Yellowstone shines as the crown jewel among the world’s national parks. It is with good reason that Congress dismissed explorers’ earliest reports of this otherworldly landscape as mere flights of an overactive imagination. Stories of spouting geysers, hissing vents, and bubbling mud pots told tale of something not of this Earth. Yellowstone defies description and can only be experienced. When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill on March 1, 1872, establishing the world’s first national park, he was setting a precedent for all the national parks to follow and preserving something of incalculable value for future generations.
Yellowstone is truly another world–a place brimming with superlatives. The Park is home to the highest concentration of geothermal features on the planet and claims the largest population of wildlife in the lower 48 states. Some of North America’s most impressive species reside here–including grizzly bear, elk, moose, and with its re-introduction in 1995, Canis lupus–the gray wolf. In the highly controversial program, the wolf had returned to Yellowstone for the first time in 70 years. The National Park Service, at the end of 2011, listed the wolf population in the Park at 100 animals–98 wolves comprising 10 packs, along with 2 loners. 8 breeding pairs exist among the 100 wolves.
The Gray wolf is not the only species to make its comeback in Yellowstone National Park. The trumpeter swan was driven to the brink of extinction with the use of DDT in the early 20th century. Only 69 swans were known to exist within park boundaries in 1935. The flock reached an all-time high of 100 birds in 1992. Today, the trumpeter’s continent-wide population numbers around 35,000 birds. The peregrine falcon–the world’s fastest bird–also fell to near decimation due to DDT and other pesticides. Since the elimination of these chemicals in 1972, the peregrine has returned to Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park has a history of volcanic activity dating back some 50 million years. The most recent period of activity beginning about 2.5 million years ago and ending with three massive explosions–the last, around 600,000 years ago. That last explosion created the Yellowstone Caldera and is estimated to be 10,000 times more powerful than the blast at Mount Saint Helens. Since then, alternating periods of volcanism and glaciation have shaped the landscape we see today.
More than 10,000 geysers, fumaroles, hotsprings, and mud pots are located within Yellowstone’s boundaries. The majority of these features are concentrated into nine geyser basins. Old Faithful is found in the Upper Geyser Basin, which boasts more than 130 geysers. Norris Geyser Basin is the oldest and most active basin. Situated above two major intersecting faults, it is also the hottest of the nine basins, with a temperature of 459 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists are predicting another cataclysmic explosion in Yellowstone in the near geologic future.
Fire plays an important role in the natural process. A healthy forest habitat is comprised of a mix of young, middle-aged, and mature stands of trees, allowing for the widest diversity of both flora and fauna. Fire-dependent plant species, such as lodgepole pine, require high temperatures for their cones to open and release its seeds. Fire also aids in the elimination of pests, such as the pinebark beetle. In 1988, a huge blaze ravaged the Park. A let-it-burn policy was adopted by the Park Service and some 735,000 acres were ultimately consumed. A few years later, the flora was showing remarkable regeneration. New seedlings and abundant wildflowers carpeted the landscape. Numerous animal species benefited from the newly opened canopy, as well.
The majority of Yellowstone’s 3 million annual visitors arrive between June and August, however Spring and Fall are optimal seasons in the Park. Crowds drop off significantly and wildlife activity increases dramatically. Spring is the season of renewal. New babies bring an added dimension to the landscape and provide wonderful photo ops. Fall is the mating season. Male elk battle for dominance and the miracle we call life reels before us. Winter is an especially beautiful time in Yellowstone, though temperatures can plummet to -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter is a particularly photogenic time to visit the geyser basins. Animals cluster around the geothermal areas to stay warm and the steam generated by the many features lends an otherworldly aesthetic to the landscape. Most of those who come to Yellowstone see it from the comfort of their vehicle. Yellowstone National Park offers 1100 miles (1700 km) of hiking trails through one of the world’s most wild and striking landscapes. Few places can so profoundly transform the visitor as Yellowstone. For those who have never been, I strongly urge you to experience it for yourself.
For more information, visit the National Park Service website.
I welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Contact me to book a photo tour in Yellowstone.
Until next time, happy image-making…