Yellowstone’s geyser basins; bubbling, spounting, spewing, steaming, gurgling, roaring, scalding, shrieking and stinking. You walk along paths and boardwalks past crystal clear pools, bubbling mud pots, scalding springs and screaming steam vents. It might be a light warm spray of breeze blown mist from Old Faithful that dampens your skin, the steam heat from a bubbling pool, the wail of steam from a vent that pierces your ears, the noxious sulfuric smell of a mud pot or the bright, brilliant azure of a pool or the multicolored thermophiles, heat loving bacteria that thrive in an environment that flash cooks any other living thing. The geyser basins are a varietal stimulus to the senses.
Squeezed into two square miles of the Upper Geyser Basin are one fifth of the world’s geysers. It’s the home of the one and only star of the spouting show, Old Faithful which erupts not quite like clockwork but pretty darn close for a hydrogeological phenomenon. Being a celebrity she can be capricious about when she chooses to repeat her performance. It might be 35 minutes or it might be two hours but when showtime arrives Old Faithful leaves the standing room only crowd oohing and awing. More about Old Faithful later.
After a brief stop at Yellowstone Lake, Cora and I pulled into Old Faithful Village, checked the estimated time for Old Faithful’s next show and then strolled through the shops and the stately lobby of the Old Faithful Inn (Cora is insisting that our next trip to Yellowstone includes a stay at this grand hotel).
You tour the Upper Geyser Basin along, paved paths and boardwalks that are dotted with signs warning visitors to keep to the designated walkways. There are two reasons for this; the first is that incursion onto the fragile crust can damage the fragile ecology and the second, probably of more personal import, is taking that wrong step and finding yourself in a pool will let you live the experience of a crab being tossed into a boiling pot at Fisherman’s Wharf and just like the crab you won’t be around to relate the experience. There are a number of stories of people who have taken the plunge and they never end well. If I were with small children I would hold their hands with a vise tight grip.
Crested Pool is named for its surrounding crest. The pool is 42 feet deep and is at a constant temperature at or above 199 degrees F. It will often reach a full boil with water bubbling to a height of 8 feet.
Just down the path from Crested Pool, is Castle Geyser. Castle, an example of a cone geyser, erupts every 10 to 12 hours. When we visited, Castle was bubbling and churning but we never did see an actual eruption. The 12 foot high cone is estimated to be between 5,000 and 15,000 years old.
The clear blue waters of Heart Spring belie its deadly danger. The spring is 15 feet deep.
Morning Glory Pool and the tragedy of man’s vandalism
At one time Morning Glory Pool was a deep blue, named after the flower. Over the years, yellow and orange colored bacteria have thrived due to a temperature drop in the pool. An article in Smithsonian (Tourist Trash Has Changed the Color of Yellowstone’s Morning Glory Pool) explains that trash and “lucky pennies” thrown into the pool have clogged the subsurface heat source. Researchers discovered that the lower temperature made the pool home to “photosynthetic microorganisms that probably didn’t live there before.”
During our visit to Yellowstone we saw scores of people littering and leaving designated paths and boardwalks and I wasn’t shy about calling them out. Morning Glory Pool is an example of ecological damage caused by the self-centered foolishness of tourists. Park Rangers and police can’t be everywhere so it’s incumbent on those of us who value our parks and resources to confront this kind of behavior that threatens to damage these treasures.
Walking through the geyser basins it’s impossible to miss the brilliant colors that seem like nature’s version of modern art. Yellowstone’s modern art is painted by microorganisms that thrive at high temperatures. Called thermophiles these microorganisms convert light to energy and its their photosynthetic action that gives the geyser basins their vivid colors.
The discovery in 1969 of one thermophile in particular, Thermus Aquaticus, turned out to be a vital tool in the replication of DNA and the subsequent research and discovery that stems from DNA replication. Articles on this abound. One that I found helpful and straightforward is on the website, Montana Natural History Center and the article, Thermus Aquaticus
Photographs can never capture the grandeur of the experience of seeing Old Faithful erupt in person. It’s like a drama being played out. As showtime nears a crowd starts to form at the bleachers and along the path surrounding the geyser. Park rangers walk among the crowd explaining the history and facts surrounding the famous geyser. Eruption nears and you hear the distinctive sounds of bubbling and splashing waters as you watch the scalding water begin to churn around the cone. Old Faithful plays with its audience. What appears to be the beginning of the full eruption might just be a part of the opening act as the waters calm briefly back down to a churn. Churning turns to a gush and then there’s the full rush of Old Faithful’s eruption with the roar of a freight train. You’re transfixed by the majesty of it and soon you might realize a dampness on your skin, mist from the grand old fountain.
The eruption can reach a height of 184 feet, with the average being 130 feet.
Depending on the duration of the eruption the number of gallons of water in an eruption can range from 3700 gallons to 8400 gallons.
The water temperature at the vent has been measured at 204°F (95.6C). The steam temperature has topped 350°.
Old Faithful was named in 1870 by members of the Washburn Expedition of Northwest Wyoming.
After watching the eruption Cora and I completed our walking tour of the Upper Geyser Basin. During our walk we happened to see Old Faithful erupt from a distance as we stood on Geyser Hill. It’s an impressive sight of brilliant white water and steam against the background of the green forest.