Wildlife in Yellowstone and the Tetons

Pronghorn and bison, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Moose cow, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Elk cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

In the northwest corner of Wyoming in the American West is a large complex of parkland which includes both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

 

The two parks and surrounding forest and mountains comprise a large outdoor complex: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

 

We were on a two-week road trip from California to Wyoming in early September, 2014.

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

We saw over one hundred wild bison in our first five minutes in Yellowstone, and would continue to see large herds throughout the visit. They are the featured star of Yellowstone–have free range to roam wherever they want within park boundaries.

 

It is a miraculous success story that there are any bison today. North America’s American bison populations have fluctuated dramatically from over 60 million in the late 18th century, to only 541 individuals by 1889.

 

Reintroduction efforts were successful and today there are approximately 31,000 bison on the continent, with 5,000 in Yellowstone.

 

Bison were by far the most prevalent megafauna we saw in Yellowstone.

American Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

A good close-up opportunity often occurred when a bison decided to cross the road, stopping traffic, sometimes for miles. Sometimes they sauntered so close to the car that we could hear their breathing.

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

Bison crossing road, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Large herds were frequently seen in the distance.

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

Other megafauna were not easy to find. We searched for days before we found one moose, in the distance (two photos, the same individual). There were so many people in the park, the mammals stayed as far away as possible.

Moose cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we had a picnic at Jackson Lake, and new friends quietly joined us.

Jackson Lake and Tetons, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Least Chipmunk, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Beetle, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Hairy Woodpecker, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

We sat across from these giant beaver lodges, hoping to see beavers. No beavers revealed themselves, but we spotted trumpeter swans in the distance, a bird lifer (never before seen) for us.

Beaver Lodges at Jackson Lake, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

On the way to see Old Faithful early one morning, we had a closer view of trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter Swan, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Here’s Old Faithful…so magnificent.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Some nights we heard coyotes howling, oh how I love that.

 

A flock of mountain bluebirds were busy at an abandoned homestead we found.

Mountain Bluebird, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Another spectacular attraction unique to Yellowstone are the geothermal features; there are over 10,000. We spent many hours marveling at the geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

This American dipper was busy feeding beside the river, not far from thermal features.

American Dipper, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we ventured far out on gravel roads, on our own safari drive. I drove while Athena stood up and photographed from the sun roof. Using the car as a blind was the only way we could sneak up on skittish pronghorn.

Pronghorn antelope, Yellowstone NP, Montana

We also came upon magpies in a meadow.

Black-billed Magpie, Yellowstone NP, Montana

 

America’s first national park, Yellowstone hosted Native Americans 11,000 years ago and continues embracing park enthusiasts today with its vast open space, mountains and grasslands, rivers and waterfalls.

 

You could spend a lifetime exploring this area and still never know all of what’s here, but I’m grateful I had a good start.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Elk cow grazing in Mammoth Village, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park and the area around it, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is a geothermal system like nowhere else in the world. Situated primarily in the state of Wyoming, this 2.2-million acre expanse is a roiling hotspot.

 

It has at least 10,000 geothermal features. Geysers are the most commonly known geothermal form, like Old Faithful, but there are several different kinds.

 

Travertine Terraces, Mammoth

On the northernmost  border of Yellowstone is Mammoth Hot Springs. Different from erupting geysers, Mammmoth stands out for its travertine terraces.

 

These terraces were formed from hot springs and carbonate deposits over thousands of years.

Terraces and steamy hot springs

 

Beneath the earth, thermal water from the hot springs travels via a fault line that runs through limestone. The water interacts with hot gases and forms a hot, acidic solution; the limestone dissolves into calcium carbonate.

 

Once this water reaches earth’s surface, carbon dioxide is released and the acidic solution forms a mineral called travertine, a chalky white substance.

 

Travertine Terrace

 

The terraces are ever-changing. Over two tons of the acidic solution are deposited here every day.

 

The different colors are a result of algae and bacteria.

 

There are boardwalk paths for visitors to observe the travertine terraces. Between the upper and lower terrace boardwalks are approximately 50 hot springs.

 

Live webcam: Travertine Terraces at Yellowstone

 

Mammoth Hot Springs

 

On the lower flats are the village, slightly left of center in the above photograph; a hotel and cabins, basic park services, Albright Visitor Center.

 

Located about a 1.5 hour’s drive north from the popular spots of the park, like Old Faithful, Mammoth is an isolated and lesser-known area of the park, close to the Montana border. Maps below.

 

Mound Terrace

 

In addition to the terraces, there are also a few formations, like Orange Spring Mound which occurred from a slow water flow and mineral deposits.

 

Orange Spring Mound

 

Inhabitants of the valley include elk, often seen grazing.

 

Elk herd

 

Fort Yellowstone is also here. It was once an Army fort created for establishing order in America’s first national park; the birthplace of the U.S. National Park Service.

 

Mammoth Village

 

In Yellowstone’s fiery and magma-driven corner of the world, Mammoth Hot Springs is a unique landscape well worth exploring.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

More info: Geothermal Areas of Yellowstone.

