Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Location: Park County, Wyoming
Teton County, Wyoming
Gallatin County, Montana
Park County, Montana
Fremont County, Idaho
Coordinates: 44°36′N 110°30′W / 44.6°N 110.5°W / 44.6; -110.5Coordinates: 44°36′N 110°30′W / 44.6°N 110.5°W / 44.6; -110.5
Area: 2,219,791 acres (898,318 ha)[1]
Visitation: 3,640,185[2] (in 2010)
Governing body: US National Park Service
IUCN Category II (National Park)
Designated: March 1, 1872
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Type: Natural
Criteria: vii, viii, ix, x
Designated: 1978 (2nd session)
Reference #: 28
Region: The Americas
Yellowstone National Park is located in United States
Location of Yellowstone in the United States
Aerial view, 3D computer generated image

Yellowstone National Park, established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872,[3][4] is a national park located primarily in the U.S. state of Wyoming, although it also extends into Montana and Idaho. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, and is known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features, especially Old Faithful Geyser, one of the most popular features in the park.[5] It has many types of ecosystems, but the subalpine forest is dominant.

Native Americans have lived in the Yellowstone region for at least 11,000 years.[6] The region was bypassed during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th century. Aside from visits by mountain men during the early-to-mid-19th century, organized exploration did not begin until the late 1860s. The U.S. Army was commissioned to oversee the park just after its establishment. In 1917, administration of the park was transferred to the National Park Service, which had been created the previous year. Hundreds of structures have been built and are protected for their architectural and historical significance, and researchers have examined more than 1,000 archaeological sites.

Yellowstone National Park spans an area of 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2),[1] comprising lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges.[5] Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America and is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent. The caldera is considered an active volcano. It has erupted with tremendous force several times in the last two million years.[7] Half of the world's geothermal features are in Yellowstone, fueled by this ongoing volcanism.[8] Lava flows and rocks from volcanic eruptions cover most of the land area of Yellowstone. The park is the centerpiece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest remaining, nearly intact ecosystem in the Earth's northern temperate zone.[9]

Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been documented, including several that are either endangered or threatened.[5] The vast forests and grasslands also include unique species of plants. Yellowstone Park is the largest and most famous megafauna location in the Continental United States. Grizzly Bears, wolves, and free-ranging herds of bison and elk live in the park. The Yellowstone Park Bison Herd is the oldest and largest public bison herd in the United States. Forest fires occur in the park each year; in the large forest fires of 1988, nearly one third of the park burnt. Yellowstone has numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, boating, fishing and sightseeing. Paved roads provide close access to the major geothermal areas as well as some of the lakes and waterfalls. During the winter, visitors often access the park by way of guided tours that use either snow coaches or snowmobile.



Historical poster of Yellowstone from 1938

The park is located at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, from which it takes its historical name. Near the end of the 18th century, French trappers named the river "Roche Jaune," which is probably a translation of the Minnetaree name "Mi tsi a-da-zi" (Rock Yellow River).[10] Later, American trappers rendered the French name in English as "Yellow Stone." Although it is commonly believed that the river was named for the yellow rocks seen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Native American name source is not clear.[11]

The human history of the park begins at least 11,000 years ago when aboriginal Americans first began to hunt and fish in the region. During the construction of the post office in Gardiner, Montana, in the 1950s, an obsidian projectile point of Clovis origin was found that dated from approximately 11,000 years ago.[12] These Paleo-Indians, of the Clovis culture, used the significant amounts of obsidian found in the park to make such cutting tools and weapons. Arrowheads made of Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi Valley, indicating that a regular obsidian trade existed between local tribes and tribes farther east.[13] By the time white explorers first entered the region during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, they encountered the Nez Perce, Crow and Shoshone tribes. While passing through present day Montana, the expedition members were informed of the Yellowstone region to the south, but they did not investigate it.[13]

In 1806, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, left to join a group of fur trappers. After splitting up with the other trappers in 1807, Colter passed through a portion of what later became the park, during the winter of 1807–1808. He observed at least one geothermal area in the northeastern section of the park, near Tower Fall.[14] After surviving wounds he suffered in a battle with members of the Crow and Blackfoot tribes in 1809, he gave a description of a place of "fire and brimstone" that was dismissed by most people as delirium. The supposedly imaginary place was nicknamed "Colter's Hell". Over the next forty years, numerous reports from mountain men and trappers told of boiling mud, steaming rivers and petrified trees, yet most of these reports were believed at the time to be myth.[15]

After an 1856 exploration, mountain man Jim Bridger (also believed to be the first or second European American to have seen the Great Salt Lake) reported observing boiling springs, spouting water, and a mountain of glass and yellow rock. These reports were largely ignored because Bridger was known for being a "spinner of yarns". In 1859, Captain William F. Raynolds, U.S. Army surveyor embarked on a two year survey of the northern Rockies. After wintering in Wyoming, in May 1860, Raynolds and his party which included naturalist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden and guide Jim Bridger attempted to cross the Continental Divide over Two Ocean Plateau from the Wind River drainage in northwest Wyoming. Heavy spring snows prevented their passage but had they been able to traverse the divide, the party would have been the first organized survey to enter the Yellowstone region.[16] The American Civil War hampered further organized explorations until the late 1860s.[17]

Ferdinand V. Hayden American geologist who convinced Congress to make Yellowstone a National Park.

The first detailed expedition to the Yellowstone area was the Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition of 1869, which consisted of three privately funded explorers. The Folsom party followed the Yellowstone River to Yellowstone Lake.[18] The members of the Folsom party kept a journal and based on the information it reported, a party of Montana residents organized the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870. It was headed by the surveyor-general of Montana Henry Washburn, and included Nathaniel P. Langford (who later became known as "National Park" Langford) and a U.S. Army detachment commanded by Lt. Gustavus Doane.

