Hello, Supervolcano! My Trip to Yellowstone National Park (Part I)

On Thursday, July 24, my husband and I visited Yellowstone National Park. He had been there 3 times before (the last time being in 1998). I’d never visited the park.

As a side note, July and August are the busiest months at Yellowstone (and most national parks)– and you should be prepared for lots and lots of people around you if you visit Yellowstone during peak season. It’s very difficult to find parking spaces, and while I’ve been in parks during peak season before, I’ve never seen anything like the massive crowds in Yellowstone in July. Neither had Greg. It was definitely a learning experience for both of us.

Most people are aware that Yellowstone encompasses the northwest corner of Wyoming– (though I’m sure there are folks who happily spend their lives never knowing which state this park is in, much less what part of the state it is in, but so it goes). Greg and I entered the park from the north entrance, just outside Gardiner, Montana, which meant that we passed through the Roosevelt Arch– and here is my Prius (Queen Elizabeth)– driving into Yellowstone Park–

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The inscription above the arch reads: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people

Which could also read: “You can be boiled alive here, it’s awesome”

Because Yellowstone Park is the site of a supervolcano, and that is what makes this place so incredibly fantastic! A supervolcano is a volcano with an eruption size thousands of times larger than “a normal volcano.” Some volcanos blow out their guts (their magma chambers) so quickly (and spew their guts so far away) that the land around the volcano collapses into the emptied magma chamber, forming a depressed area known as a caldera.

In volcano years, the Yellowstone Caldera is very young, only 640,000 years old. There are actually 3 major supereruptions that have formed calderas in Yellowstone over the last 2.4 million years (and other eruptions that are responsible for smaller calderas and land formations in and around the park). Some scientists have put forward the idea that the Yellowstone supervolcano could blow again at any second, leading to Facebook memes like this one–

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Other scientists say that Yellowstone’s supervolcano is in no danger of blowing again any time soon, and that those other scientists are being a bunch of alarmist hobos trying to get celebrity status with doomsday predictions.

Or something like that.

I fall into the camp of believing the Yellowstone supervolcano is not an immediate threat, and it seems that the scientific community largely agrees with that view.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Yellowstone is an awesome park to visit– because the land here is very much alive. Alive and moving. There are more active geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else in the world. And it’s littered with places where the ground layer is so thin, you can break through the surface and land in scalding water. (Definitely have to watch where you step in this park.)

Along with geysers, there are hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, travertine terraces, blankets of microbes that thrive in the heat, thousands of earthquakes that take place here every year (and Yellowstone is extremely sensitive to earthquakes in other places, even thousands of miles away)– this land is always moving, always shifting and raising and falling and changing– in short, Yellowstone is living, breathing geography. It is the earth exposed. Like watching planet porn. This is the place where clothes have come off, and earth is like, “Here I am, people! You wanna see what I got? Watch this!”

And it’s like, oh mama, yeah, I wanna be watchin’ that, mm-hmm, this is hot– as in, supervolcano-hot.

Over 3 million people visit Yellowstone to gawk at planet porn every year. This summer, I was one of them, and it’s pretty damn addictive.

The northern part of the park is fairly barren (maybe you can see the complete lack of trees in my Roosevelt Arch picture?)– but as you drive in, pine trees eventually appear.

There’s a park headquarters shortly after the northern entrance, complete with a gas station, a large campground, even a huge lodge– the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins–

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There are a lot of gas stations, grocery stores, staff housing, and campgrounds in Yellowstone (to give a partial list of the variety of structures that exist inside this massive park). For example, down the road from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was a bunch of houses and old-timey buildings, complete with cows (female elk) and their calves either eating or sleeping–

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Greg was all, “Do NOT get close to those cows!!” and I said, “Um, last time I checked, I still had a brain.” (Thanks.)

No offense to the people who get mauled, gored, and killed by wildlife in Yellowstone each year– but I find the cartoon warning pictures the park passes out on bright yellow sheets of paper (in copious numbers) pretty funny.

I mean, it’s not funny that people get hurt. That’s not what I find funny. It’s the cartoon pictures depicting people being gored that strike me as funny. And the fact that people have to be told (in large, childish print, and on copious numbers of identical fliers), that buffalo and elk “are very big and can sprint three times faster than you can run.”

Why is this so funny to me?

It’s like if I flew into LaGuardia for a shopping trip in Manhattan, and before leaving the airport, I was given several bright sheets of paper that all said, “Going for a walk late at night while flashing large wads of cash and jewelry invites unwanted attention, and might provoke a mugging,” complete with a cartoon picture of a woman in a fur coat, loaded with diamonds, clutching huge stacks of cash in both hands, being held at gunpoint by someone from a Steven Seagal movie.

Even one such flier would make me laugh. But to be handed three of them? Plus a full-color pamphlet about “muggers” or “the dangers of muggers” (Yellowstone’s equivalent of their full-color bear pamphlet), not to mention an “events and activities” newspaper with warnings about muggers on every other page– ??

Seriously, I’d just be laughing.

I mean, I wouldn’t be laughing because people in cities get mugged. Just the fact that people would be handed so many fliers and cartoon pictures and pamphlets and newspaper warnings about the danger of a possible mugging. That’s what I would find so bizarre.

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Every time I look at this cartoon picture of a guy being stabbed in the kidney by a buffalo (with an obvious “Ow!” expression on his face, while his camera and baseball cap go flying)– a cartoon I was given on three different bright yellow fliers, along with my park receipt, events paper, and bear pamphlet– I just feel my internal absurdity-meter rack up a few notches.

