Destination United States of America

Yellowstone: Beauty and the Beast

By: Ximena de la Pava
Photos: Javier Pinzón

A path winds through the pine forest at the end of the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park and continues up to the top of a hill. The entire area can be seen from there: a bubbling, thundering planet, like a work in progress, with pits of boiling mud, water chiseling into the limestone, steaming pools of crystalline water, and, in the center, like the jewel in the crown, the Great Prismatic Spring, three hundred feet in diameter and circled by deep orange brushstrokes made by millions of bacteria, like an army of microscopic artists.

The setting couldn’t be more beautiful, or dangerous. The soft mist emanating from the pools that lends a magical touch to our Yellowstone sunset merely hints at the inferno boiling away under our feet. The continuous explosions of nearly 250 geysers and 10,000 hot springs (62% of all those on Earth) signal one of the few super volcanoes on the planet to be located underneath a continent. It is connected by a system of intricate underground channels to a “hot spot”: a network that burns at the heart of the planet.

Yellowstone Lake looks peaceful and still. Located at an altitude of over 7,700 feet and covering 132 square miles, it’s the largest mountain lake in North America. But while contemplating the quiet waters it’s difficult to keep from imagining everything going on beneath them. The lake formed in the crater left behind when the volcano exploded for the last time, about 640,000 years ago. At the time, it hurled approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers of matter across the entire western United States, all the way to the Pacific coast and even down to México. The gases and ashes combined to create a blanket in the atmosphere that affected the planet’s climate and caused massive extinction. It then remained dormant for a long time, disturbed only by a kind of agitated breathing: the volcano sizzles, bubbles, and puffs throughout its intricate network. Scientists have established that the volcano will remain dormant anywhere from 600,000 to 900,000 years, and we’re already halfway through this interval.

The bright colors circling the springs, the reds and yellows adorning the gentle creeks running down into Yellowstone’s many rivers, and the towering rays of light shining in the Prismatic Spring are the result of hard work by thermophiles, heat-resistant pigmented bacteria that grow along the edges of mineral-rich pools of water. Like the colors on an artist’s palette, the tones here vary, depending on a delicate mix of chlorophyll, carotenoids, and temperature. This is why the edges tend to turn orange and red in summer while in winter, the ground coverings are often dark green.

The park’s heavy geothermal activity is caused by three conditions: a pit of liquid fire boiling three to ten miles below ground; cold water in the form of rain or snow that seeps down; and the network of cracks that has formed in the rocks over the years. When the cold water sinks into the ground, making contact with the hot zone, it heats up slowly until it explodes. The Upper Geyser is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Some explode every ten minutes, some spout up to twenty-five feet in the air and at least once an hour; still others launch towers of water over 200 feet in the air. The Grand Geyser is the tallest, sending a jet of water more than 200 feet high for up to twelve minutes. Castle Geyser, and the ancient platform on which it rests, is one of the largest limestone formations in the world.

The largest concentration of geysers, hot springs, and geothermal activity is located in the area known as Old Faithful. The star here is the Old Faithful Geyser, which blows 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of water up to 180 feet into the air every eighty-eight minutes (on average). It’s not the largest or the most regular of all the geysers, but it erupts more frequently than any other. It was named by the members of the Washburn Expedition in 1870 and is still as faithful and attractive as ever. Only a few feet from the legendary geyser stands the Old Faithful Inn, one of the world’s largest wooden constructions, a National Historic Monument in operation since 1902. Here, you can check on the predictions for each of park’s five regular geysers: Old Faithful, Castle, Grand, Daisy, and Riverside, in addition to the Great Fountain, located in a different basin. Then go up to the roof, order a drink, and wait for Old Faithful’s show to begin before finally, taking a walk along the Upper Geyser path, which includes the beautiful Biscuit Basin.

The park’s geothermal characteristics take a variety of forms. When the underground channels are unrestricted, water spills into an enormous pool, creating the famous Hot Springs. Fresh rainwater sinks down and the hot water rises, evaporating. The transparency and color of some of these springs makes them fascinating, earning them names like Beauty Pool, Morning Glory, Emerald, and Sapphire, drawing further attention to their beauty. When they fail to fill with sufficient water, but the rain or snow come into contact with the source of heat, they are transformed into jets of steam that form fumaroles. And the mud pots are the work of millions of microorganisms that turn rock into mud while gases from inside the Earth try to escape, forming thick bubbles.

How to find words to describe so much natural beauty?  At Mammoth Hot Springs, water is the artist-in-residence, sculpting the limestone as viewers look on. This, along with the natural pipeline connecting the inner heat with the outer cold and the color-producing bacteria, help to create this group of terraces, the only one of its kind on the planet, the appearance of which is likely to change within even the lifetime of a single person, something almost unheard of among geological phenomena. Those who named these springs didn’t skimp on the adjectives: there is Palette Spring, where browns, greens, and oranges alternate as they tumble down spectacularly, and Minerva, one of the most striking, given its size, colors, and gorgeous travertine stone formations. Opal, Cleopatra, Jupiter, Canary, Angel… so many and so varied that even their names become confused.

