Yellowstone National Park
Positioned above the largest supervolcano in North America, Yellowstone is home to half the world’s geothermal features, fed by an ancient 300-mile-wide magma plume beneath the earth’s surface. Generating a succession of violent eruptions over the past 18 million years, the last supereruption—640,000 years ago had a force 2,500 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens in 1980—formed the Yellowstone Caldera as it exists today.
Inhabited for the past 11,000 years by Native Americans, exploration by the United States began briefly in 1806 by John Colter of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and again by Jim Bridger in 1856. Initially dismissed by tales of a land of “fire and brimstone,” it wasn’t until the 1860s that the first organized expeditions opened up the legends. Several sponsored explorations led to photographs by William Henry Jackson and paintings by Thomas Moran during the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871; these early works were instrumental in persuading Congress to withdraw the land from public auction and establish the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872.
Known throughout the world, it is the last remaining intact northern temperate ecosystem and the “largest and most famous megafauna location in the Continental United States.” Home to bears, wolves, free-ranging herds of bison, elk, and hundreds of plant and animal species, a vast network of roads, boardwalk, and modern infrastructure connect millions of visitors to the park’s landmarks.
Decimated by wildfire in 1988 and accelerated climate over the past decade—spurred by drought and pine beetle infestation—the sustainability of the alpine wilderness faces unique challenges. Warmer surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean have fueled a drought across the Western United States. Many of the geothermal features have been affected, most notably Mammoth Terrace has become extinct with only a few active springs remaining.
Recent earthquakes and unprecedented uplift of 3 inches per year since 2004 evidence an active magma chamber, leading some scientists to believe an overdue eruption is likely in the future. Though impossible to predict, the volatility and impermanent mystique of Greater Yellowstone’s iconic landscape continues to captivate explorers in the new century.