The tree's meager branches did little to fend off the sheeting rain. Above, dark thunderheads clapped ominously while here on earth the Black Growler steamed and hissed, angrily sending plumes of steam across the sodden trail, obscuring my view of the shimmering pools below. Boardwalks traversed the steaming soil and passed gurgling geysers that displayed nature's rare ability to boil water in the bowels of the earth before shooting skyward in impressive displays of her waterworks. We had missed Old Faithful by mere minutes and now the torrential rain kept us huddled beneath the trees in a waiting game with nature that we were sure to lose.
The northwest corner of Wyoming must certainly be one of the most unusual landscapes on earth. Natives have called the area home for over 11, 000 years, utilizing the land for hunting and transport. When the white man first set eyes upon the unlikely steaming landscape, he recognized that its fragile features must be protected from his people. Yellowstone was declared a national park in 1872, the first in the United States and perhaps even the world.
Half the world's hydrothermal features can be found in Yellowstone National Park. Over 10,000 hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and mudpots are the result of an ancient volcano that erupted 600,000 years ago. Protecting the park's unique landscape was, in those days, no small feat. In the first decade of its existence, inexperienced civilian superintendents were no match for the poachers, souvenir hunters and developers that raided the area. Tourist camps were set up at the many springs, the pools used for bathing and laundry. Debris plugged the geysers, arresting their impressive, watery displays. Drastic measures were clearly required and in 1886 the government called upon the army for help protecting the nation's first national park.
There are four types of thermal features in Yellowstone:
Hot springs, the quiet pools that shimmer invitingly are created by rainwater that seeps through the earth to finally reach the magma chamber nearly 10,000 feet below. There it is heated to over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, remaining liquid only due to the immense pressure created by the earth pressing down upon it. The super hot water, being less dense and lighter, begins its journey back to the surface, absorbing silica, the mineral used to make glass, on the way. Released from the bowels of the earth slowly and steadily, a hot spring is born, the water depositing silica around the pool forming a rock called sinter, and thus creating geyser cones.
Geysers' interior waterworks are constricted due to a build up of silica beneath the earth's surface. Pressure builds as the hot water strains to pass through, finally resulting in a dramatic natural fountain, the water spewing from the earth up to a maximum known height of 400 feet! Old Faithful, one such feature, is famous for its predictable eruptions. Roughly every 94 minutes this oddly reliable geyser erupts dramatically for up to five minutes, shooting up to 84 gallons of hot water to an average height of 130 feet.