Wonders of the Yellowstone - James Richardson - ebook
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In the northwest corner of the Territory of Wyoming, about half way between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, and in the same latitude as the State of New York, the grand Rocky Mountain system culminates in a knot of peaks and ranges enclosing the most remarkable lake basin in the world. From this point radiate the chief mountain ranges, and three of the longest rivers of the Continent—the Missouri, the Columbia, and the Colorado.On the south are the Wind River Mountains, a snow-clad barrier which no white man has ever crossed. On the east is the Snowy Mountain Range, and the grand cluster of volcanic peaks between it and Yellowstone Lake. On the west is the main divide of the Rocky Mountains. On the north are the bold peaks of the Gallatin Range, and the parallel ridges which give a northward direction to all the great tributaries of the Missouri from this region.Set like a gem in the centre of this snow-rimmed crown of the continent, is the loveliest body of fresh water on the globe, its dark-blue surface at an elevation greater than that of the highest clouds that fleck the azure sky of a summer's day, over the tops of the loftiest mountains of the East. Its waters teem with trout, and the primeval forests that cover the surrounding country are crowded with game. But these are the least of its attractions. It is the wildness and grandeur of the enclosing mountain scenery, and still more the curious, beautiful, wonderful and stupendous natural phenomena which characterize the region, that have raised it to sudden fame, and caused it to be set apart by our national government as a grand national play-ground and museum of unparalleled, indeed incomparable, marvels, free to all men for all time.

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James Richardson

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Table of contents

CHAPTER I.

CHAPTER II.

CHAPTER III.

CHAPTER IV.

CHAPTER V.

CHAPTER VI.

CHAPTER VII.

CHAPTER VIII.

CHAPTER IX.

CHAPTER X.

CHAPTER XI.

CHAPTER XII.

CHAPTER XIII.

CHAPTER XIV.

CHAPTER XV.

CHAPTER XVI.

FOOTNOTE

CHAPTER I.

THE CROWN OF THE CONTINENT.In the northwest corner of the Territory of Wyoming, about half way between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, and in the same latitude as the State of New York, the grand Rocky Mountain system culminates in a knot of peaks and ranges enclosing the most remarkable lake basin in the world. From this point radiate the chief mountain ranges, and three of the longest rivers of the Continent—the Missouri, the Columbia, and the Colorado.On the south are the Wind River Mountains, a snow-clad barrier which no white man has ever crossed. On the east is the Snowy Mountain Range, and the grand cluster of volcanic peaks between it and Yellowstone Lake. On the west is the main divide of the Rocky Mountains. On the north are the bold peaks of the Gallatin Range, and the parallel ridges which give a northward direction to all the great tributaries of the Missouri from this region.Set like a gem in the centre of this snow-rimmed crown of the continent, is the loveliest body of fresh water on the globe, its dark-blue surface at an elevation greater than that of the highest clouds that fleck the azure sky of a summer's day, over the tops of the loftiest mountains of the East. Its waters teem with trout, and the primeval forests that cover the surrounding country are crowded with game. But these are the least of its attractions. It is the wildness and grandeur of the enclosing mountain scenery, and still more the curious, beautiful, wonderful and stupendous natural phenomena which characterize the region, that have raised it to sudden fame, and caused it to be set apart by our national government as a grand national play-ground and museum of unparalleled, indeed incomparable, marvels, free to all men for all time.Evidences of ancient volcanic action on the grandest scale are so abundant and striking throughout the lake basin, that it has been looked upon as the remains of a mammoth crater, forty miles across. It seems, however, to have been rather the focus of a multitude of craters. "It is probable," says the United States geologist, Dr. Hayden, with his usual caution, "that during the Pliocene period the entire country drained by the sources of the Yellowstone and the Columbia was the scene of volcanic activity as great as that of any portion of the globe. It might be called one vast crater, made up of a thousand smaller volcanic vents and fissures, out of which the fluid interior of the earth, fragments of rock and volcanic dust, were poured in unlimited quantities. Hundreds of the nuclei or cones of these volcanic vents are now remaining, some of them rising to a height of 10,000 to 11,000 feet above the sea. Mounts Doane, Longford, Stevenson, and more than a hundred other peaks, may be seen from any high point on either side of the basin, each of which formed a centre of effusion."All that is left of the terrific forces which threw up these lofty mountains and elevated the entire region to its present altitude, now finds issue in occasional earthquake shocks, and in the innumerable hot springs and geysers, whose description makes up so large a portion of this book of wonders. Nowhere else in the world can the last-named phenomena be witnessed on so grand a scale, in such limitless variety, or amid scenes so marvellous in beauty, so wild and unearthly in savage grandeur, so fascinating in all that awes or attracts the lover of the curious, the wonderful, the magnificent in nature.

