It took two million years and three volcanic eruptions to produce the world's oldest national park. The size of Rhode and New Jersey together, volcanic activity caused the central portion to collapse, and a caldera (depression), 28 x 47 miles, was created. That same magnetic heat continues to energize Yellowstone's hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), spewing mud pots and geysers.
If you visited in the early 20th century, the all-inclusive, five-day "Grand Hotel" tour cost $49.50 per person, (approximately $1,400 today). But, you had to be an intrepid traveler. First there was the train trip to Gardner, Montana. Once in the park, travel was down bumpy, dusty roads in a four-horse, 11-passenger stagecoach, which probably had no shock absorbers. For pit stops, ladies would form a circle holding up their long skirts to block the view of the lady in the middle. Today, there are paved roads and flush toilets.
Tourists, aka "dudes" were brought to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Its lawn has always served as a salad bar for elk. The area's biggest attraction is Mammoth Hot Springs. Here hot water oozes over changing travertine terraces. "Think of them as a mountain turning inside out," says guide, Jim Barry. "The water flows like icing on a cake."
More geological wonders are on the next day's itinerary. The barren Norris Geyser area steams and spits. The smell of sulfur permeates the air. Today, a wooden boardwalk meanders around four different thermals - fumaroles (steam vents) geysers and hot spring and pools. The water in the latter sinks back into the ground, leaving a residue of colorful beiges, browns, greens and reddish-browns minerals, primitive bacteria and algae.
Stagecoach travelers then moved on to the Fountain Hotel. It no longer exists. Today, sightseeing and the 51-mile ride from Mammoth to Old Faithful takes less time.
Old Faithful Lodge is the next stop for the "dudes." Except for the 85-ft tall fireplace, the lodge's log-walled lobby looks much like its exterior. Eruption times for the nearby Old Faithful Geyser are posted here. Every 35 to 120 minutes, water spews 90 to 184 feet high. Always crowded, it's best to come early.
Old Faithful's backside trail, Firehole River to Geyser Hill, smells like rotten eggs because of the hydrogen sulphide at the boiling springs. Steaming lunar landscapes resemble castles, grottoes, rooks and mini volcanoes. Morning Glory Pool, shaped like the flower, sits at the far end of the basin. Bacteria living within the 30-foot boiling hot spring provide its deep blue-green core and golden edges.
Next morning, the stagecoach passes the Continental Divide on its way to West Thumb. On one side of the West Thumb Loop, fumaroles roar like locomotives and colorful pools emit sulphur fumes. Erupting geysers puff alongside bubbly, white thermal paint pots on the other side.
The basin borders Lake Yellowstone. Until 1908, tourists had the option of riding the stagecoach or going by boat ($3) to Lake Yellowstone Hotel. This service has recently restarted. Today, Lake Yellowstone Hotel looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1891.
After a night's rest, it's off to the Hayden Valley. Here, hot springs bubble alongside the Yellowstone River and great bison herds graze. They look like the one on the old buffalo nickel.
Farther upstream, the turbulent river carves a vertical landscape that drops up to 1,000 feet and rushes past the black, pink, orange and yellow vertical chasms at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. There are three different falls. At the Lower Falls, up to 63,500 gallons of water per second tumble 308 feet into the river. That hasn't changed in 100 years. At this point, stagecoaches drove to Mammoth Springs and the trip ended. Regrettably, they missed the Lamar Valley.
"I love it here because of all of the animals," says guide Brad Bulin. Lamar Valley is where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play. Herds of bison often block the road. But you have to be out here at dawn to catch glimpses of wolves and bears.
This vast, wild land is the same magical place it was 100 years ago. But now it is easier to navigate and there are more flush toilets.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Yellowstone National Park: www.nps.gov/yell
Yellowstone Lodges: www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com