Old Faithful has a new neighbor.
On Wednesday the doors will open to the $27 million Old Faithful Visitor Education Center during a public dedication ceremony (11 a.m. CDT), just a short walk from Yellowstone National Park's most famous geothermal feature.
The new facility, on the same site formerly occupied by a past Old Faithful visitor center (built in 1971), includes more than 20 exhibit areas, including a Young Scientist Room. This hands-on exhibit encourages visitors to handle, even climb on, displays that explain how and why geysers erupt. A mini faux geyser, complete with pressure gauges and other interpretive aids, will spout about every 30 minutes.
Other educational exhibits explain such oddities as:
• Microscopic organisms that live, even flourish, in geothermally heated water
• The large number of tiny earthquakes that occur, usually imperceptibly, in Yellowstone each year
OK, why do some many little quakes rattle Yellowstone? Christine Weinheimer, director of communications for the nonprofit Yellowstone Park Foundation (which raised $15 million in private donations for the new center; federal funding provided an additional $12 million), offers this explanation:
"Yellowstone sits within the Intermountain Seismic Belt, a zone of earthquake activity that runs north-south from northwestern Montana, through Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, and southern Nevada/northern Arizona. Yellowstone also is an active volcano, and surface features such as geysers and hot springs are direct results of the region’s underlying volcanism. The combination of the Seismic Belt and Yellowstone’s active volcano creates forces that sometimes fracture the ground. Therefore tectonic quakes, which are usually caused by the movement of rocks along a fault, are common in Yellowstone."
Boy, I feel smarter already. If Yellowstone is not on your to-visit list in the near future, you can tour the new education center via the Old Faithful Virtual Visitor Center. Pretty neat.
I was in Yellowstone earlier this month. I usually prefer little-visited backcountry zones, yet I contentedly spent a full day meandering through the highly popular Upper Geyser Basin (home of Old Faithful and several of its high-flying cousins), shoulder-to-shoulder with the clean-shaven, freshly scrubbed day trippers. If you have sufficient time and patience, I recommend plotting out an itinerary that revolves around hard-to-predict Grand Geyser (which could blow any time during a 4-hour span) while also working in Daisy and Riverside. All 3 are excellent, particularly Grand. If you're lucky, the strangely sculpted Grotto Geyser, with no regular eruption intervals, will spout off as well.
Wednesday's ceremony will include a keynote speech by author and park historian Paul Schullery, a featured personality in the Ken Burns national park TV series. Also on hand: National Park Service director Jon Jarvis, assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland and Yellowstone superintendent Suzanne Lewis, who in 2002 became he park's first female superintendent.
• The new center occupies 26,000 square feet, more than doubling the old visitor center's exhibit space (10,000 square feet).
• The center becomes Yellowstone's largest as well as newest visitor center, supplanting the center at Canyon (23,000 square feet; opened in 2006).
• Built with the goal of saving energy and resources, the new facility will be one of the first visitor centers in the National Park System to achieve gold LEED certification. (LEED = Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) Noteworthy: The building is built on a shallow foundation, and its first floor is heavily insulated -- both to avoid impacting the park's underground hydrothermal system. No geothermal heat is used here, also to avoid impact on the geyser basin.
• Did you know: The boardwalk around Old Faithful is plastic lumber manufactured from approximately 3 million recycled milk jugs.
• An expanded list of ranger-led activities (hikes, talks, even a Wildlife Olympics) is scheduled for Wednesday, beginning after the dedication ceremony.
• Yellowstone's neighbor to the south, Grand Teton National Park, opened its new, 25,000-quare-foot visitor's center on Aug. 11, 2007. Leslie Mattson, president of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, says the center's "video river" (viewing screens embedded into the center's floor, showcasing the people, scenery and preservation of the park) is a first-of-its-kind display, showing images captured by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker David Vassar (Backcountry Pictures, Inc.).
• Why open the new center on a Wednesday? Aug. 25 marks the 94th anniversary of the National Park Service. Described as "America's best idea," the Service turns 100 in 2016.