Lower 48 that grizzly bears have never ceased to inhabit. Black bears live here, too, and wolves—local populations once intentionally killed off, later reintroduced. Wolverines and lynx can be found here, and mountain lions. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Elk and moose, deer and bison, coyotes, pronghorn, marmots, foxes, swans. There are owls and otters, eagles, pelicans, osprey. Native mountain whitefish. Cutthroat trout.

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And the volcano. Yellowstone is one of the world’s largest, and active: three enormous eruptions in the last 2 million years. Two of them issued enough debris to make Yellowstone, by formal definition, a supervolcano. In the vast clock of geologic time, we’re not likely to see another eruption any time soon, but the last one—about 640,000 years ago—still reminds us what’s possible through the  volcanic crater it left behind. A sweeping caldera, 35 by 40 miles, underlies the whole of central Yellowstone, including portions of Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, and many geyser basins.

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Magma remains near, here. Its heat fuels more than 300 geysers and half the world’s thermal features. Mud pots, steam vents, hot springs, mineral mountains of white travertine terraces: 10,000 thermal features bring the volcano’s heat to our feet, every day. Look from a boardwalk, scan a map: Lava Creek, Boiling River, Roaring Mountain, Firehole River, Hellroaring Creek, Witch’s Cauldron, Devil’s Den, Dragon’s Mouth. And don’t forget the Yellowstone nickname that emerged after John Colter’s early wanderings in the region: Colter’s Hell.

The volcano steams from smooth valleys. Springs whisper. But the breath here is hot. Sulfur sighs from deep inside the earth. Other poisonous volcanic gases, invisible, transform deep caves into caverns of certain death. Hot plumbing we can’t see makes pools boil—sometimes simply water, often acid. This is a volcano with ancient history, enormous power, and total indifference. We come to marvel, it does not hesitate to scald.

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One thought on “What is it about Yellowstone?

  1. Thanks so much for reading and saying that, Aunt Jill. It wasn’t until my second visit to YNP that I even LIKED the place (the first visit was cold and smelly…), so I can definitely relate. It was great to see you and the others over the weekend. Thanks again for reading – it means a lot to me!

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