The Magic of Yellowstone

By Dennis Coello

Remember Dorothy’s words sung over and over as she skipped along the yellow brick road? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Had she been in the magical northwest corner of Wyoming instead of the Land of Oz, she might have been singing. “Geysers and hot springs and fumaroles; elk and moose and grizzly bears, OH MY!”

They’re all here in Yellowstone, and by the thousands. Ten thousand geothermal wonders – half of all that exist in the entire world. Two thousand buffalo. Twenty thousand elk. Plus a waterfall twice as high as Niagara Falls, a park that’s larger than two entire states, more than a thousand miles of trails, and historic hotels built for the rich a century ago – including the largest log structure in the world, the enormous Old Faithful Inn.

But that’s not all: You can fish or boat on the largest mountain lake in all of North America – Lake Yellowstone (20 miles wide by 14 miles long – a shoreline of 110 miles!). And if the economy has you bummed about having to put off that African safari for a year or two, think instead of visiting the largest sanctuary for western large mammals in the lower forty-eight states. Granted, you won’t come face to face with a rhino. But a one-ton bison can be just as intimidating. In addition to the elk, moose, buffalo and grizzly bears, there are wolves, black bear, bighorn sheep, antelope, cougar, coyote, mule deer...and those are just the larger critters.

If feathered friends are your preference, Yellowstone is known to America’s 46 million birders for its trumpeter swans, osprey, bald eagles, golden eagles, white pelicans, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, Canada geese, ravens, magpies, killdeer, yellow-headed blackbirds, dippers, and more. Even if you can’t tell a bluebird from a duck you’ll get a kick out of the variety.

But enough of lists...you get the idea. There’s so much to see and it’s easy to get here. There are airports nearby (West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Jackson...), should you choose to fly. If lower gas prices have you thinking of seeing “the USA in your Chevrolet” know that just driving in can be a wonder. (“Wonderland,” by the way, was a common 19th century name for this place, before it became the world’s first national park back in 1872 and was later officially monickered Yellowstone).

Five paved-road entrances beckon you to the heart of the park, a figure-eight road system designed to take the visitor to and through ever-changing topography. But even before you reach this huge quarter-million-acre nature sanctuary of pure Rocky Mountain wilderness, you’ll have traversed the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” Like a jewel in a velvet box, the park is nearly surrounded by the Gallatin, Madison, Absaroka, Gros Ventre, Wind River, and Teton Mountains, plus five national forests. As the old saying goes, getting there is half the fun.

Beyond the wondrous sights I’ve been most impressed by the sounds of the place – the whoosh and gurgle of exploding geysers, the bubbling, plopping sound of burping mud pots, the giggle of kids when seeing these things for the very first time. Clark’s Nutcrackers and fat black ravens fly overhead, singing their distinctive songs, while nearby bison grunt their displeasure at having to move a foot or so to remain cool in the shade. There’s always something wild making noise in the park.

For all the natural history of the array of animals and geologic wonders, the park’s human history is equally fascinating. We have to imagine the reactions of the Crow and Blackfoot and Shoshone Indians as they traveled through today’s parklands, and of John Colter (a former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) who is believed to have been the first white man to see this region – alone and in the dead of winter! Luckily, there are better records of mountain man Jim Bridger marveling at the sights two decades later in 1825, and the reactions of those he spoke to afterward.

Like Colter when he attempted to tell the truth of what he’d seen, Bridger was faced with smiles and shaking heads when he reported boiling springs and petrified trees. So, in perfect fur-trapper style, he cranked things up a bit. He told, with a straight face, of catching trout deep in the cooler waters of those springs and pulling the fish up ever so slowly, cooking his dinner on the way out. He also swore of the useful “eight-hour echo that you can wind up by shouting ‘Time to get up!’” when you went to bed.

More mountain men and explorers followed, with Yellowstone amazing each of its millions of visitors. Thanks to its protected status, it always will.

So you may want to pay a visit to a remarkable park that’s also a World Heritage site; a designated Biosphere Reserve; a “supervolcano” hundreds of times bigger than Mount St. Helens (but, thankfully, with no threat of imminent rumblings); is headwaters to the longest undammed river in the nation (the Yellowstone); has 290 waterfalls of fifteen feet or higher; and is home to a thousand documented archeological sites.

But a final reason to come to this amazing place – how better to escape the stress and worries of today than to venture somewhere so magical, so unique, and eternal?

Author’s Note: I visited Yellowstone on a small group tour with Austin-Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com or 1-800-575-1540.)  The company, recently named as the Best Travel Operator in the World by Travel + Leisure magazine, offers several itinerary choices and multiple departure dates for active families.

Dennis Coello is an accomplished freelance writer, editor and photographer who has been taking pictures and writing books and articles for the past thirty years, travelling through more than forty countries and all fifty states while doing so. His work has appeared in the pages of Patagonia, Outside Magazine, Backpacker, Adventure Cycling, Asolo, Atlas Snowshoes, Blackburn, Cannondale, Topeak, Subaru, Sierra, Vogue, Outdoor Photographer, Men’s Journal and more.

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