CHAPTER II.

FIRST EXPLORATIONS.In their exploration of the headwaters of the Missouri in the summer of 1805, the heroic Captains Lewis and Clarke discovered and named the three terminal branches of that river—the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin; then ascending the first named to its springs among the Rocky Mountains, they crossed the lofty ridge of the divide and pursued their investigations along the Columbia to the sea. The following summer they returned, separately exploring the two main branches of the Great River of the Northwest, each perpetuating the name and fame of his brother explorer by calling a river after him. Ascending the southern, or Lewis Fork, Captain Clarke recrossed the mountains to Wisdom River, (a branch of the Jefferson,) then traversed the country of the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin to the Rochejaune, or Yellowstone, which he followed to its junction with the Missouri, where he rejoined Captain Lewis. The map of the country explored by these brave men, makes the source of the Yellowstone a large lake, doubtless from information received from the Indians, but they seem to have heard nothing of the marvels along the upper reaches of the river and around the lake from which it flows.In later years—especially after the discovery of the Montana gold-mines had drawn to the upper valleys of the Missouri an adventurous, gold-seeking population, who scoured the mountains in all directions—rumors of burning plains, spouting springs, great lakes and other natural wonders, came down from the unknown regions up the Yellowstone. And not content with these, the imagination was freely drawn on, and the treasure valleys of the Arabian Nights were rivalled, if not reproduced. Our over-venturous party, hotly pursued by Indians, escaped, report said, by travelling night after night by the brilliant light of a huge diamond providentially exposed on a mountain. A lost trapper turned up after protracted wandering in this mysterious region, his pockets stuffed with nuggets of gold gathered in a stream which he could never find again. More astounding still was a valley which instantly petrified whatever entered it. Rabbits and sage-hens, even Indians were standing about there, like statuary, among thickets of petrified sage-brush, whose stony branches bore diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other gems by the thousand, as large as walnuts. "I tell you, sir," said one who had been there, to Colonel Raynolds, "it is true, for I gathered a quart myself and sent them down the country."The first earnest attempt to explore the valley of the upper Yellowstone was made in 1859, by Colonel Raynolds, of the Corps of Engineers. His expedition passed entirely around the Yellowstone basin, but could not penetrate it. In his report to the War Department, he says:"It was my original desire to go from the head of Wind River to the head of the Yellowstone, keeping on the Atlantic slope, thence down the Yellowstone, passing the lake, and across by the Gallatin to the three forks of the Missouri. Bridger said at the outset that this would be impossible, and that it would be necessary to cross over to the headwaters of the Columbia and back again to the Yellowstone. I had not previously believed that crossing the main crest twice would be more easily accomplished than the transit over what was in effect only a spur; but the view from our first camp settled the question adversely to my opinion at once. Directly across our route lies a basaltic ridge, rising not less than 5,000 feet above us, its walls apparently vertical, with no visible pass or even cañon. On the opposite side of this are the headwaters of the Yellowstone. Bridger remarked triumphantly and forcibly on reaching this spot, 'I told you you could not go through. A bird can't fly over that without taking a supply of grub along.' I had no reply to offer, and mentally conceded the accuracy of the information of 'the old man of the mountains.' * * * * *"After this obstacle had thus forced us over on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, an effort was made to recross and reach the district in question, but although it was June, the immense body of snow baffled all our exertions, and we were compelled to content ourselves with listening to marvellous tales of burning plains, immense lakes, and boiling springs, without being able to verify these wonders. I know of but two white men who claim to ever have visited this part of the Yellowstone Valley—James Bridger and Robert Meldrum. The narratives of both these men are very remarkable, and Bridger, in one of his recitals, described an immense boiling spring, that is a perfect counterpart of the Geysers of Iceland. As he is uneducated, and had probably never heard of the existence of such natural marvels elsewhere, I have little doubt that he spoke of that which he had actually seen. The burning plains described by these men may be volcanic, or, more probably, burning beds of lignite similar to those on Powder River, which are known to be in a state of ignition.... Had our attempt to enter this district been made a month later in the season, the snow would have mainly disappeared, and there would have been no insurmountable obstacles to overcome."I cannot doubt, therefore, that at no very distant day the mysteries of this region will be fully revealed, and though small in extent, I regard the valley of the upper Yellowstone as the most interesting unexplored district of our widely expanded country."Ten years after Colonel Raynolds's unsuccessful attempt to