Skip to Content

Yellowstone’s Geothermic Features: Preserving Change

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a small commission of product sales to keep this website going.

Throughout Yellowstone National Park you’ll find themes along the lines of, “while other national parks are meant to preserve that land in its current state, Yellowstone is meant to preserve a changing landscape.”  It doesn’t seem to make sense at first, but Yellowstone’s current state is change.

Yellowstone National Park, located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, sits atop one of the largest active supervolcanoes in the world.  It has exploded a few times in the past, each explosion responsible for how we see Yellowstone today.  Don’t worry, scientists say that the chances of a volcanic explosion in our lifetime (or our children’s) are as close to zero as you can get.

A geothermic explosion is much more likely, an occurrence that happens every few hundred years.  These smaller events can be likened to a clogged pressure cooker.  Steam creates enormous pressure, and eventually the pot can no longer contain the pressure and it explodes.  This is happening underneath Yellowstone, but on a much larger and slower scale.  These explosions can create craters from a few yards to a few hundred yards in diameter, and eject water & rock up to a mile high.

In 1989 a few tourists were injured when Porkchop Geyser exploded, hurtling rocks and boiling water around that area of Norris Geyser Basin.  One of those less rare hydrothermal explosions.

Even though a major eruption is unlikely, it’s still very much alive under the surface.  This is evident the moment you get into the park.

Yellowstone was very much active in just the few days I was there last, in September 2018.  Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world at 300′ high, blew every four to six days throughout September, with some eruptions lasting close to an hour.  Sometimes it goes eight to nine years without blowing.

In mid-September, Ear Spring erupted for the first time in 14 years.  As of this writing, it’s still boiling over, which is very unusual for this pool.  Over on Geyser Hill (where Old Faithful is) the following week, a portion of the boardwalk was closed after a vent opened up underneath it.  Other pools & springs at Geyser Hill have been unusually boiling over in the past few weeks.  An unnamed geyser started spewing water, while a popular named geyser with multiple daily eruptions has suddenly stopped.

Doomsdayists say it’s a sign of the apocalypse.  But it’s really just the status quo for Yellowstone and what makes the park so interesting.  It will be different every time you visit the park.  I’d love to be a Yellowstone geologist.

On your next trip to Yellowstone, chat with some rangers.  Actually read the interpretive signs instead of just looking at them.  Imagine what’s going on just inches under your feet.  It’s spooky, and beautiful at the same time.  I’ll let the rest of the photos speak for themselves.


Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring is one of Yellowstone’s most recognizable features. A combination of water temperature, minerals, and microbes contribute to the different colors.

grand prismatic spring

grand prismatic spring

Grand Prismatic Spring viewed from a distance – when the light is right, the range of colors surrounding the spring are reflected in the steam.

veteran geyser

The Norris Geyser Basin is the most active in Yellowstone. This is Veteran Geyser (I felt a connection to the name) and its small eruptions.

norris geyser basin

Steamboat Spring erupted the day before and still had a tower of steam the following morning.

norris geyser basin

These trees were alive and green not too long ago. But the changes in Norris Geyser Basin introduced toxicity that killed them off.

Cistern Spring

Cistern Spring is connected to Steamboat Geyser – this spring empties after Steamboat erupts, and slowly fills back up.

firehole river

A cool site – recreational fishermen next to a large, active spring along the Firehole River.

artists paint pots

The Artist’s Paint Pots area

Norris Geyser Basin. The soil is extremely fragile and is likely to have boiling water directly underneath. A couple of years ago a man was boiled – “dissolved” – alive here when he went off the boardwalk and fell into this water.

black pool yellowstone

“Black Pool” isn’t necessarily black, but the walls are darker thanks to the organisms that live in the water.

paint pots

The paint pots in the West Thumb Geyser Basin. They continually change.

dragons mouth spring

There’s something “oceanic” about Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The water seems to come out in waves, accompanied by puffs of steam.

mammoth hot springs

Colors created by minerals and microbes at Mammoth Hot Springs

mud volcano

“Mud Volcano”, one of the most sulfuric stinky features in the park.

grand canyon yellowstone

The vivid colors of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are due to the array of minerals, mostly iron, found in this volcanic landscape.

fishing cone

“Fishing Cone” is one of Yellowstone Lake’s most unique features.

Click here to view the full gallery

Craig D.

Thursday 18th of October 2018

Nice gallery John, haven't been since I was a kid. I'd have been sadly tempted to over-saturate the awesome colors of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you've reminded me why that simply isn't necessary. Can be dramatic once in a while, but too often overdone -- including in my own meager portfolio. Thanks for sharing.

Cool (or hot) Yellowstone fact: the landscape that is now northern Nevada drifted, over millions of years, across the hot spot leaving a trail of volcanic calderas from the High Rock Country north of Gerlach (headed there tomorrow) into Idaho and on to the Park. With a good topo map you can connect the dots...

John Peltier

Saturday 20th of October 2018

Thanks, there's so much to take pictures of there. And it doesn't need that much processing. I've watched a number of documentaries about Yellowstone over the years and find the geology totally fascinating. I think I remember one of them showing the calderas that formed as the crust drifted. Almost makes me wish I went into a similar field. And like photography, it's not something to do for the money, right?!