Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cold Mountains, Sliding Trees and a Lot of Hot Water - Part 2

We left Jackson and the Tetons behind (although we did stop for several more pictures of
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
those grand mountains) and headed on up the Teton Park Road into our oldest national park. Yellowstone National Park is located mostly in Wyoming, but it also spreads into Montana and Idaho. It was established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. This park is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially Old Faithful Geyser. It has a variety of ecosystems, but the subalpine forest is most common. Yellowstone is named for the igneous, volcanic rock rhyolite that changes to a yellow color as it ages and is exposed to the weather. When I was a geology student, our professor called this yellow rock ‘rotten rhyolite’ and I suppose I will always think of it as such. There are also other igneous rocks to be found in the park, including obsidian, a natural glass that the Clovis culture used to make cutting tools and weapons. In the 1950s, an obsidian projectile point of Clovis origin dating from about 11,000 years ago was found near Gardiner, Montana (the northern entrance to Yellowstone). Early explorers told stories of the existence of an area of ‘fire and brimstone’, boiling mud, steaming rivers, spouting water, a mountain of glass and yellow rock and petrified trees were dismissed as the result of either delirium or over-active imagination. Bad weather and the American Civil War prevented any exploration of the area until 1869 when the privately funded Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition finally made it from the Yellowstone River to Yellowstone Lake and began a detailed study of the area. With the evidence of this and subsequent expeditions, as well as the photographs by William Henry Jackson and paintings by Thomas Moran, Yellowstone was given the protection of National Park status. However, poaching and destruction of natural resources continued until the U.S. Army came to Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886 and built Camp Sheridan. Eventually there was enough funding and manpower to maintain protection of the park’s wildlife and natural resources. These policies and regulations formed the basis of the management principles adopted by National Park Service when it was created in 1916.

The U-shaped arc of the Snake River Plain marks the 17 million year journey of the North American Plate as plate tectonics moves it across a stationary mantle hotspot. The magma
L to R: Marmot, Columnar jointing of Sheepeater Cliff
chamber beneath Yellowstone is thought to be a single connected space, approximately 37 miles (60 km) long, 18 miles (29 km) wide, and three to seven miles (five to 12 km) deep. The last supereruption in this active area occurred about 160,000 years ago forming a rather small caldera (collapsed lava chamber) in which the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake is located, but a set of eruptions, as late as 70,000 years ago, have almost filled in the main Yellowstone Caldera with rhyolitic lavas such as those at Obsidian Cliffs (now closed to any but the hardiest hikers because of defacement by ignorant souvenir hunters) and basaltic lavas forming the Sheepeater Cliff. Layers of lava can be most easily seen at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where the Yellowstone River continues to whittle away at the ancient lava flows.

Yellowstone contains at least 10,000 geothermal features the most famous of which is Old
Old Faithful Geyser
Faithful Geyser. And while millions of people flock to the Upper Geyser Basin to see this geyser erupt, the largest active geyser in the world is down at Norris Geyser Basin: Steamboat Geyser. Knowing when these geysers will erupt has always been hit or miss and if you’re on one side of the park, you really don’t want to drive to the other just to miss the eruption by a couple of minutes. However, there is now a website that shows the times the geysers may be active. Geyser Times lists two sets of predictions, theirs and those from the National Park Service. Although the big spouts of water are amazing, I’m fondest of Mammoth Hot Springs where on a sunny day the terraces of travertine are blindingly white with brilliant orange stripes from the mats of thermophile bacteria and the gently flowing hot water adds a brilliant shimmer over it all. When I was here in the 1980s, these springs were not active due to some small earthquakes that changed the pattern of the water flow, so this year I was very pleased to see that these features are active again.

