Yellowstone, Beautiful and Bizarre
Jul 28, 2011
|Yellowstone is probably the most amazing place I have ever been. I don't really know what I was expecting, but it wasn't really what I thought it would be. For one thing, I didn't realize, because I never really put two and two together, that it was up in the mountains. I guess I kind of thought there were mountains there, but I didn't know that the whole places was up in the mountains. I spent three days feeling like I was walking around in the sky. I also spent three days having difficulty catching my breath; the altitude didn't bother J or G, but it was hard for me to adjust to.
I also didn't realize that Yellowstone had been so fiercely affected by forest fires; the eastern part of the park was burned a couple of years ago, but many parts of the park are still showing the effects of a massive forest fire in 1988. A lot of it is bare of trees, or has only very young trees; evidently at that altitude trees grow very slowly, so more than 20 years after that fire some parts of the park still have very small trees.
I had been picturing forests very mixed in the kind of trees growing there, but the park is really dominated by pine - specifically lodgepole pines.
Now, I have heard for years about how wild and isolated Yellowstone is, but it didn't really feel that way for me. Admittedly, we stuck to the more touristy areas, and didn't go hiking in the back country, but I never felt like I was so much in the middle of nowhere. I think it is because it felt too much like I was on the top of the world looking down. Or maybe it was because there were hordes of people everywhere.
Due to my fear of being eaten by a grizzly bear having been heightened by a recent fatal mauling in the park, we never did go off on any real hikes. We did go on a couple of ranger hikes, because I thought it would be a neat and interesting thing to do, and because I thought we would be safer from being eaten by bears in a large group, led by a trained professional. One of the ranger hikes was really wonderful and fascinating; it started in one of the geothermal areas, and headed up to a waterfall, and the talk covered history of the park, the volcano it sits on, geology, botany, animals, weather... and, because she saw that I was interested, on the way back (it was not a circuit trail, and the ranger talk part of it was only on the way to the falls, not the way back) the ranger talked to me about wildflowers (I was completely enthralled by the wildflowers all over the park - the profusion, the variety, the colors!). It was well worth getting up ridiculously early in the morning for (and not just ridiculously early by my skewed standards - by the standards of most sane people on vacation). The other hike, along the rim of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, was not quite as interesting, but it did include some gorgeous views of the canyon and the waterfalls in it. And afterward we went down (and back up!) the Uncle Tom's Steps, which are 328 metal grid, scary stairs down into the canyon (and back up!) to see the lower falls from a lower vantage point. G, of course, had no trouble with them at all. I, with my asthma, altitude problems, and fear of heights and rickety stairs (okay, the weren't rickety, but they were dented in several places from rocks having fallen on them), found it kind of terrifying.
One of the evenings we also went to a Ranger Talk campfire program, which turned out to be about wapiti - aka elk. That was when we became acquainted with the mosquitoes in the park, who were not the least bit disturbed by our insect repellent. Fortunately it was freezing out (almost literally - it got down into the 30's that night), so we were bundled up in lots of clothes, and even a blanket, which limited the areas the mosquitoes could bite.
Speaking of elk, we saw a lot of them. And, eventually, a lot of buffalo (we saw one the first night, and then didn't see another until two days later), some marmots, a coyote, black tailed deer, a mountain blue bird, ground squirrels... and bears. 4 bears. On different occasions. All, I am glad to say, from the safety of our car. And none of them ate us. We didn't even have to put into practice the things you are supposed to do when you encounter a bear, or use our bear spray. We are also pretty sure that G saw a pack of wolves - they were quite far away, and I only caught a glimpse, not enough to know what they were, and J very unhelpfully didn't turn the car around so we could get a better look, but from what G described, we are pretty sure it was wolves she saw.
But I am getting ahead of myself; the first day we spent at the park we spent pretty much the whole day staring at holes in the ground. That is to say, we watched geysers erupt, and looked at hot springs and pools. We didn't really intend to spend the whole day exploring the various thermal features in the park, but that is what we ended up doing, and it was a fun and fascinating way to spend the day. The first thing we did when we arrived in the morning was go to the visitors' center near Old Faithful, and as it was predicted to erupt soon we decided to stick around and watch. By stick around, of course, I mean hike to the top of a hill to watch from there instead of among the crowds around the geyser. I had sort of resigned myself to not seeing Old Faithful erupt, just because lucky timing is not really my strong suit, but it goes off about every 91 minutes, and we ended up seeing it 4 times. It really is pretty amazing, all of the geysers are, but after that first time we watched OF erupt, another guy up at the observation point where we were said, "Lame," and walked away. I wanted to shake him and say, "Are you kidding me? Every 91 minutes boiling water comes shooting out of a hole in the ground because of heat from the active volcano upon which we stand, and you think it's lame?!?!" But you can't really do that to strangers, so I restrained myself. There were three other thermal features that really, really impressed me: the Solitary Geyser, which we came upon shortly after watching OF erupt the first time. Solitary Geyser is a pool of blue water which every 5 to 7 minutes just kind of burps up a big splash. It has a cheerful aspect that we found endearing; Sapphire Pool, which is does not erupt, but is a stunning shade of blue that I could gaze at for hours; Castle Geyser, which we didn't think we would see erupt because of the predicted time, but we happened to be in the area and saw it erupting. I actually RAN over to see it, and then felt stupid because it continued to erupt for about an hour. Seriously - boiling water shooting way up into the air for an hour. It was brilliant. Even more wonderful was that because of the time of evening it erupted, rainbows were formed in the mist. I LOVE rainbows. It was so incredibly beautiful that I cried. We watched it for at least 45 minutes, and then had to leave to get to the ranger talk we were going to; we had planned to spend an hour walking around seeing geysers we had not seen yet, but instead spent that time watching Castle Geyser erupt. In the end there were a lot of geyser and pools we didn't see, so I guess we have to go back.
