Old Faithful and the Surrounding Geothermal Activity at Yellowstone National Park
I still remember the first time I visited Yellowstone National Park. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and a big group of my friends had orchestrated a giant road trip to Wyoming. I was taken away by the beauty of the park with its endless forests, rolling mountains, pristine lakes, and rocky canyons. The other detail that caught my eye was the fact that the entire park looked like it might explode at any minute. Geothermal activity was everywhere!! The most famous of course is Old Faithful.
Yellowstone is organized around several different villages. Old Faithful is one such village. There is a huge visitor center with places to eat and memorabilia to empty your wallet. Right outside is a benches in front of Old Faithful where people wait for the famous geyser to makes its hourly appearance.
I remember my first visit. My friends and I waited with anticipation along with the rest of crowd. Finally, Old Faithful begin steaming. Then boiling hot water towered into the sky. After a couple of minutes, it was over. Don't get me wrong, it was cool. However, it is definitely not the coolest thing in Yellowstone. In fact, by wandering down the boardwalk just a few feet beyond Old Faithful, all sorts of wondrous, weird sights await you.
Hot springs are the most common hydrothermal features in Yellowstone. They occur when superheated water cools as it reaches the surface. The water then sinks and is replaced again with hot water. Because the water is circulating, it does not reach a high enough temperature to erupt like a geyser.
Geysers are basically hot springs that have some type of restriction in their plumbing. This prevents the water from circulating freely like a hot spring. Some of the deep water reaches temperatures exceeding the boiling point. Pressure increases deeper down. Increased pressure keeps the water from boiling, and as it rises, it turns to steam. The steam expands as it rises, and eventually the bubbles reach a point where they cause the water to overflow. As the pressure decreases, violent boiling begins. All of this steam forces the water to erupt out of the geyser.
Mudpots are thermal activity that has a limited water supply. They are caused in part by microorganisms that use hydrogen sulfide from deep inside the earth as an energy source. These microorganisms then convert gas into sulfuric acid. This acid breaks down rock and turns it to clay. As gasses escape the this clay, it bubbles.
Fumaroles are basically steam vents. They do not have a lot of water so it all turns to steam before it reaches the surface. These features represent the hottest hydrothermal activity at Yellowstone
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You could easily spend weeks in Yellowstone and not see all the park has to offer. The walk around the boardwalk at Old Faithful is a great way to see a wide variety of thermal activity in a short time. This would probably be particularly attractive to those with little ones.
This area of the park is definitely crowded, but it's worth seeing. Afterwards you can hike off into the backcountry for some peace and quiet or get a room at the rustic Old Faithful Inn. Make sure to book it far in advance! The inn is a national historic landmark and it is often booked up to a year in advance.
I have visited Yellowstone three times and each time I have marveled at the strange sights the park has to offer. Our world is cool and interesting! Get out there and enjoy it!!