Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nature Rules at Yellowstone National Park

 West Thumb Geyser Basin

You'll never feel closer to nature - from visual evidence of the constant movement of the earth steaming and shifting below your feet to a hawk "resting" on the thermals over Pelican Creek trail head - than at Yellowstone National Park.

Ken Burns showed us the park and told its history but nothing short of being in it prepares you for the vastness, the richness and the beauty.

From its position as the world's first national park, superlatives abound. With some 10,000 hydrothermal features Yellowstone has more geothermal activity than in New Zealand and Iceland combined. Hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles bear witness to earth's dynamic, roiling core.
                                                                                   Lake Yellowstone
Yellowstone Lake, 132 square miles with 141 miles of shoreline.  is the largest high elevation lake in North America, so large it creates its own weather. Underneath a portion is the caldera formed by a volcano.

Seeing it: Wildlife

There are interpretive tours and you should definitely take a few, but the park is so spread out you really need a car. Roads are good and figure-eight from one end to the other.

Buffalo roam, deer and antelope play, trumpeter swans fly overhead and elk, moose, pronghorn sheep and bears - grizzlies and black - keep rangers busy closing trails and trying to keep foolhardy visitors from becoming a meal.

Tip: If you see cars pulled over on the side of the road, join them because they've stopped to watch and photograph wildlife. Avid wildlife watchers are very generous and usually let you peek through their telescopes for a real close-up.

Buffalo - or bison as everyone out here calls them - are the easiest to spot. You may see them grazing under your window first thing in the morning or walking down the middle of the road. The big bulls particularly like following the dotted yellow line and motorists are stuck following along until the beast reaches its goal and turns off.

Tip: Dawn and dusk are the best time to watch the wild side. Hayden Valley at the park's midsection and the plains south of the northeast gate are good places to start. No walking needed, just watch carefully as you drive slowly along.

Seeing it: Geothermal
                           Old Faithful
Old Faithful is on everyone's bucket list with good reason.

Tip: Most people gather around the railings surrounding the geyser but I recommend going to the Old Faithful Inn, walking up the 18 steps to the mezzanine overlook, obtaining a beverage from the bar and taking a seat on one of the overlook benches to see its grand show every 92 minutes or so, not to mention the other geysers spouting off around it. You can circle the whole basin via the walkway but you can see the others just as well from the Inn.
Viewing Old Faithful beginning its show from Old Faithful Inn

                                                            Abyss Pool.

Old Faithful is only the beginning.

The geyser basins to the north will captivate you. Among those I liked: The Cooking spot, Abyss Pool (one of the few ever measured, it's 51 feet deep), Grand Prismatic pool (best colors are around noon), Firehole spring, White Dome geyser, Great Fountain geyser, Fire Hole Lake, Fountain Paint pots, Clepsydra geyser.

Tip: The Park Service does an excellent job making these marvels of nature accessible. Walkways circle the areas and most are generally flat with only small rises.

Seeing it: Waterfalls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Reaching Gibbon Falls, then seeing the waterfall it creates takes a bit more effort but is well worth it.At Gibbon Falls Trail you can overlook the Gibbon River at its brink where it begins the spectacular downward plunge then walk down to the overlook and see it crashing on the rocks.

Tip: Ready? It's 14 steps to a landing, 17 steps to another landing, 14 steps to the next landing and 12 steps to the final landing.

You also don't want to miss Artist's Point or Inspiration Point, the overlooks into the canyon and at the falls of the Yellowstone River. You'll walk up a gentle rise from the parking lot before you hit the steps.

Tip: You have a choice, a ramp or a series of 12 steps to a landing followed by 12 steps to the last landing plus 25 steps then 12 steps to the top. Recommended if you can do it.

Staying in Yellowstone

I tried three of the lodges and although there are camp grounds and rustic cabins, I suspect most of us Levelers will want elevators and en suite bathrooms.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

Lake Yellowstone Hotel is a classic 1920s yellow and white building that has been added onto until " rambling" is an apt descriptive. It's the airiest and most elegant of the park's facilities with grand views of the lake. The dining room is spacious and the food is good; so is the wine list. A large bison herd visited the morning I was there.

Buffalo visitors
Tip: Ask for a room facing the lake and not too far from the elevator. Don't be shocked to learn there is no TV, Internet access or air conditioning.

Lobby, Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn, a National Historic Landmark built in the early 1900s, personifies Yellowstone with its hand-hewn logs and enormous stone fireplace. Fare in the dining room is excellent, as is the wine list.
Tip: The original rooms are full of atmosphere but you'll probably prefer a room in the newer section where there's an elevator, despite the long walk to reach it. This was my favorite.

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, built in the 1930s, is known for its map room with the map of the United States made of 15 different kinds of wood from nine countries (that's the sort of thing they did back then). My stay was short and I left without  having a real feel for the facility or its nearby attraction.


Buy them in the park. Gift shops and general stores are carefully monitored and not only will you never be gouged, you'll get the best quality merchandise at the lowest prices. (Now if only Congress could take a lesson from the Park Service!)

One last tip: If you haven't been, quit putting it off. Go.


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