Mention Yellowstone National Park to someone and the first things that come to mind might be Old Faithful, the world’s most reliable geyser, or maybe Yogi Bear, the cartoon character who shamelessly began scrounging ‘pic-a-nic baskets’ from campers at Jellystone Park starting in the late 1950’s.
But after spending a handful of days there, you see, smell, hear and feel just how much more the world’s oldest national park has to offer.
Located roughly 2,100 miles from the north country, tucked away in the northwest corner of the state of Wyoming, Yellowstone is a land of many destinations onto itself where the landscapes range from expansive grasslands populated by roaming herds of elk and bison to strikingly desolate areas created by the perpetual encroachment of natural geysers and hot springs.
In simplest geographical terms, the park has four diverse regions of interest. Old Faithful and the largest known concentration of natural geysers in the world are located at Geyser Basin in the southwest. The primordial Mammouth Hot Springs are the main attractions of the northwest while the Lamar River Valley, which winds through the northeast, is one of the main herding areas for the park’s recovering bison population, and Yellowstone Lake serves as the fresh-water core of the park in the southeast quadrant. The lake is also the source for the Yellowstone River, which flows north through the center of the park and carved out the visually stunning Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Automotive travelers can access all of the regions via the Grand Loop Road, a 142-mile stretch of pavement that, on maps, resembles a poorly drawn figure-eight and provides a link to the major areas of attraction where small commercial hubs of civilization have evolved nearby. At those villages, visitors can find retail shops that offer souvenirs and groceries, full-service stations for their vehicles, contemporary hotel lodging and a wide variety of dining options.
Traveling through the east entrance of the park at night, the first sign of humanity are the lights outside the main office of the Fishing Bridge RV Park. Late-arriving campers with reservations are provided information regarding their sites and the park rules at the front door. The check-in process can wait until morning when the office opens.
As it turns out, Fishing Bridge RV Park is located just north of Yellowstone Lake. A short walk away sits the northern shore of the lake and even though it’s the middle of summer, the surrounding Rocky Mountains to the east are still blanketed with snow and the water temperature stands at a refreshing 51 degrees. Swimming in the lake is not prohibited but it isn’t recommended either. With air temperatures hovering near 80 degrees, a quick dive below the surface was worth the risk. It felt no differently than jumping into the St. Lawrence River in early summer. At 7,733 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake sits nearly 2,300 feet above the highest peak of the Adirondack Park - Mount Marcy, which rises to 5,344’. Because of the volcanic nature of Yellowstone’s origins, the sand covering the shorelines is dark gray.
By stark contrast, the waters gushing up through the geysers and hot springs to the west of the lake are near boiling. The centerpiece of the region is Old Faithful and pulling into the main parking lot, it could be seen spouting off. That meant one thing, as the most reliable geyser in the world, it would be at least another hour before another performance. At the entrance of the area’s visitor center, a sign read, “Next eruption 11:15 a.m., give or take 10 minutes.”
As the moment of truth approached, more and more tourists found their way to the half-circle of seating provided at the site. After a few teaser spoutings, the world-renowned geyser put on yet another impressive show of geo-thermal force. A quick check of the time revealed it was 11:15 a.m.
Beyond Old Faithful sits a vast managerie of randomly erupting geysers and hot springs that make up Geyser Basin. Boardwalks and well-traveled foot-paths wind their way through the area, in many cases leading visitors right up to the edge of gaping holes bubbling over with superheated water saturated with minerals and microorganisms. Some of the hot spring vents are barely a foot in diameter while others are more than 40-feet across. Many of the springs have brilliantly blue centers surrounded by shades of yellow and orange. The colorization is caused by the trillions of microscopic thermophiles that thrive in the crystal clear 200-degree water. Any attempted contact with the hot springs can be life-threatening and is strictly prohibited.
Heading north on the Grand Loop Road from the geyser basin, the next scheduled stop was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Along the way, however, there were many unscheduled stops. In most cases, they were made to get a closer look at a solitary bull elk grazing along the roadside or watch a bison suddenly roll onto his back along a nearby hillside and kick up a cloud of dust. As you drive through Yellowstone, you come to realize that singleton bison occupying their own space is a common sight. In the summer months, they are often seen resting on the shady sides of hotels and other buildings at the different villages. Tourists might also encounter groups of female elk resting with young calves under similar circumstances. As docile as these large mammals may appear, visitors are constantly made aware of the dangers of getting too close.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is considered the heart of the park. Fueled by the Yellowstone River, the canyon begins with the Upper and Lower Falls. Visitors can access the top of the Lower Falls by hiking down a series of switchbacks, which eventually lead to an overlook that provides spectacular northern views and sits just a few yards away from where the rushing aquamarine river begins to cascade down into the valley more than 300 feet belopw. Another switchback trail a few miles down the Grand Loop offers visitors a more panoramic and popular view of the Lower Falls.
Continuing north and then west, the next major attraction at Yellowstone is the Mammoth Hot Springs. Rising more than 300 feet, what looks like giant mounds of melting chocolate swirl ice cream with caramel syrup, is in fact huge deposits of hard-crusted minerals tainted by algae and bacteria. Upper and lower boardwalks serpentine their way across the different terraces and through the maze of gurgling hydrothermal pools that form them. As is the case at the Geyser Basin, the entire landscape at Mammoth Hot Springs is pitted with the petrified remnants of trees and other vegetation caught up in the ongoing expansion of the lifeless residue continually produced at the site.
Venturing east, then veering away from the Grand Loop and onto the Northeastern Entrance Road, the Lamar River Valley begins to come into view. Unlike the majority of the park, which is covered in evergreen forest or features evidence of volcanic activity, the Lamar Valley is an open grassland with rolling hills.
Soon after entering the area, a large herd of bison is spotted in the distance. Pronghorn skip across the foreground as the herd can be seen moving its way toward the roadway, which by now is lined with several other vehicles that have stopped to catch a glimpse. Within minutes, the entire bison troop was quietly marching across the pavement, seemingly oblivious to the long lines of halted traffic in both lanes. The short migration ended with the herd joining up with another previously unnoticed group on the other side of the road.
Whether it was a common occurrence or just a case of perfect timing, the sight of more than a hundred bison of all ages peacefully moving about their world despite the human intrusion overshadowed the other incredibly unique experiences offered by Yellowstone.
Yellowstone was designated as the world’s first National Park on March 1, 1972. The law was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.....The park covers 2,221,766 acres and while most of it is located in Wyoming, the northwest corner stretches into both Montana and Idaho. It is roughly one-third the size of the Adirondack Park.....There are more than 900 miles of hiking trails. ....Yellowstone sits on top of an active supervolcano with one of the largest calderas (volcanic crater) in the world at 1,350 square miles. Scientists believe there have been at least three major eruptions with the most recent having taken place 640,000 years ago. The other two happened 2.1 million and 1.2 million years ago. The most recent supervolcanic eruption was 2,500 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The next major eruption isn’t expected for another 10,000 years or more.
Interest in Yellowstone continues to grow with more than four-million people visiting the park each of the last four years. More than half of the visitations take place during the months of June, July and August. Due to rugged conditions, many of the roads are closed during the winter months but the park is still open to visitors.
SPORTS EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding article describes a trip to Yellowstone Park taken in the summer of 2018. After being closed for most of the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, parts of Yellowstone Park were reopened to the public earlier this week.