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August 21, 2013

On the Way Home: The Black Hills

There are six national parks within the Black Hills area of South Dakota and Wyoming.  And, along with six parks comes a lot of different things to do!


Devils Tower

Devils Tower is our country’s first national monument.  It is an ancient volcano in the eastern part of Wyoming – it is officially part of the Black Hills along the South Dakota border.  Rain and ice has created vertical columns in the mountain, giving Devils Tower its unique look.  These columns are still subject to erosion and some of them will break off from time to time.

How did it get the name “Devils Tower”? Well, back in 1875 when it was first discovered, the members of the expedition misinterpreted the name given by American Indians.  They thought American Indians called it “Bad God Tower” – when in reality the Lakota called it “Bears Lodge.”  Devils Tower was pretty intriguing, however, and so the name stuck!  Devil’s Tower was the vey first US National Monument – President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a monument in 1906.   Today, thousands of rock climbers come to Devils Tower each year -    some actually make it to the top!


Crazy Horse 

Crazy Horse Memorial is in the Black Hills – it is a memorial to the Native Americans who used to call this land home.  The Crazy Horse statue is part of the memorial.  Crazy Horse was a real person – he was a Lakota warrior.  Eventually, the statue will show him on his horse, pointing off into the distance.

An American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski designed the sculpture and started work on it in 1948.  Before that, he worked on Mount Rushmore.   Mr. Ziolkowski passed away in 1988, but left over 30 detailed plans and models – his wife and children are continuing the project.

Work has been going on for about 60 years and it is not finished yet!  In fact, only Crazy Horse’s face is completed.  And, work is beginning on the horses head.  When it is completed (IF it is ever completed), it may be the largest sculpture in the world – longer than a cruise ship and higher than a 60-story skyscraper!

The Crazy Horse Memorial is operated by a nonprofit organization – the sculpture is paid by donations from the general public and visitor fees.  In addition to the statue, the Memorial is home to the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center.



Many people go to the Black Hills to go spelunking – that is a fancy word for cave exploring.  Jewel Cave is one of the longest caves in the world – there are over 150 miles of underground passageways!  Some of its walls are lined with jewel like crystals (called calcite crystals).  What formed all those crystals? Well, a long time ago the water around the cave was acidic and dissolved the limestone rock it came into contact with.   Eventually that limestone was deposited on the walls of the cave.  Jewel cave also has many other calcite formations that are common to caves – stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and frostwork.

Wind Cave is another cave system in the Black Hills – in fact, it was the very first cave in the world to be designated as a national park.  It is known for its boxwork – it contains 95% of all boxwork known in the world.  But, what is boxwork?  Well, boxwork is unique within the cave world because it is formed from erosion rather than deposits – it is made of calcite that does not erode as fast as the wall or ceiling of the cave.  Over time, as the wall or ceiling erodes away, what is left is a design of calcite strands zig zagging every which way.

Wind Cave can be very windy!  It has only a few small openings – so the air circulation process common to all caves can be magnified at times.  In general, air is constantly moving in and out of caves, in order to equalize the air inside the cave with that outside (atmospheric pressure, for you young scientists).  When a cave has a lot of openings, this happens almost without us knowing it.  But, when there are few openings, the process is obvious and the cave seems almost to “breathe” – with air rushing in and out.


Badlands National Park

Visiting the Badlands National Park is like stepping into another world – like maybe the moon!  The landscape is peculiar and there is no sign of civilization anywhere.  The unique rock formations in the Badlands have been sculpted from many years of erosion by both wind and water.  There are deep gorges, sharp spires, steep gullies, fat buttes, pinacles and pyramids.

What makes the Badlands different?  Well, erosion happens more rapidly in the Badlands than most other places on earth.  That is because the conditions are just right – kind of like the Bermuda triangle for erosion.  First, the ground has more sediment, clay and sand than hard rock (like granite).  Second, there is little rain – which makes the soil dry.  Third, there is little vegetation to hold down the soil.  Fourth, erosion over the years has created steep slopes in the land.  Add an infrequent, but intense rain to these factors and you have the opportunity for massive erosion!


Dinosaur Digs

Dinosaurs used to roam through the Black Hills!  And, we are talking about the big guys – tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, brontosaurus and stegosaurus to name a few.  During those dinosaur days, the whole area was a savannah, with lush grass and trees that provided foods for some of those big huge animals.

