The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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The terminus of the railroad is known by the name of Cinnabar because it is situated at the base of a mountain bearing that title, remarkable for its exposure of vertical strata of three distinct geological periods. Here is a famous place known as the Devil’s Slide, a singular formation caused by the washing out of a vertical stratum of soft material between one of quartzite and another of porphyry. The slide is two thousand feet high, and being of different color from the rest of the rocky mountain side is discernible for many miles away.
We have now reached one of the most remarkable points of our excursion, which demands more than a passing notice, sharing with the great glaciers of Alaska the principal interest of the present journey westward across the continent.
This magnificent territorial reservation is situated in the northwestern part of Wyoming, embracing also a narrow strip of southern Montana and southeastern Idaho, lying in the very heart of the Rocky Mountains. It was wisely withdrawn from settlement by an act of Congress in 1872, and is beneficently devoted forever to “the pleasure and enjoyment of the people.” It forms a great preserve for wild animals, and a natural museum of marvels free to all. The well conceived liberality of this purpose is only commensurate with the unequaled grandeur of the Park itself, though at the time of passing this law comparatively little was actually known of the stupendous marvels contained within its widespread borders, besides which fresh discoveries of interest are still being made annually.
Of all those who have endeavored to depict this locality, none have been able to convey with the pen an adequate idea of its wild magnificence, or to give a satisfactory description of its accumulated wonders. The eye alone can appreciate its indescribable beauty, majesty, and loveliness.
By the judicious expenditure of public money and the liberal outlay of corporate enterprise in road and bridge building, not to mention other facilities, one can now pretty thoroughly explore the Park in the brief period of a week or ten days. To do this satisfactorily heretofore required thrice this length of time, besides which, camping out was necessary; but it is no longer so, unless one chooses to play the gypsy. This plan is adopted by a few summer tourists, who take with them a regular camp outfit, depending upon the fish they catch for a considerable portion of their food supply during this out-of-door life.
The Park is under the control of the Secretary of the Interior. A local superintendent lives here, who is assisted by a few game-keepers and government police, besides which there is a small gang of laborers constantly at work during the favorable season, building roads and bridges, opening vistas here and there, and clearing convenient footpaths, under the direction of an army engineer. Two companies of United States cavalry make their headquarters in the Park during the summer months, distributed so as to prevent any unlawful acts of visitors.The size of the reservation is sixty-four miles in length by fifty-four in width, thus giving it an area of over three thousand six hundred square miles. Or, to convey perhaps a clearer idea of its extent to the reader’s mind, it may be said to be nearly one half the size of the State of Massachusetts. It is a volcanic region of incessant activity, with mountains ranging from eight to twelve thousand feet in height, and embracing a collection of spouting geysers, hot springs, steam holes, petrified forests, cascades, extraordinary ca?ons, and grand waterfalls, such as are unequaled in the known world.
We do not forget the well-known geysers of Iceland, or the Hot Lake district of New Zealand, with which the traveled visitor finds himself contrasting the phenomena of the Yellowstone.
The writer of these pages happened lately to see an article upon our National Park, written by the Earl of Dunraven, in which that gentleman questions whether the singular natural exhibitions here are not exceeded by those of New Zealand. We are familiar with both localities, and shall dismiss such a supposition simply by saying that the hot springs of the British colony referred to are no more to be compared with those of the Yellowstone Park, than is an artificial Swiss cascade comparable with Niagara. If Nature has anywhere else shown so wonderful a specimen of her handicraft, it has not yet been our lot to see it.
All the natural objects best worth visiting in the Park are now accessible by daily stages, which start at convenient hours from the hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs, making the round of the interesting sights; thus affording the general public every needed facility for examining the strangely attractive vicinity.
