So back on the road again! Leaving Glacier National Park, we headed south to Yellowstone–the first National Park. And from what we quickly learned, it is probably the WILDEST and MOST (potentially) DANGEROUS! Founded in 1872, Yellowstone has become a model of stewardship for parks around the world–the National Park Service’s continuing philosophy to protect both wildlife and natural resources began here. To enter the park from the north, we passed under the Roosevelt Arch, a stone arch that perfectly frames the rolling hills and meadows on that end of the park; and as we left each night, the Arch captured the last rays of the sunset making a perfect, memorable image.
President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the Arch in 1903. A message engraved on the Arch simply states, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” I wonder if they had any idea how many people would come and do just that. By all accounts, it was extremely difficult to even get to the park in the early days–you had to be tough and persistent to make that rough journey and once you got there you were on your own–no hotels, camp stores, or tour guides to take you in hand. From the photos we have seen scattered throughout the Park, the visitors of that era looked dusty, tired, but determined as they camped out of the trunks of their cars or wagons. It must have been quite the adventure!
Entering the Park, the Park Ranger gave us the usual park newspaper and map. But after being in the park for a little while, we thought perhaps we should have received a more forceful indoctrination to the park (like a few knocks to the head to drum home their message!), since the warning signs we saw throughout the park simply weren’t enough to get the message across to some visitors–and if visitors don’t employ the services of a guide there is no one there to explain and reinforce the importance of the warnings. Let’s face it–in this video world, if it’s not flashing, glowing, and making dingy sounds, many people just won’t pay attention. Yellowstone is NOT Disney and some people figure that out just a little too late.
We stayed at a RV park just outside the north entrance gates in a little town called Gardiner–a little western, rough-and-tumble sort of place with all the tourist places thrown in.
But across the street from the main drag are big, wide-open spaces for many miles–Yellowstone National Park–a huge contrast to the little town squatting on the Park’s border.
There are two big lessons we immediately learned about Yellowstone: 1) the animals are WILD and the Park’s stewards intend to keep them that way, and 2) most of Yellowstone sits on one giant volcano and it will BLOW one day and people around the world will be affected! We were quickly reassured that the BLOW day was not anytime soon (they think!) but maybe 10,000, or 10 million years from now. The important word is maybe. No one really knows so if you want to visit Yellowstone the sooner the better…. In the meantime, the geothermal activity of this active volcanic area must be respected (or else).
My first acquaintance with Yellowstone was when I was 5 years old and learning to read my Dick and Jane book in first grade. My primer was totally about how Dick and Jane and their family visited Yellowstone and the things they saw there. That lit my Yellowstone fire! So I have to say visiting Yellowstone was the culmination of a lifelong dream. And yes, the whole experience lived up to my expectations as sparked by my first grade reader.
Since Yellowstone is such a huge park and we wanted to see as much as possible in the few days we would be there, we decided to focus on the two main attractions–wildlife and that simmering volcano just beneath our feet. So here goes.
1. Circle of Fire. Remember the Red Bus tour at Glacier NP? Well, Yellowstone has an equivalent bus still being used in the Park — but guess what? It’s yellow! How cool is that? Actually they have two kinds of yellow buses. One is just like the red buses at Glacier (except yellow) and the other one is bigger–more like a regular tour bus except very old (made in 1975) but obviously very durable. And it is one of the few remaining straight shift buses requiring a driver who really knows how to drive –no just “buckle and drive” like most tour buses today.
Although we saw lots of scenery and wildlife on our Circle of Fire tour, the big focus was those fiery emanations from the simmering volcano underneath Yellowstone. It’s hard to believe that a volcano is cooking up a real firestorm under our feet, but after a full day of the Circle of Fire tour, I was a believer! The warning we received consistently throughout the day was, “You MUST stay on the boardwalks and official trails around hydrothermal features. The ground surface is thin, and often overlies scalding water. Visitors have died here.” After a few tales of woe related by the tour guide we began to understand why the cautionary signs were so dire. One tale was particularly awful–a fellow brought his dog out for a walk (which is not allowed!) and the dog jumped in a pool of steaming water and began struggling in the boiling temperature level water. His owner jumped in to save him and neither survived. I asked the tour guide if the wildlife steered clear of the areas with the dangerous hydrothermal activity–in response, he showed us the bones of elk and bison lying at the edges of some of the pools; they had unfortunately wandered into a boiling pool of water not knowing it would be their last drink/bath. If you manage to steer clear of the boiling water, hot springs, fumaroles, steam vents, mud pots, travertine terraces, and geysers, then you must also stay aware of toxic gases which may exist at dangerous levels in some of the hydrothermal areas. Either way it is advisable to take Yellowstone’s warning signs seriously.
