June 11, 2013

Yellowstone National Park sits on top of what is referred to as a supervolcano – a volcano that, if it erupts, is capable of spewing up to thousands of times more magma and ash than any eruption ever recorded in human history. The last super eruption was 640,000 years ago, although a smaller eruption occurred about 70,000 years ago. It is predicted that it could erupt at any time.

I recommend you DO NOT visit Yellowstone any time soon. At least not in the next few lifetimes!  Repeat, DO NOT visit Yellowstone!  It is a danger zone! I escaped by the skin of my teeth.

You may completely disregard everything I just said about Yellowstone’s supervolcano having an imminent eruption. I was just having a little bit of fun. I couldn’t help myself. I promise that everything I say in this post from here on out will be true. Maybe.  😉  But make no mistake about it, Yellowstone is Hot!

Yellowstone does sit on top of a supervolcano, and its last eruption did occur about 70,000 years ago. There is no evidence to support an imminent eruption. This is a very active volcanic area, however. The evidence is all around you throughout the park. What’s remarkable to me is how the wildlife thrives and adapts in this area. Here’s one fascinating example I read while visiting the park. In the winter time the grazing animals like elk and bison will feed around the thermal areas where there is no snow and grass continues to grow. The hydrothermal activity also acts as a trap for these same animals while providing opportunity for predators such as wolves and coyotes. The predators entrap their prey in these areas. When they try to escape through the deep snow they become easy prey. The balance of nature is finely tuned here. Nature rules in Yellowstone. Human beings are mere observers, required to remain at least 25 yards from all wildlife and at least 100 yards from wolves and bear. If wildlife approach, humans must retreat to the prescribed distances. If bison march down the side of the road motorists must cede right-of-way. In one instance, I approached a traffic jam where a park ranger was re-directing traffic from a bison using the road to get from one meadow to the other. Here’s what I ran into early on the first morning I toured the park.

Parading bison

The folks inside the cars had some protection from this potentially stampeding herd. I had to slowly navigate it at low rpm so as to keep my engine quieter and hopefully not startle them. It reminded me of the time I took a six day bicycle trip along the Thai-Burma border about a dozen years ago. I was barreling down a mountain road when I came around a turn to find a herd of water buffalo in the middle of it about a hundred feet in front of me. I stopped to consider my options: 1) quietly ride through them while exuding friendly energy, 2) wait for them to move (they were just standing there looking at me, so it didn’t seem like they were going to move anytime soon), or 3) pick up my bike and walk it through the jungle around them. I thought to myself, “I’ve seen children playing with these beasts in rice paddies, so I should be okay.”  I proceeded. They let me pass. Bison, however, aren’t something I’ve ever seen children riding, except perhaps in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Well, maybe it was Daffy Duck, not a child. I rode slowly and remained alert. Safely around the corner, I stopped my bike, popped on my zoom lens and waited for them to appear. When they turned the corner and saw me they stopped. Here’s what they looked like.

Wary buffalo

We were in a standoff. They weren’t going to move until I did. It was time for me to go.

My first destination of the morning was the Hayden Valley where elk and bison graze, fox, wolf and coyote hunt and ravens and eagles soar. The valley is spectacular. This wouldn’t be the place where I saw them most wildlife, however. But I did see a wolf through my binoculars who seemed curious about a grazing elk. Magnificent!  The only other time I had seen a wolf it practically brushed against the car I was driving with my daughter, mother and uncle in Glacier National Park. We were driving very slowly down a dirt road on the northern edge of the park when it came toward us. To me, there’s nothing like seeing a wolf in the wild.

I slowly navigated over a hundred miles of park roadway throughout the day, stopping to view hot springs, geysers and boiling mud, hike along trout streams to waterfalls and more hot springs, and even nap in the sun next to dried bison dung in a heavenly meadow. Let me take you along with me on a tour of Yellowstone…

Sunrise over Yellowstone. On my way to Hayden Meadow.

Sunrise over Yellowstone

An elk grazes in Hayden Meadow

Grazing Elk

It was from this viewpoint in Hayden Meadow that I saw the wolf through my binoculars.

