YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK As we walked along the trail, partly shaded by towering and ubiquitous lodgepole pines, I turned and looked around. We were alone, had been for a couple of miles.
Backpack loaded with raincoats, sunscreen and cameras, and bear spray on my belt buckle, I was on a tour of our countrys first national park, Yellowstone, with my family and a guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute.
When I made the observation, guide Carolyn Harwood gave us this fascinating tidbit: Of the parks 33 million annual visitors, only about 1 percent ever leave the developed areas (visitors centers, pullouts and boardwalks).
Our hike, a 4.5-mile loop that started on the Clear Lake trail, took us through open pastures, where we saw elk, to wooded areas where we were on the lookout for bears, to a spot that looked like the moon with boiling pots of mud and steamy hot springs. Our hike was like walking through a Star Wars movie, from Naboo to Endor to Tatooine.
After a couple of miles, we emerged at Artist Point. Its not hard to see how the lookout got its name: A gorgeous view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a deep canyon, its walls painted with a palette of yellow, red, orange and black, the result of hydrothermal alterations to the rocks.
It also affords a spectacular view of the Lower Falls, a gushing waterfall that plunges 308 feet, nearly triple the height of the Upper Falls, just up the river, and twice as high as Niagara Falls.
With several steep climbs and multiple educational breaks where we learned to identify trees by needles and animals by scat, the hike took about four hours.
The Yellowstone Association works with the National Park Service to connect people to the park through education.
The best way to really see Yellowstone is to explore it, and thats what we help you do, said Harwood.
Yellowstone is big, as in 3,500 square miles big. A windy, two-lane road takes you through the high points of Yellowstone National Park. If you only had one day, you could drive it and see the high points. But Id recommend at least three. One day for the upper loop; one day for the lower loop and a third day to get off those roads and really explore the park on foot.
While nothing beats coming upon a majestic waterfall or a lily-pad-covered pond on a hike, there is plenty to see from your car or a short walk on the boardwalk.
7 DONT-MISS SITES IN YELLOWSTONE
1. Old Faithful. Perhaps the most famous site in all of Yellowstone is the erupting geyser of Old Faithful. And its certainly popular. In the Montana & Wyoming guidebook, author Carter G. Walker says as many as 70 percent of American adults have seen the famous geyser. Old Faithful isnt the tallest geyser, but it is more predictable than most, going off every 30 minutes to two hours. Television screens in the area give you an estimated time of the next eruption. Each eruption shoots nearly 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water about 130 feet into the air. Unfortunately, on our trip, we got caught in a downpour that happened about one minute after Old Faithful erupted. Ive heard the eruptions last two to five minutes, but I didnt stick around long enough to find out if thats true.
2. Mammoth Hot Springs area. Visit Mammoth Hot Springs to walk the self-guided trail around Fort Yellowstone, which chronicles the U.S. Armys role in protecting the park. Then drive or walk over to the hot springs area. The terraces are quite different from the other thermal areas in the park. These step-like travertine formations grow much more rapidly (as much as 2 feet per year) and are constantly changing shapes and color.
3. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This 20-mile-long canyon, including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, can be seen from several overlooks throughout the park. Or take one of the other hikes, such as ours, around it. You can also take Uncle Toms trail 328 steps down to the bottom (Warning: Its dangerous and strenuous).
4. Yellowstone Lake. North Americas largest high-altitude lake is simply breathtaking. We took a sunset tour ($35) on a 1936-restored Yellowstone Bus through the area. We ended in Lake Butte at an elevation of 8,348 feet, for a gorgeous sunset over the mountains that frame the lake. The area is also prime habitat for birds and mammals. We saw bears, a beaver (or maybe it was a muskrat), pronghorn deer and waterfowl. In warmer months, catch a cruise or rent a boat.
5. The geyser basins. Yellowstone is home to the majority of the worlds geysers. Several basins, notably the Thumb Geyser Basin in the Yellowstone Lake area, the Norris Geyser Basin and the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins to the west, are great for exploring. See geysers, mudpots, fumaroles and colorful hot springs. Dont miss Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Basin, the tallest though unpredictable geyser in the park, which on our visit hissed and spit so much we were sure it was going to go off (it didnt), and the aptly named Grand Prismatic in the Midway Geyser Basin. And dont miss the Mud Volcano and Dragons Mouth Spring near Fishing Village; they are just as amazing as their names sound.
6. Hayden Valley. Aside from the geothermic activity, most people come to Yellowstone for the wildlife. Two areas are well-known for this in the park: Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. We didnt have time to make it to the first, but Hayden Valley provided not only bison and pronghorn but also a good look at a coyote who had just caught a bird of prey for dinner and a possible wolf sighting (it was awfully far away). Staring out over Hayden Valley was like watching an episode on the National Geographic Channel. Ill also note that we came way too close to a grizzly who had wandered near the Visitor Center at nearby Fishing Village.
7. LeHardys Rapids. One of our first stops was at a short trail leading down to the LeHardys Rapids, a gushing portion of the Yellowstone River. In June and July, the native cutthroat trout leap over the rocks on their way to spawning grounds upstream. Watching the green and red spotted fish leaping in water was a highlight of the trip for my 6-year-old son.