THE Yellowstone National Park long has been widely celebrated because it contains more and greater geysers than all the rest of the world together. The geyser fields next in size are in Iceland and New Zealand. The rest are inconspicuous.
To comprehend the Yellowstone we must begin with its making. The region is largely of volcanic origin. The mountains around it on both sides and the mountains within it are products or remainders of great volcanoes of the far past; and the great plateaus, from which spring its geysers and hot springs and through whose forests now roam so many wild animals, are composed of the ash and disintegrated lavas which were once ejected from these volcanoes.
One peculiarly fascinating glimpse of Yellowstone's tempestuous past is afforded in the petrified forest of the Specimen Ridge neighborhood, where many levels of upright petrified trunks may be found alternating, like the layers in a cake, with levels of volcanic ash; which plainly shows that after the first forest grew on the volcano's slope and was engulfed by a fresh shower of ash, enough time elapsed for a second forest to grow upon that level, and that this in turn was engulfed with new breccia to make the level for another forest, and so on. There is a cliff 2,000 feet high composed wholly of these alternate levels of engulfed forests and the volcanic debris which engulfed them.
Geysers have been defined as hot springs which intermittently eject columns of boiling water and steam. They are found only at places where the internal heat of the earth approaches the surface. The action of the geyser is comparatively simple. Water from the surface or from subterranean sources collects in the bottom of a deep tube-shaped opening in the rocks. This opening which has been enlarged from a crevice by the dissolving action of heated waters charged with sulphur gases, is known as the geyser tube. The water in the bottom of this tube is heated by hot gases rising from below or by contact with heated rock, but because of the weight of the column of cooler water in the tube above, it does not form bubbles of steam although it is heated much above the boiling point. The hot water gradually rises until the entire column of water becomes heated and the water near the surface, which is under less pressure, begins to boil causing a certain amount of water to overflow the rim of the geyser. This relieves the pressure on the superheated water below which immediately bursts into steam and boils over.
After the eruption the water re-collects in the tube, to become heated and again to be expelled. The geyser is thus periodic in its action. The eruptions of Old Faithful occur at intervals of about 1 hour.
Nearly the entire Yellowstone region, covering an area of 3,472 square miles, is remarkable for its hot-water phenomena. The geysers are confined to six basins in the middle west and southern portions of the park, but other hot-water manifestations occur at more widely separated points. Marvelously colored hot springs, mud volcanoes, and other strange phenomena are frequent. At Mammoth Hot Springs the hot water has brought to the surface quantities of white mineral deposits which build terraces of beautifully incrusted basins high up into the air, often engulfing trees of considerable size. Over the edges of these carved basins pours the hot water. Microscopic plants called algae grow on the edges and sides of these basins, assisting the deposition of the mineral matter and painting them hues of red and pink and bluish gray. At many other points lesser hot springs occur, introducing strange, almost uncanny, elements into wooded and otherwise quite normal landscapes.
A tour of these hot-water formations and spouting geysers is an experience never to be forgotten. Some of the geysers play at quite regular intervals. The celebrated Old Faithful, the tourists' friend, plays often and with regularity. It had the honor of welcoming the first explorer, and never since that day has it failed any visitor. Some of the largest geysers play at irregular intervals of days, weeks, or months. Some very small ones play every few minutes. Many bubbling hot springs, which throw water 2 or 3 feet into the air once or twice a minute, are really small geysers with habits of unusual interest.
The hot-spring terraces are also a rather awe-inspiring spectacle when seen for the first time. The visitor may follow the trails among the steaming pools. In certain lights the surfaces of these pools appear vividly colored. The deeper hot pools are often intensely green. The incrustations are often beautifully decorated. Clumps of grass, and even flowers, which have been submerged in the charged waters become exquisitely plated, as if with frosted silver.
But the geysers and hot-water formations are by no means the only wonders in the Yellowstone. Indeed, the entire park is a wonderland. The Canyon of the Yellowstone affords a spectacle worthy of a national park were there no geysers. What makes it a scenic feature of the first order is its marvelously variegated volcanic coloring. It is the cameo of canyons. Standing upon Inspiration Point, which extends out almost to the center of the canyon, one looks almost vertically down upon the foaming Yellowstone River. To the Southwest a waterfall nearly twice the height of Niagara rushes seemingly out of the pine-clad hills and pours downward to be lost again in the mist and jade of the river below.
Between the falls and Inspiration Point widens out a glorious expanse of color. The steep slopes dropping on either side a thousand feet and more from the pine-topped levels above are wondrously carved and fretted by the frost and the erosion of the ages. Sometimes they lie in straight lines at easy angles, from which jut high rocky prominences. Sometimes they lie in huge hollows carved from the side walls. Here and there jagged rocky needles rise perpendicularly for hundreds of feet like groups of gothic spires.