Hayden Meadow

Down the road from Hayden Meadow, Sulphur Caldron smells like rotten eggs while boiling water creates layers of steam.

Sulphur Caldron

At Mud Volcano I walked the boardwalk to Dragon’s Mouth. At a temperature of 170 degrees, “Dragon’s Mouth is a turbulent hot spring with a cavernous mouth. Water sloshes rhythmically in and out of the cavern. As hot water rises to the surface, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and water vapor gases expand creating a pressure explosion in the cavern. The resulting activity is sloshing, belching, and steaming.”


Mud Volcano

The red color at this hot spring adjacent to Yellowstone Lake is evidence of high deposits of iron.

At Lake Yellowstone

Tourists converge by the busloads at Old Faithful geyser.

Old Faithful

At Black Sand Basin, hot springs absorb and reflect different spectrums of light based on their mineral deposits. Black Sand Basin gets its name from the large deposits of obsidian – volcanic glass – found here.

Black Sand Basin

Bacterium and other microorganisms called thermophiles, thrive in these environments. Insects come to eat them. Wolf spiders dwell on the edges of the pools to feed on the insects. Nature is amazing!

Black Sand Basin

At Black Sand Basin I took a hike to view Biscuit Basin and its turquoise hot spring from above.

Biscuit Basin

Just beyond Midway Geyser basin, a herd of buffalo cross the road.

Buffalo herd

Buffalo herd

Buffalo herd

A slow meander through Firehole Canyon reveals a grazing elk by the Firehole River.

Firehole Canyon Elk

The 1988 Yellowstone fire was the largest in recorded park history. A total of 36 percent of the park was affected. This pictures demonstrates how the forest is regenerating after the fire. Yellowstone’s most common tree is the lodgepole pine.  They need fire to survive.  Fire helps control disease and insects, and fire is essential for a new generation of lodgepole pines to grow.  When the forest canopy burns, the ash fertilizes the soil.  Sunlight can now reach the ground.  Seeds quickly germinate and begin to grow. Lodgepole pines reproduce with two kinds of cones.  One type matures in two years, then opens to scatter its seeds.  If the floor is shaded by other trees, the seeds seldom germinate. The other type of lodgepole pine cone is tightly sealed and until heat from a fire melts the resin that glues the cone shut, it will not germinate.  Once heated, the cone bursts open to spread its seeds.

1988 rebirth

Looping back to my camp at Norris Geyser Basin at the end of the day, I hiked some trails through expansive views of thermal activity.

Norris Geyser Basin

On my way out of the park toward Grand Teton, a quiet early morning stop at thundering Yellowstone Fall before the tourist hoards arrive.

Yellowstone Fall

Yellowstone Fall

 Lodgpole pine line fertile meadows dissected by veins of crystalline waters. I’d stop often at their entrance to listen to their story. They hold so many secrets…

Secret Meadow

Secret Meadow

The Grand Tetons, which lie south of Yellowstone, received only a two hour ride/visit before I exited east to avoid long traffic jams caused by road construction. This marked my eastern passage across the Great Divide, which forms a divide between the waters of the Mississippi, Columbia and Colorado rivers. I crossed the Shoshoni National Forest and rode through the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Wind River holds up to its name. It was in this area where I encountered the highest winds of my trip. The wind heaved forcefully from my right, causing me to ride on an angle. Through narrow gorges it seemed to call its brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors to join in the folly. At those times I felt as though it slapped at me from every direction, madly shaking me. Then suddenly it was as if all the winds agreed it was time to push from the same direction. Emerging from a passage, I’d return to riding at an angle once again. Several times I got tossed into the oncoming lane. I was in nowhere land – not a person or dwelling to be seen. I considered stopping, but knew the wind had no intention of subsiding any time soon. It was having too much fun. I cursed it!  It replied with a powerful gust. I apologized. It laughed and pushed some more. When I saw an old motel in the one-horse town of Dubois, it was there I rested a body depleted by the barrage.

Pictured here, the Grand Tetons.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton

A full day’s ride today has landed me in a little town a few miles north of the Little Big Horn. It is there I’ll offer prayer and take meditation at sunrise tomorrow.


All content Copyrighted ©  Stephen Tavella

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