After the dinosaur period, the whole great plains was covered in a shallow sea.  The floor of that sea hardened into a rock called shale, which is found all over the Badlands.  This shale fossilized all kinds of interesting bones – dinosaurs and more.  The fossils in the Badlands are evidence of some pretty unusual animals that lived long ago – sabre tooth cats, ancient camels, and three toed horses are just a few.

And, don’t forget the wooly Mammoth – mammoth bones are still being found today in the Black Hills.  In fact, the fossils of more than 56 mammoth have been found in a huge sinkhole – the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs.  These fossils are young compared to those of the dinosaur – only 26,000 years old!

Prehistoric bones are still discovered today.  In fact, you can even go on a dinosaur dig if you visit the Black Hills.  There is Dinosaur Park in Rapid City.  There is also: Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Paleo Park, and the Mammoth Site.



The Black Hills used to be part of the Wild West – with gunfights, buffalo hunts, cattle drives and its own gold rush.  Overnight, mining towns appeared all through the Black Hills in the late 1800’s.   Most people panned for gold in the streams and rivers of the Black Hills hoping to “strike it rich”!

Gold is a metal that exists naturally in the earth.  Scientists think that most of the earth’s gold is contained in its core – particles of gold and other metals were floating in space when the earth was formed.  But, that gold can’t be mined.  Most of the gold that we mine in the earth’s crust was deposited by asteroids thousands of years ago.  Very small particles of gold are usually embedded in rock – sometimes a layer of gold is found, which looks like a “vein” running through the rock.

How does the gold get into the streams?  Well, its all about erosion (again!).  As wind and water erode the rocks and mountains of the area, tiny particles of gold can break free.  Since gold is dense and heavy, it tends to collect on the bottom of stream beds.  Sometimes these tiny particles of gold will find each other and bond together, eventually creating a nugget of gold.  This is what people look for when they sift through the streams with their “pan.”

Most gold mines in the Black Hills are long gone, but there are still some places where you can take a look at an old underground gold mine and try your hand at panning for gold – like the Broken Boot Gold Mine, for example.

August 13, 2013

The Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs has terraces of steaming pools – it looks almost like stairs going up the hill!  In fact, there are over 50 hot springs in the Mammoth Springs area.  The terraces are hydrothermal features, similar to the geysers, mud pots, hot springs or fumaroles that we talked about earlier.

The heat source that created Mammoth Hot Springs is the same as the other hydrothermal features in the Park – the “hot spot,” or super volcano.  In addition, Mammoth Springs has the same water source – rain and snow (it has an underground connection to the Norris Geyser Basin, allowing it to exist even though it is technically outside the caldera).  Further, the same plumbing system exists in Mammoth Springs as well – cracks in the rocks that allow water and steam to escape.

What makes Mammoth Springs different is the presence of limestone and hot gas.  Huge, thick layers of limestone rock are beneath the Mammoth area.  In addition, there are hot gases rising from the magma deep in the earth.  As water seeps into the earth, it comes into contact with these hot gases.  Carbon dioxide is dissolved into the hot water, making it acidic.

This hot acid-water dissolves some of the limestone as it flows up through the rock, creating a solution called calcium carbonate.  When this solution reaches the hot springs and is exposed to the air, the particles all separate again.  Carbon dioxide dissolves into the air and the limestone particles attach to the sides of the hot springs.  Over time, these deposits of limestone created the white mountains of travertine that we see.  It sounds like one big science experiment, doesn’t it?

Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the few active travertine terraces in the world.  Every day, the hot water bubbles up and deposits limestone particles on the terraces.  As a result, Mammoth Hot Springs is constantly changing – for example, the Opal Terrace deposits one foot of travertine every year.  If your parents visited Yellowstone when they were younger, the terraces probably look very different from what they remember!


August 4, 2013

The Petrified Forest

Yellowstone National Park has the highest concentration of petrified trees in the world (there are more in Yellowstone than almost anywhere else on earth).   What is a petrified tree?  Well, it is a tree that is buried after a volcanic eruption – usually the trees are covered in a combination of volcanic ash and hot mud rivers called “lahars.”


It is thought that the petrified trees in Yellowstone were buried in volcanos that erupted about 40 million years ago (a different one from the last huge Yellowstone eruption that created the Yellowstone caldera).  Research has shown that, over the years, over 20 volcano eruptions occurred in the area, each creating its own collection of petrified trees.

