Discovering the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park with Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science SchoolsJune 25, 2012 • By Renee King
Last summer, I spent an entire day exploring two of our best known National Parks. They’re the ones that everyone learns about in school but nothing prepares you for what you actually witness up close and personal. We were fortunate to be the guest of the Teton Science Schools which has two campuses in the Grand Teton National Park and in the city of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The school’s mission is to educate about natural resource sustainability and conservation and they offer six innovative programs to do that:
- Educational Programs are offered year round to students and youths to learn “geology, ecology, weather or plant and animal adaptation” .
- Graduate School “develops leaders in place-based teaching, field ecology and experiential education”.
- Teacher Learning Center “combine nature-based and outdoor education with innovative leadership strategies of educational reform.” Science teachers throughout the country come to hone their skills by studying this delicate eco-system.
- Journeys School is a pre-k to 12th grade program that “consists of four critical pillars that act together to empower students to change the world”.
- Conservation Research Center “was formed in response to the growing need in Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for responsible conservation and land stewardship”.
- Wildlife Expeditions ” has a well-earned reputation of locating all kinds of wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Geo-ecosystem and providing fascinating educational experiences in a fun and relaxed environment”.
Naturally, our tour was a part of the Wildlife Expeditions component of the school. All of the tour guides are bona-fide Biologists who not only led you to the spots that made Yellowstone famous but taught you so many great details that you actually felt as though you were on the most inspiring field trip ever.
The full day tour began barely at the crack of dawn and ended around sunset. We boarded a large safari styled four runner with roof hatches for easier viewing. Mark, our guide, was friendly and a little too chipper for that hour of the morning. However, his enthusiasm was instrumental in snapping me out of my stupor. That and the lovely thermos of coffee that he had on hand for tourists who refused to go to bed on time the night before.
At noon, we had made our way through the Tetons and Mark stopped at a lovely scenic spot where he set up a tasty picnic lunch for us to devour. Continuing on, an hour later, we got to spend the bulk of our time in Yellowstone where we learned about the history and mystery surrounding it.
During westward expansion, the government decided to protect and not allow development in the region now known as Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. At first, it was scoffed at because there was literally land as far as the eye could see so what was the point because land was inexhaustible. It worked out well because the idea of having a protected area that everyone could enjoy was a good one and thus, the first National Park in the world was established.
Yellowstone is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. It has over ¾ of the world’s hydrothermal features. There are over 10k that lie within the boundaries of Yellowstone, the second largest number is in Iceland which only has about 900:
Geysers – actively shoots up boiling hot water from underground.
Hot Springs – boiling water pooled on the surface.
Fumaroles are steam vents blasting from underground.
Lastly, fountain paint pots is where the mud is actually boiling.
When early explorers came and noticed all of these hydro-thermal features their only explanation was that there had to be a volcano nearby. Of course, there was no evidence of a cone shaped above ground volcano and it wasn’t until satellite imagery was invented that they could see volcanoes close to the earth’s crust. The explorers had no idea that they were standing in the middle of the volcano. When a volcano erupts it spews out molten rock from the earth’s core and after its finished erupting, the space that the rock once occupied is now vacant and over time, the crater walls of the volcano will collapse in on itself.
Historically, there have been 5 major eruptions at Yellowstone. One happens about every 600k years and the last time was 640k years ago, so we are way overdue for an eruption but that’s from a geologic standpoint where time tables are much different from ours. It’s thought that a massive earthquake will take place before an eruption.
There’s an average of 6-8 earthquakes that occur daily at Yellowstone; people aren’t aware of the seismic activity which ranges from 1-2 on the Richter scale so not really large enough to notice. Yellowstone is constantly monitored so all activity are easily measured by scientists.
The hydro-thermal features act like pressure releasers. In 1959, there was a 7.2 magnitude quake right outside the western boundary of Yellowstone and it affected the Teutonic plates underneath the pressure releasers, the hydro-thermal activity and its plumbing structures. As a result, some geysers stopped erupting and formerly grassy areas suddenly began to spew steam.
Three features that we focused on in Yellowstone:
Old Faithful – which not surprisingly, gets the most press.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – has a 300 ft waterfall over the canyon; neither are discussed that much in the press.
Yellowstone Lake – largest lake in North America; above 7k ft in elevation. There are no boat size limitations on this lake and it is completely surrounded by 15.3 sq miles of wilderness and freezes over in the winter.
The Grand Tetons is 330 acres in size; Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres. Yellowstone used to be the largest National Park in the lower 48 until 1994 when a wilderness area was added to Death Valley National Park giving them a total of 3.3 million acres. However, Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias is the largest with 13.2 million acres.
There is a six mile stretch of land separating northern edge of the Grand Tetons and southern tip of Yellowstone. This stretch of land consists of forests that are under the control of the Department of Agriculture. The National Parks surrounding it is under the Department of the Interior. Therefore, hunters can actually use that 6 mile stretch to hunt. However, they are forbidden to use either the Tetons or Yellowstone. During the hunting season, this forest is flooded with hunters who are attempting to get elk, moose or deer as they migrate from one park to the next during the winter.
The vast majority is hunting for sustenance and will target the female elk (cow) for instance, the hunters who are strictly hunting for game will target the males because of their enormous size. As long as they do not cross into National Park territory, it’s all legal but it does affect the blood line of the Elk over time if the best and strongest are brought down by the hunters.