And the whole is colored as brokenly and vividly as the field of a kaleidoscope. It is streaked and spotted and stratified in every shade from the deepest orange to the faintest lemon, from deep crimson through all the brick shades to the softest pink, from black through all the grays and pearls to glistening white. The greens are furnished by the dark pines above, the lighter shades of growth caught here and there in soft masses on the gentler slopes and the foaming green of the plunging river so far below. The blues, ever changing, are found in the dome of the sky overhead.
It is a spectacle which one looks upon in silence.
There are several spots from which fine partial views may be had, but no person can say he has seen the canyon who has not stood upon Inspiration Point.
Another interesting feature of the Yellowstone National Park is its animal life. It is one of the largest and most successful sanctuaries in the world. Its mountains and valleys remain nearly as nature made them, for the more than 345 miles of roads and the few hotels and lodges are as nothing in this immense wilderness. No tree has been cut except when absolutely necessary for road, or trail, or camp. No herds of domestic cattle or sheep invade its valleys.
Visitors for the most part keep to the beaten road, and the wild animals have learned in the years that they mean them no harm. Some of these animals are seen by the people filling the long trains of motorbusses which travel from point to point daily during the season, and by the motorist from his automobile window. It is the quiet watcher on the trails, however, who most enjoys the deer, and bear, and elk, and antelope, and he may even see mountain sheep, moose, and bison by journeying on foot or by horseback into their distant retreats. In the fall and spring, when the crowds are absent, wild deer gather in the headquarters area to crop the vegetation.
An innovation in guided trips is the "game stalk" caravan conducted each evening just before dusk by the rangers to permit visitors with their own cars to get a glimpse of the larger park animals.
Thus one of the most interesting lessons from the Yellowstone is that wild animals are fearful and dangerous only when men treat them as game or as enemies.
The grizzly bear, for instance, is one of the shiest of wild animals, and may be seen only with difficulty. It lives principally on rodents, roots, berries, and grass. It cannot climb trees like the black bear. Its little ones are born in caves where the bears hibernate through the winters and are little larger than squirrels when born.
The brown, cinnamon, and black bears, which, by the way, are the same species only differently coloredthe blondes and brunettes, so to speak, of the same bear familyare quite different in habits. They are playful, comparatively fearless. They are greedy fellows and steal camp supplies whenever they can. However, they are wild animals and should not be fed or teased.
This wild-animal paradise now contains great herds of elk, several hundred moose, numerous deer, many antelope, and a herd of about 900 bison.
More than 200 species of birds live natural, undisturbed lives in Yellowstone. Eagles nest among the crags. Wild geese and ducks are plentiful. The rare trumpeter swan is nesting in increasing numbers. Hundreds of large white pelicans add to the picturesqueness of Yellowstone Lake.
Trout fishing in Yellowstone waters is unexcelled. All three drainage basins abound in trout, which often attain large size. Yellowstone Lake is the home of large trout, which are freely taken, and the Yellowstone River and its tributaries yield excellent catches to the skillful angler. There is good fishing in the other rivers and also in many lesser lakes. The more accessible waters, however, are fished so steadily that the trout in them become educated and wary. Back in the depths of the mountain fastnesses are fish that are less disturbed and therefore can be caught more readily. The native fishes of the park represent only a few species which have been supplemented by a number of others planted by the Government in otherwise barren waters. Park waters now contain some of the best games species.
The first recorded visit to the Yellowstone was made by John Colter in 1807-08. Having been released as a private soldier from the Lewis and Clark expedition, Colter, in 1807, joined the forces of Manuel Lisa, a celebrated trader. Later, while returning alone to Lisa's fort at the mouth of the Bighorn from a dangerous mission, to acquaint the Indians of Lisa's plans to trade with them, he traveled through the Yellowstone country. Upon his return to civilization, his story of the wonders he had seen was discredited.
The next recorded visit was by a trapper named Joseph Meek in 1829, who described it as "a country smoking with vapor from boiling springs and burning with gases issuing from small craters." From some of these craters, he said, "issued blue flame and molten brimstone," which, of course, was "a slight exaggeration", though doubtless Meek fully believed it to be the truth.
Between 1830 and 1840 Warren Angus Ferris, a clerk in the American Fur. Co., wrote the first description of the Firehole Geyser Basin, but it was not until 1852 that the geyser district was actually defined and the geysers precisely located. This was done by Father De Smet, the famous Jesuit missionary, who drew much of his information about the Yellowstone country from James Bridger, that reckless frontiersman whose strange yarns of the marvels he had there beheld remained discredited or tabooed by other writers as late as 1870.
The first Government expedition, sent out in 1859 under command of Capt. W. F. Raynolds, yielded little of accurate information about the central glories of the Yellowstone. The fact is that party never did reach the area now known as Yellowstone National Park. Several private explorers followed, but so great was public incredulity as to the marvels they described that they did not dare tell their experiences before any general audiences, for several lecturers had suffered in the streets as impostors. The large exploring expedition under Henry D. Washburn and N. P. Langford, in 1870, finally established the facts to the public belief and led to the creation of the Yellowstone National Park in 1872.