Yellowstone: A First-Time Digital Exploration

By Terence Thomas

I’m sure there are a great number of places we have said we want to go, but never have for one reason or another. Maybe you don’t have the money, maybe you’re in the middle of a global pandemic, or maybe you’re just too lazy to leave the house. Whatever the reason, it seems as though you can always count on someone to have a substitute solution for you online. In my case, I’ve always wanted to see Yellowstone National Park for myself, but the previously stated obstacles have put a wrench in that plan. And so for this review, I will be looking back on the experiences I was able to view through the lens of the virtual tours and services offered by the U.S. National Park Service.

Video Walks

View of Upper Falls at the end of a walk

One of the activities you are able to do on the National Park Service website is take a virtual walk around some key points of the park. In particular there were four videos of walks that I viewed on the website that covered different areas of the park. The destinations of the walks were to Canary Spring, Upper Falls, Dragon’s Mouth Spring, and Lookout Point. While most of the walks ranged from around a minute and a half to two minutes, the walk to Canary Spring turned out to be the longest walk and went on for approximately ten minutes. This was filled with a few opportunities for pause in the video allowing you to take in some of the scenery’s tranquility. The juxtaposition of steam rising next to snow was quite the interesting sight and one that would not be unique to just these walks.


Old Faithful erupting on the live cam feed on February, 13th. Can you spot the spectators?

In addition to walks, the National Park Service also provides a number of webcams to record various areas about Yellowstone. In total, there are nine cameras: one live stream camera and eight static recording cameras. The live camera captures live feed of Old Faithful, one of the most consistently erupting geysers in the park. Above is a screen capture of the geyser mid-eruption as I watched and waited for the geyser following a prediction from the site. As you might expect from those experienced with the systems of geysers, the prediction I was given (2:15 MST/4:15 EST ± 10 minutes) was spot on and I was treated to an eruption that lasted for several minutes. The sight of the geyser shooting water upward and the water vaporizing as it interacts with the atmosphere felt almost as if I were watching the Earth show me a magic trick. Yet for as magical as the sight was, I must admit I was a tad disappointed by the lack of sounds from the live stream camera. I understand the elements are unpredictable and a pleasant auditory viewing will not always be possible, but in this case it truly feels as though something is missing from the complete package.

As for the static cameras, they are far less to marvel at. They are much more suited to be called security cameras than webcams that exist for the sake of entertainment. Since about half of the cameras point to entrances rather than landmarks, the pictures that are captured by the cameras end up being far less interesting.

3D Models

Screenshot of a 3D Old Faithful model + Bacteria Mat display

One of the last things I looked into on this digital tour of Yellowstone was the Yellowstone in 3D page. Here I was treated to a wealth of information regarding the many geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone. In addition to that, as I scrolled through the page, I was given a visual representation of the places I was being taught about via a built-in map giving the layout of these areas. Looking around the provided map made it much clearer to me how large the Yellowstone National Park actually is.

Following the maps are 3D Models of various geysers. The models of the geysers have an impressive looking realism to them; so much so that they could easily be mistaken for pictures of the real thing if they aren’t looked at too closely. After going through every model, the page ends explaining the purpose of the models which is to help monitor changes in the geysers and their surroundings.

End of the Tour

The very last paragraph on the 3D model page makes note of how not everyone can get to Yellowstone, and so they created the tools needed to share the experience with others. While I would not call it a perfect digital translation of the park, I can say that exploring the park using the services the U.S. National Park Service provided has allowed me to become at least a little more intimately familiar with a place I had only truly known about through word of mouth. In the past it was not so easy to simply visit a place digitally, but now that we have advanced so far, even the joy of seeing a geyser eruption live is no longer a luxury, but a simple and affordable option available to anyone who cares to see it. I am more than happy that I got to experience it for myself and perhaps someday I will be able to visit the real deal in person and compare my memories from now and then.