Near the hotel is an area of two hundred acres and more, covered here and there with boiling, terrace-building springs, which burst out of sloping ground in ceaseless pulsations, at an elevation of about a thousand feet above the Gardiner River near by, into which the main portion of the chemically impregnated waters flow. Five hundred feet from the base of the springs the water becomes cool, tasteless, and perfectly clear to the eye, as refreshing to drink as any water from the purest mountain rill. In ordinary quantities it has no evident medicinal effect, but is thought to be a wholesome tonic, with blood-purifying power. Some springs in the Park, though inviting in appearance, are to be avoided on account of certain objectionable medical properties which they possess. The hot springs adjacent to the hotel issue from many vents and at various elevations, slowly building for themselves terrace after terrace with circular pools, held in singularly beautiful stalactite basins, formed by depositing in thin layers the chemical substances which they contain. Some are infused with the oxide of iron, and produce a coating of delicately tinted red; others are exquisitely shaded in yellow by an infusion of sulphur; while some, from like causes, are of a dainty cream color. Upon numerous basins there are seen wavy, frill-like borders of bright green, indicating the presence of arsenic. Here and there the margins of the pools are scalloped and edged with a delicate bead-work, like Oriental pearls, while others are curiously honeycombed, and fretted with singular regularity. No artistic hand, however skillful, could equal Nature in these delicate and exquisitely developed forms. The grand terrace, viewed as a whole, is like a huge series of stairs or steps, two hundred feet high and five hundred broad, decked with variegated marble, together with white and pink coral. This immense calcareous formation might represent a frozen waterfall, or a congealed cascade. The water, in most instances, is at boiling heat as it pours out of the various openings, charged with iron, magnesia, sulphur, alumina, soda, and other substances. Every spring has its succession of limpid pools spreading out in all directions, the basins varying in size from ten to forty feet across their openings. When the sun penetrates the half enshrouding mist, and brings out the myriad colors of these beautiful terraces, the effect is truly charming; it is as though a rainbow had been shattered and the pieces strewn broadcast. While thus wreathed in vapors, as the evening approaches and the whole is touched by the rosy tints of the setting sun, the entire fa?ade glows with softest opaline blushes, like a conscious maiden challenged by ardent admiration. For a moment, as we gaze upon its illumined expanse, it seems like a gorgeous marble ruin half consumed and still ablaze, the fire of which is being extinguished by an avalanche of snow-clouds. Such a scene cannot be depicted by photography; it cannot be represented faithfully by the artist’s skillful touch in oils, because, like the vivid beauty of a sunset on the ocean, the light and shade are momentarily changing, while the prismatic hues gently dissolve into each other’s embrace.
If possible, let the visitor witness the magic of the spot by moonlight. It is then fairy-like indeed, shrouded in a thin, silvery screen, – “mysterious veil of brightness made,” – like the transparent yashmak of an East Indian houri.
How unapproachable is Nature in her poetic moods! how opulent in measure! how subtle in delicacy! No structure of truest proportions reared by man could equal the beauty of this lovely, parti-colored terrace. It recalled – being of kindred charm – that perfection of Mohammedan architecture the Taj-Mahal at Agra, as seen under the deep blue sky and blazing sun of India. Since the late sweeping destruction by earthquake and volcanic outburst of the similarly formed pink and white terraces in the Hot Lake district of New Zealand, at Tarawera, these of the Yellowstone Park have no longer a known rival. We may therefore congratulate ourselves in possessing a natural formation which is both grand and unique. In the far-away southern country referred to, there were no more symptoms foretelling the awful convulsion of nature which buried a broad, deep lake, together with an entire valley and native village, beneath lava and volcanic ashes, than there is exhibited in our own reservation at this writing. What signifies it that the Yellowstone Park has probably remained in its present comparatively quiet condition for many, many ages? The liability to a grand volcanic outburst at any moment is none the less imminent. History repeats itself. It has ever been the same with all great throes of Nature. Centuries of comparative quiet elapse, and then occurs, without any obvious predisposing cause, a great and awful explosion. The catastrophe of Pompeii is familiar to us all, which, in its turn, repeated the story of Herculaneum.
The Mammoth Hot Springs of the Yellowstone Park are not only beautiful in the tangible forms which they present, and the kaleidoscopic combinations of color which they produce, though their seeming crystal clearness is indescribable, but they have also remarkable medicinal virtues which enhance their interest and practical value. It is on this account that the place is gradually becoming a popular sanitarium, drawing patients from long distances at suitable seasons, especially those who suffer from rheumatic affections and skin diseases. Persistent bathing in the waters accomplishes many remarkable cures, if current statements can be credited, and there is ample reason for such a result. The pure air of this altitude must also be of great benefit to invalids generally, but more especially to those suffering from malarial poison and nervous prostration. The chemical properties of each spring are distinctive, most of them having been carefully analyzed, and the invalid is thus enabled to choose the one which is presumably best adapted to his special ailment.
