10 Things I Learned at Yellowstone National Park

Each year, my friends and I visit one national park together. In the last three years, we’ve done Yosemite, Banff, and Zion – this year it was Yellowstone. My favorite part of this trip was nerding out and learning as much as I could about the volcanic ecosystem that created the nation’s first National Park.

#1. Yellowstone is the largest supervolcano on the continent.

This supervolcano has had three major eruptions, each around 700,000 years apart. The volcano’s calderas (i.e. the part that explodes) encompass pretty much the entire park. There isn’t an eruption expected anytime soon, but if there is one, it would be devastating to the western United States.

Lower Yellowstone Falls.
Lower Yellowstone Falls. Almost the entire park is a caldera.

#2. Yellowstone holds the most geysers anywhere on earth.

Two-thirds of the world’s geysers live at Yellowstone. Just a few miles below the surface of the park lives a massive magma chamber. As water trickles down below the surface, it gets superheated up to around 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the immense underground pressure, the water stays in liquid form until it bubbles up to the surface. Depending on whether or not there’s a constriction preventing the water to escape, it could come up to the surface as a fumerole (steam vent), hot spring, geyser, or mudpot.

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Fumeroles and hot springs along the trail.

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On one of our hikes, we walked by a stinky mudpot, which was also surrounded with elk hoof prints.
On one of our hikes, we walked by a stinky mudpot, which was also surrounded with elk hoof prints. The mudpot is created when the acid liquid turns clay into mud.

#3. Geysers are amazing and unpredictable.

As we walked around the park’s geothermal features, I really felt like the earth was “breathing” below me. Springs, vents, water – everything was constantly shifting unpredictably because of the massive magma chamber beneath the surface.

Castle Geyser.
Castle Geyser.

Geysers are pretty unpredictable – perhaps with the exception of Old Faithful, which erupts around every 90 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes. But as you walk around the park, there are geysers going off at random times. My favorite was Castle Geyser, which goes off around every 12 hours. While there, I talked to some scientists who were measuring (for the first time!) the gases emitted from Castle during each eruption, to see if they could better predict future eruptions.

During one of our kayaking trips, we got to see Occasional Geyser along the shore. As you may have guessed, it erupts occasionally. The only clue to eruption is that water stops dripping out of the spout. As our boats pulled up to the geyser, the geyser dried up. We waited around 5 minutes, and it erupted. Pretty neat!

Paddling next to active geysers.
Paddling next to active geysers.

Our guides also took us to see an unnamed geyser along the lakeshore. It had broken in half during the winter, and we could see a cross-section of the geyser. According to our guides, for the last few months the geyser had been erupting constantly due to the break, and then stopped in the last two weeks. It was pretty neat to see the evolution in-action.

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In the center is where the geyser pool used to be. You can see the cross-section of the geyser, including the constriction chamber underneath.

#4. 22 people have died around Yellowstone’s hot springs.

Exploring Norris Geyser Basin.
Exploring Norris Geyser Basin.

Norris Geyser Basin holds about a quarter of the world’s geysers. To explore it safely, the NPS put up a boardwalk to explore the area. Earlier this summer, a 23-year-old from Oregon ventured off the boardwalk and fell into a hot spring. Even though rangers were notified immediately, no remains were found because of the intense heat and acidity of the hot springs. He was the 22nd person to have died around Yellowstone’s hot springs.

#5. In hot springs, bacteria colors indicate temperature.

The trail to the Grand Prismatic overlook was closed, so this image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The trail to the Grand Prismatic overlook was closed, so this image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The hot springs at Yellowstone are absolutely stunning. As water bubbles up from deep within the earth, it is so boiling hot that it is sterile – nothing can live there. That’s why the center of the pools are often a deep, clear blue as it reflects the sky. As for the colors that radiate out from the center, each color shows a different temperature, created by a different type of bacteria. These organisms are called Thermophilic Bacteria, and are some of the oldest living animals on earth. They create some truly incredible colors. Below is a video at Morning Glory pool, which has dimmed in color over time because of tourists chucking items (like pennies) into the pool.

#6. If you come across a bear, don’t run.

For our group of ten, we carried two cans of bear mace during our hikes in the park. Something like 90 percent of bear attacks happen to groups smaller than three, so we tried to never split up into groups smaller than 4. We also made noise during our walks – because the last thing you want to do is surprise or startle a bear. Also, if you see a bear – don’t run! They will outrun you. Just slowly back away.

Hiking crew, with bear mace in tow.
Hiking crew, with bear mace in tow.

#7. Bison is the U.S.’s first national mammal

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Bison!

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Earlier this year, Obama made the bison the United State’s national mammal (different from the bald eagle, which is the country’s national animal). Wild bison have lived at Yellowstone since prehistoric times, and today there are only around 5,000 remaining in Yellowstone. Bison are more closely related to the domestic cow than the buffalo.

We were lucky to see a few migrating bison herds at sunset, including lots of adorable calves with their families. We were also stuck in a bit of a bison traffic jam on our last day in the park. However, just to be clear: we never put a baby bison into our van.

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Yellowstone traffic jam

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#8 Grand Teton is a boob joke

The Grand Teton was named by French explorers as The Large Teat.

Tetons behind Mormon Row.
Tetons behind Mormon Row.

#9 Animals are most active at dawn and dusk

During our trip, we were lucky to see lots of bison, elk, and mule deer. We were also able to catch a glimpse of a pronghorn (2nd fastest land animal), coyote, red fox, beavers, and moose. We saw a huge majority of these animals while entering the park at dawn, or leaving the park at dusk.

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Moose!

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#10 Jackson Hole Live Stream is apparently a thing

We spent about 12 hours in Jackson Hole as part of a wildlife excursion, but we didn’t know about the viral live stream until after we’d left. If you have 5 minutes, check it out… the online chatter is random and hilarious. I wish we’d known ahead of time!

I loved visiting Yellowstone and learning as much as I could. If you want to see more pretty pictures of my travels, here are some panoramas I took in 2014, and a recap of my trip to Zion National Park in 2015. Thank you for reading!

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