Most of the petrified trees in Yellowstone were redwoods, as well as other conifers like pine and fir, and even some maple and oak trees.  Some trees are so well preserved that you can still count their rings and figure out their age – some were over 1,000 years old when they were petrified!   The petrified trees in Yellowstone are unique in that they are still standing upright (most petrified trees are laying on the ground).

The Fossil Forest is a little secret gem inside Yellowstone – there are few trails to the area with the highest concentration of trees.  Most people look at them from afar by visiting “Specimen Ridge.”  You can view “The Petrified Tree” up close in the northeast part of the Park, near the Lost Lake Trail.  But, no souvenirs please!

Many people may not know it, but Yellowstone is home to more than just fossilized trees – over the years, scientists have found fossilized plants, leaves, and even a few fish and reptiles.  Many of these fossils are located al the way across the country from Yellowstone – at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.


July 28, 2013

Yellowstone’s Waterways

While Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features may be the most famous water features in Yellowstone – but they are aren’t Yellowstone’s only water features – it is also filled with many waterfalls, rivers, streams, and lakes.



Yellowstone is home to more than 300 waterfalls!  The most popular are the Upper Falls, Lower Falls, and Tower Falls.  But, there are many other waterfalls that hidden throughout the park – it just takes a little looking – Lewis Falls, Gibbon Falls, Virginia Cascades, Kepler Cascades, Moose Falls, Mystic Falls, Undine Falls are a few.

The Lower Falls is almost twice as high as Niagara Falls (it is officially 308 feet high), and marks the entrance of the Yellowstone River into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Waterfalls are spectacular and powerful.  But, how are they created?  Well, usually waterfalls form where the rock bed of a river changes.  Some rocks are harder than others, making them erode at different rates.  The water of a river will erode softer rock faster than harder rocks.  As the softer rock washes away, the path of the river becomes steeper – and then gravity takes over.  Before you know it, you have a waterfall.


Rivers and Streams 

Yellowstone is home to almost 200 rivers and streams.  The Yellowstone River is the most well known.  But there are others throughout the park – Firehole River, Gardiner River, Lamar River, and Madison River are a few.

The Yellowstone River flows northward – starting at Yellowstone Lake, near the Fishing Bridge.  It travels over the Lower and Upper Falls and through the Grand Canyon.  Eventually, the Yellowstone River merges with the Missouri River, and then into the Mississippi River – its waters finally end up in the Gulf of Mexico!  It is the longest river in America that is truly wild – it does not have a dam or other man-made restriction on its flow.

There are only two places within Yellowstone where you can swim – both in rivers!  The Boiling River is up by Gardiner, and you can swim where a hot spring meets the river – its like a natural hot tub!



Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude mountain lake in America.  Its underwater floor is much like the area surrounding it – with hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and canyons.  The warmest spot in the Lake is Mary Bay – where the highest recorded temperature is 252 degrees!

Yellowstone Lake also has two volcano vents underneath its waters – they are called “resurgent domes.”  These domes rise and fall, depending on the underground volcano activity – right now, the rise of Sour Creek Dome has causes Yellowstone Lake to “tilt” – so that there is more water in the southern part of the Lake.  As a result, there are more beaches on the northern side of the Lake, and some areas on the southern side are flooded.  These vents also support a lot of plant and animal life that are unique to Yellowstone Lake.

“Hook & Cook” used to be a popular thing to do in Yellowstone!  Many people say that early trappers and explorers would catch fish in Yellowstone Lake and then immediately put the fish into the Fishing Cone to cook them in the hot water – sometimes without even taking them off the hook.  In minutes they would have a tasty meal of boiled fish!  In 1911 (Wednesday, November 23) the federal government put a stop to it – the Interior Department officially prohibited the practice of boiling live fish in the Fishing Cone Hot Spring.


The Continental Divide

The Continental Divide runs through Yellowstone National Park – some waterways in the Park flow west to the Pacific Ocean, while other water flows east, eventually making its way to the Gulf of Mexico.  As a general rule, the Continental Divide follows the areas of highest altitude, from which water flows to both sides.

