Geyser Basin Safety

Wyo's Geyser Pages

"So while we are loving the Yellowstone wilderness, while we play in it, indeed revel in it, taking it on its own terms and helping to protect it, we foolish mortals must always remember to respect it. For not only can it bite us, but, indeed, it can devour us"  --Lee H. Whittlesey,1995, p.198

Pools in shades of blue, green and yellow dot the Yellowstone landscape. Colorful mud bubbles like a pot of mush. These are part of the beauty of Yellowstone that has become legendary since the first mountain men told their wondrous tales. The fountaining of a geyser is a awesome and beautiful sight. But amid the beauty of Yellowstone one must remember that these wonders owe their existence to hot, sometimes very hot, scalding water. Yellowstone springs have temperatures from 150 to 210 degrees F. Though some of these thermal features are exquisitely beautiful, the hot water makes them extremely dangerous. Care should always be taken and safety should always be an issue when traveling through a thermal area such as a geyser basin. In his book Death In Yellowstone, Lee Whittlesey reports that from the time records have been kept until 1994 at least 19 deaths have occurred due to thermal burns received from falling or some cases diving into thermal features such as hot springs. He reports over a hundred injuries. Thermal injuries are reported to be extremely painful. Most of these deaths and injuries could have been avoided if these visitors or their parents would have obeyed the safety rules listed below, used common sense, and exercised caution during their visit.

Some Common Sense Rules

  1. Stay on trails and boardwalks--One of the most common thermal injuries have been sustained by people who walk off designated trails or boardwalks. Boardwalks and trails are designed to protect both the thermal feature and the visitor. Don't be fooled. What looks like solid ground may be a thin crust just above hot water or an overhanging edge of a hot pool. If your hat blows off or your guide book blows away do not attempt to recover it. They are not worth risking a thermal burn. No amount of time saved by an off-trail shortcut is worth risking a painful injury or possible death. Just use your head.

  2. Watch your children and supervise them closely. Some of the most tragic of the stories told by Lee H. Whittlesey in his book are injuries to and deaths of small children due to thermal burns. In 1936 five year old Robert Kasik, who was walking near the West Thumb Cafeteria Building (which has since been torn down) lost his balanced and slipped into a hot pool near the building's foundation. His brother tried to save him but could not . Before he was pulled out he had second and third degree burns from head to toe. He died 6 hours later in the Mammoth Hospital. ( Whittlesey, 1995, p. 13-14). Later that year a 4 year old girl running near Iron Creek in Black Sand Geyser Basin fell into hot pool and died (Whittlesey,1995, p. 14). This unfortunate tragedy has reoccurred since that time. The park staff can not remove every hazard from this natural place. PARENTS MUST WATCH AND SUPERVISE CHILDREN WELL.

  3. Never take pets, particularly dogs into thermal areas. Some dogs have an affinity for water. They jump in almost with out hesitation. In a cool lake or river it can be refreshing for the dog and his owner only gets wet. In a hot spring such a jump is deadly to the dog and sometimes his owner also. Whittlesey (p. 18) reports, that in the 1960, 3 thermal burn injuries reported were of people who tried to rescue dogs from hot springs. In addition Whittlesey (p.3) tells the story of 24 year old David Kirby who died of third degree burns he received on July 20,1981 when he dived into Celestine Pool in the Lower Geyser basin to rescue his dog. The dog was not rescued and also died. DOGS ARE NO LONGER ALLOWED IN THERMAL AREAS and must be kept on a leash elsewhere in the park. This for the safety of the dog, his owner and the protection of thermal features and wildlife.

  4. Never run on boardwalks or in areas of thermal features. Watch your step.

  5. Resist the desire to touch the water --it may be scalding. Burns have been reported to visitors' who wanted to test the water temperature by touching it. Yellowstone's water can be much hotter than your bath tub. Whittlesey (p.11) tells of George Brown of Texas who, while bending over to to see how hot the water was, toppled over head first into a hot pool at Midway Geyser Basin. He died before he got to the hospital.