The expedition spent about a month exploring the region, collecting specimens, and naming sites of interest. A Montana writer and lawyer named Cornelius Hedges, who had been a member of the Washburn expedition, proposed that the region should be set aside and protected as a National Park; he wrote a number of detailed articles about his observations for the Helena Herald newspaper between 1870 and 1871. Hedges essentially restated comments made in October 1865 by acting Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Francis Meagher, who had previously commented that the region should be protected.[19] Others made similar suggestions. In an 1871 letter from Jay Cooke to Ferdinand Hayden, Cooke wrote that his friend, Congressman William D. Kelley had also suggested "Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever".[20]

Park creation

An old contour map showing mountainous terrain and a large lake
F.V. Hayden's map of Yellowstone National Park, 1871.

In 1871, eleven years after his failed first effort, F.V. Hayden was finally able to make another attempt to explore the region. With government sponsorship, Hayden returned to Yellowstone region with a second, larger expedition, the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. He compiled a comprehensive report on Yellowstone, which included large-format photographs by William Henry Jackson, as well as paintings by Thomas Moran. His report helped to convince the U.S. Congress to withdraw this region from public auction. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Act of Dedication[4] law that created Yellowstone National Park.[21]

Ferdinand V. Hayden, while not the only person to have thought of creating a park in the Yellowstone region, was the park's first and most enthusiastic advocate.[22] He believed in “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and warned that there were those who would come and “make merchandise of these beautiful specimens”.[22] Worrying the area could face the same fate as Niagara Falls, he concluded the site should “be as free as the air or Water.”[22] In his report to the Committee on Public Lands, he concluded that if the bill failed to become law, “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have requited all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare”.[23] Hayden and his 1871 party recognized that Yellowstone was a priceless treasure, which would become rarer with time. He wished for others to see and experience it as well. Eventually the railroads and, some time after that, the automobile would make that possible. The Park was not set aside strictly for ecological purposes; however, the designation “pleasure ground” was not an invitation to create an amusement park. Hayden imagined something akin to the scenic resorts and baths in England, Germany and Switzerland.[22]


AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming .... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed there from...
Approved March 1, 1872.

Signed by:

A middle-aged man in formal attire with a beard
(1870) Portrait of Nathaniel P. Langford, the first superintendent of the park[25]

There was considerable local opposition to the Yellowstone National Park during its early years: some locals feared that the regional economy would be unable to thrive if there remained strict federal prohibitions against resource development or settlement within park boundaries; local entrepreneurs advocated reducing the size of the park so that mining, hunting, and logging activities could be developed[26] and numerous bills were introduced into Congress by Montana representatives who sought to remove the federal land-use restrictions.[27]

After the park's official formation, Nathaniel Langford was appointed as the park's first superintendent in 1872. He served for five years but was denied a salary, funding, and staff. Langford lacked the means to improve the land or properly protect the park, and without formal policy or regulations, he had few legal methods to enforce such protection. This left Yellowstone vulnerable to poachers, vandals, and others seeking to raid its resources. He addressed the practical problems park administrators faced in the 1872 Report to the Secretary of the Interior [28] and correctly predicted that Yellowstone will become a major international attraction deserving the continuing stewardship of the government. In 1875, Colonel William Ludlow, who had previously explored areas of Montana under the command of George Armstrong Custer, was assigned to organize and lead an expedition to Montana and the newly established Yellowstone Park. Observations about the lawlessness and exploitation of park resources were included in Ludlow's Report of a Reconnaissance to the Yellowstone National Park. The report included letters and attachments by other expedition members, including naturalist and mineralogist George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell documented the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope for hides. "It is estimated that during the winter of 1874–1875, not less than 3,000 buffalo and mule deer suffer even more severely than the elk, and the antelope nearly as much."[29]

As a result, Langford was forced to step down in 1877.[30][31] Having traveled through Yellowstone and witnessed land management problems first hand, Philetus Norris volunteered for the position following Langford's exit. Congress finally saw fit to implement a salary for the position, as well as to provide a minimal funding to operate the park. Norris used these funds to expand access to the park, building numerous crude roads and facilities.[31]

In 1880, Harry Yount was appointed as a gamekeeper to control poaching and vandalism in the park. Yount had previously spent a number of years exploring the mountain country of present-day Wyoming, including the Grand Tetons, after joining Dr. Hayden’s Geological Survey in 1873.[32] Today, he is considered the first national park ranger,[33] and Younts Peak, located at the head of the Yellowstone River, was named in his honor.[34] However, these measures still proved to be insufficient in protecting the park, as neither Norris, nor the three superintendents who followed, were given sufficient manpower or resources.

A group of buildings with trees and hills in background
Fort Yellowstone, formerly a U.S. Army post, now serves as park headquarters.

The Northern Pacific Railroad built a train station in Livingston, Montana, connecting to the northern entrance in the early 1880s, which helped to increase visitation from 300 in 1872 to 5,000 in 1883.[35] Visitors in these early years were faced with poor roads and limited services, and most access into the park was on horse or via stagecoach. By 1908 visitation increased enough to also attract a Union Pacific Railroad connection to West Yellowstone, though rail visitation fell off considerably by World War II and ceased around the 1960s. Much of the railroad line was converted to nature trails, among them the Yellowstone Branch Line Trail.

Thomas Moran painted Tower Creek, Yellowstone, while on the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871.