There is even one lake in Yellowstone which straddles the Continental Divide – and that is Isa Lake.  Water flows out of Isa Lake in two different spots – one side drains to the Pacific Ocean and the other side drains to the Gulf of Mexico.  The funny thing is that the water seems to flow out of Isa Lake backwards!  The east side of the lake drains into the Lewis River, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  Meanwhile, the west side of the lake flows into the Firehole River, which starts a thousand mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico (it you want to follow it all the way – it merges with the Madison River, which becomes the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico – now that is a long trip!).


July 21, 2013

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is about 20 miles long and is one of the most beautiful parts of Yellowstone.  It reaches about 1200 feet deep and can get up to 4000 feet wide in places.

It’s rock cliffs meander through the land, following the twisting path of the Yellowstone River.  The Upper and Lower Falls are at the beginning end of the Canyon (the part closest to Yellowstone Lake).  Tower Falls are at the end of the Canyon.


How was the Canyon created?

Well, that is a good question!   Some scientists think that it was created by all the volcanic activity – first, many cracks in the earth were created before the eruption, as the ground was swelling from the pressure of the lava.  Then, the whole area was covered in lava from the eruption.  This lava was heated and cooled many times, due to all the underground volcanic and hydrothermal activity.  This combination created soft and brittle ground.

And, then there were huge floods.  Over the years, floods were caused by lava flows and ice dams.  Lava flows blocked rivers and streams.  In addition, ice blocked the flow of water into and out of Yellowstone Lake as the glaciers were melting during the Ice Age.  These events caused massive flooding, which eroded the already soft, brittle ground.  When the ice dams melted and Yellowstone River flowed again, it took a lot of the land with it – leaving the Yellowstone Grand Canyon as we see it today.

Some people say that the Park’s name, “Yellowstone,” refers to the yellow rock that make up the sides of the Grand Canyon.  Indeed, the Grand Canyon is very colorful – its walls contain all different shades of reds and yellows.   Years ago, the heat from all the hydrothermal and volcanic activity “cooked” the iron in the rock, which changed it at a chemical level.  Once the Canyon formed, all those different iron compounds were exposed to the elements for the first time.  The wind, water and sun changed the color of all those different iron compounds – ranging from red to pink to orange  to yellow.  This process is similar to that of any man-made piece of iron that is exposed to the elements (like patio furniture) – the Canyon is “rusting.”


July 12, 2013

Yellowstone’s Hydrothermal Features

Yellowstone contains over half of the earth’s hydrothermal features.  In fact, there are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features within Yellowstone Park – geysers, hot springs mud pots and fumaroles!  All of these features exist because of the extreme heat released by Yellowstone’s super volcano.  But, the heat doesn’t create any of these features on its own – they need water.

Snow and rain from the surrounding mountains provides the water needed for Yellowstone’s natural wonders.  Yellowstone has a natural “plumbing” system – the water in underground springs is heated to extremely high temperatures.  Some of this water rises to the top of a hot spring, some explodes out of a geyser, and other times the steam from the hot water escapes through fumaroles or mud pots.


Hot Springs

Hot springs are the most common hydrothermal feature within Yellowstone.  A hot spring is created when a body of water is exposed to hot magma deep within the earth.   In many of Yellowstone’s hot springs, the water’s temperature rises well above boiling (sometimes as high as 400 degrees!).

The water on the bottom of the spring is the hottest, but it can’t boil or evaporate because of the pressure of all that water on top.  So, the hot water slowly rises to the top, and the cooler water slowly sinks towards the bottom – to be warmed by the hot rocks close to the magma. This natural circulation within a hot spring keeps the temperature fairly constant (therefore calm).

Life? In super-hot water? Yes!  Tiny micro-organisms make the rainbow of color found in some of Yellowstone’s most famous hot springs.   Micro-organisms that like the heat – they are officially called “thermophilum” and can tolerate water that is hotter than 140 degrees.  In fact, they can’t live anywhere else.  Some of these thermophilum use a special type of chlorophyll to turn sunlight into chemical energy – this energy creates the rainbow of colors that exist in some of Yellowstone’s hot springs.  The color that you see changes depending on the amount of chlorophyll in the thermophilum – during the summer, red and orange are more likely;  during the winter, the darker blues are more prevalent.

Here are a few of Yellowstone’s famous hot springs – Grand Prismatic Spring, Morning Glory, Abyss, Emerald, Sapphire.  Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and the third largest in the world.  But, these are all must to look at – many are hotter than boiling water and will burn you instantly.  If you want to swim in a hot spring, you need to look elsewhere in Yellowstone – like the Boiling River!