With all that said, the Park is a mecca for scientists and other folks fascinated by Yellowstone’s active volcanic environment. Some of the bacteria and minerals resulting from this unique environment have been used to develop life-saving medicines and other compounds.
Even as a first grader I was fascinated by Old Faithful, the geyser in Yellowstone that erupts on a regular basis and has been doing so for many years (many, many — as in it was in my first grade reader—and that was a long time ago!) Look at the pictures below–this section of the Park is, in general, not the beautiful mountains and forests of most national parks, but what is happening beneath the ground is what made Yellowstone famous, unique–and fascinating!
The Old Faithful eruptions can last only a couple minutes or go several minutes longer. If it is a long eruption, then it will take a little longer to build up for the next eruption. The Park Rangers use a simple formula that helps predict when the next eruption will be based on the last eruption and length of that eruption.
In another section of the Park you can find a different kind of hydrothermal activity that is also fascinating in its own way. Below are pictures of Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces which form as hot water moves along a fault line and spills out carrying calcium and bicarbonate to the surface. All of the hydrothermal features at Yellowstone are constantly changing and you will never see exactly the same thing twice. Our tour guide said he is always surprised each time he walks through and finds big changes to the different areas.
The hydrothermal features at Yellowstone come in a wide variety of forms, from sluggish, boiling pops of gaseous bubbles in thick, boiling mud pots to the violent explosions of geysers, such as Old Faithful.
Although we saw only a small percentage of the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone, the variety and intensity of this active volcanic area is intimidating. On our way to an early morning tour, Bob and I were driving through Yellowstone very early one morning along what we thought was an ordinary forested, lonely stretch of the road when we spotted huge clouds of mist floating through the trees and hovering over lakes and springs.
The misty clouds floated for miles along the roadway and we soon realized they were hovering over hot springs and lakes–an area that was barely mentioned during our Circle of Fire tour since it seems to be just a part of the normal Yellowstone landscape. The enormity of the surface evidence of Yellowstone’s active volcanic activity definitely reinforces our understanding that there are gigantic forces at work underneath the surface. As I said–intimidating!
We are now in a campsite just outside Zion National Park and one of the long time residents here, upon hearing that we had been in Yellowstone recently, asked if we had seen the melted asphalt highways. I said oh you mean where miles of construction is currently ongoing with the road ripped out down to the rocks and dirt? Apparently, what we thought was routine maintenance on a main access point into and through the park (although it did not appear routine since crews are working day and night to repair the melted road, single lane traffic waits up to 30 minutes before proceeding, and the construction crews pass out expected wait times when you pull into line), is being repaired aggressively before another area starts melting. Talk about the Grand Meltdown!
2. Wildlife encounters. After the Circle of Fire tour, we changed directions and headed off into other parts of this enormous park to see if we could find more wildlife. We had already seen quite a few wild animals. As we rode down the streets of Mammoth Springs–especially in the early evenings–we saw many large elk grazing throughout this small settlement of buildings and Visitor Center, lingering on the roadside, napping and lounging at every conceivable turn in the road in this tourist-heavy area. The Park Rangers have their hands full keeping tourists and wild animals separated, since up close and personal interaction between animals and humans create massive problems which can result in death and injury to both people and animals.
Feeding wild animals is a big no-no, right up there with not getting too close. Although Federal law states that we have to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from all other wild animals, we were still able to have wildlife encounters using telephoto lens, binoculars and telescopes. And of course we were constantly warned to keep a safe distance if animals move toward you–which I have no problem with. I really and truly do not want to be face to face with a grizzly. Have you ever seen their claws?
During a drive along one of the mountainous areas, Bob and I had seen a black bear foraging for food in the forest. The bear was paying no attention to the crowd of people snapping pictures at a safe distance–he had important work to do–food. (Whenever we saw a group of people along the roadside with cameras in hand, we knew there was possibly a wild creature to be seen.)
When asked why the bears foraged for food so close to the road when there are thousands of acres of wilderness completely away from any humans, a Park Ranger told us that the black bears came closer to the roads for protection from grizzlies, since grizzlies usually like to stay in unexposed areas. Also, bears in general like to return to what feels like home to them. A Ranger told us that a particular black bear was frequently spotted in a cluster of trees in a curve in the road where his mother and grandmother hung out for years. He had apparently spent a lot of time there as a cub so he felt safe and protected there. And if all else failed, he could climb a tree to get away from the grizzlies. The grizzlies cannot climb trees because they have very long claws designed to roll over rocks to find grubs and things; also their claws are very useful for “other things” which may be why the black bears try to steer clear of them.
While driving though the park one morning, Bob and I got into a traffic jam of sorts. A small herd of bison were trotting down the middle of the road with an air of “don’t mess with me or your pretty, shiny car may not look so great when I’m finished with it!”