During the 1870s and 1880s Native American tribes were effectively excluded from the national park. A number of tribes had made seasonal use of the Yellowstone area, but the only year-round residents were small bands of Western Shoshone known as "Sheepeaters". They left the area under the assurances of a treaty negotiated in 1868, under which the Sheepeaters ceded their lands but retained the right to hunt in Yellowstone. The United States never ratified the treaty and refused to recognize the claims of the Sheepeaters or any other tribe that had made use of Yellowstone.[36] The Nez Perce band associated with Chief Joseph, numbering about 750 people, passed through Yellowstone National Park in thirteen days during late August, 1877. They were being pursued by the U.S. Army and entered the national park about two weeks after the Battle of the Big Hole. Some of the Nez Perce were friendly to the tourists and other people they encountered in the park, some were not. Nine park visitors were briefly taken captive. Despite Joseph and other chiefs ordering that no one should be harmed, at least two people were killed and several wounded.[37][38] One of the areas where encounters occurred was in Lower Geyser Basin and east along a branch of the Firehole River to Mary Mountain and beyond.[37] That stream is still known as Nez Perce Creek.[39] A group of Bannocks entered the park in 1878, alarming park Superintendent Philetus Norris. In the aftermath of the Sheepeater Indian War of 1879, Norris built a fort for the purpose of preventing Native Americans from entering the national park.[36][38]

Ongoing poaching and destruction of natural resources continued unabated until the U.S. Army arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886 and built Camp Sheridan. Over the next 22 years the army constructed permanent structures, and Camp Sheridan was renamed Fort Yellowstone.[40] With the funding and manpower necessary to keep a diligent watch, the army developed their own policies and regulations that permitted public access while protecting park wildlife and natural resources. When the National Park Service was created in 1916, many of the management principles developed by the army were adopted by the new agency.[40] The army turned control over to the National Park Service on October 31, 1918.[41]

Later history

By 1915, 1,000 automobiles per year were entering the park, resulting in conflicts with horses and horse driven transportation. In subsequent years horse travel on roads was eventually prohibited.[42] Between 1933 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the majority of the early visitor centers, campgrounds and the current system of park roads. During World War II, staffing and visitation both decreased, and many facilities fell into disrepair.[43] By the 1950s, visitation increased tremendously in Yellowstone and other national parks. To accommodate the increased visitation, park officials implemented Mission 66, an effort to modernize and expand park service facilities. Planned to be completed by 1966, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, Mission 66 construction diverged from the traditional log cabin style with design features of a modern style.[44] During the late 1980s, most construction styles in Yellowstone reverted back to the more traditional designs. After the enormous forest fires of 1988 damaged much of Grant Village, structures there were rebuilt in the traditional style. The visitor center at Canyon Village, which opened in 2006, incorporates a more traditional design as well.[45]

A large arch made of irregular-shaped natural stone over a road
The Roosevelt Arch is located in Montana at the North Entrance

The 1959 Yellowstone earthquake just west of Yellowstone at Hebgen Lake damaged roads and some structures in the park. In the northwest section of the park, new geysers were found, and many existing hot springs became turbid.[46] It was the most powerful earthquake to hit the region in recorded history. In 1963, after several years of public controversy regarding the forced reduction of the elk population in Yellowstone, United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall appointed an advisory board to collect scientific data to inform future wildlife management of the national parks. In a paper known as the Leopold Report, the committee observed that culling programs at other national parks had been ineffective, and recommended management of Yellowstone's elk population.[47]

The wildfires during the summer of 1988 were the largest in the history of the park. Approximately 793,880 acres (321,272 ha; 1,240 sq mi) or 36% of the parkland was impacted by the fires, leading to a systematic reevaluation of fire management policies. The fire season of 1988 was considered normal until a combination of drought and heat by mid-July contributed to an extreme fire danger. On "Black Saturday," August 20, 1988, strong winds expanded the fires rapidly, and more than 150,000 acres (61,000 ha; 230 sq mi) burned.[48]

The expansive cultural history of the park has been documented by the 1,000 archeological sites that have been discovered. The park has 1,106 historic structures and features, and of these Obsidian Cliff and five buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks.[5] Yellowstone was designated an International Biosphere Reserve on October 26, 1976, and a United Nations World Heritage Site on September 8, 1978.

In 2010, Yellowstone National Park was honored with its own quarter under the America the Beautiful Quarters Program.[49]

Heritage & Research Center

The Heritage & Research Center is located at Gardiner, Montana, near the north entrance to the park.[50] The center is home to the Yellowstone National Park’s museum collection, archives, research library, historian, archeology lab, and herbarium. The Yellowstone National Park Archives maintain collections of historical records of Yellowstone and the National Park Service. The collection includes the administrative records of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park,[51] as well as resource management records, records from major projects, and donated manuscripts and personal papers. The archives are affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration.[52][53]


Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Panorama of the lower falls as seen from the artist's point.
Columnar basalt near Tower Falls; large floods of basalt and other lava types preceded mega-eruptions of superheated ash and pumice

Approximately 96 percent of the land area of Yellowstone National Park is located within the state of Wyoming. Another 3 percent is within Montana, with the remaining 1 percent in Idaho. The park is 63 miles (101 km) north to south, and 54 miles (87 km) west to east by air. Yellowstone is 2,219,789 acres (898,317 ha; 3,468.420 sq mi)[1] in area, larger than the states of Rhode Island or Delaware. Rivers and lakes cover 5 percent of the land area, with the largest water body being Yellowstone Lake at 87,040 acres (35,220 ha; 136.00 sq mi). Yellowstone Lake is up to 400 feet (120 m) deep and has 110 miles (180 km) of shoreline. At an elevation of 7,733 feet (2,357 m) above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America. Forests comprise 80 percent of the land area of the park; most of the rest is grassland.[5]

The Continental Divide of North America runs diagonally through the southwestern part of the park. The divide is a topographic feature that separates Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean water drainages. About one third of the park lies on the west side of the divide. The origins of the Yellowstone and Snake Rivers are near each other but on opposite sides of the divide. As a result, the waters of the Snake River flow to the Pacific Ocean, while those of the Yellowstone find their way to the Atlantic Ocean via the Gulf of Mexico.