solve the problem of the Yellowstone, a small party under Messrs. Cook and Folsom ascended the river to the lake, and crossed over the divide into the Geyser Basin of the Madison. No report, we believe, was published of their discoveries. At any rate, the general public were indebted for their first knowledge of the marvels of this region to an expedition organized in the summer of 1870 by some of the officials and leading citizens of Montana. This company, led by General Washburn, the Surveyor-General of the Territory, and accompanied by a small escort of United States cavalry under Lieutenant G. C. Doane, left Fort Ellis toward the latter part of August, and entered the valley of Yellowstone River on the 23d. During the next thirty days they explored the cañons of the Yellowstone and the shores of Yellowstone Lake; then crossing the mountains to the headwaters of the Madison, they visited the geyser region of Firehole River, and ascended that stream to its junction with the Madison, along whose valley they returned to civilization, confident, as their historian wrote, that they had seen "the greatest wonders on the Continent," and "convinced that there was not on the globe another region where, within the same limits, nature had crowded so much of grandeur and majesty, with so much of novelty and wonder."Mr. Langford's account of this expedition, published in the second volume of Scribner's Monthly, and the report of Lieutenant Doane, printed some time after by the United States Government, (Ex. Doc. No. 51, 41st Congress,) gave to the world the first authentic information of the marvels of this wonderful region. Though their route lay through a terrible wilderness, and most of the party were but amateur explorers at best, only one (Mr. Everts) met with a serious mishap. This gentleman's story of his separation from the company, and his thirty-seven days of suffering and perilous wandering, is one of the most thrilling chapters of adventure ever written.The path fairly broken, and the romance of the Yellowstone shown to have a substantial basis in reality, it was not long before others were ready to explore more fully the magnificent scenery and the strange and peculiar phenomena described by the adventurers of 1870. As soon as the following season was sufficiently advanced to admit of explorations among the mountains, the Chief Engineer of the Military Department of the Missouri, Brevet Colonel John W. Barlow, set out for a two months' survey of the Yellowstone Basin, under special orders from General Sheridan. His route lay along the river to the lake; thence along the northern shore of the lake to the hot springs on its western bank; thence across the mountains westward to the Geyser Basins of Firehole River, which he ascended to its source in Madison Lake; thence to Heart Lake, the source of Snake River; thence across the mountains to Bridger's Lake, in the valley of the Upper Yellowstone. Descending this stream to where it enters Yellowstone Lake, he returned by the east shore of the lake to Pelican Creek; thence across the country to the Falls of the Yellowstone; thence over the mountains to the East Fork of the Yellowstone, which he followed to its junction with the main stream.In the meantime, a large and thoroughly-organized scientific party, under Dr. F. V. Hayden, U. S. geologist, were making a systematic survey of the region traversed by Colonel Barlow. The work done by this party is briefly summarized by Dr. Hayden as follows:"From Fort Ellis, we passed eastward over the divide, between the drainage of the Missouri and Yellowstone, to Bottlers' Ranch. Here we established a permanent camp, leaving all our wagons and a portion of the party. A careful system of meteorological observations was kept at this locality for six weeks. From Bottlers' Ranch we proceeded up the valley of the Yellowstone, surveyed the remarkable hot springs on Gardiner's River, The Grand Cañon, Tower Falls, Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, thence into the basin proper, prepared charts of all the Hot Spring groups, which were very numerous, and continued up the river to the lake. We then commenced a systematic survey of the lake and its surroundings. Mr. Schönborn, with his assistant, made a careful survey of the lake and the mountains from the shore, and Messrs. Elliott and Carrington surveyed and sketched its shore-lines from the water in a boat. Careful soundings were also made, and the greatest depth was found to be three hundred feet. From the lake I proceeded, with Messrs. Schönborn, Peale, and Elliott to the Firehole Valley, by way of East Fork of the Madison; then ascended the Firehole Valley. We made careful charts of the Lower and Upper Geyser Basin, locating all the principal springs, and determining their temperatures. We then returned over the mountains by way of the head of Firehole River, explored Madison Lake, Heart Lake, etc. After having completed our survey of the lake, we crossed over to the headwaters of the East Fork by way of the valley of Pelican Creek, explored the East Fork to its junction with the main Yellowstone, and thence to Bottlers' Ranch, which we reached on the 28th of August. From this place we passed down the Yellowstone, through the lower cañon, to the mouth of Shield's River, to connect our work with that of Colonel Wm. F. Raynolds, in 1860. From there we returned to Fort Ellis."It is safe to say that no exploring expedition on this continent ever had a more interesting field of investigation, or ever studied so many grand, curious and wonderful aspects of nature in so short a time.

