It’s pretty hard to beat nature.
And Yellowstone National Park, that amazing natural space covering 8,987 square kilometres (3,472 square miles) of water, grasslands and forest in Western USA, serves up some of nature’s best.
The natural travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, however, must be the-best-of-the-best.
For our brief visit to Yellowstone Park in August, we stayed at Gardiner, just outside the north entrance to the park. From there it was a short (albeit slow) drive through the Roosevelt Arch to the park’s many attractions.
Although Yellowstone was established by an act of US Congress in 1872 under President Ulysses S. Grant, the 50-foot tall basalt arch which marks the most important entry into the park was named for President Theodore Roosevelt, conservationist and dedicated Mason, who laid the cornerstone of the structure in 1903.
Once into the park, the landscape changes dramatically. We kept our eyes on the mountains, and were rewarded with sight of a band of Big Horn Sheep: ewes, lambs and yearling males; barely visible as they clambered effortlessly over the rocks. Unfortunately, the older males, with their distinctive, large eponymous horns, were nowhere to be seen.
Mammoth Hot Springs are only eight kilometres (5 miles) into the park from the Roosevelt Arch. We circled the busy car park for a while before gaining access to a newly-vacated space, grabbed the cameras and went for a walk along the boardwalks.
The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are like nothing I’d ever seen before. The underlying rock in this area is limestone. Fractures in this limestone allow hot spring waters, replenished by rains and snows, to bubble through to the surface, dissolving calcium carbonate en route and depositing it as travertine.
The result is, as a Yellowstone National Park publication puts it, a “living sculpture”. The shape of Minerva Springs, in particular, changes, dependent on the volume of water, the slope of the ground, and debris in the water’s path. “During some cycles of activity, water discharge and mineral deposition have been so great that boardwalks have been buried beneath mounds of newly deposited travertine.” The colours come from the composition of the travertine itself, and from the particular thermophiles (heat-loving organisms) living in the water.
As beautiful as they are, the terraces, like other geothermal areas, are dangerous. All the pamphlets warn about toxic gasses, and people are entreated to stay on paths and walkways. But, every year, people test the waters with fingers and toes, suffering burns as a consequence. “Over the last decade, 16 park visitors have been burned extensively and deeply enough by geysers or hot springs that they’ve been immediately flown to Salt Lake City for treatment at the University of Utah Hospital regional burn center”(2007).
The evening light was falling as we drove around the Upper Terraces, so we pointed the car north for the short trip back to our accommodation.
Truly, a place of beauty.