It’s a destination of extremes: geology, topography, climate, and even the free-roaming wildlife.
At Yellowstone Park you’ll find the largest and most varied collection of hydrothermal features in the world-- more than 10,00. Geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents bubble, gurgle, hiss and spout throughout the park.
Three huge volcano eruptions, the last 640,000 years ago caused the park’s central portion to collapse forming the Yellowstone caldera- a smoldering crater more than 45 by 30 miles in size. The scorching heat powering those eruptions still propels the park’s geysers and other hydrothermal forces.
Yellowstone is home to the world’s most celebrated geyser, Old Faithful. Thousands of gallons of steaming water thunder into the sky then plunge back down to earth. Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful has remained faithful for at least the past 135 years, showering appreciative tourists on average every 92 minutes.
In mid-June my wife Jane and I arrived in Wyoming, this land of eye-popping natural beauty. We traveled Yellowstone for three days aboard one of the famed “yellow buses” that first appeared in 1936. Refurbished and brought up to today’s vehicle standards, the touring buses are long and low-slung, seat 13 passengers and sport a soft top that rolls back for an expansive view.
Along the way, we see lakes, waterfalls, canyons, high mountain meadows and endless miles of lodgepole pine that was all set apart in 1872 when legislation was passed making Yellowstone the world's first national park.
Our first day brings a visit to Lake Yellowstone, the world's largest freshwater lake over 7,000 feet in elevation. The lake’s 141-mile, tree-lined shore rims the deep, blue surface waters. Its ice finally broke up on June 2.
We tour the lake aboard the Lake Queen II, where interpretive park ranger Mark Baker, a teacher back home in Tennessee spins tales of E. C. Waters, an insufferable concessionaire, who lost his trading license and was kicked out of Yellowstone in the early 1900s. The lake is also home to the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America. In recent years, however, fierce lake trout were clandestinely introduced, threatening the existence of the cutthroat.
By late afternoon we roll into the venerable Lake Yellowstone Hotel (built in 1891), once a meeting place for Indians, trappers, and mountain men. Visitors gather in the lovely sunroom each afternoon to gaze at the lake and enjoy drinks while a pianist plays. You’ll find the finest dining in the park. Its dinner entrees include Idaho trout, bison prime rib, as well as elk, boar and antelope.
Back on the bus under a cloudless blue sky we’re headed for West Thumb Geyser Basin, where water bubbles up from the ground to form deep pools of blue and shallow pools of red. Chief interpretive park ranger, historian and naturalist Leslie Quinn explains that the color indicates the temperature; the hotter the water, the fewer bacteria and the bluer the color.
We travel over Craig Pass (8,200 feet) past the Kepler Cascades, eventually pulling up to the park’s most striking man-made creation, Old Faithful Inn. You walk through the iron-latched seven-foot wooden doors into a magnificent lobby of polished maple floors and log-pillared walls. Then you gaze upward. It gets you every time. The vaulted ceiling soars to a height of 76 feet that features aerial trusses, hidden catwalks and a fanciful crow’s nest.
Built in 1904 by architect Robert Reamer, the lodge is constructed on an epic scale. Guests lounge in oak rocking chairs enjoying the glow of the inn’s massive four-sided fireplace built of royolite stone that stretches up into the darkness. Other visitors enjoy quiet conversations up on the balcony. No television, no music, no intrusions.
Multiple gables dot the 45-degree wood-shingled exterior roof, and windows don’t always correspond with particular rooms or floors. From the sprawling second-floor veranda you can watch a crimson sunset, glorious cloud formations or Old Faithful as it erupts into the night sky.
The park’s ecosystem provides a unique home for varied wildlife, unlike anywhere else in America. Creatures of habit, these animals usually follow the same trails and schedules. Early morning and evening is the best time to view.
Bison are the most plentiful. Sporting a woolly triangular head, bison are big (2,000 pounds), fast and unpredictable. In the Hayden Valley we saw coyotes, and mule deer amid the dark folds of timbered slopes, and a grizzly bear busily gnawing on a bison carcass along a riverbank.
Still, the best wildlife spot is the Lamar Valley in the northeast end. At a bear jam, you’ll find cars parked along the road with people looking through binoculars and spotting scopes. We came across a wolf kill where a pack was eating their prey, an elk calf. After a 60-year absence, the gray wolf was reintroduced to the park once again in 1995. Their population has grown to nearly 300 wolves. In many aspects, wolf recovery here has been a great success and a landmark conservation triumph.
Further along we pulled off the road and tracked a pair of young black bears lumbering through the forest from a distance of 50 yards. Along a 20-mile stretch we spied an ungainly moose with her calf, bighorn sheep, and red-brown and white pronghorn antelope whose coats lit up when the sun hit them. They are the second fastest creatures on earth.
Our last evening was spent in Mammoth Hot springs. While eating dinner (antelope medallions) at Mammoth Lodge we were entertained as a herd of elk and their calves wandered along grazing on the emerald green lawns across from the hotel.
Don’t miss the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, volcanoes, flowing lava, glaciers and floods worked together to form what became a deep canyon in the Yellowstone River. There are a pair of spectacular waterfalls: the Lower Falls, which steeply plunge 308 feet into the canyon, and the Upper Falls, which tumble 109 feet down.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Yellowstone Fires of 1988. Lightning strikes ignited most of 248 separate fires. In the end nearly 800,000 acres were charred in the park itself.
After watching 200-foot flames and a ring of fire trucks around the Old Faithful Inn on the nightly news, many people feared that our national park was lost. It was not.
To maintain its natural state there is no plan to clear brush in the park, even though the forest floor is thick and tangled with rotting deadfall. The fire management policy mandates all human-caused fires be suppressed but that natural fires be allowed to burn as long as they do not threaten people, property or resource values.
As our touring bus rolled along Route 287 we could see vast stretches of trees scorched from roots to crown. But after every burn, plants and animals quickly rally.
Ranger Leslie Quinn explained wildfires are an inevitable process that has taken place 300 times in the last 10,000 years.
“It’s part of the grand design to recycle nutrients back into the earth,” Quinn related.
In the end we learned that the park is so much bigger than all of us, and everything in the natural world is connected in the lands of Yellowstone.