From the study of the record kept in recent years of
the rate of deposit of limestone on the cone of Old Faithful, it has
been discovered that it took the geyser at least forty thousand years to
build up its cone. Some of the other geysers, took much longer. Castle
Geyser is estimated to be 250,000 years old. Liberty Cap, that queer
cone near Mammoth Hot Springs, took ages to build. No one knows how
long it has been extinct, yet for centuries nothing has toppled it over.
For all the heat and the weird activity below the earth, the surface
has been at rest for many, many years.
Yet it is recorded in the diaries of early hunters
and trappers of the Rockies that a volcano was seen to spout brimstone
and fire in the Yellowstone area as late as 1811. Unfortunately these
early woodsmen kept poor records and scientists cannot now identify the
peak the pioneers saw erupting. Equally unfortunate is the fact that
many of these early mountaineers, finding their stories were considered
great lies, made a sporting proposition of it and told whoppers. Jim
Bridger told gravely of how his horse walked across a canyon from rim to
rim, in mid-air, with out descending a foot. He explained this feat by
allowing that the force of gravity had become petrified temporarily!
Finding that his hearers were as yet unpetrified, he told of finding "a
petrified forest in which there were petrified birds singing petrified
In Yellowstone National Park, because of the variety
of the wonders, it has required a widely scattered force of ranger
naturalists to answer the questions of the Dudes and the Sagebrushers.
Yellowstone Museum, at Mammoth Hot Springs, is the headquarters of the
nature-guide service. In it are found mounted examples of some of our
bird and animal life, displays of beaver carvings, exhibits of Indian
implements, relics of pioneer settlements and explorations and a fine
display of color paintings of Yellowstone wild life, the excellent work
of Naturalist E. J. Sawyer. Other museums are at Old Faithful, Norris
Geyser Basin and near Fishing Bridge, all telling different stories of
Yellowstone's wonderful natural history. Gather around the campfire any
summer night and listen to the questions that are asked the ranger
naturalists. They run the gamut of the creation and the development of
the world, and the resourcefulness and fund of information the ranger
naturalists show in answering some of the hard ones are amazing.
"Ranger, where is the mountain of glass?" someone
"You probably refer to the Obsidian Cliff on the road
between Mammoth and Norris Geyser Basin," explains the ranger. "It
really is a mountain of black glass thrown up from the interior of the
earth by ancient volcanic action. This lava cooled so quickly that it
did not crystallize. This hard substance, obsidian, was much prized by
the Indians for making arrowheads. Jim Bridger used to tell one of his
famous whoppers about the Obsidian Cliff. He claimed that when he passed
through the valley on which Obsidian Cliff borders, he saw ahead of him
a big bull elk. He took careful aim and shot at the animal, which kept
on grazing. Bridger crept closer and fired again. Nothing happened.
Three, four, five times he aimed very carefully at the elk and shot,
each time creeping closer. He then suddenly found himself face to face
with Obsidian Cliff. He had been shooting at the elk, he said, right
through the mountain of glass and of course his bullets glanced off the
mountain and missed the elk!"
Another curious formation that amazes many people is
that of the pentagonal columns which hold up the cliffs on both sides of
the Yellowstone River near Tower Falls. These columns are lava that
cooled and cracked into remarkably symmetrical geometric figures. There
are miles of them and were it not for the many other wonders of the park
they would be an outstanding wonder in themselves.
"Ranger, how was this Yellowstone region formed?"
"Geologists tell us that Yellowstone was once a part
of a great shallow sea. There are evidences of fossil shells and sea
animals found in parts of the park. The theory is that ages ago there
occurred a mighty upheaval of mountain masses, forming the Rockies. This
was followed by a long period of volcanic activity. The Yellowstone
region included several volcanoes, which, with their lava outpourings,
formed the great plateau of the park. Blankets of lava spread out over
the sea, cooled, were covered with forests. Later, becoming active
again, the volcanoes again belched forth, repeating the building-up
"The great volcanoes spent their energy, finally, and
became quiet, but in many places their furnaces have not yet cooled.
They are dying out slowly, but it may take thousands of years for them
to cool entirely.
"Why do geysers erupt? Well, you have watched a
coffee percolator in action. The geyser works much the same way. The
water of geysers and hot springs comes originally from rain and melting
snow. Flowing down and coming in contact with lava flows which have but
partially cooled, it is heated. The geyser's tube is so long and so
narrow that as the water is heated at the bottom it cannot rise to the
surface in natural hot springs. Hence it collects at the bottom, the
very hot water held down by the pressure of other water on top. Steam is
formed below while there is still some water at the upper end of the
tube. The steam finally forces its way upward through the water in the
tube, emptying the tube through a volcanic eruption. After the steam and
hot water are out, the geyser is quiet until enough water and steam
gather to repeat the process. In the museum a miniature geyser has been
built to illustrate this action."
