Thursday, September 19, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

A few weeks ago, the Mrs and I had the wonderful opportunity to utilize a 3.5 day weekend. Our trip of choice? Yellowstone National Park. It had been over a decade since both of us had been there and is almost 9 hours by car from where we live in Colorado. Since we wanted to spend as much time as possible to check out this natural wonder, there was no way a normal weekend would work. Hurray for vacation days!

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone National Park is out of this world in almost the whole literally sense, except for... well it is mostly in Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park sits on the Yellowstone Plateau and encompasses the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest volcanic system in North America and is sometimes called a "supervolcano." The current caldera was created around 640,000 years ago with an eruption that was over 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption was so huge, it left a caldera 0.625 miles deep and 45 by 28 miles in total area. The state of Rhode Island is 37 by 48 miles in area... this volcano is almost as big as the whole state of Rhode Island!

The caldera sits over a stationary hotspot in the Earth's mantle, where liquid rock (magma) fills a chamber roughly 37 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 3 to 7 miles deep. This magma chamber supports the geysers and hydrothermal system throughout the park. Since the last super eruption, There has been a series of smaller eruptions up until around 70,000 years ago. These eruptions have formed landmarks such as the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and the Obsidian Cliffs. From current understanding of the geological eruption history of the Yellowstone area, it is predicted that super eruptions occur every 600,000 to 800,000 years.

If you have been paying attention, the last eruption was 640,000 years ago... could the next super eruption be in our lifetime? Who knows! Just have to wait and see!

**starts digging a fall-out shelter**

Yellowstone is mostly known for two things: geothermal activity (geysers, hot springs, etc) and wildlife. One could make the argument that there are actually three things, with the third being lots and lots of tourists, but I kind of clump them in with the "wildlife" category.

Geothermal Attractions

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Cliff Geyser in Black Sand Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

As was stated before, the hotspot that sits below the Yellowstone Caldera fuels some of the most active and most prevalent geyser and hot spring basins in the world. There are four main geyser basins - Upper, Midway, Lower and Norris - with a few other smaller geothermal areas (i.e., west thumb, biscuit, black sand). I personally don't consider West Thumb Basin a main geyser basin because a lot of it is underwater, but you might hear otherwise. There are about 10,000 geothermal attractions, with around 300 of them geysers. There is also the Mammoth Hot Springs... but we will get to that. I had to narrow down this blog post somewhere. There is no way I could ever cover every geothermal feature/basin in the park, let alone everything in the larger basins... so I will cover some big names, along with a few other cool attractions.

Here is a map for your references...

Upper Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Old Faithful
Almost everyone has heard of Old Faithful, which is why it is one of the most developed and visited areas in the park. Don't get me wrong, Old Faithful is cool and you should definitely go see it once, but twice? Probably not. We actually skipped Old Faithful because we both have seen it before. There are many other geysers in the basin that have a lot of character. Upper Basin has the highest concentration of geothermal features in the park.

Other attractions: Castle, Lion, Grand, Daisy, and Beehive geysers, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, along with other smaller geothermal attractions

Run-off at Biscuit Basin into Firehole River
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Midway Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the coolest features to see... from the air. From the ground? Not really. The spring is actually the largest individual hot spring in the park.

Other attractions: Excelsior Geyser (which pumps 4,000 U.S. gallons into Firehole River per minute!) and other smaller geothermal attractions

Grand Prismatic Spring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Fountain Paint Pots
The Fountain Paint Pots are actually mud pots, which are hot springs with boiling opaque mud made of dissolved minerals. They remind me of something magical, like a witches brew.

Lower Geyser Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Other attractions: FIREHOLE LAKE DRIVE! I can't believe how many people actually skip this. Two awesome geysers are on this side road - Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser - and it saddens me that so many people miss it. White Dome Geyser erupts almost every 20 minutes. The eruption is short and relatively small, but it is still an awesome geyser. If you can see the Great Fountain Geyser erupt at sunset, do it. End of freaking story.