There are over 300 geysers in Yellowstone  – that is over half of all the geysers on earth!  And, Yellowstone has the highest concentration of geysers than anywhere else in the world.  Some of the geysers in Yellowstone have names and some are still unnamed.  Some are big and some are small.  Some erupt frequently, some only once in a while.  And, each is unique in its own way – some shoot water straight up, some spray water like a fountain.

The plumbing system of a geyser is different from that of a hot spring – somewhere underground there is a constriction – or block – to the flow of water.  As a result, the hot water can’t rise to the top and cool off.  In addition, the pressure of water on top prevents this hot water at the bottom from boiling or evaporating.

The result – enormous pressure builds up deep below the earth.  Eventually, the steam from the hot water rises up towards the surface, pushing the water above it up and out.   That relieves some of the pressure down below, and suddenly there is room for the hot water to boil.  The violent boiling creates huge amounts of steam, which forces even more water up and out the geyser.  Suddenly, you have a geyser eruption on your hands!  The process perpetuates itself until most of the water is out of the geyser’s plumbing system and the eruption stops.

The most famous geyser in Yellowstone is “Old Faithful.”  It is a fountain geyser that erupts, on average, 17 times per day!  The average time between eruptions is from 60-110 minutes, and eruptions last from 1 1/2 – 5 minutes.  In fact, the duration of the previous eruption impacts the prediction of the next one.

Steamboat is the largest geyser in the world!  It’s eruptions are massive, but rare.  Only every once in a while, it will send water to heights of 300-400 feet in the air!  Some people who have witnessed has said that is pulsates and roars like a massive steam engine!

Riverside geyser is a cone geyser.  It shoots a narrow jet of water in an angle across the Firehole River, and a rainbow often forms in its mist.  Castle geyser is also a cone geyser – it erupts from a large cone that looks like a medieval fortress.   Fountain geysers, like Echinus and Great Fountain, spray water in all directions – much like a fountain you would see at a large city park.



Fumaroles are steam vents.  They are the hottest hydrothermal features in Yellowstone – so hot that all the water evaporates into steam before it even comes to the surface.  All you see is steam rising from a hole in the ground, and all you hear is an eery “hissing” sound.  Some of the steam vents in Yellowstone have intriguing names -  Dragon’s Mouth, Roaring Mountain, and Black Growler.

Mud Pots

Mud pots are occur when there is a lot of heat below the ground but no water.  Over time, micro-organisms that thrive in a hot environment convert gases that are created deep within the earth into acid.  That acid, in turn, converts the bedrock into clay.  The heat melts the clay into a big huge pool of mud – liquid enough for the gas created underground to bubble up and escape.  The result – mud pots that bubble and boil.

Mud Pots have a distinct smell and sound – making them some of the most unique sights in Yellowstone.  And, some have thrown mud up to 20 feet in the air.  There are three famous mud pots in Yellowstone: Artist Paint Pot, Fountain Paint Pot, and Mud Volcano.


July 8, 2013

Yellowstone – A Wildlife Safehaven

Yellowstone is home to thousands and thousands of animals!  Other than Alaska, it has the highest concentration of wildlife in America.   And, there is a wide variety – large and small, grazers and predators, birds and fish.  Here are just a few of the animals that live in Yellowstone (in alphabetical order).  Don’t worry, there are more – such as mountain goat, mountain lion, coyote, red fox, porcupine, beaver, marmot, muskrat, and wolverine.  Why don’t you research your favorite?



There are both black bear and grizzly bear in Yellowstone!  There are about 500 black bears in Yellowstone and between 200-600 grizzly bears in Yellowstone.  And, spotting a bear is not a given – some visitors will see one, and some won’t.

Black bear are smaller than grizzly – and it may come as a surprise that their fur is not always black.  They can be rusty brown or golden, sometimes causing some confusion with a grizzly.    One way to tell the difference – the black bear’s rear end sits higher than its head, it is smaller, and its nose it quite narrow.

Bear have been spotted in Lamar Valley and in the Tower area, as well as along the Madison and Firehole Rivers.   They are active mostly at dawn and dusk (as well as at night, when you are sleeping).


