Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017
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Blowing Off Steam

Tour the geysers and valleys of the United States' oldest national park

The sweep of the interstate divided the dusty countryside. Unexpected time off and a yen to do something had led us here, going 120 clicks down the I-15. We were driving to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on a spontaneous road trip.

"What the heck's in Yellowstone anyway?" Jim asked as we drove. There was silence as we passed through a wide valley. "Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo live there, don't they?" Jim raised his eyebrows and laughed. "No, that's Jellystone," he answered recalling the 1960s cartoon.

Without the benefit of our usual research, I was forced to reach into the darkest corners of my brain for an answer. By the time we pulled up to the west entrance, our sum knowledge of the park consisted of geysers. We grabbed a camping spot and headed to the only landmark we knew to look for: Old Faithful.

The infrastructure surrounding Old Faithful is fitting for the best-known geyser in the world. The parking lot is huge, surrounded by tourist service buildings. Our first stop was the park visitor centre. Old Faithful's estimated eruption times for the day were displayed prominently in the window; the list was long. We checked our watches; we had 30 minutes.

With a new guidebook and several park brochures in hand, we joined the growing stream of visitors down the broad, paved path to the semi-circular ring of benches. Along with several hundred other souls, we sat and stared intently at the wide limestone-encrusted field. A blurp, a gurgle, then up shot a jet of hot white water, spouting and spraying 56 metres into the sky. It isn't the largest geyser in the park; but it does have the most frequent eruptions of all the large geysers.

Leap of Faith
The next day, we crept out early before the crowds were out in force, and returned to Old Faithful. Walking the empty paths in the half-light of morning, we felt we were sneaking onto sacred territory. The trail to Observation Point crosses the Firehole River and climbs 75 metres. We watched as the sun crept over the valley. The cool morning air played off the many thermal features, making the puffs of steam even more pronounced. "There she goes!" Jim pointed as the geyser put on an explosive display.

The village centre was awakening by the time we returned. In the heaviest months, between June and September, the park may see 13,000 to 26,000 visitors a day. Breakfast seemed as good an excuse as any to explore the Old Faithful Inn, a 100-year-old building said to be the largest log structure in the world. Walking into the main entrance, our eyes were drawn to the distant ceiling. The lobby stretched up for seven storeys supported by a most unlikely collection of log beams and posts, from perfectly smooth to knobbed and gnarled. Rings of balconies with peeled log railings encircled the room overhead. A massive stone fireplace in the southeast corner balanced the lobby's enormous space.

Old Faithful has become the best-known feature of the Upper Geyser Basin, but it's hardly the only one. This area has the largest concentration of geysers in the world -- 60 percent of them, in fact. Returning to the visitor centre we made notes on our map. Castle, Riverside, Daisy, Great Fountain: these geysers each had one daily eruption in the morning, and the time could only be approximated, give or take an hour or two. We discovered two smaller geysers that were very viewer friendly: Plume expelled three to five bursts every 20 minutes and Anemone was even more frequent, spouting off every seven to 10 minutes. Schedule in hand, we set off to see as many eruptions as we could.

The National Park Service is very conscious of the danger of thermal activity and the propensity of tourists to wander off the trails. This has led to a clearly defined and well laid-out system of paths through all developed thermal areas, which makes for very pleasant walking. We strolled to our geysers at the appointed times and waited for their displays.

We also discovered unexpected beauty. Impossibly clear turquoise blue and ringed by pale yellow, Morning Glory Pool lay at the far end of the basin. We met Donna who was visiting Yellowstone for the first time. "I especially like the pools," she said. "When you look into their depths, it's as if you can see the centre of the Earth."

Like most national parks in the United States, Yellowstone is arranged with car touring in mind. All the well-known attractions are easily accessible from the road. Unfortunately, some areas have paid the price. Morning Glory Pool was once next to the park road, and over the years, hordes of tourists tossed lucky coins, rocks and rubbish in, clogging the pool's vent and causing the bacteria which creates the yellowish ring to encroach on the vivid blue. It's now a two-and-a-half kilometre walk from the visitor centre.

Returning to our campsite we stopped at Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin where short boardwalks lured us to thermal attributes. We spent hours observing all the different manifestations hot water can take. The kilometre-long loop trail at Midway Geyser Basin led to Grand Prismatic Spring, celebrated for being the largest hot spring in the park and the second largest in the world. The next stop was Fountain Paint Pot Nature trail. Here was something different: mud; boiling, bubbling, splopping, splurping.

 

Into the fire
Next day, we travelled south to the Grant Visitor Center and Fire Museum, one of eight educational facilities in the park. We learned that 1988 was the driest recorded summer in Yellowstone's history, and it was no ordinary fire season. The blaze began June 14 and members of the Army, Navy, Air force, Marines and National Guard were brought in to bolster firefighters. Even locals were enlisted to help. In all, 25,000 people struggled against the fires, staggered by their size, intensity and speed. Immense human efforts yielded only superficial results; the fires burned on. In early September, nature intervened in the form of snow and rain. Five months and $120 million later, the fires were officially declared out. But the burn line of that summer's fires comes right down to the edge of the village.

Politics and media influenced public perception of the fire. People were upset at the sight of a smoldering Yellowstone but park officials wanted to tell another side of the story. The Yellowstone and Fire exhibit at Grant Village tries to redirect visitors' attitudes towards fire from destruction and devastation to rejuvenation and regrowth, a natural part of the forest ecosystem.

Park officials also use visitor centres to improve the public attitude to Yellowstone's prodigal sons: wolves. Following a concerted eradication program, Yellowstone had been wolfless since the 1930s. With a flurry of publicity, they were reintroduced 60 years later. The 31 Canadian wolves (and later 10 orphaned US pups) have made themselves at home; their numbers have grown to 148, and they roam the park in 14 separate packs. They are Yellowstone's superstars, and their likeness graces books, movies, posters and T-shirts.

Where the buffalo roam
Yellowstone is also home to the only continuously wild herd of bison in the lower 48 states. Hunting and poaching reduced their numbers to only 23 in 1902, but 100 years later their population has increased to over 4000.

A great place to see these animals is Hayden Valley, a short scenic drive north from Grant Village. We watched as Yellowstone Lake turned into the Yellowstone River and the forest gave way to acres of undulating bronzed grasslands dotted with bison, which didn't seem at all concerned with traffic or tourists. We stopped at the roadside turnouts and observed these enormous beasts as they went about their daily business.

The road followed the Yellowstone River as it meandered out of Hayden Valley, until it abruptly plummeted 33 metres over the Upper Falls. This is the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a turbulent and spectacular 30-kilometre stretch of river. Viewpoints and trails enticed us to explore. The canyon's size is impressive, up to a kilometre wide and 360 metres deep. So are its two waterfalls, of which the larger and more dramatic Lower Falls have come to symbolize the Canyon.

Our final destination in the park was Mammoth Hot Springs. This work of art has been in progress for thousands of years. Three million litres of water deposit up to two tonnes of limestone each day -- forming immense and intricate displays of travertine terraces. Bacteria and algae contribute to the spectacle by adding colour to the delicate ponds and cascading stone formations.

Leaving Yellowstone, we remembered how little we had known of the park when we first arrived. Sure, it's home to almost two-thirds of the Earth's geysers, but we had seen so much more than waterworks. Back in 1872, Yellowstone's grand beauty and unusual geysers spurred the idea of a national park -- the world's first. Nearly three million visitors a year agree that this is an area worth preserving.

 

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