In 2014, the Seven Natural Wonders Organization recognized North America’s most astounding feats of nature, determined by a voting board of scientists and nature conservationists. Not only did Yellowstone National Park receive the most votes; it received the most number one votes.
Millions of visitors from around the world would agree: Yellowstone provides an experience beyond compare. Spanning nearly 3,500 square miles across Montana and Wyoming, the park includes the largest megafauna habitat in the contiguous U.S., sixty percent of the world’s geysers, and the largest supervolcano on the continent. Both water and lava flow here. Endangered species seek refuge. History abounds.
In 2021, 4.86 million people visited the park. Incredible as that is, the number is sure to be surpassed in 2022, as Yellowstone National Park celebrates its 150th Anniversary. Throughout the year, the park, its partners, and its gateway communities will help us to grasp the significance of Yellowstone, the greatest of North America’s natural wonders.
The First National Park
The National Park Service has been described as one of America’s greatest exports. The notion that natural wonders should be maintained, rather than exploited, was a relatively green viewpoint in 1871, when the Hayden Geological Survey made its way into the Yellowstone region.
Upon the expedition’s return, Ferdinand V. Hayden requested that the Committee on Public Lands protect Yellowstone by law, stating that “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 required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.”
A pair of artists, painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, were invaluable to Hayden in pleading his case. The images that they produced along the expedition were distributed to every member of Congress. The Senate and House
quickly passed legislation protecting Yellowstone in early 1872, and that March, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the establishment of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.
Yellowstone is famous for its megafauna, particularly grizzly bears and bison, but there are hundreds of species of animals that roam the park. In fact, Yellowstone contains the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48. Some favorites among visitors include bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose. Yellowstone is also the last place in the country where bison have continually lived since prehistoric times. (Today, the herd numbers roughly 5,500.)
Similarly, Yellowstone is a safe haven for gray wolves, which are endangered throughout the contiguous United States, with the exception of Wyoming (where the majority of the park is located). Though visitors may hope to see a wolf in the wild, it is a rare occurrence; wolves are notoriously elusive. Montana’s Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, however, offers visitors an opportunity to view, appreciate, and understand the park’s apex predators. Located in West Yellowstone, the GWDC acts as a sanctuary for wolves and grizzlies that (for various reasons) cannot survive in the wild.
While larger mammals tend to draw the most attention, Yellowstone hosts a diversity of wildlife, including river otters, bobcats, badgers, wolverines, foxes, beavers, rabbits, deer, and thirteen species of bats. Black-footed ferrets, Canada lynx, and pikas—all endangered—live here.
Additionally, there are nearly 300 species of birds, sixteen species of fish, six species of reptiles, and five species of amphibians within the park.
Yellowstone contains more than 10,000 thermal features, including the greatest concentration of geysers, mudpots, steamvents, and hot springs in the world.
The country’s largest hot spring (and third largest globally) is located here: the Grand Prismatic Spring. So named for its dazzling colors, the center of the spring is a deep shade of blue (due in part to its depth and the sterility of the water), whereas the areas nearer the shoreline appear green, yellow, orange, and red. These bright, vivid hues are the result of microorganisms that thrive in the hot spring’s extreme conditions.
Examples of these “microbial mats” can be found throughout the park, in other hot springs, mudpots, and basins.
Most life, of course, cannot survive the thermal features of Yellowstone. A famous example of this is the “Fishing Cone,” a hydrothermal feature on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Its name can be traced back to mountain man legends of a place where one could catch a fish and immediately cook it on the hook.
The 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition recorded an actual instance of this: “In swinging a trout ashore, it accidentally got off the hook and fell into the spring. For a moment it darted about with wonderful rapidity, as if seeking an outlet. Then it came to the top, dead, and literally boiled.”
At that time, the Fishing Cone was considered a geyser, as it erupted tens of feet in the air, but with the rising water level of Yellowstone Lake, it has since become inundated and is now considered a hot spring.
Yellowstone, however, is not short on geysers. Quite the opposite, there are more than 500 throughout the park. The most famous, of course, is Old Faithful (the park’s first geyser to receive a moniker). Named for its highly predictable eruption pattern, Old Faithful discharges 3,700-8,400 gallons of water more than 100 feet in the air every hour or two. Its eruptions are not as large as those of Yellowstone’s Steamboat Geyser (the world’s tallest, currently active geyser), but then, the Steamboat Geyser’s frequency ranges anywhere between three days and fifty years. The dependability of Old Faithful, coupled with its proximity to the historic Old Faithful Inn, make it one of the most popular natural attractions in the park.
The Five Types of Thermal Features at Yellowstone
Hot springs: Pools of hydrothermally heated water
Geysers: Hot springs with constrictions in their plumbing, which causes them to periodically erupt to release the pressure that builds up
Mudpots: Hot springs that are acidic enough to dissolve the surrounding rock, and typically also lack water in their systems
Travertine terraces: Hot springs that rise up through limestone, dissolve the calcium carbonate, and deposit the calcite that makes the travertine terraces
Fumaroles: These hot features, also known as steam vents, lack water in their system, and instead constantly release hot steam
Summer Celebrations of the Park’s Anniversary
July-August 2022 | Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner
Yellowstone is working with numerous Tribal Nations to establish a teepee village, open to the public, near the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to the park. Event partners include Mountain Time Arts, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Park County Environmental Council, and Yellowstone Forever.
Nez Perce Appaloosa Horse Club Ride & Parade
July 27-31, 2022 | Canyon Village
Members of the Nez Perce Appaloosa Horse Club will ride a section of the Nez Perce Trail, coordinate a horse parade in traditional regalia, conduct horse trail rides accompanied by Yellowstone staff, and present fireside chats on the history and culture of the NiMiiPuu (Nez Perce). This project is intended to connect Nez Perce youth and adults to the trail, their history, and ancestors and share this information and experience with Yellowstone employees and visitors.
Yellowstone Historic Vehicles Display
August 2022 | Old Faithful
Yellowstone’s historic vehicle collection is one of the largest in the National Park Service and currently includes 30 horse- drawn and motorized vehicles, ranging from stagecoaches to early touring cars, buses, and service trucks to National Park Service scooters and a fire engine. The park will select several vehicles to be on public display during the summer at Old Faithful to highlight the different ways visitors have been traveling to the park over the past 150 years.
For more information, visit nps.gov/yell.