The park sits on the Yellowstone Plateau, at an average elevation of 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level. The plateau is bounded on nearly all sides by mountain ranges of the Middle Rocky Mountains, which range from 9,000 to 11,000 feet (2,700 to 3,400 m) in elevation. The highest point in the park is atop Eagle Peak (11,358 feet / 3,462 metres) and the lowest is along Reese Creek (5,282 feet / 1,610 metres).[5] Nearby mountain ranges include the Gallatin Range to the northwest, the Beartooth Mountains in the north, the Absaroka Range to the east, and the Teton Range and the Madison Range to the southwest and west. The most prominent summit on the Yellowstone Plateau is Mount Washburn at 10,243 feet (3,122 m).

Yellowstone National Park has one of the world's largest petrified forests, trees which were long ago buried by ash and soil and transformed from wood to mineral materials. This ash and other volcanic debris, are believed to have come from the park area itself. This is largely due to the fact that Yellowstone is actually a massive caldera of a supervolcano. There are 290 waterfalls of at least 15 feet (4.6 m) in the park, the highest being the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River at 308 feet (94 m).[5]

Three deep canyons are located in the park, cut through the volcanic tuff of the Yellowstone Plateau by rivers over the last 640,000 years. The Lewis River flows through Lewis Canyon in the south, and the Yellowstone River has carved two colorful canyons, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone in its journey north.


Yellowstone is at the northeastern end of the Snake River Plain, a great U-shaped arc through the mountains that extends from Boise, Idaho some 400 miles (640 km) to the west. This feature traces the route of the North American Plate over the last 17 million years as it was transported by plate tectonics across a stationary mantle hotspot. The landscape of present-day Yellowstone National Park is the most recent manifestation of this hotspot below the crust of the Earth.[54]

The Yellowstone Caldera is the largest volcanic system in North America. It has been termed a "supervolcano" because the caldera was formed by exceptionally large explosive eruptions. The current caldera was created by a cataclysmic eruption that occurred 640,000 years ago, which released 240 cubic miles (1,000 km³) of ash, rock and pyroclastic materials. This eruption was 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.[55] It produced a crater nearly a two thirds of a mile (1 km) deep and 52 by 28 miles (84 by 45 km) in area and deposited the Lava Creek Tuff, a welded tuff geologic formation. The most violent known eruption, which occurred 2.1 million years ago, ejected 588 cubic miles (2,450 km³) of volcanic material and created the rock formation known as the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff and created the Island Park Caldera.[56] A smaller eruption ejected 67 cubic miles (280 km³) of material 1.2 million years ago, forming the Henry's Fork Caldera and depositing the Mesa Falls Tuff.[55]

Wooden walkways allow visitors to closely approach the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Each of the three climax eruptions released vast amounts of ash that blanketed much of central North America, falling many hundreds of miles away. The amount of ash and gases released into the atmosphere probably caused significant impacts to world weather patterns and led to the extinction of many species, primarily in North America.[57]

A subsequent minor climax eruption occurred 160,000 years ago. It formed the relatively small caldera that contains the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Later, two smaller eruptive cycles, the last one ending about 70,000 years ago, buried much of the caldera under thick lava flows.[56]

Each eruption is in fact a part of an eruptive cycle that climaxes with the collapse of the roof of a partially emptied magma chamber. This creates a crater, called a caldera, and releases vast amounts of volcanic material, usually through fissures that ring the caldera. The time between the last three cataclysmic eruptions in the Yellowstone area has ranged from 600,000 to 900,000 years, but the small number of such climax eruptions cannot be used to make an accurate prediction for future volcanic events.[58]

Between 630,000 and 700,000 years ago, Yellowstone Caldera was nearly filled in with periodic eruptions of rhyolitic lavas such as those that can be seen at Obsidian Cliffs and basaltic lavas which can be viewed at Sheepeater Cliff. Lava strata are most easily seen at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where the Yellowstone River continues to carve into the ancient lava flows. The canyon is a classic V-shaped valley, indicative of river-type erosion rather than erosion caused by glaciation.

The most famous geyser in the park, and perhaps the world, is Old Faithful Geyser, located in Upper Geyser Basin. Castle Geyser, Lion Geyser and Beehive Geyser are in the same basin. The park contains the largest active geyser in the world—Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin. There are 300 geysers in Yellowstone and a total of at least 10,000 geothermal features altogether. Half the geothermal features and two-thirds of the world's geysers are concentrated in Yellowstone.[59]

Beehive Geyser Erupting

In May 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone National Park, and the University of Utah created the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), a partnership for long-term monitoring of the geological processes of the Yellowstone Plateau volcanic field, for disseminating information concerning the potential hazards of this geologically active region.[60]

Old Faithful Geyser erupts approximately every 91 minutes.

In 2003, changes at the Norris Geyser Basin resulted in the temporary closure of some trails in the basin. New fumaroles were observed, and several geysers showed enhanced activity and increasing water temperatures. Several geysers became so hot that they were transformed into purely steaming features; the water had become superheated and they could no longer erupt normally.[61] This coincided with the release of reports of a multiple year United States Geological Survey research project which mapped the bottom of Yellowstone Lake and identified a structural dome that had uplifted at some time in the past. Research indicated that these uplifts posed no immediate threat of a volcanic eruption, since they may have developed long ago, and there had been no temperature increase found near the uplifts.[62] On March 10, 2004, a biologist discovered 5 dead bison which apparently had inhaled toxic geothermal gases trapped in the Norris Geyser Basin by a seasonal atmospheric inversion. This was closely followed by an upsurge of earthquake activity in April 2004.[63] In 2006, it was reported that the Mallard Lake Dome and the Sour Creek Dome— areas that have long been known to show significant changes in their ground movement— had risen at a rate of 1.5 to 2.4 inches (3.8 to 6.1 cm) per year from mid–2004 through 2006. As of late 2007, the uplift has continued at a reduced rate.[64][65] These events inspired a great deal of media attention and speculation about the geologic future of the region. Experts responded to the conjecture by informing the public that there was no increased risk of a volcanic eruption in the near future.[66]

Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs

Yellowstone experiences thousands of small earthquakes every year, virtually all of which are undetectable to people. There have been six earthquakes with at least magnitude 6 or greater in historical times, including a 7.5 magnitude quake that struck just outside the northwest boundary of the park in 1959. This quake triggered a huge landslide, which caused a partial dam collapse on Hebgen Lake; immediately downstream, the sediment from the landslide dammed the river and created a new lake, known as Earthquake Lake. Twenty-eight people were killed, and property damage was extensive in the immediate region. The earthquake caused some geysers in the northwestern section of the park to erupt, large cracks in the ground formed and emitted steam, and some hot springs that normally have clear water turned muddy.[46] A 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck inside the park on June 30, 1975, but damage was minimal. For three months in 1985, 3,000 minor earthquakes were detected in the northwestern section of the park, during what has been referred to as an earthquake swarm, and has been attributed to minor subsidence of the Yellowstone caldera.[55] Beginning on April 30, 2007, sixteen small earthquakes with magnitudes up to 2.7 occurred in the Yellowstone Caldera for several days. These swarms of earthquakes are common, and there have been 70 such swarms between 1983 and 2008.[67] In December 2008, over 250 earthquakes were measured over a four day span under Yellowstone Lake, the largest measuring a magnitude of 3.9.[68] In January 2010, more than 250 earthquakes were detected over a two day period.[69] Seismic activity in Yellowstone National Park continues and is reported hourly by the Earthquake Hazards Program of the U.S. Geological Survey.[70]

Biology and ecology

Mountain meadow at Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is the centerpiece of the 20 million acre/31,250 square-mile (8,093,712 ha/80,937 km2) Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a region that includes Grand Teton National Park, adjacent National Forests and expansive wilderness areas in those forests. The ecosystem is the largest remaining continuous stretch of mostly undeveloped pristine land in the continental United States,considered to be the world's largest intact ecosystem in the northern temperate zone[9] (although the area is mostly not temperate but subalpine, and all the national forest lands surrounding the National Park are not intact). With the successful wolf reintroduction program, which began in the 1990s, virtually all the original faunal species known to inhabit the region when white explorers first entered the area can still be found there.


Over 1,700 species of trees and other vascular plants are native to the park. Another 170 species are considered to be exotic species and are non-native. Of the eight conifer tree species documented, Lodgepole Pine forests cover 80% of the total forested areas.[5] Other conifers, such as Subalpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir and Whitebark Pine, are found in scattered groves throughout the park. As of 2007, the whitebark pine is threatened by a fungus known as white pine blister rust; however, this is mostly confined to forests well to the north and west. In Yellowstone, about seven percent of the whitebark pine species have been impacted with the fungus, compared to nearly complete infestations in northwestern Montana.[71] Quaking Aspen and willows are the most common species of deciduous trees. The aspen forests have declined significantly since the early 20th century, but scientists at Oregon State University attribute recent recovery of the aspen to the reintroduction of wolves which has changed the grazing habits of local elk.[72]

Yellowstone sand verbena are endemic to the Yellowstone's lakeshores.

There are dozens of species of flowering plants that have been identified, most of which bloom between the months of May and September.[73] The Yellowstone Sand Verbena is a rare flowering plant found only in Yellowstone. It is closely related to species usually found in much warmer climates, making the sand verbena an enigma. The estimated 8,000 examples of this rare flowering plant all make their home in the sandy soils on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, well above the waterline.[74]

In Yellowstone's hot waters, bacteria form mats of bizarre shapes consisting of trillions of individuals. These bacteria are some of the most primitive life forms on earth. Flies and other arthropods live on the mats, even in the middle of the bitterly cold winters. Initially, scientists thought that microbes there gained sustenance only from sulfur. In 2005, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder discovered that the sustenance for at least some of the diverse hyperthermophilic species is molecular hydrogen.[75]

Thermus aquaticus is a bacterium found in the Yellowstone hot springs that produces an important enzyme that is easily replicated in the lab and is useful in replicating DNA as part of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process. The retrieval of these bacteria can be achieved with no impact to the ecosystem. Other bacteria in the Yellowstone hot springs may also prove useful to scientists who are searching for cures for various diseases.[76]

Non-native plants sometimes threaten native species by using up nutrient resources. Though exotic species are most commonly found in areas with the greatest human visitation, such as near roads and at major tourist areas, they have also spread into the backcountry. Generally, most exotic species are controlled by pulling the plants out of the soil or by spraying, both of which are time consuming and expensive.[77]


Pronghorn are commonly found on the grasslands in the park.
Bison graze near a hot spring
Elk early morning in fall 2010.
A reintroduced gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is widely considered to be the finest megafauna wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states. There are almost 60 species of mammals in the park, including the gray wolf, the threatened lynx, and grizzly bears.[5] Other large mammals include the bison (buffalo), black bear, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and mountain lion.