Although the geology of the park is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, the flora and the fauna are also breath-taking. My favorite area is the tundra with its flagged trees and tiny plants,
New growth of trees
but there are more than 1,700 species of trees and other vascular plants are native to the park. Evidently there are also exotic and non-native species of plants that are being tracked in by visitors, since we did see park employees spraying specific plants with weed-killer. Lodgepole Pine forests dominate the park with Subalpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir and Whitebark Pine found in scattered areas throughout the park. This ‘Lodgepole Pine’ desert was one of the principle reasons the fires in the park were so devastating. The pine bark beetle had killed many of these trees and a lightning strike was all it took to set acres and acres of woodland ablaze. The result of these fires was that new growth of a more diverse set of flora makes it less likely that the majority of trees are at risk from a particular blight, such as
Top L to R: Fireweed, Old Man of the Mountain,
Indian Paintbrush
Bottom L to R: Goatsbeard, Choke Cherry
the pine bark beetle. The National Park Service has since changed its policy on natural fires and tends to only protect historic places or those areas in which visitors are located. And trees aren’t the only flora story; between May and September there are thousands of wildflowers that grace the valleys, mountain slopes and the tundra. At one time I could identify a goodly number of these, but that knowledge is stored somewhere in the back of my memory making me rely on field guides to give names to these lovely plants.

If you’re not looking at the scenery or the plants, then you are probably preoccupied with the megafauna. Now that the wolf reintroduction program is successful, virtually all the
Top L to R: Bison on Road, Bison Herd
Bottom: Bison
original faunal species that inhabited the region when the first white explorers entered the area can still be found in the park. This time we saw elk, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and more bison than anyone could roller skating among. We heard other visitors talking about seeing bear and moose, but they hid from us as we toured the park. The Yellowstone Park bison herd is thought to be one of only four free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. The other three herds are the Henry Mountains bison herd in Utah, a herd at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and the fourth herd at Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. While we were delighted to see so many bison, and even more pleased to see that they had many calves in the herd, several visitors weren’t so excited about being close to these wild animals. On more than one occasion the bulls blocked the roads, letting the cows and calves cross safely but causing long lines of cars waiting to travel to other parts of the park. During our visit more than one tourist found that these wild animals are not afraid of humans. After getting a close-up picture of a resting bison, a tourist walked around behind the animal and kicked it
Top L to R: Elk Herd, Elk buck
Bottom: Elk cow
to make it get up. The bison did, knocking the person to the ground and trampling her; badly bruised and with a couple of broken bones, this visitor lived through the encounter. There were also tourists getting within a few feet of the apparently calm elk herd that spends evenings on the lawn of the visitor center at Mammoth Hot Springs. Evidently these people believe that the antlers are only for decoration and are astounded when a frightened or irritated animal jumps toward them, head down and ready for battle.

Although Grand Teton National Park has a road running directly through it, getting around Yellowstone National Park isn’t that straight forward. The roads within the park form a figure
Top L to R: Mammoth Hot Springs, Sapphire Pool
Bottom L to R: Monument Geyser Basin,
Norris Geyser Basin
eight of about 142 miles (229 km) which can take as much as seven hours to drive. During the spring and summer, basically from the time it stops raining/snowing until it starts snowing again, is the time for road repairs which will increase your travel time substantially. These repairs may also make some of the small roads that take you into the back country impassable. If you make all the stops on the map for hiking, walking, scenic overlooks and the like, you’ll spend at least an entire day doing a quarter of the park. If you come in from the south or the west entrance, your best bet is to go to Old Faithful first. This is where we encountered the largest crowds because of the number of geysers to see, shops to visit and time it takes to get oriented. The next busiest place is Norris, again because of the number of geyser features and the time it takes to walk to them all. West Thumb and Grant Village have the fewest attractions, but still should not be missed. Tower-Roosevelt is where you’ll head to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and to do some major hiking if you want to walk down to the bottom of the falls. In between all of these major stops are little places to pull off and hike or gavel roads to explore. The roads to the park entrances (five in all) are also scenic. The north entrance near Gardiner, Montana has the original arch that early visitors passed
L to R: Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram,
Kids at play 
under to get into the park, as well as an area that is specifically set aside for Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. One afternoon we saw a ram browsing on shrubs on the mountain side while nearby kids cavorted, butting each other off of a rock precariously hanging on the side of a cliff. These youngsters all had very sure footing, but they made the tourists very nervous.

For information about What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, go to ‘Reviews of Road Trip to Yellowstone’.

West Thumb Geyser Basin
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