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!).