We were (kind of) patient and the three cars ahead of us poked along behind the bison’s big fannies until we all realized that this may take hours. So the cars started gently pressing to the left until we finally got around and proceeded on our way. So even before our wildlife tour we had had a taste of Yellowstone wildlife–not literally, of course, even though I did have a bison burger one day at a Yellowstone lodge. (However, the burger did not come from Yellowstone–those animals are completely protected from hungry tourists.) The National Park Service takes their job of protecting the wildlife very seriously! And part of that philosophy is “let nature take its course”–and that means no wildlife hunting–and no wildlife feeding.
So we began our wildlife tour with some exposure to Yellowstone’s wildlife, but now we wanted to go out with an experienced guide who knew where the more elusive wildlife could frequently be seen. It was really exciting to climb aboard the Yellow Bus which was almost identical to the Red Bus at Glacier. Seating only 14 people and with the top down, we could easily feel like a part of the outdoors while getting a good look at the animals–and maintaining a safe distance.
This tour explored a different part of the park than we visited on our Circle of Fire. We headed up over the mountain peaks and through Dunraven Pass, glimpsing sections of the Yellowstone Lake and then Yellowstone River, and turning at Tower-Roosevelt to drive into the Lamar Valley.
Along the way our guide’s radio crackled with bear spottings from other buses, and at one point we pulled into a turnoff where a couple of Park Rangers had just cleared out all of the tourists because a bear was foraging nearby. Because we were in a contained group and the Rangers knew our tour guide, they let us stop and the Ranger talked to us about the bears and how they try to protect them and why.
Leaving that spot, we immediately spotted mule deer along the road. As we rounded a curve we saw a big bunch of people with binoculars trained on the valley below; they swore there was a bear down there but although we checked it out with binoculars and telephoto lens we never confirmed that one. Later we saw a flash of fur down a steep gulley but there was no place to stop. It seemed the animals were being very elusive this morning! So we headed into Lamar Valley, a mecca for wildlife, with broad valleys ringed by mountains and plateaus and lush vegetation–no Ring of Fire evidence here! We immediately began to see individual bison–usually bulls–and then we began to spot giant herds of these great beasts in the distance. We then entered an area where the signs said “DO NOT STOP–Wildlife Priority Area”; apparently a wolf and its den had been confirmed in this area and it was being given plenty of room to do what comes naturally.
We began to spot wildlife more frequently, as evening drew closer.
As we continued we began to see pronghorn deer–some of the fastest animals on earth. At one point as we circled back, our bus pulled into an area where we were told a coyote and her pups were making their home. The guide set up telescopes and binoculars and told us where to look.
It took a while and we were beginning to think nobody was home. In the meantime, we spotted a row of unusual bird nests built under the eaves of the old barn next to us with little bird heads popping out.
This must have been a nursery with all the babies everywhere. But then we began to see little coyote heads popping out of the den where we had the telescope focused on, and as they grew braver (mom was not at home) they began to move outside their home. We were momentarily distracted by an American eagle that landed on a log across the street and sat there steadily watching us. Perhaps he was wondering whether we might be a tasty dinner–when we saw mom coyote marching parallel to the road obviously waiting for all the crazy humans to leave so that she could cross the road and get back to her pups. Then in the distance we spotted more herds of bison. Hmmmm,,,,now this was getting interesting!
Leaving this point behind and headed back to our starting point, we were quickly surrounded by humongous bison, many with calves sticking close to their mothers. (Our tour guide told us this had been a very good year for bison babies.) Hundreds and hundreds of bison had chosen this particular time to cross the road and munch on the greener pastures across the street. They were so close we could have reached out and touched them–and what a photo op! Several times I found myself staring straight into the eyes of a very intimidating bull bison as they crowded up against the bus while following the herd (in a very meandering way–no rush!) across the street.
Forty-five minutes later, we were finally able to ease by them and headed back, with more bison, bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer sightings on our return trip. A very satisfying day and a great way to end our time in Yellowstone. And the beautiful scenery–mountains, plains, valleys and rivers–that we saw that day reinforced how diverse and drop-dead gorgeous our first national park is and will continue to be due to the protection and oversight it enjoys. Even the wildfires of Yellowstone–and we could still see the evidence in places–only help to regenerate the forests and provide more food and shelter for the animals. Overall, our Yellowstone visit was a wonderful learning experience and what memories! I think–like so many of the parks we have visited–we could probably spend a month there and not even begin to understand the diversity of this beautiful park–and how all of the things we see balance out each other.
We now moved southwards the next morning, but with a lingering look at Yellowstone, as we drove Baby down through the less precarious areas of the park, which can accommodate our 42 foot RV, to exit the southern gate. And on to the Grand Tetons!