Some of the geyser areas at Yellowstone might appear at first glance to be tempting natural hot tubs. On a chilly fall day, the rising steam can seem to invite a visitor to settle in for a warm bath—or at least to try the water with a toe. (Assuming, that is, said visitor can ignore the smell of sulphur and disregard the silent warnings of the dead stubs of pine trees standing with their toes in that same water.)
I’m sure somewhere in the Yellowstone thermal area are warm pools that can be and are used for relaxing soaks. They are, however, most definitely in the hidden minority. The major geyser areas are surrounded by raised wooden walkways, flanked by stern signs warning visitors not to set foot off the paths. Some of the pools are acidic enough to burn through leather and most of them are hot enough to scald. Anyone foolish enough to ignore the signs risks being badly burned or even scalded to death. This warning isn’t over-protective, either; people have died in these pools.
Still, it was ironic to notice the natural features that surrounded many of these warning signs—buffalo tracks. During colder weather, the park’s bison tend to gather near the hot springs. I don’t know whether they drink the water, which must be awful if it tastes anything like it smells, or whether they just hang out in the warmth and exchange office gossip.
One of the shallow geyser pools we saw was named "Beauty Pool." We wondered if this was where the buffalo came for beautifying mud packs. If so, we decided, it wasn’t doing much good.
We also wondered, with all the warning signs and the obvious risk to human visitors, why we didn’t see any places where half-ton bison had crashed through the crusted surface into one of the hot pools. Did we just not recognize the signs of such accidents? Do they have some instinct that warns them away from dangerous areas? Or are they just lucky?
Or maybe there is another explanation. Maybe any evidence of buffalo-steaming had been covered up. After all, most of the restaurants in Yellowstone have buffalo on their menus. That meat has to come from somewhere. You can probably order it any way you want—as long as it’s boiled.