But Yellowstone is not just these natural pools of liquid crystal served up in beautiful white, limestone goblets, or colorful brushstrokes delicately drawn by bacteria around the edges of each of the thermal springs, or even nature’s showy geysers exploding right and left. Aside from Alaska, Yellowstone is the largest expanse of virgin territory in the United States and, from the time that wolves were reintroduced in 1990, the only area to conserve all of the species alive in the region prior to the Europeans’ arrival in America.

More than sixty mammals of considerable size inhabit the area’s 5,500 square miles, but eight of these are the main course upon which every tourist hopes to feast. Of the eight, we weren’t fortunate enough to spot a grizzly or black bear, or any bighorn sheep, but we did see some of the 4,000 bison roaming the park (around the beginning of last century their numbers had dropped to only fifty or so). There are also approximately 30,000 elk, and sizeable populations of moose, mule deer, and wolves. According to statistics, in the past three years 150 bear cubs were born to the fifty adult female black bears living in the area. All of this is due to a declaration made in 1872, designating this as the first National Park in the history of the world.

Running water also abounds in Yellowstone, and rivers play a starring role in the landscape. From Artist’s Point you’ll get a view of the Yellowstone River’s twenty-mile Grand Canyon and, in the distance, the Lower Falls, with its 300-foot drop. For hundreds of years, men and women have stood here and gazed at the view. The process by which the canyon was carved from the river rock is thought to have begun 14,000 years ago; today the canyon is over 1,000 feet deep. Now it’s time to walk down Uncle Tom’s Trail, with its more than 300 steps winding 500 feet down into the canyon. It’s the only way to see, hear, and feel the power of the falling water. A team of scientists, who dedicated their lives to exploring Yellowstone’s uncharted territory in search of waterfalls, have discovered more than 300 falls, forty of which are famous. There are the spectacular Lower Falls, and the Upper Falls which drop a total of 110 feet.

And like everything else in this park, the forests here are full of life and destruction. Yellowstone is known for its conifer forests, a source of life for the enormous variety of animals living there, but also of death: the terrifying forest fires kindled by lightning during raging electrical storms are needed to keep these forests alive. Fire consumes thousands of miles of forest every year and when the sap inside the pine trees heats up, it causes them to explode like bombs. Until recently, firefighters struggled to control the flames, but in 1988 the effort was so devastating that the national park service decided to let nature take its course. Fire is now acknowledged as part of the forest’s life cycle, since it burns up dead wood, returns nutrients to the soil, and renews the land. And so Yellowstone features not only underground fire, but external fire as well, and it burns at the end of every summer afternoon when the sun lights up the horizon, casting its endless glow over every bit of this unique and unrepeatable piece of the planet.

How to Get There

Most part of the park is in the state of Wyoming, but some areas are in Idaho and Montana.

Copa Airlines flies from North, Central, South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas to Las Vegas (Nevada) or Los Angeles (California). By land, Las Vegas is 791 miles from Yellowstone and Los Angeles is 1000 miles away.

From Panama, it is also possible to get to Yellowstone through the Copa Airlines Alliance system via Denver to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, which is about two hours from the middle of the park. Some hotels in the park provide airport shuttle service, but renting a car is recommended for getting around inside the park as distances are quite long.

Where to Sleep

The park has nine hotels located at different sites. The most popular is the Old Faithful Inn. It has cabins with shared bathrooms starting at $100 per night and suites starting at $539, with a myriad of other options and rates.

The Upper Geyser rises at the doors of this hotel, and the area holds the highest concentration of geysers in the world. If you have just two or three days, staying in this area will help you make the most of your time.

There are other hotels that offer rooms for $120 per night.

There are also hotels at the Mammoth Hot Springs (historical buildings with guest accommodations available at rates ranging from $80 to $500) and in the Yellowstone Great Canyon vicinity.

The park offers five camping areas. Not all of them provide showers or laundry service, but some are very close to the most attractive sites. All are comfortable, secure, and offer picnic areas, barbecue grills, and security boxes to keep food safe from bears. The park´s web page has all the information you need to choose a campsite.

Camping fees vary from $20 to $45 per night, depending on the zone chosen and services offered.

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Further Information

Some areas of the park are closed during winter. The end of spring and beginning of summer bring lots of mosquitos. July is the best month for a first visit to the park.

Reservations must be made months in advance.

The park has gas stations, formal and casual restaurants, supermarkets, laundry areas, showers, and picnic areas.

The park’s attractions are located along a large path shaped like a number 8. It is important to plan a daily itinerary so as not to waste time since distances are quite long. Include the restaurants or picnic areas you will use during the day in your itinerary and put everything you need in the car.

In the summer, it can get very cold at night and very hot during the day. Don’t forget to carry sun block, a wide brimmed hat, dark sunglasses, cool clothes, comfortable shoes, and a rain coat. Always keep drinking water at hand and be ready for a lot of walking.

When you hike a lonely path, experts recommend making a lot of noise and clapping every now and then. Most bear attacks occur when the animals are surprised and become scared. If you make noise while you walk, the bear will simply watch you pass by.

The best hours for animal watching are at dawn or sun set. Unlike any other place in the world, a traffic jam here is actually good news: get your camera ready for an animal or a pack taking over the road ahead. Be patient and follow security regulations.