Most Dudes want to know how far down it is to the
fire that heats the water for the geysers. Geologists think that the
heat is at least a mile below the surface of the earth. In some spots
the hot rocks may be even nearer to the surface, so near in fact that
vegetation is baked. On the other hand, these hot rocks near the surface
may be heated by steam from farther down.
"Where is the grasshopper glacier, Ranger?"
Many people have heard of these curiosities, of which
there are several in the Yellowstone region. The best-known "grasshopper
glaciers" are in the Beartooth National Forest just outside the
northeast corner of Yellowstone. There are countless millions of
grasshoppers, imbedded in the ice. They have been there for centuries,
frozen solid. When the sun melts the ice, the grasshoppers disintegrate
and the pools at the base of the walls of ice are dark brown in color
from the grasshopper "tobacco juice." How they came to be in these
glaciers in such quantities is but surmised. The supposed explanation is
that year after year great clouds of grasshoppers, passing like a
scourge of locusts over these mountains, were caught in snowstorms which
forced them down. As the snow froze to ice, the grasshoppers were
imbedded in it.
Another mystery that the rangers must clear up often
for visitors is that of the "red snow" of the park glaciers. This "red
snow" is really not snow at all, but a sort of lichen, scarlet in color,
which lives in snow. It is found in several of the parks on glaciers and
old snow fields.
Curiosities which rank with the grasshopper glaciers
are the nests of ladybug colonies found on the highest peaks of the
Sierra Nevada. Climb Mount Lyell in Yosemite National Park at the end of
summer, and at the topmost peaks, beneath the rocks, far out of reach of
food, you will find millions and millions of ladybugs. Often they are so
thick in these mountainous hives that they can be scooped up by the
handful. Enterprising "bug men" used to make a business of going to high
Sierra peaks to gather ladybugs by the gallon. They were sold by the
pint or quart at fancy prices to farmers and orchardists who prize the
little bugs for their voracious appetites for certain pests which eat
plants and the leaves of trees. But what instinct leads them to fly
hundreds of miles to the highest mountains on the continent to pass
their winters in zero weather, far from food, is still a mystery.
"Ranger, where is timberline?" is an oft-asked
question. Timberline is something that changes with the latitude. In the
Arctic circle, timberline is not far above sea level. At the Equator it
is said to be about three miles high. It varies in a very definite ratio
between altitude and latitude. One mile straight up in the air is the
equivalent of eight hundred miles north or south from the Equator, m
establishing timberline. Of course, exception must be made to the rule
to allow for warm or cold currents of the ocean, or other conditions
which may change the temperature materially in certain parts of the
earth. The angle of a mountain slope is a factor. Timberline is higher
on a southern slope which receives the sun's rays than it is on a
northern slope which is in the shade.
This can best be illustrated by an unusual condition
in Yosemite Valley, where the steep southern wall is constantly in the
shade and the north wall is in the sun all winter long. Consequently,
the south side of the Valley is the home of flowers and trees which
ordinarily grow a hundred miles or more to the north. The north wall is
the home of flowers and trees found far to the south of Yosemite's
latitude. The equatorial side of the valley is the colder. This unique
set-up has given Yosemite Valley a remarkably rich flora and made it the
happy hunting ground of the naturalist. To the cold shade of the south
wall trees have migrated from the north and from higher altitudes. In
the warm sunlight of the north side of the valley, where there is
reflected warmth from the cliffs of that side, are found plants which
are known to have thrived in regions as far south as Mexico.
(From the Stanford University Press
People enjoy the climate of the north side of the
valley as much as the plants do, and they live there in the reflected
sunlight and warmth of the valley wall, but they only have to go a short
distance into the shadows of the south wall to find arctic conditions,
cold snow, and winter sports.
In Yellowstone, timberline is five hundred feet
higher on the south slope of Mount Washburn than it is on the north
slope. In that park timberline ranges from ninety-five hundred to ten
thousand feet. The top of Mount Washburn is in the Arctic-Alpine zone,
well above timber line. It is here that one finds the gorgeous gardens
of flowers growing against snow banks. These little plants thrive for a
brief span in the intense sunlight unfiltered by the heavy atmosphere
of the lower levels. The sun's rays bring them out in gorgeous carpets,
which blanket the higher slopes of Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Glacier,
and Mount Rainier National parks.
Life zones are groups of plants and animals living
together in agreeable climates. Measured in terms of life zones, a trip
from the San Joaquin Valley in California through Sequoia National Park
to the summit of Mount Whitney is the equivalent of a journey from
Mexico to the Arctic Circle at sea level. As many different kinds of
plants and animals would be found on this short trip as on vastly longer
trips from south to north.
