Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yellowstone National Park

The oldest National Park, Yellowstone is, well.....Yellowstone. There just aren't enough adjectives to describe the often eerie beauty of the park and it's many geological wonders. While it doesn't have the impressive spires of Glacier NP or the vistas of Yosemite, the steaming springs, geysers, beautiful valleys, and wildlife make it one of America's must-visit locations. We stayed in Gardiner, Montana, at the north entrance to the park. One of first things that you realize about visiting the park is the immense size - over 2 million acres. From the north entrance to Old Faithful, for example, was 56 miles of busy, slow traffic. We were surprised how crowded the park was; our experience is that after Labor Day there usually aren't many tourists, but apparently people have learned that September is the best month for wildlife viewing and the number of European visitors is way up due to the weak dollar. The park's geysers and steaming springs are a result of the greater part of Yellowstone being an active volcano. The Park Service has a handy fact page to let you know how safe you are, and the park maps show which part of the park is within the "caldera" so that you can tell that if there's an eruption you'll either be a) vaporized and blown into space (inside the boundary), or b) made into a steaming fossil by the lava flow (outside the boundary). This is not especially comforting. We decided to avoid the overflow crowds at Old Faithful and instead visited the terraced landscape of Mammoth Hot Springs. It's an interesting area of crystal clear steaming water, mineral deposits, and a strong odor of sulfur. Not far from the terraces is the hotel and restaurant area, where the elk have made a home. Rather than forage in forest meadows, they've discovered that the area's manicured lawns are not only tasty but a great place to nap during the day. I feel sorry for the park service employees; two or more are always standing guard around the elk, some with a stack of orange traffic cones, to keep visitors from trying to pet or feed them. Another common resident, the bison, have an annoying habit of walking down the middle of the highway, and when a herd of 30 or so decide to cross a road, they do it one at a time, stopping everyone for half an hour or so. I guess it's there way of getting even for the "buffalo burgers" served at the local restaurants. One of the prettiest areas of Yellowstone is the Lamar River Valley in the northeast section of the park. This is the home of the Druid Pack, the first group of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone and the subject of National Geographic videos. Along with many others, we parked along the road and were able to spot a large black wolf in the distance, but it was too far away for a photo. The next day, while driving during the evening on a dirt road in a more remote area of the park, we came upon this beautiful gray wolf, who watched us for a while before ambling off. Down the road we also watched a huge bull moose grazing, but by that time it was almost dark & again, no photos. During our visit, we also spotted black bear in the distance both on and off the park, so Brenda was happy - except that we didn't see a Grizzly bear. The Yellowstone River Canyon and Upper Falls is one of the most scenic areas of the park, and one of the most photographed. Here's another one. Overall, we had a great visit and were especially glad that we didn't try to see the park in summer; it must be a nightmare with all of the people and traffic. Next stop, the Beartooth Highway!

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