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In 1872, The New York Times described the contemporary fascination with these ‘extraordinary and sometimes terrible manifestations of nature’, though back then they didn’t know the half of it. Only in recent decades have researchers established that the 40-mile circular area encompassing the world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, is a gigantic caldera – the collapsed cone of a super-volcano. Yellowstone erupts on average once every 650,000 years, in the process entombing half a continent under many feet of ash, and pitching the entire planet into a dark and poisoned volcanic winter. It last did so 640,000 years ago.

This knowledge lends a touch of portent to my tour of the park’s magma-related wonders. Old Faithful does its job, firing a glittering hot sheaf of water 30 metres into the blue sky before an amphitheatre of camcorders. More compelling are the sprawling geothermal areas of Norris and Grand Prismatic, boiled and flatulent prog-rock moonscapes fringed by sickly pines – both a retrospective of how Earth began and perhaps a preview of its apocalyptic end. No natural wonders are more gloriously unnatural: the crusted oranges and iridescent blues look as pure and wholesome as the run-off from a battery factory, with a reek to match.

Yellowstone’s administrators were oblivious to the park’s non-volcanic treasures until the late 1880s, when America abruptly woke up to the consequences of its rapacity. Ancient forests were disappearing across the nation and entire species were pushed to the brink of extinction – after more than two decades of unfettered slaughter, the native bison population had been reduced from countless millions to less than 1,000. ‘That’s always been the American way,’ says regular visitor and amateur naturalist Stacey Allen, peering through an enormous spotting scope across a flood plain dotted with browsing four-legged Chewbaccas. ‘We’re a country rich in resources and it’s still in our pioneering psyche to want to grab and exploit them to the full. It took real courage to draw a line in the sand here and say “enough”.’

By ring-fencing its volcanic attractions, the park’s directors had accidentally created a huge and suddenly rare nature reserve. To safeguard it against poachers, the military were brought in. In 1916, with a world war to fight and a massive surge of motoring tourists in Ford Model Ts to marshal, the army gave way to the newly created National Park Service. Today, the NPS oversees 58 national parks, from Alaska to Hawaii, together encompassing an area twice the size of England and attracting 300 million visitors annually. With its fleet of Toyota Priuses and a slavish devotion to recycling, the NPS is now a beacon in the smoggy gloom that enshrouds US environmental awareness, but its ecological stewardship took a while to mature. Yellowstone’s grizzlies were still leading the Yogi Bear life until the ’70s, being fed from car windows and encouraged to scavenge at hotel rubbish dumps for the entertainment of guests. Permitted fishing practice has only recently moved from ‘hook and cook’ to ‘catch and release’, and forest fires that were once hastily extinguished are now left to burn as part of the park’s natural regenerative life cycle. Half the hillsides are stacked with the blackened pine flagpoles left by a huge blaze back in 1988. Wolves, having been systematically eliminated, were reintroduced in 1995 – a missing link in a food chain then topped by the coyotes that were killing off the park’s pronghorn antelope.

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