The Yellowstone Park Bison Herd is the largest public herd of American Bison in the United States. The relatively large bison populations are a concern for ranchers, who fear that the species can transmit bovine diseases to their domesticated cousins. In fact, about half of Yellowstone's bison have been exposed to brucellosis, a bacterial disease that came to North America with European cattle that may cause cattle to miscarry. The disease has little effect on park bison, and no reported case of transmission from wild bison to domestic livestock has been filed. However, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has stated that Bison are the "likely source" of the spread of the disease in cattle in Wyoming and North Dakota. Elk also carry the disease and are believed to have transmitted the infection to horses and cattle.[78] Bison once numbered between 30 and 60 million individuals throughout North America, and Yellowstone remains one of their last strongholds. Their populations had increased from less than 50 in the park in 1902 to 4,000 by 2003. The Yellowstone Park Bison Herd reached a peak in 2005 with 4,900 animals. Despite a summer estimated population of 4,700 in 2007, the number dropped to 3,000 in 2008 after a harsh winter and controversial brucellosis management sending hundreds to slaughter.[79] The Yellowstone Park Bison Herd is believed to be one of only four free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. The other three herds are the Henry Mountains Bison Herd of Utah, at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.[80]

To combat the perceived threat, national park personnel regularly harass bison herds back into the park when they venture outside of the area's borders. During the winter of 1996–97, the bison herd was so large that 1,079 bison that had exited the park were shot or sent to slaughter.[78] Animal rights activists argue that this is a cruel practice and that the possibility for disease transmission is not as great as some ranchers maintain. Ecologists point out that the bison are merely traveling to seasonal grazing areas that lie within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that have been converted to cattle grazing, some of which are within National Forests and are leased to private ranchers. APHIS has stated that with vaccinations and other means, brucellosis can be eliminated from the bison and elk herds throughout Yellowstone.[78]

Starting in 1914, in an effort to protect elk populations, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to be used for the purposes of "destroying wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry" on public lands. Park Service hunters carried out these orders, and by 1926 they had killed 136 wolves, and wolves were virtually eliminated from Yellowstone.[81] Further exterminations continued until the National Park Service ended the practice in 1935. With the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the wolf was one of the first mammal species listed.[81] After the wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone, the coyote then became the park's top canine predator. However, the coyote is not able to bring down large animals, and the result of this lack of a top predator on these populations was a marked increase in lame and sick megafauna.

By the 1990s, the Federal government had reversed its views on wolves. In a controversial decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees threatened and endangered species), Mackenzie Valley wolves, imported from Canada, were reintroduced into the park. Reintroduction efforts have been successful with populations remaining relatively stable. A survey conducted in 2005 reported that there were 13 wolf packs, totaling 118 individuals in Yellowstone and 326 in the entire ecosystem. These park figures were lower than those reported in 2004 but may be attributable to wolf migration to other nearby areas as suggested by the substantial increase in the Montana population during that interval.[82] Almost all the wolves documented were descended from the 66 wolves reintroduced in 1995–96.[82] The recovery of populations throughout the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho has been so successful that on February 27, 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population from the endangered species list.[83]

An estimated 600 grizzly bears live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with more than half of the population living within Yellowstone. The grizzly is currently listed as a threatened species, however the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that they intend to take it off the endangered species list for the Yellowstone region but will likely keep it listed in areas where it has not yet recovered fully. Opponents of delisting the grizzly are concerned that states might once again allow hunting and that better conservation measures need to be implemented to ensure a sustainable population.[84]

Population figures for elk are in excess of 30,000—the largest population of any large mammal species in Yellowstone. The northern herd has decreased enormously since the mid-1990s; this has been attributed to wolf predation and causal effects such as elk using more forested regions to evade predation, consequently making it harder for researchers to accurately count them.[85] The northern herd migrates west into southwestern Montana in the winter. The southern herd migrates southward, and the majority of these elk winter on the National Elk Refuge, immediately southeast of Grand Teton National Park. The southern herd migration is the largest mammalian migration remaining in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

In 2003, the tracks of one female lynx and her cub were spotted and followed for over 2 miles (3.2 km). Fecal material and other evidence obtained were tested and confirmed to be those of a lynx. No visual confirmation was made, however. Lynx have not been seen in Yellowstone since 1998, though DNA taken from hair samples obtained in 2001 confirmed that lynx were at least transient to the park.[86] Other less commonly seen mammals include the mountain lion and wolverine. The mountain lion has an estimated population of only 25 individuals parkwide.[87] The wolverine is another rare park mammal, and accurate population figures for this species are not known.[88] These uncommon and rare mammals provide insight into the health of protected lands such as Yellowstone and help managers make determinations as to how best to preserve habitats.

Eighteen species of fish live in Yellowstone, including the core range of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout—a fish highly sought by anglers.[5][89] The Yellowstone cutthroat trout has faced several threats since the 1980s, including the suspected illegal introduction into Yellowstone Lake of lake trout, an invasive species which consume the smaller cutthroat trout.[90] Although lake trout were established in Shoshone and Lewis lakes in the Snake River drainage from U.S. Government stocking operations in 1890, it was never officially introduced into the Yellowstone River drainage.[91] The cutthroat trout has also faced an ongoing drought, as well as the accidental introduction of a parasite—whirling disease—which causes a terminal nervous system disease in younger fish. Since 2001, all native sport fish species caught in Yellowstone waterways are subject to a catch and release law.[89] Yellowstone is also home to six species of reptiles, such as the painted turtle and Prairie rattlesnake, and four species of amphibians, including the Boreal Chorus Frog.[92]

311 species of birds have been reported, almost half of which nest in Yellowstone.[5] As of 1999, twenty-six pairs of nesting bald eagles have been documented. Extremely rare sightings of whooping cranes have been recorded, however only three examples of this species are known to live in the Rocky Mountains, out of 385 known worldwide.[93] Other birds, considered to be species of special concern because of their rarity in Yellowstone, include the common loon, harlequin duck, osprey, peregrine falcon and the trumpeter swan.[94]