CHAPTER III.

FORT ELLIS TO BOTTLERS' RANCH.

The Yellowstone tourist leaves the confines of civilization at Fort Ellis. This frontier military post, situated near the head of the beautiful and fertile valley of the East Gallatin, commands the valleys of the Yellowstone and the three forks of the Missouri—the finest and most productive portion of Montana. On the east and north are ranges of hills and mountains which form the divide between the waters of the Yellowstone and the Missouri. On the south and west, the beautiful Valley of the Gallatin. Abundant vegetation, beautiful scenery, streams of pure water flowing down the mountain-sides and across the plains on every hand, and a climate that can hardly be surpassed in any country, combine to make this pleasant station one of the most charming places on the continent.

For the first six miles the road from Fort Ellis to the wonder-land of the Yellowstone Valley follows the general course of the East Gallatin, up steep acclivities and through the defiles of a hilly country to the crest of the divide. The road here takes advantage of a natural pass between hills that rise from six hundred to twelve hundred feet above the road, itself considerably more elevated than the summit of the White Mountains. From the tops of the hills on either side the view is wonderfully fine in every direction. To the west lies the Gallatin Valley, with its cordon of snow-capped peaks, its finely-timbered water courses, and its long, grassy declivities, dotted with the habitations of pioneers, and blooming with the fruits of industry. To the eastward lies the beautiful Valley of the Yellowstone, not yet laid under tribute to man. On the further side of this valley—the bed of an ancient lake—the eye takes in at a glance one of the most symmetrical and remarkable ranges of mountains in all the West. Indeed, Dr. Hayden says, in describing them:

"Several of my party who had visited Europe regarded this range as in no way inferior in beauty to any in that far-famed country. A series of cone-shaped peaks, looking like gigantic pyramids, are grouped along the east side of the valley for thirty or forty miles, with their bald, dark summits covered with perpetual snow, the vegetation growing thinner and smaller as we ascend the almost vertical sides, until, long before reaching the summits, it has entirely disappeared. On all sides deep gorges have been gashed out by aqueous forces cutting through the very core of the mountains, and forming those wonderful gulches which only the hardy and daring miner has ventured to explore. This range, which is called on the maps Snowy Mountains, forms the great water-shed between two portions of the Yellowstone River, above and below the first cañon, and gives origin to some of the most important branches of that river. From the summit of Emigrant Peak, one of the highest of these volcanic cones, one great mass of these basaltic peaks can be seen as far as the eye can reach, rising to the height of 10,000 to 11,000 feet above the sea. Emigrant Peak, the base of which is cut by the Yellowstone River, is 10,629 feet above tide-water, while the valley plain near Bottlers' Ranch, on the opposite side of the river, was found to be 5,925 feet. This splendid group of peaks rises 5,000 feet and upward above the valley of the Yellowstone."

