Yellowstone National Park was the first National Park – it was established on March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Yellowstone is a unique environment, with features that are really rare in other areas of the United States. Early advocates knew that it should be protected for generations to come.
Yellowstone is 2,219,789 acres, and about 96 percent of the land area of the park is within the state of Wyoming. Three percent is within Montana and about one percent is in Idaho. The park is 63 miles from north to south, and 54 miles from west to east, as the crow flies. In 2016, 4,257,177 people visited Yellowstone. That’s a lot of people! It is also designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, a designation by the United Nations for sites which have cultural, historical or scientific significance.
The park contains the Yellowstone Caldera, which is the largest volcanic system in America – it has been termed a “super-volcano” due to its size. The current caldera was created by an eruption 640,000 years ago, and was 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Which, if you were around for it, you know Mount St. Helens felt like a pretty big eruption. That wasn’t the only eruption though, and each of the several that have occurred over millions of years at Yellowstone have created the rock formations, the depressions where the lakes sit and have coated large portions of the Americas with ash. Thousands of small earthquakes occur each year within the park, most of which are unnoticed by human visitors.
Yellowstone is know for it’s thermals and geysers – hot springs of liquid that often contain brilliant colors due to the bacteria that make their home there, and erupting fountains of water. The park contains over 10,000 geothermal features – and 1,283 of those are geysers that have erupted. About 465 are active geysers on average in a given year. Yellowstone is named for the Yellowstone River; the headwaters of the river are within the park, and the Continental Divide runs diagonally through the southwest section of the park.
Human habitation has existed in the park for approximately 11,000 years; evidence has shown that Native Americans began to hunt and fish in the area then. Clovis points have been discovered in the area, and obsidian found in the park was used to make cutting tools and weapons. Arrowheads from Yellowstone obsidian has been found as far away as the Mississippi Valley, indicating there was a rich trade among the Native Americans in this area with other tribes.
About 60 species of mammals make their home in the park, including bison, elk, moose, deer, mountain goats, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, gray wolf, coyote, lynx, and grizzly bears. About 3,000 bison are in the park; their numbers fluctuate depending on how harsh the winter is. Wolves thrive there now, after being hunted almost to extinction in the early 1900s and eliminated from the park. However, since the next largest predator, the coyote, cannot bring down large mammals, there was a big increase in the number of lame bison and elk, as well as an overall increase in their numbers, which throws the ecosystem out of balance. A healthy ecosystem needs the apex predator. Wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s, and are estimated to number at slightly more than 100 animals within the park.
I visited Yellowstone as a child, but it had been a long, long time and I was so excited to go back! Next up will be Yellowstone posts!