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Taking the Kids

Yellowstone's Shooting Stars

August 13, 1995|EILEEN OGINTZ

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The special effects are better than any movie. The mud boils. Pink and orange rocks steam and hiss. Geysers shoot towers of boiling water 100 feet in the air.

It's as if an army of witches was at work. The kids, brought up on Disney, couldn't quite grasp that they were visiting a place where the special effects are for real.

A lot of adults have the same reaction when they arrive at Yellowstone National Park. That's because there are more geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone than in the rest of the world combined--about 10,000 thermal features and 200 active geysers with names like Churning Caldron, Giantess Geyser and Sour Lake. That's more than half the active geysers on Earth, according to park officials.

No wonder explorer John Colter had trouble persuading people what he had seen, after his first visit to Yellowstone in 1806. They laughed when he told tales of boiling mud and erupting geysers. But after an 1871 expedition that included a painter and photographer, the attitude quickly changed from disbelief to awe.

Two years later, Yellowstone became the nation's first national park. Today it remains the largest in the continental United States. It is so big--more than 2 million acres--that it can take all day to drive the 142-mile Grand Loop Road through the park. There are more than 1,200 hiking trails.

And lots of people. As many as 30,000 a day enter the park in the summer. When we visited last summer, it seemed as if they'd all gathered in front of Old Faithful, waiting for the free show.

Old Faithful was named by explorers who first thought it erupted faithfully every hour. Today scientists know it's not that precise, but they can predict when it will next erupt by timing the one in progress. The longer it lasts, the longer the time until the next eruption.

Yellowstone offers fabulous fishing, unparalleled wildlife-viewing, trail rides, hiking and 2,000 camping sites. (To get a campsite during peak periods of July and August, it is best to reserve a place or arrive by 8 or 9 a.m. Call 307-344-7381 for general park information. And ask about the park's junior rangers, an environmental educational program for children. Call 307-344-7311 for hotel or campsite reservations.

Since we spent a night at the Old Faithful Inn, my family had opportunity to watch the geyser blow its stack several times, spewing between 3,000 and 8,000 gallons of boiling water more than 100 feet high. (Make reservations months ahead and ask for a room in one of the renovated sections.)

To get a front-row view of Old Faithful, the rangers recommend heading outside at least 15 minutes before the next eruption is forecast. Even better, plan to watch early in the morning or just before sunset.

Allow time to explore some of the other thermal areas. Yellowstone education specialist Ellen Petrick-Underwood said she loves to lead school groups on walks around the Norris Geyser Basin, about halfway between Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. It's the hottest thermal basin in the park.

The word geyser, by the way, comes from the Icelandic word geysir , which means "gusher." What makes Yellowstone all the more spectacular is realizing that geysers occur only at a few places in the world. At Yellowstone, rain and snow provide the water while fractures in the rock allow the water to seep down. Heat deep in the Earth warms the rock and water, creating boiling water that blasts through the ground.

My kids loved Mammoth Hot Springs at the northern end of the park. The steam rises from the tiers of rock that are alternately pink, purple, orange and green, thanks to the tiny bacteria and algae that live inside.

Wherever you wander, be careful and keep a close eye on the children. Make sure everyone stays on the marked paths and boardwalks. There may be just a thin crust of earth covering boiling water in these areas. Not only is it easy to get hurt, careless walking could destroy delicate formations that date back thousands of years.

Before breakfast one morning, we headed out to the Upper Geyser Basin. There were few people along the 1.4-mile trail, but plenty of geysers hissing, spewing and bubbling. The kids were too focused on the magic all around them to even fight. There had to have been witches at work.

Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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