Imagine if you could travel back in time to when the world was new.
The earth’s crust is thin, thermal springs bubbling through, and sulphurous vapours fill the air. It is quiet, apart from low murmurings and gruntings in the distance. Tracks of dangerous beasts can be seen in the mineral-streaked mud and there, emerging from the mists of steam, you make out the form of – could it be – a woolly mammoth?
This is the experience of Yellowstone National Park. Of course there are no mammoths, but there are herds of bison, thankfully recovered from near-extinction. The park is home to about one half of the entire world’s geysers: a vast network of thermal features breaking through the earth’s crust, attesting to the fact that the park is on top of a supervolcano. Tiny earthquakes frequently change the course of the thermal features, unpredictably creating new geysers and hot springs, and rendering land fit or unfit for habitation. Things come into perspective in Yellowstone. In the face of such powerful natural forces, human problems and society can seem pretty insignificant; and time simultaneously expands and telescopes as you try to grasp the sheer age of the planet while imagining what the park will be like in the future, when our children are grown, when we are gone…
I have struggled to write about Yellowstone. It was so much more than I was prepared for, and far more than we could properly experience in the two days we had. But to start at the beginning:
We booked our stay in Yellowstone just under two weeks in advance, so were pretty lucky to get two nights’ accommodation there. It was the final weekend of the season, so some of the accommodation was already closed (and the dining options were more limited than they would have been earlier in the summer) but we managed to get an affordable hotel-style room in Grant Village, on Lake Yellowstone. The one novelty was that there was no TV or wi-fi, so we spent our time in the room reading the information provided about park – especially how to tell the types of bears from their footprints and how far to stay away from wolves…
Our original plan had been to stay close to the park the night before, in Cody. However, as I mentioned before, we changed our minds and stayed the night in Greybull instead, about an hour further out of the park. We had no regrets about this, especially when we drove through Cody and saw how commercial it looked. We stopped for a bit, but only to stock up on the essentials of gas, water, and whisky.
And by mid-morning, I was driving into Yellowstone. Nothing had prepared me for my first views of this giant park: the lake, glinting in the morning sun, stretching out to the distant mountain peaks, steam rising from the lakeshore, and an elk rising up at the side of the mountain road! The road wound around the mountains; though it was nothing compared with Needles Highway in the Black Hills, it was still somewhat nerve-racking, but totally worth it – an amazing way to enter the park.
I realised at this point that Yellowstone was far bigger than I had imagined. But we started with the few things I already knew about the park (from a childhood of watching Yogi Bear): Old Faithful geyser and Lodge. The Lodge is a beautiful and impressive old hotel, with a central hall the height of the lodge, and mezzanine floors giving off this. There are comfortable chairs from which you can look down to the hall below, and a terrace for when the weather is good, where you can sit with an ice cream or a drink and look out at the geyser and the surrounding landscape. The geyser itself was impressive; we sat and waited for its accurately-predicted eruption, in the meantime learning about the park from a ranger. It was here that we learnt about the changing system of geysers, mud volcanoes, hot springs, and fumaroles. We also learnt about the unpredictability of the Yellowstone bear population at that time of year. Getting ready to hibernate, some bears would be high up in the hills; however, others were likely to be found hanging around near the roads, waiting for tourists to drop food (and perhaps looking for picnic baskets?).
Before heading to our hotel, we explored the plentiful thermal features around Old Faithful. There were so many small geysers and hot springs around this area in fact, that we often got the show of an eruption to ourselves. Each hot spring seemed more beautiful, with more amazing colours, than the last. But it was more than a visual experience – as soon as we had got out of our car the smell of sulphur had hit us, and as we walked close by the fumaroles and geysers, hot, sulphurous steam surrounded us.
We started our second day with a rather indulgent (but surprisingly reasonable) breakfast buffet at Lake Hotel. This is a really lovely art deco hotel – so well preserved I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Agatha Christie’s Poirot sipping coffee in one of the lounge’s easy chairs overlooking the lake. We used this time to refine our plan for the day, getting advice from the servers, who are all eager to provide you with information about the park – perhaps they hope one day to become park rangers.
There are so many things you can see and do in Yellowstone. If there are more than two of you, you can hike (because of dangers such as wolves and bears, park authorities advise against hiking in groups of fewer than three); there are lake activities like rowing; there’s horse-riding; and a young ranger program for kids. Then of course there are the thermal features, the wildlife, the continental divide, and Yellowstone’s very own grand canyon.
We decided to spend the day driving the lower half of the Driving Loop, figuring it was probably over-ambitious to attempt more and that we would probably see all the main attractions this way. And we certainly saw plenty. I had been a bit disappointed that we didn’t have the time (or numbers) for real hiking, but in actual fact we got plenty of exercise walking up and down the slopes of the canyon in search of the best views, and round and about the thermal features. The park has built wooden walkways above the ground to protect the fragile crust – and sightseers’ feet. The effect is one of a conveyor belt of tourists – like a Yo Sushi for the bears. As we walked pretty much alone along one of these, beneath a wooded cliff I was surprised at the very real fear I suddenly felt about these predators. We didn’t come across any bears; but we did see what must have been relatively fresh tracks in the mud later that day – of a Grizzly.
As well as seeing lots more thermal features our second day – including a really tremendous ‘Grand Prismatic Spring’ – we saw lots of bison, and a few elk. On the morning of our second day we started in the Hayden Valley, and had a really idyllic sighting. A huge herd of bison was gathered on the other side of the river, and was crossing just a little way down. There were mothers and babies, a small mud volcano steamed in the background – one bison rubbed himself against its warm crust – and a chorus of low, contented grunts filled the morning air. Tourists stood with cameras, silent and transfixed by the scene: perfect as a nature documentary.
These are the scenes that stick with me now that we’re back in DC. But even more important perhaps, are the memories of sitting by Yellowstone Lake as the light dimmed, watching the sun set and the stars come out as we drank whisky together. Time slowed down in Yellowstone. We got some perspective. We took the time to see the sunset and sunrise. And it was perfect.