Yellowstone National Park Rivers

So interesting are the geysers and their kin that, with their splendid wilderness setting, other glories seem superfluous. I have had my moments of impatience with the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for being in the Yellowstone. Together, the canyon and the geysers are almost too much for one place, even perhaps for one visit. TOne can only hold so much, even of beauty, at once. Spectacles of this quality and quantity need assimilation, and assimilation requires time. Nevertheless, once enter into sympathetic relations with the canyon, once find its heart and penetrate its secret, and the tables are quickly turned. Strangely, it now becomes quite easy to view with comparative coolness the claims of mere hot-water wonders.

The canyon cannot be considered apart from its river any more than a geyser apart from its environment of hot spring and basin, and any consideration of the Yellowstone River begins with its lake. As compared with others of scenic celebrity, Yellowstone Lake is unremarkable. Its shores are so low and the mountains of its southern border so flat and unsuggestive that it curiously gives the impression of surface altitude—curiously because it actually has the altitude; its surface is more than seven thousand seven hundred feet above tide. If I have the advertisement right, it is the highest water in the world that floats a line of steamboats.

The lake is large, twenty miles north and south by fifteen miles east and west; it is irregular with deep indentations. It is heavily wooded to the water’s edge. All its entering streams are small except the Yellowstone River, which, from its source in the Absarokas just south of the park boundary, enters the Southeast Arm through the lowland wilderness home of the moose and the wild buffalo. The lake is the popular resort of thousands of large white pelicans, its most picturesque feature.

That part of the Yellowstone River which interests us emerges from the lake at its most northerly point. It is here a broad swift stream of some depth and great clarity, so swarming with trout that a half-dozen or more usually may be seen upon its bottom at any glance from boat or bridge. A number of boats usually are anchored above the bridge from which anglers are successfully trailing artificial flies and spinners in the fast current; and the bridge is usually lined with anglers who, in spite of crude outfits, frequently hook good trout which they pull up by main strength much as the phlegmatic patrons of excursion-steamers to the Banks yank flopping cod from brine to basket on the top deck.

The last time I crossed the Fishing Bridge and paused to see the fun, a woman whose face beamed with happiness held up a twenty-inch trout and said:

” Just look ! My husband caught this and he is seventy-six years old—last month. It’s the first fish he ever caught, for he was brought up in Kansas, you know, where there isn’t any fishing. My ! but he’s a proud man ! We’re going to get the camp to cook it for us. He’s gone now to look for a board to draw its measurements to show the folks at home.”

From here to the river’s emergence from the park the fishing is not crude. In fact, it taxes the most skilful angler’s art to steer his fighting trout through boiling rapids to the net. For very soon the Yellow-stone narrows and pitches down sharper slants to the climax of the falls and the mighty canyon.

This intermediate stretch of river is beautiful in its quietude. The forests often touch the water’s edge. And ever it narrows and deepens and splashes higher against the rocks which stem its current; for-ever it is steepening to the plunge. Above the Upper Fall it pinches almost to a mill-race, roars over low sills, swings eastward at right angles, and plunges a hundred and nine feet. I know of no cataract which expresses might in action so eloquently as the Upper Fall of the Yellowstone. Pressed as it is within narrow bounds, it seems to gush with other motive power than merely gravity. Seen from above looking down, seen sideways from below, or looked at straight on from the camp site on the opposite rim, the water appears hurled from the brink.

Less than a mile south of the Upper Fall, the river again falls, this time into the Grand Canyon.

Imposing as the Great Fall is, it must chiefly be considered as a part of the Grand Canyon picture.

The only separate view of it looks up from the river’s edge in front, a view which few get because of the difficult climb; every other view poses it merely as an element in the canyon composition. Compared with the Upper Fall, its more than double height gives it the great superiority of majesty without detracting from the Upper Fall’s gushing personality. In fact, it is the King of Falls. Comparison with Yosemite’s falls is impossible, so different are the elements and conditions. The Great Fall of the Yellowstone carries in one body, perhaps, a greater bulk of water than all the Yosemite Valley’s falls combined.

