Yellowstone was one of our biggest inspirations for this trip. Years ago, in our first house together, John and I watched a four-part documentary on each of the seasons in the park and it planted in us the seeds of adventure, and a desire to explore America’s National Park system in as much depth as we could. Six years later, returning to Idaho after having hiked all of Utah’s ‘Big Five’ parks, we voiced our fears that perhaps we’d built it up in our minds, could Yellowstone wow us as the red rocks and rainbow vistas had done?
Meanwhile, John’s dad, Andy, having himself always wanted to see the park but never made it, was getting ready to start a 24 hour journey, taking in three airports, to join us for ten days of adventures in America’s first National Park. Air France strikes wouldn’t deter him, delayed connections couldn’t hold him, he was coming to get his first glimpse of Yellowstone’s epic canyon view, and no bear, bison, or elk was going to stop him as we drove the mountain pass from Jackson Hole Airport, Wyoming, in the black of the night, animals launching themselves at us from all angles, to arrive by 2am at Henry’s Lake State Park in Idaho.
In the morning, we were poised to begin our Yellowstone adventures, starting from the west entrance. This is a seriously big park, with four entrances, hundreds of miles in between, and so many features you’d be forgiven for thinking just one would warrant National Park status. To keep it simple, I’ll break it down into three main types of fun we had, with highlights from each: Geysers and geothermals, waterfalls, and my personal favourite – wildlife!
I expect everyone has heard of Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s most famous, and regular, geyser. Spouting roughly every 90 minutes, you’re virtually guaranteed to see its steaming water gushing into the sky if you stick around the Old Faithful Inn for a while. I didn’t think I was bothered about seeing it, weirdly, knowing that there would be a lot of tourists and already having been enchanted by the rest of the park, but Andy had his plan and like clockwork we slid into a front seat view, waited two minutes, saw it blow, and were off and on our way to dinner before you could shake a bison.
There’s a lot more to see besides Old Faithful in that area of the park, and indeed elsewhere there are other geyser basins and geothermal features. What I didn’t realise about Yellowstone is that one of the primary reasons it became the first National Park was that people were concerned that these amazing natural features would been ruined by people seeking to use the energy and subsequently building over them. There are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else in the world, and watching them doesn’t get old. We saw Old Faithful four times in the end, and we even saw a rare eruption from the Beehive geyser, which prompted much excitement from the geyser geeks in the park, who had been waiting all day when we happened to walk past.
Aside from the geysers, the other geothermal features were just as entrancing. There are hot springs, bubbling in rainbow colours from brilliant boiling blue in the middle, to greens, yellows, oranges and reds as they get cooler towards the edge. Pots of hot mud spurt up from the lava crust and steam rushes out of holes in the ground and on the edge of lakes and rivers all over the park. It’s a strange, fascinating, alien environment, but it’s here on earth and protected for the many by the foresight of a few over 100 years ago.
For Andy, the other classic sight he wanted to see was the Yellowstone River, as it falls twice down through the yellow stone of the canyon walls, and flows on past Artist’s Point, from which numerous famous paintings have been sketched. This was the view that convinced the government of the wider significance of this area, and it is an astounding vista. We reached it after hiking along the south rim of the river, seeing both the Upper and Lower falls, including a hike down (and back up!) the 300 metal steps of Uncle Tom’s Trail, which was a big personal challenge for me, as heights are not my thing and seeing a the river crashing against the canyon walls beneath my feet pushed me to my limits. It was worth it at the bottom though, as we stood watching the falls gush down, only feet away, and a rainbow shine over them from the spray. It was magical.
But our favourite features of the park were not rocks, river, waterfalls, or geysers, but of course, the animals. The variety and observability of the wildlife here is unparalleled and from the first time we drove into the park to see a herd of bison and their calves grazing on the side of the road, we knew we were in a special place. It’s the only place in the US where bison have grazed continuously since pre-historic times, and we were able to indulge our geeky love of National Park facts with a ranger talk on the interaction between ancient people and these ‘mega fauna’ (a new term learned there for me!). Nothing prepares you for the sight of thousands of buffalo roaming freely on a landscape unchanged for thousands of years. It’s incredible, and we have to remember that we are in their neighbourhood. Especially when a herd decides it wants to be over the other side of the road when you’re on your way home for dinner..!
