Two of the LPHS student researchers,  left to right, Maya Johnson and  Niamh Gale. Notes From the Field Yellowstone NP & Greater Yellowstone Natural System, a University of Montana – Lone Peak High School CAS Research & Publishing Project.  Photo courtesy rick graetz


A University of Montana – Lone Peak High School CAS Research & Publishing Project

The University of Montana and Lone Peak High School thank the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation for their support and Hammond Property Management for providing meeting space.


About 20 miles away from Big Sky, the country’s first national park is visited by over three million people annually. West Yellowstone is the official entrance closest to Big Sky although travelling south on US Hwy 191, 21 miles before reaching West Yellowstone, a sign welcomes travelers to Yellowstone.

Created on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park, has remained, for nearly 150 years a protected space for people to learn and enjoy natural places. 

John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, is believed to be the first to discover the wonders of the park. In winter 1807, Colter spent months alone in the wilderness and when he returned shared his findings of the incredible geography and geothermal features he encountered. What he described was so unbelievable that it sparked skepticism. Colter depicted features such as “boiling mud” and “spouting water”, which are now understood to be mud pots and geysers. 

West of Cody, Wyoming, the region was dubbed “Colter’s Hell" in response to the smell of hydrogen sulfide gas that reaches the river from thermals in areas of the Shoshone River. 

The Yellowstone River, entering the park from the south and flowing north, is speculated to have received its name from French-Canadian trappers. In the mid 1700s, they camped at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers with the Hidatsa tribe or Minnetaree people as they were often called and learned the name from these native peoples. Either the rocks at low water or the yellow appearance of the cliffs upriver are responsible for giving this waterway its name.  

The Cook-Folsom-Peterson expedition of 1869 was the first survey and exploration of the land that would become YNP. The party started their expedition in Diamond City near Helena and followed the Yellowstone River through places now known as the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  When they returned, Folsom was employed as a surveyor by Henry D. Washburn, Surveyor General for Montana Territory, and the two along with W. W. deLacy were able to create a map of the area.

As a result of the findings of the CFP trip, on August 22, 1870 a party lead by Washburn left Fort Ellis just outside of Bozeman to explore the Yellowstone Country further, and confirm what the 1869 group had noted. From east of Fort Ellis, they travelled today’s Trail Creek eventually reaching the Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River following it through what is now Gardiner. 

During that time, despite experiencing many hardships including malnutrition, thermal burns and frostbite, the published accounts from the Washburn Expedition were some of the most significant. Members detailed some of the first descriptions of Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful and other thermals along the Firehole River. Nathaniel P. Langford, the most active member of the expedition, presented a series of lectures that spurred future expeditions into the area. The Washburn proclamation intended to keep the land in public ownership for all to be able to explore and enjoy, and no private ownership would prevent the land from being taken from the community. 

Discussions to go forward with this idea came when they made their last camp at the confluence of today’s Gibbon and Firehole rivers at Madison Junction east of West Yellowstone. It is here the Madison River begins.

On June 8, 1871 Ferdinand Hayden, then head of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, lead an exploration of the region as a response to one of Langford’s lectures. Theirs was the third official expedition to explore the Yellowstone area, and would be the most important to the legislation that would create Yellowstone National Park. 

Letters from Hayden to the Smithsonian Institution had great detail about the first ever glimpses of Mammoth Hot Springs and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its waterfalls. They even, as Hayden described it, “launched the first ever boat on the Lake” in July of 1871. 

Like Washburn, Hayden and his fellow expedition members were concerned about improper exploitation of the area. They felt that many visitors would “make merchandise of these beautiful specimens”. After witnessing the impact of settlers in the west and in the lands near Yellowstone, they realized the importance in protecting places such as Yellowstone National Park. 

After returning from the region in the autumn of 1871, Hayden went about the business of convincing senators, congressmen, and his superiors in the US Department of the Interior of the need to create a park. A member of the Hayden Survey, Thomas Moran, displayed in the halls of Congress paintings of the beautiful landscape that showed the world that the land must be placed in public ownership. William Henry Jackson, who also accompanied Hayden, photographed the land, to show the Congress his images and became the progenitor of America’s national symbol: Uncle Sam.

Business started to boom in the region with the 1881 arrival of first railroad into Montana. It originated in Salt Lake City and led to Butte. Other railroads didn’t arrive into Montana until 1882 and later. This helped make Yellowstone more accessible.

The first visitors to the park came through Gardiner, the North entrance, traveling by stagecoach south from what would eventually become Livingston, but at the time it was Benson's Landing. 

In 1907, the year before the train service began, 4,105 people entered Yellowstone through the west entrance. The following year 7,172 came. By 1915, 32,000 visitors arrived. The number of tourists kept increasing.  Eventually the area became a hot attraction for geologists from around the globe. 

In the early years of YNP, vandalization and poaching became far too prevalent. Despite Congress passing The National Park Protective Act in 1884, little supervision resulted in continued vandalization and poaching. The Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell and others had significant conservation lobbying success in favor of protecting of Yellowstone. And their work led to significant overall environmental legislation in the 1890s. 

Resulting from the contributions of the Boone and Crockett Club, in 1886 a United States Army cavalry was assigned the task to keep watch over the invaluable region and ensure its well-being. Army forces continued to protect the park until the National Parks Service was established in 1918. 

Since these formulative years, hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been documented in the region. As UM professor Rick Graetz likes to say, “Yellowstone is a living, breathing textbook with no pages missing and it smells of science”, referencing the rich history, wildlife, and geological features that the park has to offer. More than 10,000 features and at least 300 geysers highlight the natural splendor of Yellowstone National Park.

Today, the park continues to be one of the most important assets of our Big Sky and Upper Gallatin community. Although we live so close to Yellowstone, most of us know very little about it. As we continue with these periodic columns, we hope to educate, not only you, but ourselves as well! Stay tuned until next time, on our journey through the beautiful Yellowstone Country.

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