When you arrive in Yellowstone National Park, your first honest reaction might be “Is this it?” That was mine, anyway. A high, pine covered plateau without anything in the way of obvious scenery, Yellowstone is quite unlike the other national parks we’ve visited. And that turned out to be a good thing.
America’s first national park (created way back in 1872) is enormous – sprawling nearly 9,000 square kilometres across north western Wyoming and the adjoining states of Idaho and Montana. But while there are plenty of bigger national parks out there (our own Kruger Park is more than twice as large), there are very few as varied or fascinating as Yellowstone.
Snowcapped mountains, a spectacular gorge, dozens of waterfalls, back country lakes so clear they seem contrived for an oil paintings – Yellowstone is like many different parks combined into one. But most of these sights require work to get to – long drives on heavily speed limited roads or hikes into queasily precipitous canyons. That only made us appreciate them even more.
The same doesn’t apply to the wildlife, which is so plentiful that the park’s roads are frequently snarled with traffic as tourists frantically snap pictures of grazing buffalo or elk by the side of the road. Yellowstone has the biggest remaining herd of North American buffalo in the world, and they are truly wonderful creatures to behold – shaggy, comically top heavy and deceptively endearing. Several times a year a witless tourist decides to get out of his car and pat one and gets badly gored or trampled.
But most people come to Yellowstone primarily for its most unusual feature – the world’s most prolific and predictable concentration of geothermal activity. We stayed at the charming but somewhat crusty Old Faithful Inn, right next to the world famous geyser from which it gets its name. And the old bugger is indeed faithful – shooting tens thousands of litres of boiling water 40+ metres into the air every 90 minutes or so.
But Old Faithful isn’t the biggest, the hottest, the highest or even the most frequently erupting of Yellowstone’s hundreds of geysers. Nearby Steamboat geyser, for instance, shoots water nearly 100 metres into the air during its unpredictable major eruptions.
And the geysers are only one part of the story. Dotted around the park are incredibly beautiful hot springs, rendered spectacular by rainbow hued thermophilic acheons and bacteria growing around their rims. One, the Great Prismatic Spring, pumps 2,000 litres of hot water per minute into the Yellowstone River – warming the normally chilly water for hundreds of metres downstream.
It took us dumb humans until the 1960s to twig what was causing all this activity. As recounted by Bill Bryson in his brilliant “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, a geologist named Bob Christiansen was searching for the visible cone or caldera of the volcano that would explain all this heat and sulfurous gas. It was only when we saw the first satellite photographs of the park that he realised the awful truth: almost the whole park was the crater, a 40 mile wide monster that would destroy much of the planet were it to erupt again.
It might seem crazy for millions of people to not only visit a super volcano, but to actually sleep and eat and live right inside its caldera. The thing is, were Yellowstone to erupt, we would all be in trouble, regardless of how far away we might be at the time. It would eject enough ash to cover the entire planet to a depth of several inches. And we can’t comfort ourselves with the idea that Yellowstone might be extinct (it last erupted 630,000 years ago) – all those geysers and springs are hallmarks of only one thing: active magma.
So I was oddly comforted when we were in Yellowstone. Where the “big one” to suddenly happen, we would not even know what hit us. Far better than trying to survive the several hundred years of nuclear winter that would follow the decades long eruption of the world’s biggest active volcano.
Cheerful stuff, right? Still, you immediately forget about it the moment you stumble on a grizzly bear digging for grubs by the side of a river, or a 12-point elk stag grazing peacefully in a meadow. Because, volcanism or not, Yellowstone is an incredibly sublime place. You get swallowed up by it. Very much like our trek down into the Grand Canyon, we both felt apart from the rest of the world while at Yellowstone.
So despite the traffic, the tourists, the indifferent food and expensive accommodation, Yellowstone is worth the trek. And hell, if it blows while you’re there, at least you’ll go out in style.