The one thermal feature that was something of a disappointment was Chromatic Pool. It is a very famous pool, due to its amazing colors, and we planned to go see it our second day, but when we got there, there was a traffic jam to get into its full parking lot; we could see the blue of the pool reflected on the steam above it from down the road, it looked so amazing, but we were on a schedule, needing to get to the Canyon in time for the ranger talk, so we decided to come back later. Well, we came back near sunset, and at that time of day it turns out you really can't see the colors at all. In fact, I wonder how well you can see them at any time of day, because the boardwalk around it is pretty far back, and we realized that all the amazing pictures of it are taken from above. So, it was a major disappointment. I did get one okay picture, though; I attached my camera to my walking stick (it has an attachment for that), set the timer, and J held it up so that we could get a picture from a high angle at least. It is nothing like the postcards, but at least we were able to see what it looked like.
On our third day we had a big treat for G - we went horseback riding at our resort. She was excessively happy about it (though it has apparently whetted her appetite for riding again, and she is now spoiled for real life), but I was a tad bit nervous, based on the fact that I am kind of afraid of horses, due to the fact that they are huge and could kill me if the wanted to. I spent days driving G crazy with silly questions about it:
Me: What happens if a grizzly bear charges my horse?
G: Don't worry, your horse can run faster than a grizzly bear.
Me: What happens if a grizzly bear charges my horse, the and the horse throws me off and runs away?
G: Just hold on tight with your calves.
Me: What happens if the horse doesn't like my hat and bucks me off?
G: [rolls eyes]
Of course, none of those things happened, and I didn't even end up in a sitcom-like situation when I was mounting the horse, which was another of my worries. Granted, the horse, whose name was Candy, was totally the boss for most of the ride (they say you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink; I can't even get the horse to water), but we ultimately got along pretty well, I didn't get thrown, I didn't wear my hat (G thought we would be wearing helmets, so I didn't wear it), there were no grizzly bears, we saw absolutely spectacular views (which I couldn't take pictures of because when I tried my horse decided if I wasn't paying attention to her she could do what she wanted), we got very, very dusty, and we all had a good time. G especially had a good time, and behaved quite subversively. The guide had asked if either J or I would bring up the rear of the line, because they like to have an adult in the back; since Candy ignored my attempts to steer her to the end of the line (she pretty much stayed glued to the butt of the horse in front of us the whole time), G was behind me, and J behind her (which was a good arrangement - G, an experienced horsewoman, was able to give me advice when it was needed). Well, J's horse liked to stop and graze, and J was having a hard time keeping him from doing that, so he kept falling behind and having to trot (or something - I don't know the technical term for the gait he was doing) to catch up. Well, G decided that would be more fun than just walking along in a line, so she kept purposely falling behind just so she could trot to catch up. The first time she did this I was suspicious, and after a few times she made a remark that confirmed it was intentional. J, of course, was happy to oblige her, because he was having fun, too. I was too afraid to let my horse go faster than a walk, so I would not have joined in even if my horse was not glued to the butt of the horse in front of her (I was nervous that the horse in front was going to kick her/me a few times when Candy bit his tail). Anyway, we all had a good time. I am not in love with horses, and the experience didn't leave me dying to go riding again (G wanted to go again that afternoon - we are overindulgent, but not THAT overindulgent), but I enjoyed it.
After the horseback ride we hung out at the cabin for a while; G and I dragged the rocking chairs from the porch around to the back to read and write postcards while looking at the fabulous view behind the cabin (which, of course, was not visible from our room). It was wonderfully relaxing. Then we left to drive all the way around the park; J and G had hatched a plan to drive to Montana. The northern part of Yellowstone is actually in Montana, not Wyoming, and there is a road that circles the park and goes up into Montana, so, because it was there, they wanted to go. That would also give us a chance to see parts of the park that we had not seen yet, a wilder, more mountainy part (which terrified me, as in many places there was really nothing between the edge of the road and a loooooooooong drop down a mountain. In the end I had to switch places with G; she sat in the front and I sat in the back behind J, far away from the edge of the cliff. I kept my eyes glued to the fields on the left side of the car, which is how I spotted a bear). So, off we went. It would be impossible for me to describe the views, the fields of wildflowers, the sheer majesty of the place. All I can say is, everyone should go to Yellowstone at some point in their life. It was on this ride that we saw three of our 4 bears, a herd of buffalo (all the buffalo we had seen up to that point were loners), and the wolf pack. We also saw Mammoth Hot Springs, which was probably not worth the drive up there on its own merits, but was worth seeing since we were there. And we went to Montana for about five minutes. It seems nice.
Thus ended our glorious time at Yellowstone. I am sure there are many things I have forgotten to mention; a lot was seen and done in those three days. We had almost perfect weather - there was hardly a cloud in the sky the first two days, and though the third day was quite cloudy we had only a few sprinkles of rain. We saw lots of wildlife and were eaten by none of it (except the mosquitoes). We saw breathtaking scenery, and amazing things you can't see almost anywhere else in the world (2/3 of the world's geysers are at Yellowstone). We had a simply grand time, and I thank Theodore Roosevelt for preserving all these wonders for us to see.
One final note: As may be obvious, I like to try local foods when I am traveling, as long as the local foods are not gross. During my stay in Yellowstone I ate an elk burger, and several huckleberry candies (I didn't see any, but apparently huckleberries grow there. I am sure the bears love them). I had eaten a buffalo burger on the way to the park (though I have had buffalo burgers before - we occasionally buy buffalo at Stop & Shop). It was all good.