North America

A Loop Around Yellowstone

Thursday, August 15 –

After a good night’s sleep, we packed up from the Day’s Inn and left for Yellowstone. We drove back through Jackson Hole north towards Yellowstone. The name “hole” comes from early trappers who entered the valley from the north along relatively steep slopes, which made them think they were entering a hole.

We admired the views of the Tetons as we travelled north on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. The road was named for Rockefeller, a dedicated conservationist, who led efforts to purchase land in Jackson Hole to be added to the existing national park. Yellowstone is only 10 miles north of Grand Teton National Park.

Moulton barn and homestead

Moulton barn and homestead

Along the way we stopped at the Moulton Barn, which is the only remaining structure built by Thomas Alma Moulton on his homestead in the early 1900s. It’s in an area west of the road known as Mormon Row. The property with the barn was one of the last parcels sold to the National Park Service by the Moulton family. With a picturesque view of the Teton Range in the background of the barn, it has become a symbol of Jackson Hole and is called the most photographed barn in America.

Not long afterwards, we arrived at the Yellowstone National Park south entrance. About 96 percent of Yellowstone National Park is located in Wyoming, while another three percent is in Montana and a tiny one percent resides in Idaho. The park stretches 63 miles from it’s north to south boundaries and 54 miles from east to west. Altogether, the park is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware.

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A map of Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone was America’s first national park, established on March 1, 1872. The park – famous for its geysers, boiling mud, steaming rivers, roaming buffalos, grizzlies and petrified trees – was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1978. It ranks among the most popular national parks in the United States. Since the mid-1960s, more than 2 million tourists have visited the park almost every year!

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One of the most interesting facts about Yellowstone is it’s one of the most volcanic places in the world. The Yellowstone Caldera is the largest volcanic system in North America, and is known as a super-volcano because the caldera was formed by exceptionally large explosive eruptions. Today’s magma chamber underneath Yellowstone is estimated to be a single connected chamber, about 37 miles long, 18 miles (29 km) wide, and 3 to 7 miles deep. It was created by a tremendous eruption that occurred 640,000 years ago, which released more than 240 cubic miles of ash, rock and pyroclastic materials. Amazingy, the eruption was more than 1,000 times larger than the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. It produced the caldera that visitors experience today.

Yelllowstone’s first western visitor was John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in 1806. He told stories on his return of a hellish landscape of steaming rivers, boiling mud pots and shooting steam geysers. He was just the first westerner to be awed by the remarkable scenery. Some feared it could become commercialized like Niagara Falls, hence the work by activists to create a national protected park.

Along the way into the park, we saw grizzly bears, bison and elk roaming near the roads. In fact the Yellowstone Park bison herd is the oldest and largest herd in the nation. Cars pulled over in huge numbers – often times with naïve visitors exiting and getting too close for photos. We saw a huge number of visitors in the peak summer months, especially near the Old Faithful and Canyon areas.

We stopped over at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We walked around on wooden boardwalks peering curiously into boiling pots of water. The heat source is thought to be 10,000 feet down! The whole area is about the same size as Crater Lake in Oregon, but much smaller than the great Yellowstone caldera which formed 600,000 years ago. In essence, it is a caldera within a caldera.

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Old Faithful erupts

Afterwards we drove to the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the most famous geyser in the world, Old Faithful. With a margin of error of 10 minutes, Old Faithful will erupt 65 minutes after an eruption lasting less than 2.5 minutes or 91 minutes after an eruption lasting more than 2.5 minutes. This predictability is due to Old Faithful not being connected to any other thermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin.

Nearby in the same basin we saw Castle, Lion and Beehive geysers. Castle has an interval of approximately 13 hours between major eruptions. The other three predictable geysers are Grand Geyser, Daisy Geyser, and Riverside Geyser. With more than 10,000 geothermal features altogether, Yellowstone hosts half of the world’s geothermal features and two-thirds of the world’s geysers. An average of 465 are active in a given year.

Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn

We were going to stay at the Old Faithful Inn tonight, the largest log hotel in the world, a national historic landmark. Built in 1903, it was the first great lodge built in the American West. The lodge’s massive pine log structure and huge, 85-foot rhyolite stone fireplace is the textbook example of the uniquely America architectural style called National Park Service Rustic. The multi-story log lobby is surrounded by long frame wings containing guest rooms, many offering amazing views of Old Faithful Geyser. The Inn had a close cal with the 1988 fires, but a heroic last stand by firefighters and continuously dowsing the structure with water, saved the historic hotel.

After lunch we ventured north to the Norris Geyser Basin. We saw Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest currently-active geyser, which sometimes shoots water steam more than 300 feet into the air. We also viewed the Fountain Paint Pot, a hot spring that contains boiling grey mud instead of water. We also saw the Great Fountain Geyser, whose eruptions reach 100 to 200 feet in the air.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Headed east, we visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon is approximately 24 miles long, between 800 and 1,200 ft deep and up to .75 mi wide. The Yellowstone River continues to erode into the ancient lava flows, which is very different than a glacier carved canyon. We observed in awe the two major waterfalls: the Upper Yellowstone Falls, and a quarter mile below, the Lower Yellowstone Falls, largest in the Rockies. The Upper are 109 feet high while the Lower are 308 feet high (about twice as high as Niagara, but less volume).

That afternoon we headed south in the loop to Yellowstone Lake, one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America, which covers 132 square miles and is 20 miles long by 14 miles wide. The lake’s elevation is 7,733 and it remains cold all year with an average temperature of 41 degrees. Yellowstone Lake has the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America, but how these Pacific Ocean cutthroat got trapped in a lake that drains to the Atlantic Ocean is a mystery. The lake rests above the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent. It has erupted several times in the last two million years.

We then completed the loop back to the Old Faithful Inn where we would spend the night.

Inside the Old Faithful Inn

Inside the Old Faithful Inn

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