Assignment Exploration: Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks

Living in Utah for the last few years, I have been fortunate to live in relatively close proximity to a large number of the spectacular US National Parks. Being from the East Coast originally, we have discovered that a great time to explore these national treasures is when our family comes to visit. Since we’re moving back to the East Coast at the end of this week, we spent all of last week meandering through and exploring Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

Each of the US National Parks offers diversity and unique experiences and the Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks are no exception. The majority of Yellowstone is located in a volcanic caldera from a massive volcano that erupted about 600,000 years ago. As a result, this park hosts the world’s greatest collection of thermal features that make visits to this particular park a truly unique experience.

I learned A LOT during this trip and wanted to share some of the highlights and resources that I learned during this adventure. In addition to including some of the pictures I took during the trip, I’ve included a brief overview of some of the major geological features found in these two parks, namely the mountains, geysers, hot springs, and the wildlife (I know, they aren’t related to geology but they’re pretty interesting, and so cute!).

The Mountains

Grand Teton Panorama

Panorama of the Grand Teton Mountains

The Teton Mountains are a spectacular sight and the summit of Grand Teton reaches an oxygen-lacking elevation of 13,770 feet.  These mountains host glaciers that can be spotted all year-round; even during the 80 degree weather we experienced the Skillet Glacier could be clearly seen on Mt. Moran in the Teton range.

Skillet Glacier on Mt. Moran in the Grand Tetons

Skillet Glacier on Mt. Moran in the Grand Tetons

The mountains are fault-block mountains, created by the Teton fault and are still growing at a rate of about one foot every 300-400 years. That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that in a human lifetime the mountains will grow about 3 inches, that’s pretty significant in geological terms! To learn more about the Teton Mountains and how they were created check out this great website dedicated to exploring this majestic area.

The Geysers & Hot Springs

The thermal features in Yellowstone are a result of the volcanic activity deep below the surface of the earth in this area. Hot springs are heated by the lava and molten rock that flow through the earth, and geysers are hot springs that periodically erupt. Hot temperatures deep in the springs vaporize the water and send bubbles to the surface. Once the hot spring overflows, the pressure decreases significantly causing the water to boil at a much higher rate (remember, water boils at lower temperatures when pressure is lowered). This boiling creates a lot of steam which then pushes water out the top of the hot spring resulting in a geyser!

Old Faithful eruption seen from Observation Point 200 feet above the geyser

Old Faithful eruption seen from Observation Point 200 feet above the geyser

Although Old Faithful is the most famous of the Yellowstone geysers due to its size and reliability, there are over 500 other thermal features in the park, including a much smaller, aptly named geyser affectionately called “Young Hopeful.” Who says that Park Rangers don’t have a sense of humor!

The Young Hopeful geyser

The Young Hopeful geyser

In addition to the geysers, there are numerous hot springs throughout the park. Since these springs are incredibly hot (some are over 200 degrees Fahrenheit!), the park service built miles of boardwalks around these features to make it easier for us to see these springs up close. One of my favorite parts of these hot springs is the spectacular colors that these springs emanate. Here is a great picture (not one that I took) of the Grand Prismatic Spring showing all of these colors in one spring.

Grand Prismatic Spring aerial view

The brilliant colors are caused by bacteria that live in and around the springs. Depending on the temperature of the water and other important features of the springs, these bacteria turn different colors. The Firehole Spring (shown below) provides another example of these colorful springs.

Firehole Spring

Firehole Spring

If you visit Yellowstone and go the Old Faithful area (which I would definitely recommend!), be sure to stop into the new Visitor Education Center just next to Old Faithful. If you can’t make it to Yellowstone but are interested in exploring the center just check out this great video tour of the facility.

The Wildlife

There is a plethora of wildlife in these two parks. Unfortunately, maybe due to the wildfires throughout the region during our trip, we didn’t get to see as many animals as we hoped. These animals live in a pretty harsh environment, with temperatures in the winter getting below 0 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas of the park. As a result, many of the animals hibernate for extended periods of time during the cold months. Did you know that Uinta Ground Squirrels can hibernate for up to eight months?

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Get Involved and Start Exploring!

If you can’t make it to the parks but still want to learn more, check out these great activities that will teach you and the kids you work with more about Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. You and your students can even become Web Rangers!

Exploring doesn’t always mean you have to physically go somewhere, take some time to explore the parks virtually through the National Park Service’s e-Field Trips; they’re pretty awesome!

Sunrise over Lake Yellowstone

Sunrise over Lake Yellowstone

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