A short drive from Bozeman, Mont. brought us, this morning, to the North entrance of Yellowstone National Park
. This tremendous area comprises the first National Park, established way back in 1872 by the U.S. Congress. Our drive in led us shortly to a visitor center, where a pack of elk were casually relaxing on a large island of grass surrounded by road. They're a great welcoming committee, and they work for next to nothing.
Now when we set aside two days for our visit to Yellowstone, we did so with the size of the place on our minds. This place is tremendous. The roads winding through the park stretch for many miles, but still leave huge parts of the park shrouded in privacy and mystery. On our way in we flashed our handy America The Beautiful
pass and picked up a map, which we simply could not have done without in this particular park. We were quick to inquire as to the availability of a campsite, and were informed that they were filling up rapidly - but if we booked it south to Indian Creek campground, we'd hopefully be able to grab a spot.
We made it just in time, picking out one of the ten or so spots that were still available in the campground. From here, it made sense to continue our initial southward drive down to Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest geyser basin in the park. Before we could even get out of the car, we were all party to some of the strongest odors of sulfur that I can remember.
Scattered all around the walkway - from which we were absolutely not allowed to deviate - were clear blue pools of water, steaming at the top and bubbling from the bottom. The water in these springs comes up from beneath, having been heated by the extremely hot rocks under the ground. In some cases, as seen on the right, instead of gently bubbling to the surface, the water is shot out of the ground and into the air. This was Steamboat Geyser, splashing away like a kid in a bathtub.
I had expectations that this park would be thick with majestic woods and forest. While there were trees covering a large area of the land, many of them were felled, charred black or both - and by many I mean huge sections of them, acres worth of trees that had been scorched by flame. This, apparently, was the product of a series of fires in 1988 that began small and collected together, closing the park to visitors for the first time and affecting more than a third of the park's area. Many of them are still standing today, stark reminders of the months worth of fires more than two decades ago.
Further south, we came to the stop for Old Faithful Geyser. This feature of the park is isolated from other thermal areas, which allows it to erupt on a surprisingly regular and predictable schedule. When we arrived we had almost an hour to wait before the next expected "show", so we took a moment in the lodge for a pit stop and some ice cream.
A circular walkway and two rows of seating surround the geyser, much of which were occupied by the time we came out from the lodge. We found a seat away from the center of the crowd and watched for an increase in activity. The geyser is constantly emitting a steady cloud of steam, even now in the summer months when the steam shows less than in the winter. Right around the projected liftoff time, the geyser abruptly started spewing a stream of water high into the air. This was accompanied by a much larger cloud of steam, which made the spectacle that much more impressive. And it wasn't just a quick spurt or anything - this lasted for a good two or three minutes before gradually dying back down. The whole experience was just as impressive as I'd heard it would be.
At this point the road began to cut back east, and we began to work our way back in the direction of our campsite - with plenty of time to spare, of course. The roads in the park are very long and the speed limit is usually around 35 miles an hour, which meant that we had a long way to go before we got back.
But there was no hurry. We pulled over with a gaggle of tourists to shoot pictures of a caribou-looking critter, as my sister snapped shots of various birds in the trees. Eventually we came to Yellowstone Lake, which covers a significant portion of the central-to-southeast portion of the park, and got out to touch the water and snap some more photos.
One of the things that makes this park so special is the abundance of animals here. We'd seen a handful earlier in the day, but as we made our northward ascent toward camp on Grand Loop Road, we had our closest encounter of the day, with this fantastic bison walking along the side of the road. He had traffic backed up for quite a while, not because he'd been walking in the road, but because every passing car slowed to a near stop for a few photos before continuing on. As you can see, so did we.
In a hilarious turn of events, however, as soon as we'd passed this tremendous creature, he decided he'd had enough of using the shoulder and hopped in front of the car behind us - so we slowed down and documented the interesting scene. The fellow directly behind the bison was honking his horn like there was no tomorrow, and the bison was ignoring him in spectacular fashion. We all got a good laugh.
We got back to our site with plenty of daylight still in the air. The park allows campers to collect as much firewood as they please, provided this wood is dead wood that was already on the ground - no cutting anything down to throw on the fire. This policy, I would assume, helps them prevent the kind of buildup of dead material that fueled the massive wildfires here back in the '80s. We stayed close to the fire, and huddled closer as the night progressed, the temperature dropping into the 40s and even the 30s after we went to bed.
Would we survive the night? Would we freeze to death, or possibly encounter a gory demise at the paws of one of Yellowstone's hundreds of bears? Find out in our next post, coming very soon.