We saw yellow-bellied marmots scurrying over rocks, pronghorns leaping over fields, and trout spawning in a creek, leaping up over rocks to reach a better breeding spot. Bald eagles and osprey soar overhead and mountain blue birds flit from tree to tree. It’s like being in a BBC documentary and you half expect to hear David Attenborough doing a voice over as you’re walking around. We were happily wildlife spotting every day, comparing what we’d seen and on the hunt of the elusive bears and wolves who also call the park home.
Yellowstone is a popular place, and one that attracts crowds of people who primarily drive from view point to view point on the Grand Loop roads. Some crazy things happen when tourists enter National Parks, and they seem to lose their heads. A few days before we arrived, a 22 year-old man had decided he needed to get close to one of the hot springs and, despite all warnings, ventured off the boardwalk and fell through the lava crust, to be consumed by the boiling acid below. A woman tried to take a selfie with a bison, and ended up being seriously injured when it decided it didn’t fancy a photo. And very sadly a bison calf had to be put to sleep by park staff after a father and son decided it was cold and ‘rescued it’ by bringing it to a ranger station. It was subsequently rejected by its herd and could not be returned to the wild.
In spite of all this, we still saw people going dangerously close to animals, walking on the lava crust, and starting hikes wearing slippers and carrying no water, so by day three we were ready for some peace and sanity and took some advice from a ranger about a nice, peaceful hike. A 6 mile loop would take us via a number of beaver ponds, which he said weren’t guaranteed to have beaver in but would certainly have lots of bird and would be peaceful. Off we hiked, snacks and water in our packs, on a trail that took us steeply up the mountains and into meadows and woodland, blooming with wild flowers and alive with birds and bees. It turns out that what they say is true, if you step a few hundred yards away from a road, all the tourists disappear and you can experience Yellowstone’s startling beauty in peace. The three of us were very happy hikers, especially when we reached the ponds and really did see beavers, busily going about the business of building dams.
We were so excited by this sight that we felt this hike had really peaked, and we continued off on trail through the woods, heading ultimately for the trailhead and our car, as it was 7 in the evening and dinner was calling. Chatting to one another about the birds and the beavers (no pun intended!), we came out of the woods and into a clearing, where directly ahead of me I saw two fuzzy black shapes darting up a tree. I couldn’t get the words out to say what I was thinking and Andy voiced my thoughts “Those are bear cubs”. He and I whipped out our cameras in excitement, while John, always level headed, said “The mum will be here somewhere, stop An, we need to back away”. He was right of course, and as we turned our heads left, Andy spotted a very large, brown, Mama bear, in the grasses to the left of the trail, no more than 25 yards from where we stood.
The park service warn you “Never come between a mother and her cubs” and this is as true in the bear world as it is in human life. John firmly told us to start backing up the trail – had we continued, we’d have been right between the bear and her babies and this could have provoked a defensive attack by her. We couldn’t carry on the trail, of course, so we beat our way to to the right and looped around in a big arc, keeping one eye on the bear, while she gathered her cubs back to her.
From the relative safety of our new spot, I did get a couple of photos, and then we beat a hasty retreat, down the trail, across the meadow, down the mountain, and back to the car. It was at once the coolest and the scariest hike of our trip, an amazing sight to behold, and Andy definitely went home happy knowing he’d seen a great cross section of what Yellowstone has to offer. For us, Yellowstone definitely didn’t disappoint, and we experienced so much more than we had expected. It may be busy but there’s a reason for that and if you get the opportunity to visit, take it!
The danger of bears can’t be underestimated. Just three days ago, a National Forest Service employee was killed by a grizzly bear, as he and a friend biked a trail a couple of miles from our current campground. The advice we’ve had is to make a lot of noise when you hike, carry bear spray (we’ve bought some), and be aware so as to avoid surprising these beautiful but powerful animals. So John and I are developing a good range of anti-bear songs, accompanied by hand claps, and no doubt look like total Brits abroad as we wander through National Forest paths singing bear-related mash-ups of Copa Cabana and other top hits..!