About three miles from the divide the road strikes the valley of Trail Creek, a small-sized trout-stream of great clearness and purity, flowing southeastward to the Yellowstone, between high hills wooded at the summits. Approaching the river, the country becomes more and more volcanic in appearance, masses of basaltic lava cropping out from the high ridges on the right and left. Many of these masses show a perpendicular front of several hundred feet, with projections resembling towers, castles and the like. Several miles away on the right, is Pyramid Mountain, a snow-capped peak. Farther to the south is a long range of mountains, also covered with snow, even in midsummer.

On the left of the valley the foot hills bear abundant verdure, the highest summits being covered with a vigorous growth of pines. Trail Creek enters the Yellowstone about thirty miles from Fort Ellis. Ten miles further up the Yellowstone is Bottlers' Ranch, the last abode of civilized man in this direction.

The Bottler brothers, who have established themselves here, belong to that numerous class of pioneers who are satisfied only when their field of operation is a little in advance of civilization, exposed to privation and danger, yet possessing advantages for hunting, trapping and fishing not enjoyed by men content to dwell in safety. These, however are not their only occupations. They have under cultivation large fields of wheat, potatoes and other crops, possess extensive herds of cattle, and make large quantities of butter, for which they find a ready market in the mining camps of Emigrant Gulch across the river, which at this point is a very rapid stream, about three hundred feet wide and four feet deep on the riffles at low water.

Of this part of the valley Dr. Hayden says: "It is about fifteen miles long, and will average three miles in width; it is well watered, soil fertile, and in every respect one of the most desirable portions of Montana. We may not look for any districts favorable for agriculture in the Yellowstone Valley above the second cañon; but this entire lake basin seems admirably adapted for grazing and for the cultivation of the usual crops of the country. The cereals and the roots have already been produced in abundance, especially wheat and potatoes. The mountains on either side are covered with snow, to a greater or less extent, all the year, which in melting feeds the numerous little streams that flow down the mountain-sides in the Yellowstone. Hundreds of springs flow out of the terraces. One terrace near Bottlers' Ranch gives origin to fifty springs within a mile, and then, all aggregating together in the river bottom, form a large stream. Thus there is the greatest abundance of water for irrigation, or for any of the purposes of settlement. The elevation of the valley at this ranch is 4,925 feet, and this may be regarded as the average in altitude. But a small portion of it is occupied as yet, but the time is not far distant when the valley will be covered with fine farms and the hills with stock. It will always be a region of interest, from the fact that it is probably the upper limit of agricultural effort in the Yellowstone Valley."

CHAPTER IV.

BOTTLERS' RANCH TO GARDINER'S RIVER.

At Bottlers' Ranch the wagon road terminates. For the first ten miles beyond, the trail runs along the west bank of the river through the wildest imaginable scenery of rock, river and mountain. The path is narrow, rocky and uneven, frequently leading over steep hills of considerable height. From the top of one of these, a bold mountain spur coming down to the water's edge, the view up the valley is very fine, embracing the river fringed with cottonwoods, the foot hills covered with luxuriant, many-tinted herbage, and over all the snow-crowned summits of the distant mountains. Above this point the valley opens out to a "bottom" of large extent and great beauty. Across the river the steep lava mountains come close to the stream, their lofty fronts covered with stunted timber. A large portion of the bottom land is subject to overflow by the numerous mountain streams that come in from the right, and bears an abundance of grass, in many places waist high. The river is skirted with shrubbery and cedars, the latter having thick trunks, too short for ordinary lumber, yet of beautiful grain for small cabinet work, and susceptible of exquisite finish.

At the head of this valley is the second cañon of the Yellowstone, granite walls rising on either side to the height of a thousand feet or more, and the river dashing through the narrow gorge with great velocity. Seen from the lofty mountain spur over which the trail is forced to pass, the bright green color of the water, and the numerous ripples, capped with white foam, as the roaring torrent rushes around and over the multitude of rocks that have fallen from above into the channel, present a most picturesque appearance. Above the cañon, which is about a mile in length, the valley widens slightly, then narrows so as to compel the traveller to cross a ridge, on whose summit lies a beautiful lake. Descending to the valley again the road traverses a tract of level bottom land, a mile or two wide, covered with a heavy growth of sage-brush. Throughout all this portion of its course, the Yellowstone is abundantly stocked with trout of the largest variety known this side the Rocky Mountains.

