It’s easy to see why Yellowstone National Park became the world’s first national park. With its spectacular geyser fields, rich animal life and incredible natural beauty, it is clearly a place worthy of being preserved and protected.
Covering more than 2.2 million acres with the boundaries of three states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho), the park encompasses some of the most rugged and picturesque country in the Western U.S.
Historically speaking, Yellowstone traces its beginnings to about 640,000 years ago, when a giant magma-filled chamber located beneath the region began to work its way to the surface.
As this molten material began to push upward, it created a huge dome, which began to fracture the surface. Eventually, the enormous pressure from below caused these cracks to give, resulting in a massive volcanic explosion that affected thousands of square miles.
Following the eruption, the ground collapsed to form what is called a caldera. In the intervening millennia, the volcanic pressure has begun to once again build, which is why there are geyser fields and other very active geological attractions in the park.
In fact, during tours park officials will describe Yellowstone as a very active volcanic site that probably will once erupt again and could potentially destroy most of the states of Wyoming and Montana.
Archaeologists have found evidence of humans in the park dating back more than 11,000 years. The first non-Native Americans to see the region were mountain men and trappers, who wandered into the area in search of beaver and other fur-bearing animals.
The first formal exploration by non-Indians was an 1860 expedition led by Army Captain William Raynolds and his scout, the famed mountain man Jim Bridger. The party, however, didn’t venture too far into the region before turning back because of deep snow.
In 1869, a group of residents of the Montana Territory, which became known as the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition, explored much of the area, taking extensive notes and creating detailed maps.
The group’s findings were so impressive, that General Henry Washburn, Surveyor General of Montana, conducted a more thorough exploration that eventually led to the introduction of a bill to create a national park of the area, which passed in 1872.
Since that time, the park has seen the development of paved roads as well as the construction of facilities, including campgrounds, visitors’ centers, various shops and stores, and several fabulous lodges and inns.
There are five main entrances to the park, each of which leads to extraordinary attractions. For example, entering from the North Entrance, at Gardiner, Montana, leads visitors to one of the park’s most scenic geological sites, the Mammoth Hot Springs.
This particular entrance passes under Roosevelt Arch, a 50-foot-high stone arch erected in 1903 that is inscribed with the park’s unofficial credo: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
From the arch, it is about five miles to Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, one of the park’s signature features.
The terraces are magnificent. They are, essentially, large steps of travertine, which is the calcium carbonate that is carried in the natural hot springs that flows here. Over time, the calcium has built up and become a large series of shelves or steps as well as other fascinating formations.
At Mammoth Terraces, the travertine, fed by as many as 50 individual hot springs, continues to build in some spots at a rate of 3-feet per year.
Since this is an extremely active geothermal area, the flow of the various springs at the terraces often change. Sometimes a spring will have a greater flow, other times it will dry up and the water will shift to another location.
Paved hiking trails and boardwalks wind around the terraces, offering great views of the site’s features, which have names such as Minerva Terrace, New Blue Spring, Canary Spring, and Angel Terrace.
The travertine at the terraces can be quite colorful where the water flows. This is because of the presence of thermophiles, heat-loving microorganisms, that grow in the water and color the rock in vivid orange, brown, green and yellow. Areas where the hot springs no longer flow generally turn a dull white or gray.
Adjacent to Mammoth Terraces is a small settlement that includes the park headquarters, shops, a gas station, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Albright Visitor Center. The latter is a good place to pick up information about the entire park in order to plan your entire Yellowstone visit.
More on the park in next week’s column.
Rich Moreno is taking a break from Nevada and takes his Silver State readers to Wyoming for the next two weeks.