Yellowstone’s gravest threat to visitors (it’s not what you might think)

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Yellowstone National Park is truly a wonder of nature, globally appreciated for its untamed beauty. Visited by millions each year, tourists travel from all over the world to witness its unique environment. However, while enjoying Wonderland, visitors should also keep safety in mind.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Erin Krieger, student in Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, and Mairin Sims, Laramie High School student.

With the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, summer is upon us!  And for many, that means holiday time.  What better place to take a holiday than Yellowstone?  But while enjoying the spectacle of America’s first National Park, please keep safety in mind.

In fact, there are many ways to get injured or even die while visiting Yellowstone National Park. As reported in the book “Death in Yellowstone1”, there have been numerous causes of death throughout the region’s history, including violent confrontations between people, wagon accidents, falling trees, poisonous gases, drownings, falling into hot springs, and, of course, encounters with wildlife. Even in the past few years, news stories have reported bison gorings/tossings, bear attacks, and fatal falls from selfie moments gone awry. However, contrary to common belief, one of Yellowstone’s biggest dangers to the public is not the abundant and diverse wildlife that millions gather to see, nor even human error, such as falls or traffic accidents.

Early visitors at Handkerchief Pool, circa 1923

Early visitors at Handkerchief Pool, Black Sand Basin, around 1923.

(Credit: Carl Schrim. Public domain.)

Instead, a grave potential danger is all around you—Yellowstone’s hot, near-boiling hydrothermal waters. While you can see the surface expression of some of these thermal features, fragile ground hides much of this geothermal reservoir of hot water below the surface.

Remarkably, even though falling into a thermal feature will surely result in third-degree burns or even death, it is sometimes not obvious that visitors to Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas fully understand the great danger of being seriously burned.  All too often, visitors blatantly disregard the clearly posted cautionary signs, leaving the boardwalk trails, which park rangers and park geologists place at a safe distance from dangerous features. Even worse, with park visitation and social media usage steadily rising, some people lose awareness of their surroundings and come too close to geysers and hot springs solely for the sake of getting a photo.

That said, this lack of understanding and respect for the fragility of Yellowstone’s thermal features is not a modern problem. Old photos hang in park visitor centers and hotels showcasing some of the park’s first visitors of European descent standing on the unstable ground around the hot springs. There are even photos of people and bicycles perched throughout the Mammoth Terraces and ladies dropping handkerchiefs into “Handkerchief Pool.”

old-fashioned black and white photo of erupting geyser, and people standing around looking at it

Old Faithful Geyser in Upper Geyser Basin. 1878(?). Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (Hayden Survey).

(Credit: William Henry Jackson, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

Although, due to medical privacy laws, it is unknown exactly how many visitors have gotten injured from ignoring the cautionary signs, news reports of the more dramatic incidents show these numbers to be surprisingly high.  Even more grim is the number of deaths. Around 20 people have died due to some sort of interaction with park thermal areas since the late 1800s2. This number is significantly higher than the eight deaths during the same period due to grizzly bears3. Fortunately, you can negate these risks if you follow the rules concerning wildlife and thermal areas.

With bears, bison, elk, wolves, and other wildlife, keep a safe distance.  Yellowstone National Park recommends staying at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards from elk, bison, and other animals.  Likewise with thermal areas, stay on established boardwalks and pay heed to signs that indicate closures.  Areas of unstable ground are common and may hide boiling water just beneath the surface.  Even a supposedly innocent jaunt off the boardwalk might result in breaking through thin crust and exposing yourself to boiling water or superheated steam.  If your hat is ripped off by the wind and into a thermal basin, let it go.  Unlike a hat, you can’t be replaced.

So, if you plan to visit Yellowstone National Park in the upcoming season, be aware of the dangers and follow the rules that have been laid out to protect you, and also to protect these natural wonders. Thermal feature warning signs are not something to take lightly, and no picture or sense of intrigue is worth a potentially serious injury.  But by heeding Park guidelines, you can ensure a magical visit to a place that is aptly known as Wonderland.  Enjoy the trip!

Works Cited

1) Whittlesey, Lee H. Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in First National Park, Court Wayne Press, 1995.  

2) Arrandale, Tom. “Deaths and Injuries at Yellowstone's Geysers and Hot Springs.” 7 Apr. 2021, https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/cautionary-tale.

3) “Bear-Inflicted Human Injuries and Fatalities in Yellowstone.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/injuries.htm.

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