Forest fires

Fire in Yellowstone National Park

Wildfire is a natural part of most ecosystems, and plants found in Yellowstone have adapted in a variety of ways. Douglas-fir has a thick bark which protects the inner section of the tree from most fires. Lodgepole Pines —the most common tree species in the park— generally have cones that are only opened by the heat of fire. Their seeds are held in place by a tough resin, and fire assists in melting the resin, allowing the seeds to disperse. Fire clears out dead and down wood, providing fewer obstacles for lodgepole pines to flourish. Subalpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Whitebark Pine and other species tend to grow in colder and moister areas, where fire is less likely to occur. Aspen trees sprout new growth from their roots, and even if a severe fire kills the tree above ground, the roots often survive unharmed because they are insulated from the heat by soil.[95] The National Park Service estimates that in natural conditions, grasslands in Yellowstone burned an average of every 20 to 25 years, while forests in the park would experience fire about every 300 years.[95]

About thirty-five natural forest fires are ignited each year by lightning, while another six to ten are started by people— in most cases by accident. Yellowstone National Park has three fire lookout towers, each staffed by trained fire fighters. The easiest one to reach is atop Mount Washburn, though it is closed to the public. The park also monitors fire from the air and relies on visitor reports of smoke and or flames.[96] Fire towers are staffed almost continuously from late June to mid-September— the primary fire season. Fires burn with the greatest intensity in the late afternoon and evening. Few fires burn more than 100 acres (40 ha), and the vast majority of fires reach only a little over an acre (0.5 ha) before they burn themselves out.[97] Fire management focuses on monitoring dead and down wood quantities, soil and tree moisture, and the weather, to determine those areas most vulnerable to fire should one ignite. Current policy is to suppress all human caused fires and to evaluate natural fires, examining the benefit or detriment they may pose on the ecosystem. If a fire is considered to be an immediate threat to people and structures, or will burn out of control, then fire suppression is performed.[98]

Wildfire in Yellowstone National Park produces Pyrocumulus cloud

In an effort to minimize the chances of out of control fires and threats to people and structures, park employees do more than just monitor the potential for fire. Controlled burns are prescribed fires which are deliberately started to remove dead timber under conditions which allow fire fighters an opportunity to carefully control where and how much wood is consumed. Natural fires are sometimes considered prescribed fires if they are left to burn. In Yellowstone, unlike some other parks, there have been very few fires deliberately started by employees as prescribed burns. However, over the last 30 years, over 300 natural fires have been allowed to burn naturally. In addition, fire fighters remove dead and down wood and other hazards from areas where they will be a potential fire threat to lives and property, reducing the chances of fire danger in these areas.[99] Fire monitors also regulate fire through educational services to the public and have been known to temporarily ban campfires from campgrounds during periods of high fire danger. The common notion in early United States land management policies was that all forest fires were bad. Fire was seen as a purely destructive force and there was little understanding that it was an integral part of the ecosystem. Consequently, until the 1970s, when a better understanding of wildfire was developed, all fires were suppressed. This led to an increase in dead and dying forests, which would later provide the fuel load for fires that would be much harder, and in some cases, impossible to control. Fire Management Plans were implemented, detailing that natural fires should be allowed to burn if they posed no immediate threat to lives and property.

A crown fire approaches the Old Faithful complex on September 7, 1988

1988 started with a wet spring season although by summer, drought began moving in throughout the northern Rockies, creating the driest year on record to that point, courtesy of the droughts of 1988 and 1989. Grasses and plants which grew well in the early summer from the abundant spring moisture produced plenty of grass, which soon turned to dry tinder. The National Park Service began firefighting efforts to keep the fires under control, but the extreme drought made suppression difficult. Between July 15 and July 21, 1988, fires quickly spread from 8,500 acres (3,400 ha; 13.3 sq mi) throughout the entire Yellowstone region, which included areas outside the park, to 99,000 acres (40,000 ha; 155 sq mi) on the park land alone. By the end of the month, the fires were out of control. Large fires burned together, and on August 20, 1988, the single worst day of the fires, more than 150,000 acres (61,000 ha; 230 sq mi) were consumed. Seven large fires were responsible for 95% of the 793,000 acres (321,000 ha; 1,239 sq mi) that were burned over the next couple of months. A total of 25,000 firefighters and U.S. military forces participated in the suppression efforts, at a cost of 120 million dollars. By the time winter brought snow that helped extinguish the last flames, the fires had destroyed 67 structures and caused several million dollars in damage.[48] Though no civilian lives were lost, two personnel associated with the firefighting efforts were killed.

Contrary to media reports and speculation at the time, the fires killed very few park animals— surveys indicated that only about 345 elk (of an estimated 40,000–50,000), 36 deer, 12 moose, 6 black bears, and 9 bison had perished. Changes in fire management policies were implemented by land management agencies throughout the U.S., based on knowledge gained from the 1988 fires and the evaluation of scientists and experts from various fields. By 1992, Yellowstone had adopted a new fire management plan which observed stricter guidelines for the management of natural fires.[48]


Winter scene in Yellowstone

Yellowstone climate is greatly influenced by altitude, with lower elevations generally found to be warmer year round. The record high temperature was 99 °F (37 °C) in 2002, while the coldest temperature recorded is −66 °F (−54 °C) in 1933.[5] During the summer months of June through early September, daytime highs are normally in the 70 to 80 °F (21 to 27 °C) range, while nighttime lows can go to below freezing (0 °C)—especially at higher altitudes. Summer afternoons are frequently accompanied by thunderstorms. Spring and fall temperatures range between 30 and 60 °F (-1 and 16 °C) with cold nights in the teens to single digits (−5 to −20 °C). Winter in Yellowstone is very cold with high temperatures usually between zero to 20 °F (−20 to −5 °C) and nighttime temperatures below zero °F (−20 °C) for most of the winter.[100]