 

 

 

Map showing location of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Courtesy yellowstonepark.com

 

American Bison

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

The largest surviving terrestrial animal in North America, American bison still roam the prairies of this continent.

 

It is estimated there were once 20-30 million wild bison in North America. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting brought the numbers down to 1,091 individuals by 1889. Today in North America, after over a century of regulation and protection, there are approximately 500,000.

 

The herd of which many of us are familiar are the Yellowstone bison, seen in these photos. They total approximately 5,000 individuals; and are the only free-range bison population in the U.S. who ancestrally date back to prehistoric times.

 

Bison in Lamar Vly, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

 

It is extraordinary that any bison exist today after the relentless slaughter in the 1800s.

 

There is a lot of information about the near-extinction of this mammal, and the heroic recovery; many sub-species, different herds in the U.S., and in-depth research about the American bison.

 

Wikipedia Bison gives a good overview.

 

Yellowstone Bison from the National Park Service offers a thorough look at the current herds in this park, including a 2:52 minute video of a just-born bison calf.

 

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

American bison are creatures of the prairies. Nomadic grazers who travel in herds, they eat grass, weeds, and other plants. Herbivores with an average weight of 1,000-2,000 pounds (453- 907 kg), you can imagine how much grass it takes to satisfy a bison’s belly. They spend 9-11 hours a day eating.

 

When we were in Yellowstone in September, 2014, some of the bison’s coats were shaggy. Their bodies were preparing for the brutal Wyoming winter months ahead. They have two coats: a heavy one for winter, a lighter one for summer.

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

Also in winter, the bison come down out of the higher elevations to the valleys, where they can generally find more food. See diagram at end.

 

I like this winter note: the bison’s humpback design, with large spaces between certain vertebrae, allows them to use their head as a snowplow. Swinging their head from side to side, sweeping away the snow, they can reach the grass even in the coldest seasons.

Skeleton of adult male American bison. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Bison crossing road

All traffic stops in Yellowstone for the bison.

 

Sometimes they meander so close to the car that you can hear them breathing. I found it so intimate, hearing the deep, labored breath of this behemoth.

 

A huge animal that exists on mere grasses, still roams the prairies after millennium, adjusts its wardrobe to the season, and thrills visitors from around the world. That’s a remarkable animal.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Lamar Valley bison, Yellowstone NP

 

Chocolate bison — molded chocolate dessert from Jackson Lake Lodge

 

A map of Yellowstone's elevation, rivers and major lakes, park and state boundaries, the breeding and fall-winter ranges of bison, and the 2013 Interagency Bison Management Plan area

Yellowstone bison range, courtesy Nat’l Park Service. Light tan is fall-winter range, brown is breeding range, purple is Bison Mgmt Plan area. Blue is lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellowstone’s Lower Falls

Lower Falls, Yellowstone. Look closely at upper left hand corner for green stripe.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone. Look closely at upper left hand corner for green stripe.

There are 290 waterfalls of at least 15 feet (4.6m) high in Yellowstone National Park.  The highest one, Lower Falls, is also the most powerful.

 

Feeding from the Yellowstone River, it boasts the largest volume of water of all waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains.

 

Located in the state of Wyoming, near Yellowstone’s Canyon Village, Lower Falls can be accessed via a loop road as well as trails.

 

One of Yellowstone’s most popular sights, Lower Falls is 308 feet tall (twice the height of Niagara).  Up river, out of sight from Lower Falls, is Upper Falls.

 

Lower Falls Canyon

Lower Falls Canyon

Click here for info on Yellowstone Falls.  Click here for National Park Service waterfall video and aerial photos.

 

Surrounding the Lower Falls are majestic canyons, known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  Carved by the Yellowstone River, it is 24 miles (39km) long and 1,200 feet (370m) deep.

 

Natural features and activities such as rhyolite rock and other minerals, hydrothermal alteration, erosion, and oxidizing resulted in the unique coloration of the canyon.  More about the Canyon here.

 

The chromatic canyons, raging waterfalls, and rushing river present  breathtaking vistas.

 

I have memorable images of wonderful waterfalls all over this earth, but my favorite feature here at Lower Falls is the green stripe.

 

Look closely (first photo) at the upper left hand side of the waterfall, you may be able to see the bright green stripe of water.

 

It is mesmerizing to be there in person, watching.  Emerald water plunging over the brink of the falls.

 

There is a notch there that makes the water deeper, and keeps it from becoming frothy, thereby causing the water to appear darker as it rushes over the edge.

 

Lower Falls & Yellowstone River

Lower Falls & Yellowstone River

In this spectacular place where humans have lived for 11,000 years, time shifts.  Amid lakes, mountain ranges, waterfalls, wild animals, and thousands of geysers; it is impossible to see everything in two weeks, or even a lifetime.

 

But being here, seeing what Native Americans, explorers, presidents, and millions of other viewers have revered over the centuries, you can breathe in the marvels and know utter fortune.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Happy Birthday Yellowstone

Old Faithful

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

This week we celebrate the 144th anniversary of America’s first national park:  Yellowstone.  This park, 95% of which is in Wyoming, is over 2 million acres in area.

