There is much to admire in this park in Wyoming, but my favorite part was the extraordinary geothermal activity. With over 10,000 such features, Yellowstone National Park has the greatest concentration of geothermal activity in the world. Yellowstone was America’s first national park due to the astounding glory of the geothermals.
This phenomenon requires a geologic blend of precipitation, underground heat, and underground plumbing. Rain and snowmelt soak into the earth and combine with an underground magma layer to create boiling hot water just below the earth’s surface. Due to millions of years of volcanic activity, there are fissures and cracks underground that are turned into viable channels, or pipes, by minerals like silica and rhyolite. This system of natural underground plumbing provides a route for the roiling water to escape. You can read more about it here.
There are nine large thermal areas in the park, and many different kinds of features. Today I will focus on the geysers, and tomorrow I will show you other features like steam vents and hot springs.
There were hundreds of geysers here, and they, too, are all very different. Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in Yellowstone, but it is not the biggest. It is famous because it faithfully erupts approximately every 90 minutes every single day and night as it has for hundreds of years. With that kind of predictability and showmanship, it has attracted millions of human admirers, including me.
All geysers vary due to the composition of the subterranean plumbing. I spent an entire day in the Upper Geyser Basin and had the thrill of watching Old Faithful erupt three different times. Each eruption was slightly different, but for this geyser it generally lasted about five minutes, discharging about 4,000 gallons of water, to a height of 100-150 feet. In addition, we witnessed exciting eruptions of about a dozen other geysers.
Numerous explorers and scientists have embraced Yellowstone’s geothermals over the centuries. In today’s world there are also dedicated “geyser geeks.” We befriended a particularly animated gentleman who called himself a “geyser geezer.” Retired age, he ran with a few friends from one eruption to the next, taking meticulous notes in a tiny notebook. He has been observing and studying eruption patterns for many years, taking pride in his accuracy of predictions. His eyes sparkled as he hurried off to the next one.
Viewing the geysers is only one part of the extravaganza. Hearing the roar, feeling the ground vibrate, and witnessing the explosive spray and downpour are also delightful. And then there’s the smell: sulfur. This odorous evidence is the result of microorganism activity and absolutely caps off the experience.
The world has changed a lot since this park was declared a site, but all of us millions of visitors throughout the centuries are really quite the same: celebrating an irrepressible expression of the earth and its beauties.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander