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Yellowstone National Park

Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle

Yellowstone was America’s, indeed the world’s first National Park. Not only does it harbour the greatest concentration of geothermal features in the world but it sustains one of the greatest wildlife populations left relatively intact in North America. And it is incredibly beautiful.

I visited the park in mid-September, when nights were cool but days still warm and stayed in Grant Village, a cluster of wood-built lodges on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. From there, I was within easy reach of both Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a narrow gorge which, in places, reaches depths of 1,500 feet and through which the Yellowstone river flows – in early summer, up to 64,000 gallons of water every second.

Marking the entrance to the gorge are two waterfalls – the upper and lower falls, of which the lower at 308 feet (twice the height of Niagara) is the most spectacular. But what makes the gorge truly breathtaking, are the striking ochre hues of its rock walls. A short but steep trail affords stunning views – just don’t forget your camera.

Of course, no visit to Yellowstone would be complete without witnessing, firsthand, an eruption of Old Faithful, the world’s most famous geyser. For the moment, it erupts approximately every 69 – 76 minutes although this pattern could be altered by future earthquakes – as happened in 1959 and again in 1983.

Even so, Old Faithful is a tease. Not one but several small bursts of activity draw gasps of expectation from the waiting crowd before, with the sound of a thousand boiling kettles, a column of hot water and steam up to 200ft high gushes skywards. And depending upon rainfall/snow melt, as much as 10,000 gallons may be expelled in a single eruption. An unforgettable sight indeed.

You might have to wait, of course, but don’t let this deter you. I found myself engaged in a delightful conversation with an elderly American tourist who even offered to share his tub of ice-cream with me. If only he’d had two spoons! And then something delightfully amusing happened.

As we sat facing forwards, our eyes trained on Old Faithful’s steaming vent, a sound like a gargantuan Catherine wheel in full throttle, distracted us. Heads turned as with one accord and there, to our left and in all its glory, was an erupting geyser. Needless to say, amid the oohs and ahs, was the inevitable question – are we in the right place? But, of course, we were.

Also worth a visit is the Fountain Paint Pot, an intriguing region of brightly coloured pools, boiling mud (and my, how it plops!), fumaroles and geysers that is easily explored along a half mile trail. But be sure to pick up a trail guide. At just 50 cents, it not only explains each feature but also warns of the danger.

When viewed from the air, this particular area resembles paints on an artist’s palette – hence the name. Here too, you can see dead trees with ‘white socks’ – further proof, if any were needed, of volcanic activity.

But what many people don’t realize is that the source of all this activity is a magma chamber three times the size of Manhattan and which, in places, is just one mile deep. In other words, a supervolcano.

Furthermore, by examining Yellowstone’s rock sequences, scientists have discovered that three super eruptions have occured in the past two million years, each at intervals of approximately 600,000 years which means, if projections are true, the next one is 40,000 years overdue. A recent BBC film entitled simply Supervolcano, dramatised just such an event and its devastating consequences.

Yellowstone is wilderness personified; ringed by mountains, it’s 3,384 acres of forests, valleys and grasslands. Wildlife is abundant and includes moose, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, coyote, red fox, lynx, mountain lion, black and grizzly bears and, of course, bison. To see these majestic creatures roaming wild is just wonderful. They are however, extremely dangerous so should be treated with the respect they deserve.

As a matter of interest, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and have successfully redressed the balance of nature. For me however, the icing on the cake, was seeing a black bear with two cubs.

So, in a place as beautiful and diverse as Yellowstone just what, I wonder, will the highlight of your visit be…....