  6. Be particular aware of where you are when taking pictures. The story of Fannie Weeks who backed into a spring while cleaning her glasses in 1905 ( Whittlesey, 1995, p.7-8) should be a warning to photographers also. I have seen several people taking a picture on the board walk back up with out looking and while focusing or let the camera focus. A few  of the people have stepped off or nearly stepped off the boardwalk. In the wrong place this could be very dangerous. When doing an activity in a thermal area, always watch where you are. Know what is behind you.

  7. In the same general area as knowing where you are in a geyser basin add always know where you are going. Don't walk with your head down or while doing a activity like reading a park brochure or messing with a camera. Watch out for people stopped in your way or for objects  on the boardwalk like camera bags, camera tripods, strollers, etc. A trip or fall on a boardwalk could end in a nasty injury especially if one fell off the boardwalk. With digital cameras there is a temptation to walk while looking at the last photo one took on the LCD on the back of the camera. This can be dangerous if a tripping hazard exists. I fell victim to this myself. It wasn't in a thermal area but it was in Yellowstone. In 2005 at Artist Point on the rim of the Grand Canyon I was walking in an asphalted area far from the canyon rim or any obvious hazard. I gave in to the temptation to look at the digital photo on my camera's LCD. A man darted in front of me trying to reach a child who was headed the wrong way. Without looking up I sidestepped him and tripped over a large rock the Park Service had attached to the asphalt to mark the edge of the trail. I fell, skinned my knee and arm, broke my arm  at the elbow, and broke the battery door on my camera. Many good people in the area came to help. I think I offend one kind lady by applying the band aid she gave me to my camera to keep the battery door closed rather that putting it on the bleeding wound on my arm. It was about a half day before I realized that my arm was really broken and went to the Park County Hospital in Cody WY. I had to cut my vacation short to fly home to see my Orthopedist .  I did, however, learn 2 things ( the hard way): 1- Don't walk when doing an activity like viewing a photo on a digital camera. Always watch where you are going. 2- When you think you are in a safe place away from obvious hazards, that is the time you let down your guard and do something unsafe and get hurt. Always follow safety procedure no matter how safe you feel.

  8. If the sign says it is closed, it is closed. From time to time The Park Service closes one of the trails or boardwalks in a geyser basin for safety reasons. These reasons vary from damaged trails or boardwalks to aggressive animals (usually with young ones they are protecting to unsafe hydrothermal conditions.  The trails are closed for your protection. Don't go around the signs to see " what the deal is". It is usually dangerous and you will get arrested id caught. Don't take the chance. Don't enter areas marked " closed: Dangerous Thermal  Areas". Several like this are marked along Yellowstone roads.  They too are dangerous and if caught in those areas you will most likely  be arrested.

  9. ever swim or dive into thermal pools. Duh... not rocket science but you would be surprised by the number of people who have been injured or killed when they mistook a hot pool for a warm one in which they thought they could swim. Swimming in warm pools is foolhardy, illegal and damages the thermal features. Swimming in a hot pool can be down right deadly.

  10. In the back- country areas beware of thermal features. Always hike with a companion. Always tell another party where you are headed. Stay a safe distance from thermal features. Beware thin crust and overhangs on pools. Give springs a wide berth. These rules will help protect you in backcountry area. 

"Injuries and deaths in Yellowstone's hot springs are sobering and scary. Hot Springs injuries probably number a hundred or more. I cannot emphasize enough to parents that they must hold fast to their children when walking around Yellowstone's thermal areas. As a four-year-old I was led around Yellowstone on a rope. I remember resenting the leash my parents put on me, but my father was very aware of hot springs and I may be still alive because of it. Visitors must never travel off trail in thermal areas, and all persons must exercise reasonable care when traveling through any thermal area. Heart wrenching events such as those chronicled here should teach us at least that". Lee Whittlesey, (1995), p.29.

Examples for this page from Lee Whittlesey's book, Death In Yellowstone. Though the title is morbid it is a must read for Yellowstone Explorers. From the heart wrenching and sometimes horrifying stories we can learn how to avoid danger and safely enjoy the wonders of Yellowstone.

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Last Updated 03/13/06