Most of the national parks, because of their variety
of altitude, include several life zones. There are five zones in
Yellowstone, for example, reaching from the Alpine zone at the top of
Mount Washburn and Electric Peak, through the Sub-Alpine Zone, the
Hudsonian, the Canadian, and the Transition to the Upper Sonoran zone.
These five zones account for the wide range of trees, flowers, birds,
and animals in the Yellowstone. Almost equally great is the variety of
life zones in many of the other parks, each of which offers a special
field of study for the ranger naturalist and his staff before they can
answer the questions sure to be put to them by visitors.
"Well, Ranger, how did arctic plants get to
Yellowstone from the Arctic circle?"
"That is a question which seems to worry a good many
people. Sometimes they ask if the birds bring the seeds when they
migrate. It is very doubtful if they do. The generally accepted explanation
is that North America once had a much colder climate than it
now enjoys. When the great glaciers spread over the continent, during
the Ice Age, the plants that originally grew as far north as the Arctic
circle were no longer able to thrive there. They were survived only by
descendants which lived farther south. When the ice blanket melted and
the climate became warmer, the cold-loving plants growing in the south
died out or slowly crept north, following the glaciers back to the
Arctic circle. Some of these plants, instead of migrating northward,
worked up the slopes and, having established themselves comfortably on
the mountain tops and finding the climate congenial, stayed there when
their comrades followed the ice back to the Arctic circle. Other and
more tropical plants came in and surrounded these little belts of arctic
plants, isolating them on the mountain tops.
"These migrations of the flowers and trees form the
most fascinating study in the world, once you get into it. A good place
to see the flowers migrating is on Mount Rainier, where the glaciers are
still retreating, a few feet each year. Each inch they give up is
eagerly swallowed up by the army of the flowers, marching up the
mountain side. It is said that sometime the flowers will swallow up all
the mountain side that now belongs to the great ice sheets. Some day,
unless there is another ice age, the flowers will capture the
Of course, present-day Dudes and Sagebrushers will
not see the mountain humbled. These migrations of the flowers have taken
thousands upon thousands of years. In the course of the migrations many
species of flowers have been lost entirely. For that matter many new
ones have been formed, too, by the flowers and trees adapting themselves
to new conditions and climates.
Almost equally interesting is the distribution of
animals through the life zones. The migrations of the animals are easier
to understand. They are not attached to the earth. They can move about
and find new homes quite easily. Yet they were distributed through their
zones in much the same manner, each animal following the climate that
suited him best. So it is that we find the mountain sheep and the little
cony, or rock rabbit, in the Hudsonian and sub-Alpine zones of all the
national parks, isolated from their kind by many miles of warmer climate
which they shun and avoid. There are still species of finches and
ptarmigan which prefer to raise their young in the rigorous and cold
Arctic-Alpine summits of Rocky Mountain and Glacier National parks,
close to the glaciers.
"Ranger, why are the colors of these mountain-top
flowers so deep and brilliant?"
"Well," answers the ranger, "scientists have never
figured that out exactly and we don't know for sure, but it has been
suggested that the reason lies in scarcity of insects on the mountain
tops. Insects pollinize the flowers and it would seem natural that they
would be attracted to the more brilliantly colored ones, hence these
species are pollinized and reproduced, while the poor pale and color
less plants in time disappear or at least are not so numerous as to be
Many are the marvels of life at the snowline! For
instance, in many parks little willow trees grow that are only two
inches tall. They grow up in the Arctic region, too, and are the winter
food of the reindeer. "Red asparagus," or snow plant, is another weird
example of life. It is a parasite plant. True flowering plants take
their food or manufacture it from the air and water. They have green
stems and leaves, green being chlorophyll, an essential to their lives.
In the case of the snow plant, it manufactures its food from dead or
decayed vegetable matter, hence it does not resemble other plants. It is
scarlet in color and to all but close observers its general appearance
is that of an unusually large stalk of asparagus, hence the name
sometimes used, "red asparagus." As a general rule, flowering Alpine
plants, grasses, and lichens will grow for a thousand feet above the
line of the last stunted and gnarled growths of timber. By the trees and
flowers he finds about him, the ranger naturalist who knows the life
zones of his park can estimate the altitude of any given locality. In
the Sierra Nevada, the Old-Timers can tell the altitude very readily by
the combinations of trees, the sugar pine refusing to grow below the
six-thousand-foot level, the digger pine refusing to advance above the
four-thousand-foot level, the juniper, the Jeffry pine, and the tamarack
each choosing its own small sphere on the generous mountain sides.
There is no more fascinating pastime for the Dude or
the Sagebrusher from the city than to join the nature-guide parties in
any of the national parks, and see how Mother Nature's plans are working
out before his own eyes, on the mountain side, where each foot of soil
is disputed by a silent and persistent army of plants or trees. A week
in the parks with a ranger naturalist with whom to talk things over
makes a year with books about these same subjects more fascinating than
it could ever be otherwise.