JOHN COULTER’S story of hot springs at the upper waters of the Yellowstone River was laughed at by the public of 1810. Jim Bridger’s account of the geysers in the thirties made his national reputation as a liar. Warren Angus Ferris’s description of the Upper Geyser Basin was received in 1842 in unbelieving silence. Later explorers who sought the Yellowstone to test the truth of these tales thought it whole-some to keep their findings to themselves, as magazines and newspapers refused to publish their accounts and lecturers were stoned in the streets as impostors. It required the authority of the semiofficial Washburn-Langford expedition of 1869 to establish credence.
The original appeal of the Yellowstone, that to wonder, remains its most popular appeal to-day, though science has dissipated mystery these many years. Many visitors, I am persuaded, enjoy the wonder of it more even than the spectacle. I have heard people refuse to listen to the explanation of geyser action lest it lessen their pleasure in Old Faithful. I confess to moods in which I want to see the blue flames and smell the brimstone which Jim Bridger described so eloquently. There are places where it is not hard to imagine both.
For many years the uncanny wonders of a dying volcanic region absorbed the public mind to the exclusion of all else in the Yellowstone neighborhood, which Congress, principally in consequence of these wonders, made a national park in 1872. Yet all the time it possessed two other elements of distinction which a later period regards as equal to the volcanic phenomena; elements, in fact, of such distinction that either one alone, without the geysers, would have warranted the reservation of so striking a region for a national park. One of these is the valley of the Yellowstone River with its spectacular waterfalls and its colorful canyon. The other is its population of wild animals which, in 1872, probably was as large and may have been larger than to-day’s. Yet little was heard of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in those days, although Moran’s celebrated painting, now in the Capitol at Washington, helped influence Congress to make it a national park; and so little did the wild animals figure in the calculations of the period that they were not even protected in the national park until 1894, when hunting had reduced the buffalo to twenty-five animals.
Even in these days of enlightenment and appreciation the great majority of people think of the Yellow-stone only as an area enclosing geysers. There are tourists so possessed with this idea that they barely glance at the canyon in passing. I have heard tourists refuse to walk to Inspiration Point because they had already looked over the rim at a convenient and unimpressive place. Imagine coming two thousand miles to balk at two miles and a half to the only spectacle of its kind in the world and one of the world’s great spectacles at that ! As for the animals, few indeed see any but the occasional bears that feed at the hotel dumps in the evening.
The Yellowstone National Park lies in the recesses of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Wyoming. It slightly overlaps Montana on the north and north-west, and Idaho on the southwest. It is rectangular, with an entrance about the middle of each side. It is the largest of the national parks, enclosing 3,348 square miles. It occupies a high plain girt with mountains. The Absarokas bound it on the east, their crest invading the park at Mount Chittenden. The Gallatin Range pushes into the northwestern corner from the north. The continental divide crosses the south-western corner over the lofty Madison Plateau and the ridge south of Yellowstone Lake. Altitudes are generally high. The plains range from six to eight thou-sand feet; the mountains rise occasionally to ten thousand feet. South of the park the Pitchstone Plateau merges into the foot-hills of the Teton Mountains, which, thirty miles south of the southern boundary, rise precipitously seven thousand feet above the general level of the country.
Though occupying the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the region is not of them. In no sense is it typical. The Rockies are essentially granite which was forced molten from the depths when, at the creation of this vast central mountain system, lateral pressures lifted the earth’s skin high above sea-level, folded it, and finally eroded it along the crest of the folds. In this granite system the Yellowstone is a volcanic interlude, and of much later date. It belongs in a general way to the impulse of volcanic agitation which lighted vast beacons over three hundred thousand square miles of our northwest. The Cascade Mountains belong in this grouping. Four national parks of to-day were then in the making, Mount Rainier in Washington, Crater Lake in TOregon, Lassen Volcano in California, and the Yellowstone in Wyoming. Subterranean heat, remaining from those days of volcanic activity, to-day boils the water which the geysers hurl in air.
In the northeastern part of the Yellowstone a large central crater was surrounded by smaller volcanoes. You can easily trace the conformation from Mount Washburn which stood upon its southeastern rim, heaped there, doubtless, by some explosion of more than common violence. This volcanic period was of long duration, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. In the northeastern part of the park the erosion of a hill has exposed the petrified remains of thirteen large forests in layers one on top of the other, the deep intervening spaces filled with thick deposits of ashes. Thirteen consecutive times were great forests here smothered in the products of eruption. Thirteen times did years enough elapse between eruptions for soil to make and forests to grow again, each perhaps of many generations of great trees.
Yellowstone’s mountains, then, are decayed volcanoes, its rock is lava, its soil is ash and disintegrated lava. The resulting outline is soft and waving, with a tendency to levels. There are no pinnacled heights, no stratified, minareted walls, no precipiced cirques and glacier-shrouded peaks. Yet glaciers visited the region. The large granite boulder brought from afar and left near the west rim of the Grand Canyon with thousands of feet of rhyolite and other products of volcanism beneath it is alone sufficient proof of that.
