The Walkway to Old Faithful Is Now Paved With Recycled Tires

Old Faithful's complex underground plumbing has long been threatened by asphalt walkways. A new, rubberized footpath made from recycled Michelin tires helps to preserve groundwater supplies. (Photo: H Michael Miley/flickr)

If you’re one of the bajillion people that’s sauntered/elbowed your way up one of the main footpaths wrapping around Yellowstone National Park’s most amorous nature wonder, Old Faithful, over the past several weeks, you may have noticed that said path felt squishier, springier, spongier, different underfoot.

That’s because it is.

Repaved with an asphalt substitute called Flexi-Pave that actually helps Old Faithful to keep a-spewin’ on her regular 90-minute-ish cycle, the trail's rubbery oomph comes courtesy of roughly 900 shredded tires. And as part of an innovative recycling and restoration program spearheaded by Yellowstone Park Foundation in cooperation French automotive heavyweight Michelin, the old tires in question were sourced from within the park itself.

Given Yellowstone’s immense size (3,468 square miles), the tires attached to the park’s official fleet of more than 800 vehicles, ranging from patrol cars to snowplows to garbage trucks, see a lot of action, traversing a collective 3.75 million miles per year along the park's 420 miles of road. And, inevitably, these tires need to be replaced.

As a corporate sponsor of the Yellowstone Park Foundation, Michelin has offered its services to the park for nearly a decade including the donation of its signature ring-shaped rubber products. As of 2013, Michelin had donated over 1,400 fuel-saving tires. So when nearly a thousand tires donated to the park several years ago reached the end of their 100,000-mile lifespan and needed to be swapped-out with new ones, Michelin again stepped in to help breathe new life into retired tires.

Given that Yellowstone isn’t currently on the market for 900 new tire swings, one innovative solution that allowed Michelin to keep their product in the park (and far away from landfills as possible) was the creation of a new footpath to Old Faithful created from Flexi-Pave, a low-maintenance, porous paving material from Florida-based K.B. Industries (KBI) that's made primarily from recycled tires. The 6,400-square-foot Flexi-Pave footpath replaces a traditional asphalt walkway leading up to the iconic cone geyser that had seen better days.

As advertised, durable and heat-tolerant Flexi-Pave is flexible, meaning less cracking and eroding and less money spent on expensive upkeep and repairs. Due to slashed federal funding for the National Park Service, Yellowstone officials need to creatively cut as many corners as possible without compromising the integrity and many natural splendors of the world's oldest national park.

As mentioned, the material is also porous so rainwater and snowmelt can easily permeate the surface where it’s filtered and joins the groundwater supply. And it's these groundwater supplies that fuel the underground hot spring that’s spectacular spewing action attracts 90 percent of Yellowstone’s 3 million annual visitors. While park visitors — or webcam viewers — may not notice higher, mightier and more predicable bursts of boiling water from the geyser due to the rubberized walkway, it does help. If anything, the old asphalt, which can also leach oil into ecologically sensitive areas and create harmful stormwater run-off in addition to blocking groundwater flow, wasn’t lending Mother Nature a helping hand.

Michelin Man at Old Faithful
Bison, bears and Bibendum: The Michelin Man takes Yellowstone. (Photo: Michelin)

Explains KBI CEO Kevin Bagnall in a recent press release: “The material used to create KBI's Flexi-Pave is completely benign and therefore can be used safely with the delicate aquifers here in Yellowstone. The path allows 3,000 gallons of groundwater to pass per square foot. It also is designed to diffuse the water's force, helping prevent erosion."

In addition to donating the raw materials that were ultimately shredded and used to pave the new walkway, Michelin sent 10 of its North American employees to spend a week in Wyoming where they pitched in and helped to install the trail. While the lucky employees were selected via a company-wide competition, the trip wasn’t exactly a free national park vacation: the winners put in 8-hour workdays of manual labor alongside youth volunteers. The Michelin Man (aka Bidendum), the creepy older French cousin of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, also descended on Yellowstone to help usher in the new walkway, no doubt completely bewildering the park’s wildlife in the process.

Via [Los Angeles Times]