 

Although it officially became a national park on March 1, 1872, this vast wilderness has been a draw to humans for thousands and thousands of years.

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone

There is evidence of Native Americans living here 10,000 years ago.

 

In the past few centuries it has been celebrated by explorers and trappers on many expeditions, who eventually did surveys and reports advocating the land be set aside for public enjoyment.

 

Yellowstone Falls

Yellowstone Falls

Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geological surveyor, was one of the more tenacious advocates.  He was instrumental in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first U.S. National Park.

 

For more info about Yellowstone, click here.

 

Geyser Basin steam vents, Yellowstone

Geyser Basin steam vents, Yellowstone

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem covers 20 million acres (8,093,712 ha) of land.  This encompasses adjacent national forests, wilderness areas, and Grand Teton National Park.

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons

Visitors have been flocking to Yellowstone for centuries.  The National Park Service states that currently “Yellowstone hosts close to 4 million visits each year.”  That’s a lot of humans!

 

Elk, Yellowstone

Elk, Yellowstone

So it is a really good thing Yellowstone became a park, with restrictions and plans for preserving the park and its wild inhabitants.

 

We humans can all visit, and temporarily share in its beauty, but  must ultimately surrender this enormous expanse to the many wild animals and plants that live here.

 

Moose, Grand Tetons

Moose, Grand Tetons

Happy Birthday Yellowstone!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

With Gratitude…

Andes Mtns, Peru

Andes Mtns, Peru

I see skies of blue,

and clouds of white,

 

 

 

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana, Africa

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana, Africa

The bright blessed day,

the dark sacred night

 

 

 

And I think to myself

What a wonderful world.

Lamar Vly, Yellowstone, WY, USA

Lamar Vly, Yellowstone, WY, USA

To my blogging friends across the wonderful world:  thank you for inspiring me every single day.

 

 

 

So many thanks, too, to Athena Alexander, for her awesome photos.

And Lyric credit to:  “What a Wonderful World” by Weiss, Douglas and Thiele

 

Yellowstone Geothermals (Part 2 of 2)

Morning Glory Thermal Pool

Morning Glory Thermal Pool

A volcanic hotspot of magma and molten rock lies below the surface of Yellowstone.  It originates more than 100 miles below and has been shifting, eroding, and erupting for the past two million years.  Yellowstone is only part of an 18 million acre ecosystem that includes the Grand Tetons, much of Wyoming, and parts of Idaho and Montana.

 

Geyser Basin steam vents, Yellowstone

Geyser Basin steam vents, Yellowstone

One of my favorite thrills was driving through the park very early in the morning when the air was still cool, because the contrasting warm steam vents were so visible…and they were everywhere.

 

 

Yesterday’s post focused on the geysers, and today we take a look at the other geothermal elements.  There were steam vents, or fumaroles, as seen here.  Another geothermal feature are the mudpots.  They are a hot pool of mud, a sort of hot spring with not much water.  Gases cause the mudpots to gurgle and bubble.

 

Heart Spring Thermal Pool and Lion Group Geyser

Heart Spring Thermal Pool and Lion Group Geyser

And then there are the hot springs, ah, so very beautiful.  The photos here represent some of the more stunning geothermal pools and hot springs in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.  Whereas geysers have restrictions in their underground plumbing causing the dramatic eruptions, hot springs do not have restrictions.

 

Hot springs are super heated water features in which the water cools, sinks, and circulates without erupting.  The colors you see surrounding the pool are called thermophiles, and are bacteria and other microbes that thrive in hot water.

 

Blue Star Thermal Pool

Blue Star Thermal Pool

With over 10,000 geothermal features in Yellowstone, you could spend a lifetime visiting this unique place.  I also had the pleasure of visiting the northern side of the park in yet another geothermal area, called travertine terraces:  Mammoth Hot Springs.  I’ll tell you about that another time.  Thanks for joining me!

Chromatic Thermal Pool

Chromatic Thermal Pool

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Yellowstone Geothermals (Part 1 of 2)

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

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.

 

Geyser Diagram

Geyser Diagram

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.

 

Grand Geyser.  Tallest predictable geyser in the world

Grand Geyser. Tallest predictable geyser in the world

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.

 

Geyser,-Old-Faithful-sign

Sign in lobby of Old Faithful Inn

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.

 

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

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

Yellowstone Bison

American Bison, Yellowstone, WY

American Bison, Yellowstone, WY

The most plentiful wild animal we saw in Yellowstone National Park was the American Bison.  Herds graze in the plains and hills, making their way across the vast wilderness.  Sometimes they were black dots in the horizon, pleasantly easy to spot against the blonde grass.  Other times they were casually strolling across the road, only a few feet away.

 

Having just returned from a trip to several of America’s western National Parks, I have many fun tales and photos to share.  I’ll tell you more about bison bison and their thrilling rumbling sounds and loveable habits.  For now you can rest with this big daddy, comfortably knowing you’re safe with a photo.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander