Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Many Parks Can You Fit Into One? Yellowstone National Park

Artists' Point

A tour of Yellowstone National Park is more like a tour of three or four parks as there are multiple climates and topographies, as well as a wide variety of wildlife, flora, and fauna to enjoy.  Picture a figure 8 and you will understand that we looked at the park from four different angles, southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast. The majority of our time was spent in the southeast (Old Faithful area) and the northeast (Canyon and Tower areas), though we managed to do the entire helix of roads through this amazing national treasure.

When I imagined visiting the iconic Old Faithful, I expected a crowded tourist stop that would take 10 minutes of our time and that would be all there would be to see. I was entirely wrong. First, the grand geyser, itself, is more fascinating than I ever thought it would be as it shoots 4000-8000 gallons of hot water 150 feet high into the sky. It is surrounded by other geysers on the low end, backgrounded by rocky mountains on the next level, all put to light by abundant sunshine. We were fortunate to stay at Old Faithful Inn which allowed us to enjoy this great sight, morning, noon, and night, with crowds and without crowds, so much so that I was once walking away from the geyser as it was erupting (it might have been the 10th eruption for which I had been present), and people looked at me as to say "What are you doing? Don't you know what is going on behind you?" The eruptions in the quieter times of day were preferable, of course, but I also got a big charge by sharing the experience with other tourists of all ages, everyone delighted by the unexpected power that comes from the ground at expected intervals.

Grand Prismatic Spring
  Second, the area where you find Old Faithful is in one of many geyser basins, and there are more geysers than you can count in the general vicinity.  Some are just above Old Faithful, and there is a terrific and easy hike along a path of geysers to an observation point, and some are along the roads in the area. A walk around what's known as the Grand Prismatic Spring for its diverse colors was more exciting than I ever imagined. In general, I did not expect to enjoy the thermal activity so much, but one day we took a very early morning park-sponsored photo safari (which I highly recommend even if you're not a photographer). As dawn broke, we saw the park free of other tourists, the mist in the air, the steam on the geysers, and sudden eruptions as the sun rose. It was almost eerie at times, and always gorgeous. Throughout this southeastern quadrant of Yellowstone Park, we occasionally saw bison and elk on the road, and wildflowers galore. As fun as that was, nothing prepared us for the bounty of wildlife that awaited us as we headed to our second destination in the northeast part of the park.

Morning Mist & Geyser Steam

After three days at Old Faithful Inn, we moved to Lake Yellowstone Hotel which is situated in a much quieter and more peaceful area. It felt like paradise when we arrived to a more spacious hotel, fewer and smaller crowds, and the magnificent and large blue lakeview from our room. Initially we thought we would never leave the hotel given the idyllic surroundings, but this new ecosystem of verdant meadows, vast valleys, and towering mountains awaited. Our three hikes in this area included Shoshone Lake, Artists' Point to Point Sublime, and the south rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon.  Each hike was exceptional for different reasons and I would not have missed any one of them, but Artists' Point brought me to tears for its overwhelming majesty and beauty. We were there for awhile, watching the Lower Falls of the canyon awaiting a promised rainbow refracting the sunlight at approximately 9:55 a.m. and our promise was fulfilled. You may be aware of a painting done here in the 1800's by Thomas Moran that now hangs in the Smithsonian, and as the legend says, it was this painting that convinced Congress to pass a bill creating Yellowstone as the country's first national park.

Another highlight at the center of this eastern section is Hayden Valley.  By the time we left, we had driven through the valley enough times to be less than patient with the vast number of bison all over the valley and crowding the roads, causing "bison backup." I regained my patience each time, however, when I remembered that many in each traffic jam were seeing this amazing sight for the first or second time so it never ceased to amaze me.  'Herds of bison are in every direction, with some coming right up to your car. We saw a group of elk, and some saw the occasional bear in the distance. It was the close-up view that was the most fun as animals surrounded us, grunting and ignoring us all the way. I learned a lot about bison, and I alternated between preferring the sight of a solitary bull (they are HUGE) and the sight of innumerable animals grazing in a valley, taking their day in stride.

We also took a park-sponsored tour of the Lamar Valley, famed as the "Serengeti of Yellowstone" for its vast number and variety of wildlife. Our trip there was somewhat disappointing so we were ultimately more impressed by the Hayden Valley, which is more accessible to other parts of the park and, at least while we were there, had more animals.

Pronghorn Antelope in Lamar Valley

The top of the northeastern section of the park (Tower and Roosevelt areas) was, for me, the most impressive to drive through. Various pressures from above (past glaciers) and below (the thermal hot spot), which push Yellowstone to an altitude over 7000 feet, are most obvious as you drive the Dunraven Pass and cross the Continental Divide. This is where you see the highest mountains, and the road curves through these passes providing views that took my breath away. We had driven this area when we first arrived at Yellowstone so my first impressions were dramatic.  We drove it again toward Mammoth Springs on our way out of the park and I was no less impressed. This area brings to mind the original meaning of the word "awesome" and I will never forget its supreme beauty.

Whatever your expectations are upon visiting Yellowstone for the first time, I believe they will be changed once you have gone. There is such variety, something for everyone's taste in nature, and if one area is less interesting to you, you will drive twenty miles and find your kind of park. I went as someone who thought "You see one geyser, you've seen them all." No longer my feeling at all, but once ready to leave the geyser area surrounding Old Faithful, I saw the wildlife and the mountains and valleys that I once thought were my kind of park. Simply put -- supremely beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Yellowstone will always have a special place in my heart. It sounds like it will for you, too. So glad you had such a great visit. I look forward to reading your reflections on Glacier and Waterton Lakes.