Land of fire and falling water

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Tucked into the northwest corner of Wyoming is one of the most geothermically active regions of the world, set in a wilderness of breathtaking beauty and diverse wildlife. It is Yellowstone National Park, whose mountains, canyons, lakes, geysers, mud pools, fumaroles, lava flows and sulphurous smells are the remnants of a gigantic eruption that wracked this portion of the American continent 600,000 years ago.

With a force and magnitude unequalled in recorded history, the blast inundated thousands of square miles of the continent with pumice and ash, leaving behind a huge caldera now occupied by Yellowstone Lake.

The massive supervolcano that still lurks menacingly under this caldera remains active and will certainly erupt again in the years to come.

Half of all the world’s geothermal features are in Yellowstone, the magma chambers that lie deep below the surface fuelling the plumbing system of a quite extraordinary aquatic wonderland. Early American explorers realised the importance of this unique landscape and in 1872, by decree from the US Congress, the area became the USA’s first National Park, covering a massive 3,500 square miles.

Falling water

Yellowstone Canyon and Lower Falls.
Yellowstone Canyon and Lower Falls.

The park was named from the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, whose yellow rock cliffs drop precipitously for 400m to the powerful, beautiful Yellowstone River way below.

The most breathtaking and most photographed sight in the whole park is the view of the Lower Falls, which steeply plunge almost 100m into the canyon – over twice the height of Niagara Falls.

Our spacious but basic log cabin accommodation was nearby in Canyon Village and we spent hours exploring the many walking trails in and around the wonderful gorge scenery.

Often overlooked because of the spectacular nature of its downstream sibling are the Upper Falls that give a magnificent display at the head of the canyon and ,sandwiched between the two, the graceful Crystal Falls. In Yellowstone, you are never far away from falling water as at least 40 other waterfalls and cascades add picturesque interest to the park’s many river systems.

Fire down below

The hundreds of magnificent geysers and thousands of other thermal features in Yellowstone give ample witness to the enormous power of the magma heat source in the chambers below the surface.

There is a plentiful water supply in the form of rain and snow and as it percolates deep within the heated bedrock, it attains tremendous pressures and temperatures. A chain reaction of steam explosions causes geyser eruptions – each of which has its own schedule.

The most famous of these is Old Faithful, which erupts almost every hour and never fails to attract the tourist crowds. However, we preferred the steaming grandeur of Castle Geyser, shaped like a tower of an ancient castle and the spectacular boiling entertainment given by the reliable Echinus Geyser.

As with other American National Parks, Yellowstone is managed by an extremely professional team. There are interpretation centres manned by knowledgeable rangers and an excellent road network between the major attractions.

Comprehensive maps are provided and there are trails and boardwalks over the more dangerous ground to take you to the enormous range of thermal features. In Norris Geyser Basin, the sounds of the landscape are quite surreal with water gurgling, steam gushing, boiling mud pools plopping and fumaroles roaring.

We loved the quiet ambience of the mysterious Morning Glory and Emerald Pools. These deep, crystal clear pools are coloured blue and green respectively from heat-resistant bacteria that survive in the pools’ searing heat of up to 80 degrees centigrade. Their outer edges are a technicolour wonder of yellows, blues and greens caused by algae growth. In the north of the park, Mammoth Hot Springs has beautiful white crystal terraces made from the mineral travertine, which is deposited from hot acidic water as it flows from the hot springs.

Fire up above

Throughout Yellowstone we saw signs of devastating fire damage, sometimes covering huge areas of forest while in other places it seemed strangely selective.

The vast majority of fires are caused naturally by lightning strikes, but since 1972, the park authorities have allowed most of these fires to burn themselves out. Intensive botanical research has shown that fire is an essential natural force and its suppression actually reduces the number and variety of plant and animal species e.g. pinecones from the resident Lodgepole Pine will not open up and release their seeds until they have been exposed to intense heat.

The driest year in Yellowstone’s recent history was 1988 when over a third of the park was affected by fire. The massive fire fighting effort was aimed at saving human life and property but had little impact on the fires themselves. Rain and snow in autumn finally extinguished the blazes.

The wilderness beyond

Steam from Yellowstone’s thermal areas rises up against a backdrop wilderness of high mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, marshlands and meadows. The vast backcountry provides a setting of amazing beauty and has long been a place for those seeking solitude and observation of the park’s abundant wild animals.

One evening near the Madison River, we were quietly watching herds of bison and deer peacefully grazing on the lush meadowland grass, when a park ranger joined us and told us just how dangerous bison can be. They have charged and have killed unwary tourists who approach too close. He eloquently described them as “dumb as a box of rocks”!

Marmots, chipmunks and ground squirrels scurry around the main tourist hotspots. Bald eagles majestically circle in the sky and pelicans and huge trumpeter swans can be seen on the lakes and pools. We saw moose with enormous antlers and large herds of elk but sadly didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of the grizzly bears or wolves that prowl in the forests.

When to visit

The main tourist season is short – June to September – as because of its high elevation, the park is under snow for much of the year. Accommodation within the confines of the park is limited and best booked in advance, allowing at least four days for proper exploration of Yellowstone’s many wonders.

We flew to Denver, directly from London, hired a car and enjoyed a pleasant drive north through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the plains of Wyoming.

The restless and unique ecosystem of Yellowstone is an extraordinary fantasy world and unfailingly captures the hearts and minds of all its visitors.