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About the Yellowstone Institute

May 5, 2015

June 17-25, 2017

The Yellowstone Institute is part of the Museum’s Educators of Excellence Program, which strives to provide exceptional educators with staff development opportunities that transform the way they view and teach natural sciences. The Yellowstone Institute provides a unique opportunity for educators to learn about wildlife, geology, and conservation in America’s first national park. Follow our journey through Yellowstone’s landscape by reading our blog posts and visiting our photo gallery.


Predation Voyage

June 25, 2017

It’s our last day at Yellowstone. As usual we woke before dawn and began to open our eyes and hearts and take in all that Yellowstone had to offer. The Park did not disappoint. After driving down through Lamar Valley for many miles we noticed a line of vehicles and lenses pointed in one direction — a tell tale sign for some large animal on the prowl.


Lamar Valley at sunrise

After safely pulling over and setting up our scopes we spotted a pack of wolves. First we began to see dirt thrown up into the air with wolves hard at work digging. Then we noticed a couple of coyotes just outside the wolves reach howling in distress. We would come to learn that the wolves were digging up a coyote’s den. Though hard for many to watch, we witnessed nature at it’s most raw. The wolves dug for almost an hour until we saw them emerge from the den triumphant with several coyote pups. Coyotes are a competitor for wolves’ food and wolves have a strong dislike for coyotes in their hunting area, and will kill their competition to ensure the survival of their own pack. This was a powerful scene that we happened upon and will probably never see again.

As the afternoon arrived we took time to pause and reflect on what an amazing experience this has been. Each of us breathed in the dry air and quieted our minds and thought about everything we had learned and will carry back to our classrooms. I, for one, will be able to teach geology with more confidence, explaining different layers of sedimentary rock and how they form. I can now describe from personal experience examples of how our Earth is an ever-changing force powered by heat that shoots up hot water and sulfur dioxide when the pressure reaches a tipping point. I can describe how bison stick together as a herd protecting their calves and use their large heads and horns as an adaptation to plow through snow looking for food.


Grand Geyser

These short 10 days will forever change how we teach in the classroom. Each of us will take back pictures and stories that we will continually light up our student’s imaginations. Tales of rumbling land that erupts with boiling water, and a true American safari adventure, will fill our school halls for many years to come.


Final group meeting in Lamar Valley

Lie Down with Geysers

June 24, 2017

The day began with shouts and cries of “Hurry up!” and “Run towards the Beehive!” Many of us were unsure why we began running to see bees, but Megan and Melissa assured us that it was worth it to run and see the geyser named Beehive. After a brisk walk we made it to the river to see our first of 11 eruptions today in the Upper Geyser Basin.


Beehive Geyser eruption

While we were walking around the geysers, Ranger Rebecca joined us and was kind enough to share all of her expertise, explaining how the geyser system works and why it was so important to protect – Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world and is listed as a World Heritage Sight. She even let us help with some data collection on one of the thermal features. The geysers themselves were a continually beautiful sight. We saw geysers that produced rainbows in their sprays of water and steam, geysers that rumbled and drained the previously spewed water back down into their abyss, and even felt the deep, bass thump of some geysers.


Lion Geyser with a rainbow!

Later on, we were led to a hot spring a fair distance away from all the others. We immediately noticed its blue pool, and streams of orange flowing from it that are created by the thermophiles (heat-loving microorganisms) that live in the hot water. Megan lay down and said that it was “nap time”. Many of us reacted with curiosity, but did as we were instructed and laid down on the ground surrounding the hot spring. After only a few short seconds we soon understood our peculiar directions when we felt the ground shake beneath us. Again and again we felt the earth rumbling and thumping under us, caused by the force of small steam explosions occurring in the water column of the spring. Finally after another few bumps, we heard the gases rising up from the hot spring pool in front of us as bubbles burst at the surface. Several of us described the sensation as akin to an angry neighbor that lives the floor below you, slamming the door and stomping their feet. It was a multi-sensory experience to see, hear, feel, and smell the hot springs, one that will never be forgotten.


Geyser basin “nap time” – feeling the thumping of Black Sand Pool

In the afternoon we started heading north again towards Mammoth Hot Springs. We made several stops in other thermal basins to see dazzling pools of many colors and to learn about the mudpots at Fountain Paint Pots. One of our last activities of the day was a refreshing head dunk in the Firehole River. This woke everyone up from a long day of walking and revitalized our determination to have a spectacular last day of exploration in the park tomorrow!