Between the periods from volcano to glacier and from glacier to to-day, stream erosion has performed its miracles. The volcanoes have been rounded and flattened, the plateaus have been built up and levelled, and the canyons of the Yellowstone, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers have been dug. Vigorous as its landscape still remains, it has thus become the natural playground for a multitude of people unaccustomed to the rigors of a powerfully accented mountain country.
The fact is that, in spite of its poverty of peaks and precipices, the Yellowstone country. is one of the most varied and beautiful wildernesses in the world. Among national parks it gains rather than loses by its difference. While easily penetrated, it is wild in the extreme, hinting of the prairies in its broad opens, pasture for thousands of wild ruminants, and of the loftier mountains in its distant ranges, its isolated peaks and its groups of rugged, rolling summits. In the number, magnitude, and variety of its waters it stands quite alone. It contains no less than three watersheds of importance, those of the Yellowstone, Madison, and Snake Rivers, flowing respectively north, west, and south. The waters of the Yellowstone and Madison make it an important source of the Missouri. There are minor rivers of importance in the park and innumerable lesser streams. It is a network of waterways. Its waterfalls are many, and two of them are large and important. Its lakes are many, and several are large. Yellowstone Lake is the largest of its altitude in the world.
As a wilderness, therefore, the Yellowstone is unequalled. Its innumerable waters insure the luxuriance of its growths. Its forested parts are densely forested; its flower-gardens are unexcelled in range, color, and variety, and its meadows grow deep in many kinds of rich grass. If it were only for the splendor of its wilderness, it still would be worth the while. Imagine this wilderness heavily populated with friendly wild animals, sprinkled with geysers, hot springs, mud volcanoes, painted terraces and petrified groves, sensational with breath-taking canyons and waterfalls, penetrable over hundreds of miles of well built road and several times the mileage of trails, and comfortable because of its large hotels and public camps located conveniently for its enjoyment, and you have a pleasure-ground of extraordinary quality. Remember that one may camp out almost anywhere, and that all waters are trout waters. Yellowstone offers the best fishing easily accessible in the continent.
Another advantage possessed by the Yellowstone is a position near the centre of the country among great railroad systems. The Northern Pacific reaches it on the north, the Burlington on the east, and the Union Pacific on the west. TOne can take it coming or going between oceans; it is possible to buy tickets in by any one railroad and out by either of the others. An elaborate system of automobile-coaches swings the passenger where he pleases, meeting all incoming trains and delivering at all outgoing trains. It is much easier now to see the Yellowstone than in the much-vaunted stage-coach times previous to 1915, times sorely lamented by the romantic because their passing meant the passing of the picturesque old horse-drawn stage-coach from its last stand in the United States; times when a tour of the Yellowstone meant six and a half days of slow, dusty travel, starting early and arriving late, with a few minutes or hours. at each “sight” for the soiled and exhausted traveller to gape in ignorant wonder, watch in hand.
Today one travels swiftly and comfortably in entire leisure, stopping at hotels or camps as he pleases, and staying at each as long as he likes. The runs between the lingering places are now a pleasure. If hurried, one can now accomplish the stage-coach trip of the past in two days, while the old six and a half days now means a leisurely and delightful visit.
With the new order of travel began a new conception of the Yellowstone’s public usefulness. It ceased to be a museum of wonders and began to be a summer pleasure-ground. Instead of the fast automobile-stage decreasing the average length of visit, the new idea which it embodied has lengthened it. This new idea is a natural evolution which began with the automobile and spread rapidly. The railroads had been bringing tourists principally on transcontinental stop-overs. Automobiles brought people who came really to see the Yellowstone, who stayed weeks at public camps to see it, or who brought outfits and camped out among its spectacles. The first Ford which entered the park on the morning of August 1, 1915, the day when private cars were first admitted, so loaded with tenting and cooking utensils that the occupants scarcely could be seen, was the herald of the new and greater Yellowstone. Those who laughed and those who groaned at sight of it, and there were both, were no seers; for that minute Yellowstone entered upon her destiny.
The road scheme is simple and effective. From each entrance a road leads into an oblong loop road enclosing the centre of the park and touching the principal points of scenic interest. This loop is connected across the middle for convenience. From it several short roads push out to special spectacles, and a long road follows Lamar Creek through a northeastern en-trance to a mining town which has no other means of communication with the world outside. This is the road to Specimen Ridge with its thirteen engulfed forests, to the buffalo range, and, outside the park boundaries, to the Grasshopper Glacier, in whose glassy embrace may be seen millions of grasshoppers which have lain in very cold storage indeed from an age be-fore man. All are automobile roads.