Yellowstone


In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, the great Civil War general from Ohio, signed The Act of Dedication.

His penstroke created the country’s and world’s first National Park. The preserved land sat mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with parts sneaking into Montana and Idaho.

Today, the park we know as Yellowstone continues to be one of the most famous and most visited public locations in the United States.

Ulysses S. Grant photo by Matthew Brady, circa 1770-1780

Yellowstone lives in the collective consciousness as the place with the geysers. While the park can boast that attribute in excess, it is named for the river whose headwaters originate inside its boundaries. In the late 18th century, French trappers dubbed the waterway Roche Jaune, which literally means “yellow rock.” Historians believe the Frenchmen were themselves translating a Hidatsan name, Mi tsi a-da-zi, or “yellow rock river.” At some point, American trappers swapped “rock” for “stone” and Yellowstone stuck.

Yellow rocks can actually be found alongside the river within the park, the result of chemical reactions, but the indigenous name, somewhat counterintuitively, does not originate with these stones. The Yellowstone River flows northward into Montana before joining the Missouri River. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, yellow rocks hundreds of miles downstream gave the river its title. It was these rocks the Hidatsa referenced to early Europeans.

Fun fact: the Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the continental United States.

Lower Yellowstone Falls - photo by Scott Catron
Great Falls of the Yellowstone, U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories (1874–1879), photographer William Henry Jackson

The park region sits atop the Yellowstone Plateau. This uplift has allowed the Yellowstone and the Lewis River to work gravitational magic through the topology over the eons. The Yellowstone cut two large and chromatic canyons, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Black Canyon; the Lewis River carved an eponymous gorge. The bountiful waterways had fun with the palette in other ways, too, creating nearly 300 waterfalls of at least 15 feet in height. The crown jewel is the Lower Yellowstone Falls, seen in the photos above, which plummets 308 feet.

The park is enormous, larger than either Rhode Island or Delaware. The Continental Divide runs through the park, which means that water on the western side drains to the Pacific Ocean, and water on the eastern side ends up in the Atlantic. The Yellowstone and another major river, the Snake, start on opposite sides of the divide and diverge to opposing coasts. 

The plateau is surrounded by ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the peaks top out in the 9,000 to 10,000 feet range. The apex of the park is Eagle Peak, which hits 11,358 feet.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - photo by Erik Whalen
Yellowstone's Eagle Peak - image by National Parks Servicie

Of course, the superstars of Yellowstone are the geysers and hot springs.

More than 10,000 “hydrothermal features” are in the park, which is approximately half of the world’s total. The crust in Yellowstone is heavily fractured, allowing groundwater to contact magma below the surface. The result is a slew of steam vents, fumaroles, hot pools, mud cauldrons, hot springs, and geysers. Yellowstone sports more than 300 geysers, which is, again, half the global total. 

The most famous geyser is Old Faithful, which erupts every 90 minutes or so. Yellowstone is home to the world’s largest active geyser (Steamboat Geyser), the world’s tallest predictable geyser (Grand Geyser), and the world’s most voluminous geyser (Giant Geyser). The previous sentence attempted to set the record for the most uses of the word “geyser.”

Mineral-rich water allows microbial mats to develop in many of the hot springs in the park. These mats produce vivid colors. The most famous hot spring in the park, the largest in the United States, and the third-largest in the world is Grand Prismatic Spring. At times, Grand Prismatic Spring can seem a veritable rainbow.

Old Faithful - image by Grahampurse
Grand Prismatic Spring - photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
Grand Prismatic Spring - image by Borcken Inalgory

Of course, Yellowstone’s plant and wildlife are just as notable as the geologic features.

The park is the largest megafauna location in the contiguous United States. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and elk rule the region. The bison herd is the largest and oldest public herd in the country. At least 60 species of mammals, 18 species of fish, and 311 avian species inhabit Yellowstone.

On the flora half of the equation, more than 1,700 species grow in Yellowstone. Eight conifers line the land, covering about 80% of the forested areas. Dozens of flowering plants add color to the park from May to September, including the endemic Yellowstone sand verbena.

Yellowstone sand verbena - National Park Service
Rocky Mountain Wolf in Yellowstone - image by Barry O'Neill
Bison in Yellowstone National Parks
A grizzly in Yellowstone - photo by Jim Peaco/NPS

In 2020, Yellowstone was the second-most-visited National Park, behind only Great Smokey Mountains National Park. With the mixture of unique features, mountainous outlines, and all the critters one could imagine, it’s easy to see why!

We’ll take an in-depth look at one of the attractions in Part 2 of the Yellowstone series!

Further Reading and Exploration


Yellowstone – Official National Park Service website

Yellowstone National Park Instagram Account

Everything to know about Yellowstone National Park – National Geographic

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