Soaking in the moments

June 24, 2017

Hello from Yellowstone! We are over the halfway point and feeling a little tired but still eager to learn and experience the beauty of this place.

A quote that encapsulates the importance of soaking up this experience is by Rachel Carson; it reads, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’ ” We are soaking in every moment!

Today we started our morning at the Fishing Bridge swarmed with early morning tourists. Since arriving we have found that the southern portion of the park is flooded with people, but rightfully so because it is captivating. After snapping a few photos we quickly retreated into the woods and took a short hike around Pelican Creek Trail. We walked down to the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake and practiced with watercolor and took time to absorb the beauty of this place, just like Thomas Moran, one of the first commissioned artists to the area which would later be named Yellowstone National Park. His work piqued the interest of Congress back in 1871 and encouraged Yellowstone to become named the First National Park in the United States in 1872 under President Ulysses S. Grant.


At the shores of Pelican Creek Trail we heard the melody of the boreal chorus frog and discovered there are only 5 species of amphibians and 6 species of reptiles in Yellowstone. We would later get to see a Tiger Salamander, the only salamander in Yellowstone National Park. We were sure to use clean hands when touching the adult salamander and searched Isa Lake for more larvae and adult salamanders before departing and spending time in West Thumb.


West Thumb is well known for its many geothermal features. Today we only began to graze the surface of thermophiles and extremophiles – the heat living organisms that call the thermal features home. The depth of knowledge required to understand all of the geological features in the park is significant, but we are excited to continue to explore this topic.

The geological features come in the form of mud pots, hot springs, fumeroles (steam vents), and geysers like Old Faithful herself. Over time Old Faithful has shifted from releasing water every 60 minutes to every 90 minutes. These eruptions of water are caused by a couple of main ingredients: heat, water, and pressure. We got to observe Old Faithful this evening several times. It is majestic seeing the water disperse for more than 4 minutes. Crowds gather to watch this phenomenon!

We hope to continue to fully embrace the beauty of this place for one more full day tomorrow.


A Caldera and Crowds!

June 22, 2017

We awoke this morning to our final moments in the Lamar Valley area of Yellowstone. All of us welcomed a slightly later start: 6:30am. Once again we climbed to a high altitude where we saw evidence of the regrowth of the lodgepole pine forest after the tremendous fires of 1988. Young trees are sprouting up amongst the standing dead.

As we continued our journey, we found ourselves nearly on the rim of the caldera at Dunraven Pass, the outer edge of the great volcano that created the valley below over 600,000 years ago. At the trail on Mt. Washburn it was amazing to think back over the millions of years of geologic history beneath our feet!!

We descended into the caldera and once again experienced the incredible diversity of wildlife that Yellowstone has to offer. A few of our highlights were: a momma grizzly and her two cubs, a bald eagle, trumpeter swans, a black-necked stilt, chorus frogs (one of only five amphibians in Yellowstone), cinnamon teal, and cutthroat trout making their journey upstream to spawn.

We were stunned by the change in the human population as well. We entered a world of tour buses and crowds that we had not yet encountered on our journey. At first this was a bit disconcerting, but we embraced the human encounters and met some amazing people. A few of our new friends included Melba the wolf woman, Diane a former NC teacher who traveled to Yellowstone with the Museum in 2010 and is working in Yellowstone for the summer, and John a former teacher/principal who is now a park interpreter. We have met so many interesting people on our journey. They are almost as great as the rocks and wildlife!

Tonight we have indoor plumbing at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel, which we are truly grateful for. We are also so grateful for Melissa and Megan, our super leaders from the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

A sneak peak of what’s to come: Yellowstone is all about the ROCKS!!! Get ready for mud pots, geysers, fumaroles, and other geothermal features in days to come!

From the wolf den..

June 22, 2017

We’re having trouble connecting to the internet. We’ll post our next blog as soon as we can. Until then…

Best day ever…

June 21, 2017

“Best. Day. Ever.” This phrase has been uttered every day since the start of this trip and today was no different! We started with yet another 4:45am wake up call and headed out to hike Trout Lake. After the uphill climb we were met with a gorgeous glass top lake beautifully reflecting a backdrop of mountains and wildflowers. The lake was full of cutthroat trout, which is a native fish species in Yellowstone. Cutthroat trout populations have been decreasing in numbers since the introduction of non-native species years ago. We were lucky enough to find a healthy and thriving population of these beautiful red and yellow-spotted cutthroat in Trout Lake.

