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November 3, 2010

National Parks: Yellowstone, Loitering Inside the Caldera of a Super Volcano

Filed under: National Parks, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage, United States — anotherheader @ 4:10 pm

Yellowstone's historic north gate

Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite places. When I was young my family lived a couple of hours away from the park’s entrance. I remember visits in late September. We’d drive up “between the snowstorms” and find the park empty. With the air cold and brisk, we’d find only a few cars between the sheets of black ice in the parking lots. We had the sights to ourselves. Or so it seems in my forty year old memories.

In the years since I’ve made only one brief visit to Yellowstone. My last stop was about twenty years ago. Revisiting a member of your personal “favorite places” list every twenty years seems woefully infrequent.

Norris Geyser Basin (panorama)

This summer we’d undo the wrong and in the process cross another National Park off The List. Our visit to Yellowstone wouldn’t be a drive by. We’d stay in the park for a full week and drive every paved road (excluding the service area roads) and walk every walkway of the roadside attractions. Even with a weeklong stay, our visit was too short. Yellowstone is a large park and there’s an enormous amount to experience inside its boundaries.

Details in the thermal basins

Just like the “old” days, our visit was late in September. But unlike the old days, the weather was not particularly cold and the park was definitely not empty. In fact it turns out that our visit contributed to a record for the number of visitors to Yellowstone for the month of September. So I guess there really were fewer tourists when we used to come in September.

Yellowstone has undergone one major change in the years since my last visit. In 1988 fires burnt through an astounding 793,000 acres or about 36% of the parks land. Even twenty years later the extent of the burn is obvious. Everywhere, pale gray-white burnt trees stand amongst the thick growing carpet juvenile lodgepole pines. The regenerating forest looks healthy now.

Yellowstone is the largest National Park on the contiguous 48 states. The park encompasses a wide range of ecosystems. Steppe, forests, and large alpine meadows cover distinct areas of the park. There is a reason that such a large area of land was designated as a National Park; inside Yellowstone’s boundaries there is an amazing density of sights. The pristine rivers, alpine lakes, and massive canyons all attract visitors. In the wilderness wildlife is abundant. But the things that separate Yellowstone from pretty much every other place on earth are the geothermal features.

Much of Yellowstone National Park sits inside the caldera of a super volcano. A smaller eruption 640,000 years ago ejected 8,000 times the material that Mount St. Helens expelled in 1980. From the hot springs and geysers to Yellowstone Lake and to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, volcanism defines the Yellowstone landscape.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Indeed, the geothermal features are the main attraction in Yellowstone. We systematically visited all of the “front country” paths to the geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and sulfur springs. As a young adult I found the thermal features to be fascinating. Still a young adult but later in life, their appeal has in no way faded. It’s beyond the theatrics and hydraulics of the geyser eruptions. On the fringes and in the edges of the hot pools, the colors of the geothermal bacteria amaze. Shades normally only seen in a chemistry lab streak in a palette of tones as the thermal waters bubble out of the ground and lose heat. Crusty fractal edge patterns mark the cooling edge of hot water pools saturated with minerals. Fumaroles and geysers pulsate with the hollow sounds of steam and water channeled through tubular vent formations. Together it all combines in the devastated whitewashed plains to create an otherworldly scene. The power that lies beneath the surface is apparent. It is intimidating to walk next to pools of steamy hot sulfurous water in an area so apparently inhospitable. This is not a gentle landscape.

The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The allure of geothermal features has taken us around the world. In Chile and New Zealand we’ve seen spectacular geyser basins. But it always seems that we seek to find another Yellowstone. It is an impossible quest. The geothermal features in Yellowstone have no peers.

(Yellowstone is photographers dream. I took over 5,000 pictures in the park. An edited set of wildlife, scenery, and, of course, the geothermal features have been posted on Picasa.)


  1. […] and I first took the bikes out in Yellowstone when we rode out to Lone Star Geyser.  The “trail” to the geyser is really a grown in road, […]

    Pingback by National Parks: Yellowstone Mountain Biking « Another Header — November 3, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  2. I can almost smell the sulfur coming from the images. What’s the yellow green organic looking thing?

    Comment by surlypeach — November 4, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    • Funny as I could smell sulfur sitting in the Airstream editing the pictures. I was never certain whether we were catching a whiff of a nearby hot spring or it was a sympathetic sensory experience.

      The “yellow green organic thing” was a water plant in the pond at the Continental Divide. This pond drains on both sides of the divide.

      Comment by anotherheader — November 4, 2010 @ 4:48 am

  3. […] Yellowstone (2010) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — November 4, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  4. […] is closely linked to a visit to Yellowstone National Park.  And so it was for our visit.  After a stop in Yellowstone we did a drive by through Grand Teton on our way to Southern Utah.  Grand Teton is much as I […]

    Pingback by National Parks: Grand Teton « Another Header — November 10, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  5. […] and Kings Canyon are the second and third oldest National Parks in the United States.  (Yellowstone is the oldest; Yosemite was established on the same date as Kings Canyon.)  A visit is more than a […]

    Pingback by National Parks: Sequoia and Kings Canyon « Another Header — November 19, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  6. […] National Park was enormous.  Indeed it is large, but it’s not nearly as large as Death Valley or Yellowstone National Parks.  In fact Big Bend National Park is about a quarter the size of Death Valley, the […]

    Pingback by National Parks: Big Bend « Another Header — April 11, 2011 @ 6:07 am

  7. […] combining the Roman Forum and Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs at one place.  Though it seems like a bizarre travel dream perhaps induced by eating one too many […]

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  8. […] combining the Roman Forum and Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs at one place.  Though it seems like a bizarre travel dream perhaps induced by eating one too many […]

    Pingback by Turkey: Hierapolis-Pamukkale « Another Header — August 12, 2012 @ 9:03 pm

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