White Dome Geyser along Firehole Lake Drive
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Norris Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Steamboat Geyser
Steamboat is actually the tallest active geyser is the world, with major eruptions reaching up to 300 feet. The problem is, the eruption timetable is erratic, sometimes laying dormant for anywhere from a month to 10 years! The geyser actually was dormant from 1911 to 1961. The last major eruption was July 31st, 2013... good luck timing a visit for when it is erupting at full force! Minor eruptions are much more frequent, but only shoot up around 10-40 feet. Snore fest!

Other attractions: Too many to count. Norris is awesome. If you can go to Norris during a good sunset or sunrise, it is beautiful. If you can't tell, Norris is my favorite (by far).

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Mammoth Hot Springs
Main attraction: Mammoth Hot Springs Complex
Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a large complex of hot springs located in the north-west corner of the park. The hot, calcium carbonate filled water actually comes from Norris, where it travels to Mammoth Hot Springs via a fault line. The water gets it calcium carbonate from the limestone it travels through. When the water surfaces at Mammoth, the calcium carbonate falls out of solution, forming the cascading feature of the complex.

Mammoth Hotspring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Non-geothermal Attractions
There are plenty of non-geothermal attractions that I could never possibly cover. Like before, I will pick a few of the larger ones, and a few I like.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This large canyon on the eastern side of the park is.... breath taking. There are plenty of overlooks, but to get to some of the coolest views, you will have to walk down lots of steps or switch backs. It is worth every step. Lower Falls is probably the most well-known waterfall in the park, for it has been photographed and painted more than anyone can recall. I can't really describe anything more about this, but pictures will say what words can't.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Falls in Grand Canyon
of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls is cute. I use cute because nothing really compares to Lower Falls in the park. Gibbon falls is located between Madison and Norris and falls roughly 84 feet. The naming of Gibbon Falls is actually some what of a mystery. In the mid-1800s, government and commercial documents started referring to Falls of the Gibbon or Gibbon Falls. When we were there, we got to see an Osprey fish in the pools at the base of the falls.

Gibbon Falls
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone Lake
It is a lake. Go boating. See geothermal features under water in West Thumb. The End. Need more said?

Bucktail Plateau Drive
This is actually a cool, dirt road in the northern section of the park. It goes through some short-grass and sage prairie. People usually spot pronghorn antelope here, yet alas, we say nothing. Still pretty though!

Wildlife: Fauna and Flora
Yellowstone is literally a wonderland and not only because of the geothermal formations. You can see all of those animals you only see on T.V. or read about in text books. It is one of the last places in the U.S. to see the Big-4 predators in one location: mountain lion, black bear, grizzly bear and wolf. There are also the charismatic herbivorous megafauna: elk, moose, bison, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer. It is also one of the only places to see the threatened lynx in the lower 48 states. There are 311 species of birds known to pass through Yellowstone, including extremely rare sitings of whooping cranes.

There are over 1,700 species of trees and vascular plants in the Yellowstone area, some of them only found in the park. The Yellowstone Sand Verbena is only found on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.

Even the geothermal formations are diverse ecosystems! Those bright colors in the hot springs and pool run-offs? Bacterial mats, which yes, are trillions of individual organisms who rely of the geothermal activity to survive.

American bison
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Grizzly Bear
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone is truly a geological, biological and ecological wonderland. Enjoy it before the supervolcano explodes!... and basically covers the continental U.S. with ash.

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right N^2 ! Yellowstone National Park is really a remarkable tourist attraction in the U.S. state of Wyoming. Waterfalls, Geysers, Mud pots, wildlife and canyons are the foremost attractions of this surprising park that attract the visitors. I have visited this stunning attraction two times with yellowstone tour companies. During my recent 10 day family tour to Yellowstone I used to visit Gibbon Falls, Grand Canyons and Upper Geyser Basin. It was a great fun for me and my family to explore these beautiful attractions. I never forget this tour experience.