After another hearty meal (or 2) and some time to reflect about all we’ve experienced so far this week, we headed out to the valley to search for wildlife. Just a few miles down the road, we spotted a fox and her 4 kits playing about in the woods near an old building. The kits frolicked and wrestled and gave us a chuckle while we observed them. After leaving the foxes, we spotted two black bears in the tree line behind the river and spent some time watching them forage and roam through the tall grass. After they managed to wander out of sight we headed on down the road, spotting bison, mule deer and pronghorns along the way.

Finally, we picked a spot to pull off and enjoy the sunset and have our nightly team meeting. Just as we were starting our meeting we were interrupted by the sounds of a wolf pack howling right in the valley in front of us! Two wolves were on one ridge and were answered back by at least one other on an adjacent ridge. This sound is one that you will never forget. We only spotted them for a moment before they disappeared back into the trees but we were beyond thrilled to have been able to listen to them for several minutes. This was truly a magical and exciting moment for us all! This was the best day ever.

Another spectacular day…

June 21, 2017

It was an early morning start this Tuesday the 20th and we hit the road at 5 AM. We set out for the northern range of the park using our spotting scopes and searching for early morning creatures. There were a few baby bison frolicking and a wolf on the horizon.


Afterwards, we made our way out of the park and headed out to Silver Gate to meet up with Dan Hartman. As soon as we parked, Dan rushed us out of the van with a beckoning hand to climb up the hill to his house and look out his window for a treat. Smack dab in front of the window for his gallery we saw an awesome pine marten staring right back at us. This was no ordinary pine marten and we would soon come to find out that Dan Hartman was no ordinary Montanan. The pine marten that we were so lucky to see was the son of the pine martin showcased on Planet Earth. (The Forest Episode. If you have not seen it, stop what you are doing and go watch it. Go!). It turns out Dan has worked with PBS, BBC, National Geographic, and many other publications. In fact, tomorrow PBS is airing a special on Yellowstone featuring much of Dan’s work: The Great Yellowstone Thaw.


Dan and the two vans lumbered on up the mountains and headed to the Beartooth Pass. Along the way we spotted several different types of birds and a few mountain goats. We were curious about the pink snow surrounding us as we continued climbing to higher elevations. Dan assured us that we were seeing “watermelon snow” that was created from algae on the surface of the snow. We stopped so that we could smell this “watermelon snow” and see if we could recognize the fruit. No fruity aroma was detected – perhaps it just wasn’t concentrated enough? Dan regaled us with tales of close encounters with grizzlies, observing owl nests for weeks, and a few special characters he has met while living right next to Yellowstone.


Red-naped sapsucker nest that Dan found

After heading down the mountain and enjoying dinner in Cooke City, we headed back to the park and were surprised with a couple of moose (timely, as today’s blog post is being brought to you by the one and only Moose Group) and a red fox. It was another spectacular day in and around Yellowstone and we are all excited about the fun adventures ahead.



At the very end of the day, even after this blog was written, we drove back through Lamar Valley an got to experience a remarkable sunset, practically surrounded by a large herd of  bison. What an amazing way to end the day!

~Moose Group

Pikas and Prairie Smoke

June 20, 2017

Our day began at Hellroaring Trailhead where we met Youth Conservation Corps Educator and Yellowstone Park Ranger Matt Ohlen. He led our group in a citizen science survey of pikas at Floating Island Lake. Pikas are members of the rabbit family and are tailless, small, grey mammals with short round ears. Their habitat is rocky talus slopes at higher elevations.


Conducting a pika survey – we were stationed around the base of a large talus slope.

One way to know pikas are present is by finding their small, spherical scat, which sticks together to form “towers,” and haystacks, which are piles of vegetation that they make as a means of saving food for winter. Studying pikas is important because they are indicators of climate change. Pikas have a normal body temperature near 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and only a few degrees increase in their body heat can be lethal for them, so they are particularly sensitive to increasing environmental temperatures.


A pika “haystack” – a pile of grasses and plant material stashed for later use.