Bighorn Sheep 

Big horn sheep roam the mountains and plains in Yellowstone.  They like to graze on the grass in the meadows, but also like the safety of the rugged mountains.  Bighorn sheep have the most amazing sense of balance – they can walk along sheer cliffs or straight up a mountain!

You will probably need binoculars to spot a bighorn sheep – look for them up high along the road from Mammoth to Gardiner, as well as rocky cliffs in the Lamar Valley.



Some people think the words “bison” and “buffalo” refer to the same animal – they are in fact different (but related).  The biggest difference is that buffalo are docile, while bison will act aggressive if they feel threatened.  So, don’t get too close to a bison!

Bison are huge.  They can weigh up to 2,000 pounds – which is about the size of a small car!  They are grazers and are constantly roaming from one place to another within Yellowstone.   So, you never know where you may spot a bison! But, they particularly like the Lamar and Hayden Valleys (as well as Pelican Valley, Gibbon Meadows and the Lower Geyser Basin).

There are about 3,500 bison living in Yellowstone, which is pretty amazing when you consider that there were only about 25 bison left in the whole country at the beginning of the 20th Century.  At one time there were over 60 million bison roaming through the midwest and western part of America.  People hunted them almost to extinction – we are lucky to still have them around today.



Elk look like a big huge deer – they are dark brown with a white rear-end!  Males can weigh up to 700 pounds, females about 500 pounds.   And, males can grow quite the spread of antlers!

Elk are vegetarians – they eat grass, nuts and berries and are not a danger to any other animal.  But, they need to keep an eye out for grizzly bear and wolves, who like to stalk a small or weak elk for a tasty meal.

Elk were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century – they are a great comeback story! There are a lot of elk in Yellowstone – in fact, there are more elk than any other large mammal (about 15,000-25,000 in the summer).  Dads usually head out on their own, while the moms and babies travel in large groups, or herds.   They like to graze in meadows or large fields, like in the Lamar Valley or around Mammoth Hot Springs (sometimes you can also see then in the Upper Geyser Basin).



The moose is the largest of all animals in the deer family – some can stand up to seven feet tall and weigh nearly 1000 pounds!  They have really long legs – so that they can wade through the water and find food.  They are usually really dark brown – sometimes looking almost black – with a long snout, big nose, and growth under the throat called a “dewlap.”

Moose like to eat grass and twigs, but their favorite food is plants that grow in water and willow.  They spend most of their day chewing!  They need to eat a lot of plants and twigs to support their huge bodies, which means that they spend a lot of their day eating.  Their favorite time to forage for food is dawn and dusk.

There are a lot of moose in Yellowstone (they are the second most populated animal, behind the Elk – there are about 800 moose in southern Yellowstone).  Most moose are solitary – they like to hang out on their own.  It is common, however, to see a mother and child together – a young moose stays with its mom for about one year.

Moose like to hang out in Willow Park, just south of Mammoth Springs, or near the Fishing Bridge at Yellowstone Lake.  They are normally quite slow – but don’t be fooled – they can really move if they are scared or protecting their babies.  So, like most other wildlife, don’t get too close to a moose!


Mule Deer

Mule deer are also known as “black-tail” deer.  It has oversized ears and a black tipped tail.  One thing unique about a mule deer is its ability to jump straight in the air and then land on all four feet at once – watching this makes you think that the mule deer is on a trampoline!

Mule deer graze all over Yellowstone.  They have a varied diet – eating up to 600 different kinds of plants.

Like the elk and bison, they were overhunted in the 19th century and almost became extinct.  Lucky for us, they are protected from hunting in Yellowstone and are thriving within the Park.



The pronghorn is the fastest animal in North America – it can run up to 60 miles per hour.  That is how fast a car drives on the freeway!  They are grazers and need to watch out for coyotes – their speed is their best defense against those predators.

Adults have a white belly and bottom.  As you may suspect from their name, the males have horns – they are flat, like blades, and grow “prongs” as they get older.   Babies are gray with white spots, and they can start running and keeping up with the herd when they are about one week old!

There are about 5,000 pronghorns in Yellowstone.  They especially like the northern part of the park like Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley.



The gray wolf looks like a large coyote – in fact, some wolves can become really big (up to 175 pounds).   Wolves are predators – they make a meal out of some of the grazers in Yellowstone (like pronghorn and mule deer).  Watching a wolf hunt is a memorable event!  Wolves live in packs, or families.  A pack has a very complex social structure, making wolves an interesting animal to watch.

