Yellowstone National Park exceeded all of Mariah, Harry and my highest expectations and overwhelmed all of our senses. Our three day visit was surprising, exciting, awe-inspiring, gratifying, educational and comforting. It also made me feel wildly fortunate and patriotic. Yes, definitely. Patriotic.
Being at Yellowstone reminded me of every yellow-bordered National Geographic magazine that ever arrived in our mailbox wrapped in plastic. It brought back my memory of nature posters stapled to the immense cork bulletin boards in my science classes. My parents brought my three older siblings and me to Yellowstone in the 1960’s. I remember sitting in the backward facing third seat of our car, squished next to our luggage, watching the scenery recede as we drove around the park. I also remember my dad’s hand firmly gripping mine as we walked along the boardwalks along the geyser basins. It was wonderful to return as an adult and a parent. I said a little thank you to my father for keeping me out of harm’s way during my previous visit.
Like almost every one of their 3 million annual visitors, we saw just a fraction of the park. We drove most of the 142 mile grand loop, a figure eight that brings visitors near to the majority of the park’s well known features. The sheer size of the park is difficult to comprehend. The park contains 2.2 million acres. 99% of this area is completely pristine, undisturbed wilderness. This means: No phone lines. No signage. No paths. No fences. No roads. No lights. No buildings. No campsites. It is spectacular.
We saw herds of bison in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys, including a few that ventured within a yard or two of our car. They are astounding creatures. Bison are huge (weighing up to 2,000 pounds) and vaguely mythical. Every sighting felt miraculous to us. We even saw several elk at close range who favored the newly mowed grass near one of the buildings. The elk roamed freely while park rangers kept hypnotized guests at bay. Seeing herds of immense elk casually walking by your window must be what it is like to hallucinate.
The travertine terraces within Monmouth Hot Springs and and the geothermal features at the Fountain Paint Pots were every bit as fascinating as the wildlife. At each of the Geyser Basins, named and unnamed pools bubbled with boiling mud and steam vents (fumaroles) billowed up from unseen fissures in rocks like a gigantic kitchen totally out of its chef’s control. Geysers exploded both on schedule and when the mood moved them with the unbridled energy of unsupervised teenage boys banging as hard as they could on borrowed drum sets. The Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone’s largest hot spring) was my favorite geothermal wonder. Hot springs are alive with micro-organisms that thrive on crazy hot temperatures called extremophiles. They looked like colorful, immense spirograph cards created by joyful children. They were mesmerizing and wonderful and all the other good adjectives. When we walked on the boardwalk that provided a safe path for visitors, I felt as if we were traveling either through a Salvador Dali painting or the fire swamp portrayed in The Princess Bride.
We also had great accommodations within the park. We stayed our first night at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and enjoyed a front row seat view for the largest lake at high elevation in North America. The second night we stayed at Canyon Lodge and travelled by horse drawn covered wagons to a cookout held in the back county a mile or two from rustic Roosevelt Lodge. The cookout was equal parts entertaining, delicious and over-the-top corny. We stayed our last night at The Old Faithful Inn, the largest log structure in the world. The building was built in 1903-1904 from stone quarried nearby and immense sections of wood grown locally. It is an architectural marvel. Except for a minimal number of items such as the addition of a fire suppression system, the main lodge and the enormous lobby look today exactly as it did when it was built. They are still using the original lobby furniture, hand-hammered iron room numbers and electric light fixtures that appear as if they will last forever.
We will definitely be coming back to Yellowstone. We need to see the Bison again.