Yellowstone National Park

On this winter expedition, we focus on Yellowstone’s amazing land features and natural phenomena that have drawn people to the area since time immemorial.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture


In 1872, a 3,500-sq.-mile swath of wilderness straddling the borders of Wyoming,  Idaho, and Montana was established as Yellowstone National Park, the first park of its kind. 

The site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions the world has ever seen, Yellowstone also contains the largest group of hydrothermal features in the world. It boasts a deep-cut river canyon and majestic mountains that are home to bison, grizzly bears, elk, and wolves.


The steam rising up from the cold winter snow comes from hot springs, geysers, and steam vents. These hydrothermal (hydro = “water” + thermal = “heat”) features dot Yellowstone’s landscape, below whose surface flows hot magma that heats the rocks above. 

Colored Waters

Many of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal springs and basins are stunningly colored.  The bright hues generally come from microorganisms, including algae and bacteria, that grow in the water. Trillions of these thermophiles—“heat lovers”—group together to produce a mass of color. 

Grand Prismatic Spring

The largest hot spring in the U.S. and the third largest in the world, the Grand Prismatic Spring stretches 370 feet (110 m) across and reaches 121 feet (37m) deep into Earth.

A spring forms when a hydrothermal feature’s “plumbing”—the below-ground channels that the water takes—is smooth and open. The heated water rises directly to the surface, emerges through a hole, and empties into a pool. 

Colors of the Spring

The spring is named for its vivid colors—the same colors that sunlight breaks into when it travels through a prism. Most of the colors are caused by pigmented bacteria that thrive in the mineral-rich waters. 

Norris Geyser Basin

Hydrothermal features  are strewn through the western half of Yellowstone, but one of their greatest concentrations is in the Norris Geyser Basin. The geysers here are also among the most active in the park. Unlike hot springs, geysers erupt intermittently, not continuously.

A geyser results when the underground plumbing has cavities. The eruptions are intermittent because each cavity must fill with rising water before the water can erupt on the surface.

Steamboat Geyser

Located in the Norris Geyser Basin, Steamboat Geyser is the largest geyser in the world. It doesn’t erupt often, but when it does, it shoots boiling water about 380 feet (116 m) into the air.


In some hydrothermal features, the environment is so acidic that microorganisms can’t thrive.  Here minerals crystallize out of the water, creating colors. Iron oxides produce pinks, red, and oranges. Sulfur and iron sulfides produce yellows.

Old Faithful

When people hear the name “Yellowstone,” the first thing they think of is Old Faithful. This geyser’s claim to fame is that it’s one of the most predictable geysers in the world. Every 65 or 91 minutes, it shoots boiling water to an average height of 145 feet (44m) into the air.


Old Faithful erupts 65 minutes after an eruption that lasts less than 2½ minutes. It will erupt 91 minutes after an eruption that lasts more than 2½ minutes. 

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

The Yellowstone River flows through the park in a canyon 20 miles (32 km) long, up to 4,000 feet (1,220 m) wide, and in some places 1,200 feet (366 m) deep.

When winter snows aren’t blanketing this Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you’ll see pink and yellow rock walls descending toward a raging river. At one point, the river tumbles 109 feet (33 m) over its Upper Falls and 308 feet (94 m) over its Lower Falls.

The Canyon

This grand canyon—not to be confused with Colorado’s Grand Canyon—was and is still being created by the effects of water and chemical erosion. It’s been carved out of the land by the constant, enduring movement of the Yellowstone River.

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