Like so may other animals, the grey wolf was almost hunted to extinction over 100 years ago.  In fact, for many years there were no grey wolves in Yellowstone at all.  They had to be brought in to the park from Canada – around 1995, 31 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.  Now, there are more than 400 wolves living in Yellowstone.  Now, that is a success story!

Lamar Valley is the place to be if you want to see wolves.  The largest pack of wolves in Yellowstone lives in the Lamar Valley – it is called the Druid Peak Pack.


Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are commonly seen along the streams and rivers in Yellowstone.  They are predators and spend a lot of time up high, scanning the water and land for a meal (they like fish, small water birds, rodents and small mammals).

Look for them in the morning.  They like to hang out along the Yellowstone River, just south of the Grand Canyon, and along the Madison River.   They are not the only eagles that call yellowstone home – there are also many golden eagles that live within the park.



Pelicans spend a lot of time in the water and are strong swimmers.  They have a big long orange bill, which can get up to a foot long.  Pelicans use their large bill to scoop up fish from lakes and streams – sometimes they work together to fish for their food – a group of pelicans will round up a school of fish and push it towards shore, where they are able to scoop up the fish more easily.


Trumpeter Swan 

The trumpeter swan is the largest bird in America.  Its wingspan can reach up to 7 feet – that is longer than your mom or dad!  A trumpeter swan is all white, except for its black beak and black feet.  It has a very long neck and sits very straight and gracefully in the water.

There are a lot in Yellowstone – one of their favorite places to hang out in the park is Swan Lake, just south of Mammoth Springs.  They also like the Madison and Firehole Rivers, as well as Yellowstone River (south of the Grand Canyon).

The Trumpeter Swan is native to North America, and was almost hunted to extinction – in the 19th century there were less than 100 trumpeter swans in all of America.  Luckily for us, those trumpeter swans were placed in a wildlife refuge and are now making a comeback.


July 1, 2013

We Arrive – Yellowstone National Park!



Humans have been in the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years.  Native Americans made the area their home, washing and bathing in the hot springs.  They also traveled through the area, fishing and hunting.


Quite a few men explored the area in the early years, especially after America purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.  In fact, Lewis & Clark heard about it as they were exploring the area north of Yellowstone (they were in Montana).  But, it wasn’t until 1870 that people began to take the claims of “steaming land” seriously.


A man named Henry Washburn led an expedition party out West, mainly for the purpose of mapping and surveying the Montana Territory.  The area around Yellowstone River was part of Montana Territory.  When they explored the area, they were amazed by the various land features, waterfalls and wildlife.  It was during this expedition that Mr. Washburn named the famous geyser, Old Faithful.


Members of this Washburn expedition party realized what a special and unique place they had visited.  Some were journalists and they helped the nation understand the same.  Their incredible stories were published in newspapers and people all over the country became interested in this area called Yellowstone.  After hearing these accounts, Congress decided to make an official exploration of the area.


In 1871, an expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden set out to explore the Yellowstone region further.  The party included a number of artists and scientists – geologists, botanists, and zoologists.  One of the artists was a man named Thomas Moran (he became famous for his paintings of Yellowstone – he even signed his paintings “TYM” – which was short for “Thomas Yellowstone Moran”).


The party spent about 40 days exploring the area and were stunned by what they saw. They came back with a treasure trove of sketches, paintings and photographs that revealed the splendor of the region.  Mr. Moran painted over 30 different sites within the Yellowstone area, and made sketches everyday.  Mr. Hayden submitted a 500 page report to Congress of their expedition, requesting that it preserve the Yellowstone area as a “national park.”




Creating the First National Park


On March 1, 1872, Congress approved legislation that created “Yellowstone National Park.”  And, President Ulysses Grant signed it the same day.  It was a new concept – there were no national parks anywhere else in the world!   About 2 million acres of land (or 3,468 square miles – that’s a big area!) was “set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”


The goal was to preserve the wildlife and unique hydrothermal features within the Yellowstone region so that future generations can enjoy the unique features of the area.  Future generations – that is us!  It is because Congress was willing to try something new that we can still enjoy Yellowstone today.


The Early Days


In the early years, the government was trying to figure out just how to manage a “national park.”  At first, people did whatever they wanted within the park grounds.  In 1894, Congress finally passed legislation that protected all wildlife in Yellowstone Park.


