Yellowstone National Park: America’s crown jewel – USA TODAY
Take a lesson from the bison that have roamed free here since prehistoric times. Yellowstone is best seen slow. Video by Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press. VPC
Old Faithful. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Wolves. Bears. Bison.
For a first-time visitor, Yellowstone National Park seems to simply have too much to see and appreciate. Just for starters, it’s home to the world’s greatest concentration of thermal features, from boiling rivers and bubbling mud pots to the geysers, headlined by Old Faithful. Never mind the free-roaming herds of bison, or the wolves, or the towering waterfall.
At more than 3,400 square miles, this national park is bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, although with far fewer people and roads. Exploring every inch would take years. But that’s the beauty of this park: Every visit can be totally different. Maybe it’s geysers and the rivers this year, bison and bears the next. An entire trip could be built around an early-morning adventure to see wild wolf pups playing in the sun.
“You have an opportunity here to see places and do things that are probably not much very different than somebody had 200 years ago,” says Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk.
Drawing more than 4.2 million visitors last year, Yellowstone is the crown jewel in the National Park System. As befitting the world’s first national park, Yellowstone’s boundaries contain a staggering variety of natural wonders. Old Faithful, the geyser every schoolkid learns about, still wows, the rushing roar of its periodic eruptions filling the air as thousands of visitors gape in awe.
A short walk away are dozens of other geysers, mudpots and boiling springs, and a short drive away is the Grand Prismatic Spring, the country’s largest natural hot spring, along with a host of smaller features in the Midway Geyser Basin.
The park’s historic lodges offer unique overnight opportunities, with exposed beams and soaring ceilings. Multiple campgrounds make it easy to keep costs down, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Summer is Yellowstone’s busiest time, and you may find yourself idling along behind a tour bus or struggling to find parking at some of the biggest attractions. In winter, however, the park offers a vastly different landscape, covered with snow with nary a motor coach in sight. In fact, during the snowiest months, most of the park’s roads are off-limits to cars and buses, and only via a historic snowcoach or snowmobile can you venture much past the boundaries.
A few weeks ago, sculptor George Bumann found himself on the side of the road near Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, peering through a spotting scope at a grizzly bear chewing on a piece of bison. The bison had fallen into an icy river earlier that winter and drowned, and the bear hauled out the carcass to eat.
Sketching on a pad, Bumann watched scavenger birds hopping closer to the bear while coyotes howled and barked from a nearby hillside.
“There isn’t anywhere else in the United States where you can do this, except maybe Alaska,” Bumann says.
A former wildlife guide, Bumann lives just outside the park with his family, drawing inspiration daily from the wild animals he sees. You, too, can see what he sees at Yellowstone: “People want a connection to wild nature. Our very genetics are wired for it, but most of us find ourselves in other settings these days.”
Wenk says he remains in awe of how quickly Yellowstone can alter someone’s life. He’s right: the images of Old Faithful or a majestic bison or a grizzly growling at an approaching raven are sights you won’t soon forget.
“Yellowstone is a chance to be transformative for people. It’s full of things people have truly never seen before,” Wenk says. “People realize this is theirs, part of their heritage, that it’s something they can make a choice to help protect for future generations.”
About the park
Size: 2,221,766 acres.
Visitors: 4,257,177 in 2016.
History: Paleoindians lived in and around Yellowstone at least 11,000 years ago. Modern tribes moved into the area in the 1400s, hunting sheep and bison. European fur traders began exploring the area in the 1700s as local inhabitants increasingly used horses. It became America’s first national park in 1872. The U.S. Army protected it until the National Park Service was established in 1916 and took over management.
When visiting: Yellowstone is big, so a car or bus will make getting around much easier. Just remember that bison and other animals have the right of way and may temporarily block roads, which means you could get great close-up photos. For information, call 307-344-7381 or visit nps.gov/yell.
Of note: Dawn and dusk are when animals are most active, making those the best times to photograph them.