Groups of pines, or single trees, find sufficient nutriment in the calcareous deposit to support life, and thus a certain barrenness is robbed of its depressing effect, while the whole is partially framed by densely wooded hills which serve to throw the terraces strongly into the foreground. When we last looked upon the scene the sun was setting amid a canopy of gold and orange hues, as the evening gun of the military encampment in the valley echoed again and again in sonorous tones among the everlasting hills, and died away in the distant gorges of the Yellowstone.
A lady visitor who entered the Park at the same time with the author, on the first day of her arrival placed a pine cone in one of the springs near to the hotel. So rapid is the action of the mineral deposit which is constantly going on that at the close of the eighth day the cone was taken from the spring crystallized, as it were, being encrusted with a silicious deposit nearly the sixteenth of an inch in thickness. Branches of fern, acorns, and other objects are treated in a similar manner, often producing very charming and peculiar ornaments which serve as pleasing souvenirs of the traveler’s visit.
In sight of the hotel piazza there is a curious and interesting object, built up by a spouting spring long since extinct, and which has been named the Liberty Cap. It is a little on one side but yet in front of the terraces, and appears to be composed entirely of carbonate of lime. With a diameter of about fifteen feet at the base, it gradually tapers to its apex forty feet from the ground. This prominent formation, though remarkable, is yet no mystery. It was produced by the waters of a spring, probably forced up by hydrostatic pressure, overflowing and precipitating its sediment around the vent, until finally, the cause ceasing, the pressure become exhausted and the cone was thus formed. It may have required ages of activity in the spring thus to erect its own mausoleum, – no one can safely conjecture how long. Still nearer to the terraces is a similar formation called the Giant’s Thumb. Both are slowly becoming disintegrated by atmospheric influences; we say slowly, since they may still exist, slightly diminished in size, a hundred years hence. There is manifestly a tendency in the springs which are now active in other parts of the neighborhood to build just such tall cylinders of sinter about their vents. Some of the partially formed cones in the vicinity are perfect, as far as they have accumulated, while others present a broken appearance, as if shattered by a sudden explosion.
There are several caves in the neighborhood of the terraces daintily ornamented with stalactites of snowy whiteness, where springs which have long since become exhausted were once as active as those which now render this place so interesting. From one of these caves there issues a peculiar gas, believed to be fatal to animal life. A bird, it is said, flying across the entrance close enough to inhale the vapor will drop lifeless to the ground. We are not prepared to vouch for this, – indeed we very much doubt the guide’s story, – but it naturally recalled the Grotto del Cane, near Naples, where it will be remembered the guides are only too ready to sacrifice a dog for such visitors as are cruel enough to permit it, by causing the animal to inhale the poisonous gas which settles to the lower part of the cave so named.
There is another cave not far from the hotel very seldom resorted to, and which appears to have once been the operating sphere of a large geyser, but which is now only a dark hole. Into this one descends by a ladder. It is a weird, uncanny place, requiring torches in order to see after entering its precincts. Aroused by the artificial light, myriads of bats drop from the ceiling, until the place seems alive with them. Now and then in their gyrations one touches the visitor’s hand or cheek with its cold, damp body, causing an involuntary shudder. Verily, the Bats’ Cave is not an inviting place to visit.
