Photo courtesy of NPS / Neal Herbert / Illustration by M.E. Brown
Yellowstone’s devilish reputation.
BY EDNOR THERRIAULT
How do you describe a place that’s indescribable? If you’re a mountain man, circa 1825, who’s stumbled upon the otherworldly landscape of the Yellowstone plateau, your frame of reference is largely religious. Whereas many of us Yellowstone buffs today call the park “heaven,” famed Montana trapper Jim Bridger went the other direction, describing it as “the place where Hell bubbled up.” The imagery stuck.
Trappers, traders and explorers who blazed new trails into the American West in the early 1800s were notorious for tall tales and embellishments in the stories they sent back East, and Bridger, a contemporary of Hugh Glass, John Colter and other celebrated frontiersmen of the era, saved some of his wildest “alternative facts” for Yellowstone.
The namesake for Bridger Canyon, Bridger Bowl and countless other locales, wrote of angling for trout in Yellowstone Lake and pulling them through a section of superheated water, yanking fully cooked fish ashore. He also claimed to have shot an elk near Obsidian Cliff and upon approaching the beast, which never moved a muscle, discovered that it was made of glass; obsidian, perhaps cleaved from the cliff. One wonders if Bridger’s mind had become warped from being too long in the wilderness, or maybe he’d scooped the wrong mushrooms into his larder.
Bridger wasn’t the only early European-American explorer to ascribe qualities of Hades to Yellowstone’s unique geothermal character. Anything that looked like it had escaped from the depths of hell must have belonged, of course, to the Devil. By the time Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, the names of 60 places contained the word “devil,” and four had the word “hell.” Zero features contained the word “heaven.”
Looking for Devil’s Den? Maybe that’s where you’d find Devil’s Inkstand. Perhaps to get there you’d climb Devil’s Stairway and take Devil’s Cut to the Devil’s Slide. Actually, the Devil’s Slide is located just outside the park, on the other side of Devil’s Gate. Early on, the park seemed to contain more devils than a New Jersey hockey rink.
Historians believe that the devil-themed names were a fanciful reflection of the Romantic period, itself a reaction to the Enlightenment, an 18th-century movement that embraced science and dispassionate objectivity. The names certainly weren’t applied by Yellowstone’s earlier human inhabitants. National Park Service archeologists have found points carved from Obsidian Cliff stone near Yellowstone Lake that indicate the presence of indigenous hunters in the area at least 9,000 years ago. Surely, they had no such ties to scary, nonsecular imagery. Indeed, among later Native American tribes, Yellowstone was a sacred place regarded with reverence, not fear.
A tour through Yellowstone today reveals a collection of names connected more to the people associated with the park than any references to Old Scratch. Once formal expeditions began “discovering” Yellowstone in the late 1860s, their tendency was to name the area’s features after themselves or someone they wished to honor. Mount Haynes, Gibbon Falls, Hayden Valley—it was first come, first named. Still, tributes to the Devil littered the landscape.
In the early 20th century, many of the devilish names applied by the early white explorers were methodically expunged by park officials who were aghast at the references to Satan in their beloved Yellowstone. Chief among these Beelzebub buzzkills was Arnold Hague, a geologist appointed to the U.S. Geological Survey of Yellowstone in 1883. Having studied volcanoes in Guatemala and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim, this son of a New England Baptist preacher fell in love with Yellowstone and published a geological study in 1899 still praised today by geologists as the most extensive of its kind. Hague also fought for the conservation of the park’s resources, working to prevent a proposed railroad through the Lamar Valley, even suggesting that the park expand its borders to protect water sources. But man, those Luciferous names really stuck in his craw.
“He wanted all of the devil names gone,” said Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey, “and he was in a position to get rid of them.” By the end of World War I, the bulk of the Satanic nomenclature had been replaced or removed, though many areas of the park survived this holy cleansing.
“By the time Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, the names of 60 places contained the word ‘devil,’ and four had the word ‘hell.’ Zero featured contained the word ‘heaven.'”
The Devil’s Kitchen was one of them. This popular, if somewhat unpleasant, geological feature in the Upper Mammoth area operated well into the 20th century. This narrow gash in the earth provided access to a deep cavern created by an extinct hot spring. First explored in 1881, the steamy, dank cave became an official tourist attraction in 1884. Visitors clambered down a 50-foot wooden ladder to a cave floor littered with the bones of deer and other hapless creatures who’d fallen into the opening in the earth. It became so popular that a snack bar called the Devil’s Kitchenette opened nearby.
An entry in the Haynes Guide to Yellowstone reads, “Through a small opening … you descend a ladder into the kitchen. The peculiar damp and heated atmosphere of the interior produces a queer sensation and the desire to seek fresh air at once.” Turns out that “queer sensation” was probably the onset of carbon dioxide poisoning. Park officials closed the feature in 1939 after dangerous levels of CO2 were detected.
Those who spent time in Yellowstone’s Midway Geyser Basin will certainly understand the name reportedly given it by Rudyard Kipling in 1889. The geyser dome he’d dubbed Hell’s Half Acre is bordered by the Firehole River, which runs alongside the large moonscape that emits plumes of steam across its desolate surface. Here lies Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States. Adjacent to that eye- popping wonder is Excelsior, a steaming crater named by Col. Philetus Norris, the park’s second superintendent and no fan of devil-centric names. When that geyser last erupted in 1881, Norris seized on the opportunity to give it a more regal name to replace its original moniker, the Cauldron, a reference to the Devil’s Cookware.
Speaking of cookware, Frying Pan Spring is a nice little roadside hot spring just north of the Norris Geyser Basin that offers a short, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leading to a foul-smelling, olive-colored hot spring tucked into the forest. The surface of the water is broken by a constant, hissing riot of small bubbles, suggesting the sound and appearance of a sizzling frying pan. Back in the day this pool wasn’t just anyone’s frying pan. It was the Devil’s Frying Pan.
The fabled Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition of 1870, widely credited with cooking up the idea of a national park, produced at least one name inspired by the Prince of Darkness. The man who would become the park’s first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, stood in awe of the giant shale boulders in the chasm below Tower Fall and wrote in his journal of a “huge mass sixty feet in height, which, from its supposed resemblance to the proverbial foot of his Satanic Majesty, we call the ‘Devil’s Hoof.’”
Twenty miles to the west in Mammoth Hot Springs, a massive formation that looks like the nose cone of a rocket squats next to delicate travertine terraces. Devil’s Thumb is identified in an F.J. Haynes stereograph from the 1880s indicating the early application of that name.
Of course, this raises the question: How can the Devil have a thumb and a hoof? You don’t have to be a cryptozoologist to sort this one out: Satan frequently is depicted as a satyr, the character from Greek mythology who’s half man, half goat. Also known as Pan, he’s usually playing a flute-like instrument called an aulos. [Side note: If Satan is truly evil incarnate, he’s likely playing “Baby Shark.”]
After spending some time in Yellowstone, it’s easy to see how early explorers let their imaginations take a turn toward the underworld. With the biggest concentration of geysers and hot springs on Earth, it’s a freaky, fabulous and endlessly fascinating park. Places like Devil’s Staircase, a steep cliff rising from the Gardner River, and Devil’s Elbow, a hairpin turn on the treacherous Virginia Cascade Drive, maintain a little edge of danger and mystery thanks to the devilish motif used by those early Yellowstone visitors.
From his home in Missoula, Ednor Therriault and his wife make frequent forays into Yellowstone. He’s authored seven books, including Myths and Legends of Yellowstone in 2018. Currently, he’s working on a book exploring the virtues of Montana for visitors traveling between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.