Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide


The human history of the park dates back 12,000 years. It was known to the original natives as "Mitzi-a-dazi," the "River of Yellow Rocks," because of the hydrothermally altered iron-containing yellow rocks in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (many people incorrectly believe that the yellow color is from sulfur).

The Native Americans that hunted and fished in the Yellowstone region also utilized the significant amounts of obsidian found in the park to make cutting tools and weapons. In fact, arrowheads made of Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi Valley, which strongly indicate that a regular obsidian trade existed between Yellowstone Native Americans and tribes further east.

In 1806 a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition named John Colter left the Expedition to join a group of fur trappers and was probably the first non-Native American to visit the region and make contact with the Native Americans there. After surviving wounds he suffered in a battle with Crow and Blackfoot tribes, he gave a description of a place of "fire and brimstone" that was dismissed by most people as delirium.

Mountain man Jim Bridger later returned from an 1857 expedition to the park's area and told tales of boiling springs, spouting water, a mountain of glass and yellow rock. These reports were largely ignored, however, because Bridger was known for being a "spinner of yarns." Nonetheless his stories did arouse the interest of explorer and geologist F.V. Hayden who in 1859 started a two-year survey of the upper Missouri River region with Bridger as a guide and with United States Army surveyor W.F. Raynolds. The party was able to reach the approaches to the Yellowstone region but was not able to go any further due to heavy snows. The intervening American Civil War stopped all attempts to explore the region, and Hayden would not be able to fulfill his mission to explore the area for another 11 years.

A party of Montanans then organized the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, headed by the surveyor-general of Montana Henry Washburn. Amongst the group was Nathaniel P. Langford, who would later become known as "National Park" Langford, and an Army detachment commanded by Lt. Gustavus Doane. The expedition spent about a month in 1870 exploring the region, collecting specimens and naming sites of interest.

In 1871 Hayden led a second, larger expedition, which was now government sponsored, to the Yellowstone region. He compiled a comprehensive report on Yellowstone which included large-format photographs by William Henry Jackson and paintings by Thomas Moran. This report helped to convince the U.S. Congress to withdraw this region from public auction. Then on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill into law that created Yellowstone National Park.

Langford then served for five years without pay as the first superintendent of the park and was followed by several other superintendents (who worked with some minimal funding). The second superintendent was Philetus Norris who essentially volunteered for the position, after traveling through Yellowstone and witnessing its problems first hand. During his tenure Congress finally began to give the superintendent a salary and minimal funds to operate the park. He used these monies to expand access to and further explore Yellowstone. Norris also hired Harry Yount (nicknamed "Rocky Mountain Harry") to control poaching and vandalism in the park. Today, Harry Yount is considered the very first national park ranger.

Three additional superintendents followed, but none proved effective in stopping the destruction of Yellowstone's natural resources.

This continued until 1886 when the Army was given the task of managing the park (see Fort Yellowstone). The Army remained the steward of the park until control was given to a civilian corps of rangers under the newly created National Park Service in 1916.

It was then made into an International Biosphere Reserve on October 26, 1976, and a World Heritage Site on September 8, 1978.

A series of lightning-derived fires started to burn large portions of the park in July of the especially dry summer of 1988. Thousands of firefighters responded to the blaze in order to prevent human-built structures from succumbing to the flames. Controversially, however, no serious effort was made to completely extinguish the fires, and they burned until the arrival of autumn rains. Ecologists argued that fire is part of the Yellowstone ecosystem and that not allowing the fires to run their course (as has been the practice in the past) will result in a choked, sick and decaying forest. In fact, relatively few megafauna in the park were killed by the fires and since the blaze many saplings have sprung-up on their own, old vistas were viewable once again and many previously unknown archaeological and geological sites of interest were found and cataloged by scientists. The National Park Service now has a policy of lighting smaller, controlled "prescribed fires" to prevent another dangerous buildup of flammable materials.

In 2003 notable changes occurred in thermal activity resulting in the closure of certain areas of the park. Other findings included a bulge had appeared beneath Yellowstone Lake. On March 10, 2004, a biologist discovered 5 dead bison which had inhaled an apparent release of toxic geothermal gases. Shortly after in April 2004 the park experienced an upsurge of earthquake activity. Scientists are undecided on how to interpret these recent events. The United States government responded by allocating more resources to monitor the caldera and asking visitors to remain on designated safe trails.


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