And so we come to the canyon. In figures it is roughly a thousand feet deep and twice as wide, more or less, at the rim. The supremely scenic part reaches perhaps three miles below the Great Fall. Several rock points extend far into the canyon, from which the gorgeous spectacle may be viewed as from an aeroplane. Artists’ Point, which is reached from the east side, displays the Great Fall as the centre of a noble composition. It was Moran’s choice. Inspiration Point, which juts far in from the west side, shows a deeper and more comprehensive view of the canyon and only a glimpse of the Great Fall. Both views are essential to any adequate conception. From Artists’ Point the eye loses detail in the overmastering glory of the whole. From Inspiration Point the canyon reveals itself in all the intimacy of its sublime form and color. Both views dazzle and astonish. Neither can be looked at very long at one time.

It will help comprehension of the picture quality of this remarkable canyon to recall that it is carved out of the products of volcanism; its promontories and pinnacles are the knobbed and gnarled decomposition products of lava rocks left following erosion; its sides are gashed and fluted lava cliffs flanked by long straight slopes of coarse volcanic sand-like grains; its colors have the distinctness and occasional luridness which seem natural to fused and oxidized disintegrations. Geologically speaking, it is a young canyon. It is digging deeper all the time.

Yellow, of course, is the prevailing color. Moran was right. His was the general point of view, his message the dramatic ensemble. But, even from Artists’ Point, closer looking reveals great masses of reds and grays, while Inspiration Point discloses a gorgeous palette daubed with most of the colors and intermediate tints that imagination can suggest. I doubt whether there is another such kaleidoscope in nature. There is apparently every gray from purest white to dull black, every yellow from lemon to deep orange, every red, pink, and brown. These tints dye the rocks and sands in splashes and long transverse streaks which merge into a single joyous exclamation in vivid color whose red and yellow accents have something of the Oriental. Greens and blues are missing from the dyes, but are otherwise supplied. The canyon is edged with lodge-pole forests, and growths of lighter greens invade the sandy slants, at times nearly to the frothing river; and the river is a chain of emeralds and pearls. Blue completes the color gamut from the inverted bowl of sky.

No sketch of the canyon is complete without the story of the great robbery. I am not referring to the several hold-ups of the old stage-coach days, but to a robbery which occurred long before the coming of man —the theft of the waters of Yellowstone Lake; for this splendid river, these noble falls, this incomparable canyon, are the ill-gotten products of the first of Yellow-stone’s hold-ups.

Originally Yellowstone Lake was a hundred and sixty feet higher and very much larger than it is to-day. It extended from the headwaters of the present Yellowstone River, far in the south, northward past the present Great Fall and Inspiration Point. It included a large part of what is now known as the Hayden Valley. At that time the Continental Divide, which now cuts the southwest corner of the park, encircled the lake on its north, and just across the low divide was a small flat-lying stream which drained and still drains the volcanic slopes leading down from Dun-raven Peak and Mount Washburn.

This small stream, known as Sulphur Creek, has the honor, or the dishonor if you choose, of being the first desperado of the Yellowstone, but one so much greater than its two petty imitators of human times that there is no comparison of misdeeds. Sulphur Creek stole the lake from the Snake River and used it to create the Yellowstone River, which in turn created the wonderful canyon. Here at last is a crime in which all will agree that the end justified the means.

How this piracy was accomplished is written on the rocks; even the former lake outlet into the Snake River is plainly discernible to-day. At the lake’s north end, where the seeping waters of Sulphur Creek and the edge of the lake nearly met on opposite sides of what was then the low flat divide, it only required some slight disturbance indirectly volcanic, some unaccustomed rising of lake levels, perhaps merely some special stress of flood or storm to make the connection. Perhaps the creek itself, sapping back in the soft lava soils, unaided found the lake. Connection once made, the mighty body of lake water speedily deepened a channel northward and Sulphur Creek became sure of its posterity.

At that time, hidden under the lake’s surface, two rhyolite dikes, or upright walls of harder rock, extended crosswise through the lake more than half a mile apart. As the lake-level fell, the nearer of these dikes emerged and divided the waters into two lakes, the upper of which emptied over the dike into the lower. This was the beginning of the Great Fall. And presently, as the Great Fall cut its breach deeper and deeper into the restraining dike, it lowered the upper-lake level until presently the other rhyolite dike emerged from the surface carrying another cataract. And thus began the Upper Fall.

Meantime the stream below kept digging deeper the canyon of Sulphur Creek, and there came a time when the lower lake drained wholly away. In its place was left a bottom-land which is now a part of the Hayden Valley, and, running through it, a river. Forth-with this river began scooping, from the Great Fall to Inspiration Point, the scenic ditch which is world-celebrated today as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.