Yellowstone National Park: Hulk of The Americas
August 2008. Copyright Ashish Gupta.
The secret to Hulk’s self control is that he is always angry. Yellowstone national park is no different. Spanning four US states, Yellowstone national park sits atop one of the most active geothermal regions on earth. It is our luck that it only erupts once every 600,000 years or so.
Based on Hollywood movies, I used to expect USA to be a concrete jungle. I was pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong. Yellowstone national park exemplifies the natural diversity that USA contains. It is not easy to find the coexistence of hot water geysers, sulphur pools, limestone hills, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, wildlife, vegetation and mountain peaks all in one place.
Day 1: Drive from Salt Lake City
The nearest big airport is Salt Lake City and there is a five hour drive to the south entrance of the park from the airport. The drive is very beautiful, with large farms and numerous lakes along the way. We made a stop at the Bear Lake, Jackson Lake and a few smaller unnamed lakes which almost doubled our driving time.
It is difficult for our city dwelling senses to comprehend the three dimensional beauty that the Yellowstone region presents. Large and surreal vistas of natural beauty feel more like a two dimensional painting.
Day 2: Pools and Geysers
After spending the night at a hotel near the south entrance, we spent the second day visiting some of the popular geysers and sulphur pools, which are the primary attraction of the Yellowstone National Park. Spewing of steam from the ground along with a mild sulphuric odor in the air is a common occurance in the park.
Yellowstone has thousands of geysers. Underground water gets superheated due to hot magma and suddenly expands as steam. This sudden expansion results in eruption of water as a geyser which lets off the steam and resets the entire process to repeat itself once again.
Yellowstone has thousands of sulfur pools. These calm and colorful pools look inviting for a dip. However, do not venture anywhere near them. The water in these pools is acidic. Also, the temperature at the surface of the pool is near boiling. These pools are not for human habitation. However, certain types of thermophilic bacteria seem to easily flourish in these extreme conditions.
We saw a lot of wildlife in the park - deer, elk, bear, coyote, moose. One animal that stood out from the rest is the American bison. These giant vegetarians belong to the same family as buffaloes, but look a lot scarier. Their neck and shoulders have become really strong through evolution since they survive the long snowy winters by digging through several feet deep snow to reach the hidden layer of grass underneath.
Day 3: Snow, Salt and Canyon
On the third day, we drove around the park in the morning, trying to absorb its beauty. It was sunny when we left our hotel but within an hour it started snowing. It was August. We were told that Yellowstone is one of the few places in the world that has seen snow on every single day of the year. Our drive turned a bit scary when a huge herd of hundreds of bisons blocked the road. Long line of cars formed behind us as we waited. The scariest part was that we were the first car in line and thus closest to the herd. Thankfully, bisons showed no interest in our existence and gradually made their way off the road.
We resumed our drive towards the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. While no where close in majesty to the real Grand Canyon, the fact that we could drive for just a few hours to witness such a drastic change in landscape was sufficient to take our breath away. We climbed down a flight of about 400 steps near the canyon. The climb back was surprisingly tiring, perhaps due to the fact that were were at an elevation of 9000 feet.
Day 4: The way back
Our flight from Salt Lake City wasn’t until late at night. We had half more day left to spend in the park. We decided to visit the Mammoth Hot Springs.
As we approached the springs, we thought that we are in front of a snow covered hill. This was no snow. This was limestone. It was drizzling when we got there and the ambience was filled with a faint hissing sound. Apparently, the rain in Yellowstone is often acidic and the hissing sound is produced by the reaction between acid and limestone.
While beautiful beyond words, Yellowstone is one of the few places in the world that I wanted to leave in a hurry. I felt a sense of uneasiness in knowing that I am standing on top of one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. It has periodically erupted every 600,000 years or so. The last one erupted more than 600,000 years back. While a volcanic eruption in Yellowstone is not going to be an extinction level event, I do not want to be anywhere near it when it does. Maybe, the way we are abusing planet earth, none of us will be there when it erupts next.