Precipitation in Yellowstone is highly variable and ranges from 15 inches (380 mm) annually near Mammoth Hot Springs, to 80 inches (2,000 mm) in the southwestern sections of the park. The precipitation of Yellowstone is greatly influenced by the moisture channel formed by the Snake River Plain to the west that was, in turn, formed by Yellowstone itself. Snow is possible in any month of the year, with averages of 150 inches (3,800 mm) annually around Yellowstone Lake, to twice that amount at higher elevations.[100]

Tornadoes in Yellowstone are rare; however, on July 21, 1987, the most powerful tornado recorded in Wyoming touched down in the Teton Wilderness of Bridger-Teton National Forest and hit Yellowstone National Park. Called the Teton–Yellowstone tornado, it was classified as an F4, with wind speeds estimated at between 207 and 260 miles per hour (333 and 420 km/h). The tornado left a path of destruction 1 to 2 miles (1.6 to 3.2 km) wide, and 24 miles (39 km) long, and leveled 15,000 acres (6,100 ha; 23 sq mi) of mature pine forest.[101]


Orientation map of Yellowstone National Park showing many of the major tourist attractions
Union Pacific Railway Brochure Promoting Travel to Park (1921)
Park Superintendent Horace M. Albright and dinner guests, 1922

Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. Since the mid-1960s, at least 2 million tourists have visited the park almost every year.[105] In 2010, a record number of visitors came to the park in July: 975,000. July is the busiest month for Yellowstone National Park.[106] At peak summer levels, 3,700 employees work for Yellowstone National Park concessionaires. Concessionaires manage nine hotels and lodges, with a total of 2,238 hotel rooms and cabins available. They also oversee gas stations, stores and most of the campgrounds. Another 800 employees work either permanently or seasonally for the National Park Service.[5]

Park service roads lead to major features; however, road reconstruction has produced temporary road closures. Yellowstone is in the midst of a long term road reconstruction effort, which is hampered by a short repair season. In the winter, all roads aside from the one which enters from Gardiner, Montana, and extends to Cooke City, Montana, are closed to wheeled vehicles.[107] Park roads are closed to wheeled vehicles from early November to mid April, but some park roads remain closed until mid-May.[108] The park has 310 miles (500 km) of paved roads which can be accessed from 5 different entrances.[5] There is no public transportation available inside the park, but several tour companies can be contacted for guided motorized transport. In the winter, concessionaires operate guided snowmobile and snow coach tours, though their numbers and access are based on quotas established by the National Park Service.[109] Facilities in the Old Faithful, Canyon and Mammoth Hot Springs areas of the park are very busy during the summer months. Traffic jams created by road construction or by people observing wildlife can result in long delays.

The National Park Service maintains 9 visitor centers and museums and is responsible for maintenance of historical structures and many of the other 2,000 buildings. These structures include National Historical Landmarks such as the Old Faithful Inn built in 1903–04 and the entire Fort Yellowstone - Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District. An historical and educational tour is available at Fort Yellowstone which details the history of the National Park Service and the development of the park. Campfire programs, guided walks and other interpretive presentations are available at numerous locations in the summer, and on a limited basis during other seasons.

Camping is available at a dozen campgrounds with more than 2,000 campsites.[5] Camping is also available in surrounding National Forests, as well as in Grand Teton National Park to the south. Backcountry campsites are accessible only by foot or by horseback and require a permit. There are 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of hiking trails available.[110] The park is not considered to be a good destination for mountaineering because of the instability of volcanic rock which predominates. Visitors with pets are required to keep them on a leash at all times and are limited to areas near roadways and in "frontcountry" zones such as drive in campgrounds.[111] Around thermal features, wooden and paved trails have been constructed to ensure visitor safety, and most of these areas are handicapped accessible. The National Park Service maintains a year round clinic at Mammoth Hot Springs and provides emergency services throughout the year.[112]

Vintage photo of visitors feeding bears in spite of the danger

Hunting is not permitted, though it is allowed in the surrounding national forests during season. Fishing is a popular activity, and a Yellowstone Park fishing license is required to fish in park waters.[113] Many park waters are fly fishing only and all native fish species are catch and release only.[114] Boating is prohibited on rivers and creeks except for a 5 miles (8.0 km) stretch of the Lewis River between Lewis and Shoshone Lake, and it is open to non-motorized use only. Yellowstone Lake has a marina, and the lake is the most popular boating destination.[115]

In the early history of the park, visitors were allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to feed the bears. The bears had learned to beg for food, and visitors welcomed the chance to get their pictures taken with them. This led to numerous injuries to humans each year. In 1970, park officials changed their policy and started a vigorous program to educate the public on the dangers of close contact with bears, and to try to eliminate opportunities for bears to find food in campgrounds and trash collection areas. Although it has become more difficult to observe them in recent years, the number of human injuries and deaths has taken a significant drop and visitors are in less danger.[116]

Other protected lands in the region include Caribou-Targhee, Gallatin, Custer, Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests. The National Park Service's John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway is to the south and leads to Grand Teton National Park. The famed Beartooth Highway provides access from the northeast and has spectacular high altitude scenery. Nearby communities include West Yellowstone, Montana; Cody, Wyoming; Red Lodge, Montana; Ashton, Idaho; and Gardiner, Montana. The closest air transport is available by way of Bozeman, Montana; Billings, Montana; Jackson; Cody, Wyoming or Idaho Falls, Idaho.[117] Salt Lake City, 320 miles (510 km) to the south, is the closest large metropolitan area.

Legal jurisdiction

The entire park is within the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming, causing it to be the only federal court district that includes portions of more than one state (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming). At least one legal scholar has written, and a defendant argued, that this situation creates a legal loophole by which individuals accused of committing crimes in the Montana and Idaho portions of the park cannot be legally tried.[118]

See also

  • List of Yellowstone National Park related articles
  • Yellowstone-Teton Clean Energy Coalition


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Further reading

  • List of Yellowstone National Park references

External links

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