And then I watch something like this “bison fury” video on YouTube (running time one minute, 26 seconds, which you can watch here)–

which shows a family walking up to a buffalo in Yellowstone Park–

being filmed by some other guy (not in the family) who is just chuckling as he watches–

and he doesn’t warn these children and adults of the dangers at all, because he is chuckling and enjoying the anticipation of the attack he is sure will happen–

and then the animal charges, people run, the bison chases after a small boy for a while, and when no one is hurt, everyone is just laughing, like “haha, wasn’t that funny? What a great bit of excitement we just had!”

And I am like, You people are the reason I received 3 yellow fliers, plus a bear pamphlet warning guide, plus everything else. They are the woman strolling alone through a bad section of town, fanning herself with a wad of hundreds, fingering her diamond necklace, and pouting in her best Marilyn Monroe voice, “Anyone know where I can buy a drink around here?”

But anyway, back to my trip.

I took several pictures at the Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace. This travertine buried/killed the vegetation along the landscape–

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which is so ghostly and desolate and moonlike in its beauty.

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There were other cool formations here–

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It’s just amazing what minerals and heat and oxidation and microbes are capable of creating–

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Greg took a seat for a moment–

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and then we finished this little boardwalk loop in the north of the park, and hopped back in Queen Elizabeth. Yellowstone has a large figure-8 road that loops through the park, which we drove in a large, backward-S direction, making our way toward the south entrance. The northern part of the park doesn’t have as many trees as the southern part–

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But when you watch videos of wolves hunting elk and bison in Yellowstone, this is the area of the park where they thrive in the winter–

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This is the view beside Tower Falls (which is right by the road, in the northeast side of the figure-8 loop)–

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A wildfire hit Yellowstone in 1988 (and other years, but that fire gets cited the most)– so you can see a lot of dead trees on the drive–

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Sometimes I thought Yellowstone could be called Dead Tree Park instead.

Here’s an area in the park called the Artists Paintpots, which is a lovely little stroll around a number of interesting geysers and bubbling places–

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Here’s the view of that area from the upper trail (you can see the long wooden boardwalk, and the middle-left of the picture holds the small parking lot that services this location, you can just barely see a bit of white from the vehicles)–

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Greg and I couldn’t find a parking place at the Norris Geyser Basin, so I missed seeing that area (bummer!)– but here is a picture of Gibbons Falls (located in the top of the southwest quardrant of that figure-8 loop)–

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My next picture is one of the most Truly Magical sights I witnessed during my time in the park– and that was the image of all these families swimming together beneath Firehole Falls–

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What my photograph can’t capture is the sound of pure happiness that twinkled through the air– the sweet noise of children of all ages splashing and playing with their parents and family members, couples showing off for each other by leaping from the rocks, and the pine-scented smell of the wind. Up the road slightly was a much different view of this swimming area– as you head south, you can see that there are these beautiful, steep rocks all around this chasm of river water– and I didn’t ask Greg to stop because I was just breathless by the beauty and joy of all these people swimming in the Firehole River. If I ever return to Yellowstone in peak season, it will be to visit this swimming area and jump in the water.

One thing I never expected was how flat the top of the Yellowstone Caldera is– how many wide open spaces exist in the park–

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And how much vegetation is killed because of the geysers, hot springs, mudpots, steam vents, and other geothermal features of the park–

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The amazing geography of Yellowstone is both killer and life-giver, bringing death and rebirth as quickly as wildfire. In the picture above, you might be able to see the white bottoms of the tree trunks, how they have absorbed the mineral content of the land, so much that it stained their dead bark.

In places like the spring below, stepping off the boardwalk can land you in scalding water–

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In general, herds of bison and elk avoid dangerous places, but there are stories of gasses erupting from the earth and killing them, as well as being caught in the mud or scalded by springs and geysers, the same way people can suffer such incidents.

The colors around the springs are incredibly gorgeous– and here is some of that infamous “yellow stone” in the park–

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In the picture below, this area held large holes in the ground releasing gas with a ROAR– this site was LOUD, really loud! It was totally awesome!

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More geysers and springs! Such a wonderland of hot water and earthworks–

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Here was a sign posted at the Great Fountain Geyser, including estimated eruption times–

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And here is the Great Fountain Geyser, though I didn’t stay to see it blow (that would have been several hours of waiting)–

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I’ll close with a picture of Firehole Lake, which has these beautiful reds and browns swirling through the blue–

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Now, because this blog post is winning my personal website contest of Longest Blog EVER, I’m going to save Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful for Part II of this post. So I hope you’ll tune in later for more!

2 thoughts on “Hello, Supervolcano! My Trip to Yellowstone National Park (Part I)

  1. Oh man these pictures are stunning and make me want to go back to Yellowstone now that I’m older than 6 and capable of actually remembering a bit more of it!

    Also; I love that your car is Queen Elizabeth.

    Also, also; I definitely laughed at that comical “Buffalo done gonna gore your kidneys!” picture. Felt like the real life version of those warnings in the 6th Harry Potter book: “Make sure you know your safe word so Death Eaters don’t get into your house!” “Make sure you run like fuck because….well, nevermind; beefalos are faster than you. You’re toast!”

    Can’t wait for parts 2 and 3.

  2. Pingback: » Yellowstone: Part Deux

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