Heading on north up through Teton, we broke through into the national park that started it all, Yellowstone.
Established by a law passed in 1872, Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world; it’s the one that introduced the concept of national parks to the planet. Yellowstone is enormous, and impressive at every turn. In fact, it’s so large and diverse, so rich and unusual, and we did so much, that a play-by-play account of our time there would run several pages in length. Here instead is a small highlight reel — our eight favourite things about Yellowstone.
Wherever you go in Yellowstone, there is always a profound sense that the ground you’re standing on is unforgivingly restless. Any drive or hike will take you through a terrain of bubbling, seething, steaming, boiling pockets of gas and liquid as they escape noisily from hot springs and tears in the earth’s surface. Coloured by extremophiles — tiny organisms that survive at temperatures and in acidities abhorred by all other life — the ground and slime shine anywhere from white to black and the whole spectrum in between. Nowhere in the park is this more evident than at the Norris Geyser Basin. Though Old Faithful is the park’s most famous geyser, the Norris Geyser Basin has the world’s largest geyser — Steamboat Geyser, whose eruptions cannot be predicted — and is a landscape so colourfully varied, so noisy, and so smelly that it feels like you’re on a different planet. (Or in the apartment I lived in before I got married.)
It’s no Africa, but Yellowstone is as good as it gets in the Lower 48 for viewing wildlife. Much of what we saw was too far off to make for good pictures, but here’s a bison in the campground.
Each night from our tent we were woken several times by the frantic howling of wolves piercing the night sky. We were fortunate enough to see a small family of wolves, and shortly thereafter a pair of sprightly coyotes. We saw elk in small numbers and bison in very large numbers, the latter causing many a traffic jam along the park’s roads.
As if in competition with the earth below us, the sky would often and suddenly burst into some of the most dazzling thunderstorms I’ve ever seen, like the one that took place one afternoon while fishing the Gibbon River, which cost me a camera. The heavens opened, soaking everything including me. Heavy drops pelted the river (and me). I grabbed the small camera I had tucked away in a pocket beneath my waders and got off this picture.
Within a minute, the storm was over and the sun was out again — such is Yellowstone — beaming through the full double rainbow that had just been cast into the sky. I couldn’t fit the whole rainbow into a single shot, and when I tried to swing around to capture the other half of the rainbow, the camera swiftly ended up at the bottom of the river and hasn’t worked since. I like to think I was awe struck, not that I’m a klutz.
Five minutes after that, the rainbows were gone and if you’d had your eyes and ears closed for the past ten minutes you’d have no idea what had just transpired.
4. Meg’s Wipeout
This is a personal favourite of mine because until now the wipeout total was 2-0 to me (one in Ireland that bruised the ego, one in Yosemite that bruised the leg). We were on a lengthy hike, had stumbled upon a huge bull elk, watched him for a while in silent wonder, and things were going great as we rounded a body of water called Beaver Lake. I heard the unmistakable sound of shoes giving way under some gravel, followed by a short sharp shriek and then a light thud. I spun around to find her in a heap on the ground, the victim of a hole dug specially for her by some animal or other. It was glorious.
5. Yellowstone Canyon
Of the many hikes we did in Yellowstone, the one took us atop Yellowstone Canyon and the Upper Falls, through a vast meadow along the Wapiti Trail to Clear Lake, was probably the finest. Every so often the smell off sulphur would penetrate the air, and a bubbling hole in the ground would appear, then another, and another — reminders that we were walking not very far above the upheaval of an active supervolcano, a hotbed of geothermal activity seething beneath our feet, ready to explode at any moment (geologically speaking). The volcano tends to undergo a major — devastating — eruption about once every 600,000 years, and it’s been some 630,000 years since the last one…
We traversed a dry river bed criss-crossed with fallen trees and continued up to the south rim of the canyon. At this point, the walls rise sharply about 1,000 feet up from the river. Over time, metallic oxidation and hydration have conspired to cast the sandy canyon walls into every shade of red, ochre, pink, yellow, beige, grey, and orange in undulating waves of brightness. Descending into the canyon at Uncle Tom’s Pass we got a view from the bottom, then sweatily marched back up again. It was a long, hot march all told, but every step was worth it.
6. Lamar Valley
The whole of the Lamar Valley area is simply superb. The scenery is astounding and it’s where wildlife is most abundant. The fishing is world class too. (Just out of range of the picture below, a herd of bison was grazing noisily on the plain.)
7. ‘Hey Bear’ Reaches its Natural Conclusion
As with all our hikes, Meg was ever diligent and faithful in belting out the ‘hey bear’ warning to any unsuspecting ursus species we might inadvertently startle into attacking us. Until one day, on an otherwise pleasant amble through the woods, a ‘hey bear’ was met with a deep, angry and guttural grunt from somewhere within the bushes. She was suitably alarmed, and to be fair I think I had to check my underpants as well. (They were fine.) It turns out a joker, showing off for his lady friend, had heard Meg’s forewarnings from a short distance away, had hidden himself from view and done his best bear grunt impression.
There was significantly less hey-bearing after this moment.
8. Mammoth Hot Springs
The Mammoth area, in the northwestern section of the park, is home to the park’s headquarters and some of the most amazing sights in all of North America. The concentration and size of geothermal features around here is astounding and sets the stage for the rest of the park. Yellowstone’s borders contain half of the world’s geothermal features (among which, about two thirds of the world’s geysers), and here in Mammoth you’re treated to an abundance of them. Here too the thermophiles create a kaleidoscope of colour, thriving in their habitat of natural terraces and acidic, hot water.