Some ten miles above the second cañon on the edge of the river valley is Cinnabar Mountain, whose weather-beaten side presents one of the most singular freaks of nature in the world. Two parallel vertical walls of rock, fifty feet wide, traverse the mountain from base to summit, and project to the height of three hundred feet for a distance of fifteen hundred feet. The sides are as even as if wrought by line and plumb. The rock between the walls and on either side has been completely worn away. Speaking of this curious formation, Mr. Langford says:

"We had seen many of the capricious works wrought by erosion upon the friable rocks of Montana, but never before upon so majestic a scale. Here an entire mountain-side, by wind and water, had been removed, leaving as the evidences of their protracted toil these vertical projections, which, but for their immensity, might as readily be mistaken for works of art as of nature. Their smooth sides, uniform width and height, and great length, considered in connection with the causes which had wrought their insulation, excited our wonder and admiration. They were all the more curious because of their dissimilarity to any other striking objects in natural scenery that we had ever seen or heard of. In future years, when the wonders of the Yellowstone are incorporated into the family of fashionable resorts, there will be few of its attractions surpassing in interest this marvellous freak of the elements."

According to the observations of Dr. Hayden, the mountain is formed of alternate beds of sandstone, limestone, and quartzites, elevated to a nearly vertical position by those internal forces which acted in ages past to lift the mountain ranges to their present heights. Standing at the base and looking up the sides of the mountain, the geologist could not but be filled with wonder at the convulsions which threw such immense masses of rocks into their present position. Ridge after ridge extends down the steep sides of the mountain like lofty walls, the intervening softer portions having been washed away, leaving the harder layers projecting far above. In one place the rocks incline in every possible direction, and are crushed together in the utmost confusion. Between the walls at one point is a band of bright brick-red clay, which has been mistaken for cinnabar, and hence the name Cinnabar Mountain. The most conspicuous ridge is composed of basalt, which must have been poured out on the surface when all the rocks were in a horizontal position. For reasons best known to himself, one of the first explorers of this region gave these parallel ridges the title of "Devil's Slide."

"The suggestion was unfortunate," writes the historian of the Expedition, "as, with more reason perhaps, but with no better taste, we frequently had occasion to appropriate other portions of the person of his Satanic Majesty, or of his dominion, in signification of the varied marvels we met with. Some little excuse may be found for this in the fact that the old mountaineers and trappers who preceded us had been peculiarly lavish in the use of the infernal vocabulary. Every river and glen and mountain had suggested to their imaginations some fancied resemblance to portions of a region which their pious grandmothers had warned them to avoid. It is common for them, when speaking of this region, to designate portions of its physical features, as "Firehole Prairie,"—the "Devil's Den,"—"Hell Roaring River," etc.—and these names, from a remarkable fitness of things, are not likely to be speedily superseded by others less impressive."

These "impressive" titles stand in curious contrast with the fanciful names bestowed in this region by Capts. Lewis and Clarke,—Wisdom River, Philosophy River, Philanthropy Creek, and the like.

From the Devil's Slide to the mouth of Gardiner's River, twelve miles, the ground rises rapidly, passing from a dead level alkali plain, to a succession of plateaus covered slightly with a sterile soil. Evidences of volcanic action begin to be frequent: old craters converted into small lakes appear here and there, prettily fringed with vegetation, and covered with waterfowl. Scattered over the hills and through the valleys are numerous beautiful specimens of chalcedony and chips of obsidian. Many of the chalcedonies are geodes, in which are crystals of quartz; others contain opal in the centre and agate on the exterior; and still others have on the outside attached crystals of calcite.

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CHAPTER V.

HOT SPRINGS OF GARDINER'S RIVER.

Ten miles above the Devil's Slide, Gardiner's River, a mountain torrent twenty yards wide, cuts through a deep and gloomy gorge and enters the Yellowstone at the lower end of the Third Cañon.

At this point the Yellowstone shrinks to half its usual size, losing itself among huge granite boulders, which choke up the stream and create alternate pools and rapids, crowded with trout. Worn into fantastic forms by the washing water, these immense rock masses give an aspect of peculiar wildness to the scenery. But the crowning wonder of this region is the group of hot springs on the slope of a mountain, four miles up the valley of Gardiner's River. The first expedition passed on without seeing them, but they could not escape the vigilance of the scientific company that followed.