Yellowstone National Park

Escaping the tourists in Yellowstone

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n 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Last year, over 4.25 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, with roughly 25% of these visiting in July. The route we were taking across North America meant that we were going to be at the park for the last week of July, so I was understandably concerned that the hordes of other tourists would ruin this bucket list experience, not to mention how this level of visitation would impact the wildlife. While a lot of the ‘must see’ spots within the park were busy, we were advised by a backcountry ranger that most people don’t go off the beaten path, and many don’t even bother to get out of their vehicles, so it is still possible to come during the busy season and experience nature to the fullest. So, off we went, armed with bear spray, into Yellowstone’s backcountry hoping to escape the tourists.

Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking.

Trout Lake in the Lamar Valley is a flat, family-friendly walk that takes you through a crunchy, dry forest (although I expect this is limited to the summer season!), perfect for stick-collecting and minibeast hunting, and down to the Lake, where we saw only one other family enjoying an afternoon of fishing. Wild flowers surround the water (at this time of year!), and you may see pronghorn, deer and bison passing through. The Lamar Valley is particularly famous for its two wolf packs, and of course bears may also be about, so keep your eyes peeled!

 

The trail from Pelican Creek to Yellowstone Lake is also easy terrain, picturesque, and relatively undiscovered. Look out for pelicans, eagles and osprey, as well as grizzly bears, and enjoy paddling, skimming stones and playing in the sand at the water’s edge.

 

The Clear and Ribbon Lake trail, passing through Artist Point and Point Sublime, was my favourite walk. This path takes you along the 366 meter-high grand canyon of Yellowstone, where you can appreciate the red, orange and pink stripes of the rock, contrasting with the bright blue and bubbling white of the Yellowstone River rapids below. Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking and worth the extra hike beyond the point where most tourists stop, satisfied that they’ve taken a couple of decent photos. Of course, also in this area are the thunderous upper and lower falls, at 33 meters and 94 meters respectively.

Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated.

We were lucky to see grizzlies and black bears while in Yellowstone (I discovered that, confusingly and making it rather harder for an amateur bear spotter to correctly identify the species, black bears can be a variety of shades; we saw both black-coated and cinnamon brown-coated black bears). You can usually tell when someone has spotted a bear as all traffic grinds to a halt, people line the side of the road and cameras come out. We felt a little more adventurous, so on one occasion we took to the plains in order to see these amazing animals a little closer and without the noise from the road to spook them. There was certainly something exhilarating about running towards a cluster of trees that we knew had, a few minutes prior, devoured a large male bear, hiding him from view of other onlookers. We chose a rock to stand on, and watched from a safe distance as the formidable predator appeared from the shrubs. Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated; his cuddly exterior, reminiscent of many a child’s bedtime friend, merely an illusion. He rose and slowly started plodding towards us…time to retreat to another rock (you can see the rock we retreated from in one of the adjacent photos). It is of course tempting to get as close as possible to the wildlife (that, and the landscape, is probably what you have come to Yellowstone to witness), but please let me remind you that these are wild animals whose contact with humans should be limited, so do not feed the animals and stay a distance of 100 yards (91m) from bears and wolves, and 25 yards (23m) from everything else. Of course there are times when this isn’t possible: bison walk down the road alongside vehicles, for example. Be respectful, give them space, and don’t do anything stupid like get out of the car to say ‘hello’! You’re rolling your eyes, thinking ‘surely no one would do that!’ aren’t you? We saw people do just this, and others get within about 5 meters of a herd of bison just to take a selfie. Don’t be that person! If the animals don’t get you, the park rangers certainly will!

It would be neglectful to write a piece on Yellowstone without mentioning the well-known sights. They are, of course, famous because they are truly spectacular, but they are far from the only things going on in Yellowstone’s 3500 square miles. Yellowstone is one of only 6 active supervolcanoes across the planet and has one of the highest concentrations of geothermal activity. As a Brit who has spent her life living in a country relatively safe from natural disaster, seeing the geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone was one of only a handful of personal experiences where I could really see, hear and smell the unbelievable force of our planet. When you stand below a 60 meter eruption, you feel very powerless and you become aware of fragility of the human race at the hands of the Earth. We stood in the middle of three geysers in the Upper Basin (Old Faithful: a cone geyser and the most frequently erupting geyser in the park, Grand: a fountain geyser and the tallest predictable geyser, and Castle: the largest of the cone geysers and the oldest geyser in the basin) as they simultaneously shot into the air; frenzied jets of water, clouds of steam and the resultant rainbows creating a 360˚ light and water show. The geothermal areas at Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and the Norris Geyser Basin, where you’ll find the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat, are all boardwalked, easy to navigate and showcase a wide variety of hot springs, pools and geysers. We also enjoyed the slightly less frequented 0.85 mile loop boardwalk that starts at the vast Sulphur Caldron (it smells just as its name suggests!) and passes Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring.

There are several options for accommodation in the park, as well as countless alternatives just outside each of the park’s five entrances. We were travelling in an RV, and spent half our time at Bridge Bay campsite and half at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Fishing Bridge has the luxuries of full hookups, showers and laundry facilities, but both were equally clean and had enough space for each tent/RV, including a firepit and picnic table. Before Theo arrived, I had only ever camped in remote backcountry, but the ease of having toilets and laundry facilities a short walk away was ideal with a toddler, particularly as we use cloth nappies/diapers! That said, we passed many backcountry spots that I silently earmarked as perfect family campgrounds so I hope we’ll return in the future for a more remote experience!

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