After a picnic lunch at Yellowstone River Picnic Trail, the group hiked up to a mountainside field of wildflowers to investigate the native flora. We studied the sticky geranium, death camas, arrowleaf balsamroot, and prairie smoke. During the 3.5-mile hike we observed a red fox, marmots, an osprey in a nest on a rock spire, a badger, and several native bird species. At the ridgeline above the Yellowstone River, we took time to reflect on a sense of purpose and a connection to our classrooms.


Observing wildflowers

A Yellowstone acrostic poem:

Yet another day
Exploring the park
Looking at land features
Leaving the daily grind behind
Observing wildlife by
Wandering off the beaten path
Seeing creatures small on the
Talus slope (Where pikas live)
Oh, the humanity distracting from it all
Never wanting to leave this place behind
Endlessly grabbing hearts and minds

All About Wildlife

June 18, 2017

What a fabulous day! Today was all about wildlife. We observed some of the members of the Prospect Peak wolf pack. Through the spotting scopes we saw one adult wolf and three pups. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with wolf biologist Kira Cassidy who shared her research on wolf behavior and how she collects that data. One interesting fact we learned is how all the adults in the pack work together to take care of the pups. Adult wolves eat their prey, return to the den site, and then regurgitate it for the pups to eat!


Learning from Kira

Right after observing the wolves we met “Bill the bear man.” Bill is a long-time volunteer bear watcher (he started in the 80’s!) and knows LOTS of information about both grizzlies and black bears in the park. He was gracious enough to let us look through his scope and we were all able to see a grizzly bear!

Our next stop with Kira was to visit the site of a series of active beaver dams and a big lodge along Crystal Creek. Here we learned about the intricate connections between species in the park – a larger wolf population increases predation and decreases the number of elk. With lower numbers of elk, willow trees are better able to regenerate and grow without being eaten. The more willows there are in wetter areas, the better the habitat becomes for beavers, who are the master architects behind many small pools and ponds. By damming creeks and reducing the speed (and sediment load) of water moving through the ecosystem, beavers create ideal habitats for many amphibians such as the boreal toad. And guess what?! We saw a boreal toad today near the beaver dam!


Beaver dam on Crystal Creek

As we headed away from Crystal Creek, a badger trotted across our path! Following it with our binoculars we were able to see it successfully corner a ground squirrel underground between two holes and the hunt was on! After several minutes of determined and coordinated digging and possible distraction at one hole with his tail, the badger successfully extracted and ate the ground squirrel! What an exciting morning! Then the clock struck 10:00am! Whew!


Hunting badger!

Throughout the day we not only witnessed wildlife, but we also we shared our experiences and connected with people young and old, from near and far, who were simply enjoying all Yellowstone has to offer. We are also glad we packed our long underwear. June in Yellowstone is a bit cooler than in NC.


Our group, out it the cool, windy weather, looking in every direction for more wildlife!

As we go to sleep tonight, and throughout this week, we will be reflecting on our conversation with Kira. She reminded us that, though it might sound a bit cliche, the Yellowstone ecosystem (and nature in general) is a bit more complicated than we might want, and it is always changing. But there is great hope in that getting to know animals helps us to build a connection to nature, and maybe even understand ourselves better. After all, we are animals too. Through these connections we begin to understand, and with understanding, we may learn to take better take care of and continue to preserve the world around us.

Today’s the day…

June 17, 2017

Today’s the day. The day we’ve all been eagerly anticipating for months. The day we willingly set our alarm clocks for 2am, drag our duffle bags to the car and drive through the night to the airport. Today we go to Yellowstone. Our eagerness is met with lines. Endless lines. Baggage check, security, boarding, un-boarding, more boarding, more lines. And in the end it’s all worth the wait: worth the o’dark thirty wake up call, worth the lines, worth the lack of sleep, worth the crowded planes. Our first views of Yellowstone are breathtaking. This truly is big sky country. Craggy mountains, snow capped and wild, wildlife at every turn; none of us can stop staring out the windows of our van in rapt attention and wonder at the sights that play out before us. Our team has not even spent 24 hours together, yet we feel a connection… with each other, with this place. We’ve already shared stories, jumped up and down excitedly while spotting our first elk, our first bison, our first ground squirrel, our first hike, our first field of wildflowers, our first geologic anomalies. We’ve already shared meals, inside jokes, and even a few heartfelt tears. Today’s the first day. Today is a day we’ll not soon forget, if ever. Today’s the day we took our first step into Yellowstone.

A cow and calf elk consider crossing the raging Gardner River… but don’t!

Stark contrasts at Narrow Gauge Terrace