One of the first places which the stranger seeks after enjoying the attractions of the terraces and a few curiosities near to the hotel is the Middle Falls of the Gardiner River, situated three or four miles away in a southerly direction. Here we look down into a broad, dark ca?on considerably over a thousand feet deep, and whose rough, precipitous sides are nearly five hundred feet apart at the summit, gradually narrowing towards the bottom. The Gardiner River flows through the gorge, having at one place an unbroken fall of a hundred feet; also presenting a mad, roaring, rushing series of cascades of three hundred feet descent. The aspect and general characteristics of this turmoil of waters recalled the famous Falls of Trolh?tta, in Sweden. The hoarse music of the waters, rising through the branches of the pines which line the gorge, pierce the ear with a thrilling cadence all their own, while the dark ca?on stretches away for many miles in its wild and sombre grandeur. It is well to visit this spot before going to greater distances from the hotel. Impressive as it is sure to prove, there is yet a much superior feature of the Park, of similar character, which remains to be seen. We refer to the Grand Ca?on of the Yellowstone River, where an immense cataract is formed by the surging waters near the head of the gorge, which here narrows to about one hundred feet. The volume of water is very great at the point where it rushes over a ledge nearly four hundred feet in height, at one bold leap. This is known as the Lower Fall, there being another half a mile above it, called the Upper Fall, which is one hundred and fifty feet high. These falls are more picturesque, but less grand than the Lower. They are presented to our view higher up among the green trees, where lovely wild flowers and waving ferns cling to the rocks, and under the inspiring rays of the sunlight add to their brightness and crystal beauty. A waterfall, like an oil-painting, may be hung in a good or a disadvantageous position as to light, and both are largely dependent upon this contingency for their inspiring charm.
The Great or Lower Fall of the Yellowstone Ca?on is twice as high as Niagara, while the beautiful blazonry on the walls of the deep gorge, like some huge mosaic, all aglow with matchless color, marvelous in opulence, adds a fascinating charm unknown to the mammoth fall just named. These varied hues have been produced by the snow and frost, vapor and sunshine, the lightning and the rain of ages, acting upon certain chemical constituents of the native rock. This is said to be the most wonderful mountain gorge, when all of its belongings are taken into consideration, yet discovered. It is over twenty miles long, and is in many places from twelve to fifteen hundred feet deep. The author has visited the imposing ca?ons of Colorado, the thrilling gorges of the Yosemite, and some of still greater magnitude in the Himalayan range of northern India, but never has he seen the equal of this Grand Ca?on of the Yellowstone, or beheld so high a waterfall of equal volume.
A safe platform has been erected at the edge of the fall, where one can stand and witness its amazing plunge of over three hundred and fifty feet. The stranger instinctively holds his breath while watching the irresistible volume of water as it advances, and follows it with the eye into the profound depth of the ca?on. The best view of the gorge, however, is that obtained from Lookout Point, situated about a mile south of the Lower Fall. A half mile farther in the same direction, and at the same elevation, lies Inspiration Point, from whence a more comprehensive outlook may be enjoyed. The grouping of crags, pinnacles, and inaccessible points is grand and inexpressibly beautiful. Eagles’ nests with their young are visible at eyries quite out of reach, save to the monarch bird itself. On other isolated points, far below us, are seen the nests of fish-hawks, whose builders look like swallows in size as they float upon the air, or dart for their prey into the swift, tumultuous stream that threads the valley. Gazing upon the scene, the vastness of which is bewildering, a sense of reverence creeps over us, – reverence for that Almighty hand whose power is here recorded in such unequaled splendor. At last it is a relief to turn away from looking into the sheer depth and reach a securer basis for the feet. Still we linger until the sunset shadows lengthen and pass away, followed by the silvery moonlight. Every hour of the day has its peculiar charm of light and shade as seen upon the ca?on and its churning waters.
The excursion out and back from the hotel to view the principal points of interest in the neighborhood covers a distance of about seven miles through the woods and along the threatening brink of the gorge. A rude Indian trail affords the only means of reaching the several outlooks. Saddle-horses are supplied for the excursion by the hotel proprietor, and visitors generally avail themselves of this mode of transportation. The horses employed for the service are remarkably sagacious and sure-footed. Understanding exactly what is required of them, they overcome the deep pitches and abrupt rises of the narrow, tortuous way with great ingenuity and caution. At times one is borne so near the brink of the awful chasm as to make the passage rather exciting. It must be admitted that a single misstep on the part of the animal which bears him would hurl horse and rider two thousand feet down the ca?on to instant destruction. There is no barrier between the cliff and the few inches of earth forming the path. Visitors are cautioned at starting to give the horses their heads, and not attempt to guide them as they would do under ordinary circumstances. The intelligent animals fully comprehend the exigencies of the situation. On the occasion of the writer’s visit the equestrian party consisted of nine persons, including the guide; of these, two ladies and one gentleman abandoned the saddles after the first mile, finding the seeming danger too much for their nerves, and completed the long tramp on foot.
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