Yellowstone Thermal Features: Backcountry Safety

Most Yellowstone backpackers, particularly novices, focus their fears mainly upon bears, though driving to the trailhead is the biggest hazard of backpacking in Yellowstone. Yet one of the most underrated dangers is the park’s thermal areas. Yellowstone National Park has the greatest concentration of hot springs, geysers, boiling mud pots and other related manifestations of the crustal hot spot that fuels this underground cauldron. In the developed parts of the park, safety is simple: stay on the designated routes and boardwalks. Or risk either a citation or breaking through the mineral crust to your par-boiled demise!

However, in the wilds, away from the roads and tourists, you are on your own to exhibit common sense. There are no boardwalks and no park rangers regularly patrolling to keep the humans in line. And there have been a surprising number of fatalities, including some in which bathers simply misjudged the water temperature and plunged in to their death. Not a pleasant way to go, I’m sure. And worthy of a “Darwin Award”. Keep in mind that it is illegal to bathe in hot springs that aren’t at least partially diluted by another water source. And the best way to stay safe is to simply limit your bathing to known hot pools that receive regular use and carefully test the water temperature anyway, because many thermal features have big temperature fluctuations.

When exploring thermal areas while hiking on a Yellowstone backpack trip, be extra observant. Geysers expel dangerously hot water, so keep your distance. In order to avoid an inadvertent fatal dunking, simply stay on the trails and do not wonder onto the crust! I cannot over-emphasize the danger of thermal crusts. Just stay off of them, period, no exceptions! So now you are prepared to enjoy this marvel of nature. Go for it; the backcountry thermals await. But explore these Yellowstone wonders with safety in mind, so that park rangers never have to retrieve any more human remains from the boiling waters of the world’s first national park.

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