President Roosevelt traveled by train to visit Yellowstone Park in 1903.  He fell in love with the land and was in awe of its beauty.  Eventually it became clear that managing such a large park is a full time job, so President Woodrow Wilson created a new government agency called the National Parks Service.


Once the automobile was invented, the number of visitors to Yellowstone Park soared every year (from 1916-1971).  With that increase in visitors came a strain in the Park’s delicate ecosystem.  At that time, the National Park Service changed its policies to protect the park from being damaged by visitors.


June 24, 2013

On the Road – Into the Wild West


When you think about the “Wild West,” what comes to mind?  Cowboys, cattle drives, Native Americans, gun fights, bank robbers, and saloons?  The Wild West was indeed wild!  It was a place where the normal order of our society had not yet reached – there was little government, few roads, temporary towns, and wide open spaces.  It was where people had to be determined, resourceful, independent and strong.  The Wild West was hard work and not for everyone.


The Wild West was that part of America that was west of the frontier – that part of America that was beyond the towns and farmers.  Where the Wild West started was constantly changing as people continued to move west and organize themselves into communities.  For example, anything west of the Mississippi River was considered the American frontier after the Louisiana Purchase.  Gradually, the frontier moved west as the land was organized into states and settled by farmers.


The federal government considered itself to be the owner of the Wild West – it purchased the land or conquered it, depending on your point of view.  And, it took a while for the government to sell the land or give it away under the Homestead Act.  So, in the meantime it was available to anyone who was willing to make the journey.


Eventually the federal government caught up and surveyed the land, allowing people to own it over time and establish communities.  Many times, the railroads paved the way – as the railroad tracks pushed west across the country, land ownership and organized communities followed.  This process continued over and over, until the order of “civilization” reached the Pacific Ocean.


Why did people travel to the frontier? For many, it was that deep hunger to own land. For others, it was part of Manifest Destiny – that belief that it was America’s destiny to conquer all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  For even more, it was that desire to make some money and provide for their family.  Some people went west because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.  Others hoped to make it rich in the Goldrush.


If you want to learn more about the Wild West, consider going to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.  The Center has five museums, which are dedicated to preserving the Spirit of the American West.  They also tell the story of the life and times of William Cody, otherwise known as “Buffalo Bill,” and his famous Wild West Show.



June 21, 2013

Yellowstone – A Super Volcano

Under Yellowstone is a “hotspot” – a place where the earth’s crust is very thin, allowing intense heat to rise up from the earth’s inner core.  This hotspot creates all the hydrothermal features that are unique to Yellowstone.   This hotspot also makes Yellowstone the largest volcano in North America.  It is actually considered to be a “super volcano.”

Thousands and thousands of years ago, a huge volcano erupted within Yellowstone.  In fact, it was so huge that over one-third of Yellowstone is contained within the “caldera,” or giant hole created by the explosion.


Ancient Activity


There have been 3 massive volcano eruptions in Yellowstone’s history – scientists estimate the first was about 2 million years ago.  The last one was about 600,000 years ago.

At that time, magma pushed up from the earth’s core and formed a massive dome.  Eventually the pressure was too much and there was a huge volcanic eruption, leaving a gaping hole in the earth.  It was one of the most violent explosions the earth had ever seen.  Scientists have found ash from that eruption as far away as Iowa, California and Louisiana!

The volcano continued to be active for more than 500,000 years – lava flowed up to the surface and filled much of the giant crater, forming the Yellowstone Caldera.  The Caldera covers a lot of Yellowstone – it is 35 miles wide and 50 miles long.


The Yellowstone Super Volcano is Still Active


Each year, Yellowstone experiences between 1-3,000 earthquakes.  Most are so small that they are not noticed – a few per year are felt by people in the Park.  They are evidence that the Yellowstone super volcano is still active.

Scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory monitor Yellowstone’s volcanic activity closely.  The geological activity within Yellowstone has not changed much in the last 30 years.  As a result of all the data, scientists don’t expect another huge eruption for thousands of years.

Yellowstone’s hydrothermal system is also powered by its super volcano – in fact, Yellowstone contains almost half of all geothermal features found on earth.  These geothermal features are very sensitive to earthquakes and other volcanic activity.  In the past, earthquakes both near and far have increased the geyser eruptions within Yellowstone.