They talk about Old Faithful, and boy, do they line up to see it. They sit in their stadium seating and they count down to the predicted time, they fire up their cameras and they pay close attention. And it spews – slowly at first, mostly spritzes of water first and then turning into steam, and after a few false starts the steady eruption continues, oohs and ahhs and clicks of camera shutters framing the sight.
But if you continue past Old Faithful, if you get to know this park, then you quickly realize that it’s the most ordinary attraction in this magical park.
The joys of Yellowstone aren’t bold, broad, majestic mountains such as in the Tetons or Glacier National Park, or Banff and Jasper in Canada. In fact, the altitude of most of the Yellowstone plateau (roughly 6,500 to 8,000 feet) makes its several peaks in the 10,000 and just above range seem fairly insignificant. The scenery is very beautiful, but in a simpler, more gentle, subtle way.
The Lamar Valley is such a place. Known as the Serengeti of North America, this broad, mostly treeless valley gently slopes towards the Lamar River snaking its way through a meadow. On its sides you can regularly find herds of bison picking at the grass or standing still as a statue. Sometimes they’ll cross the road, the only road to the northeast exit of the park, paying absolutely no mind to the awestruck drivers trying to get through. We saw pronghorn antelope on the far side of the valley, and on one day, a grizzly bear preyed on some plants in the distance.
At first, I thought that grizzly was a bison – not until someone else pointed differently was I able to find it. And this is true of a lot of Yellowstone – not until you look closely might you find the prairie grasses waving rhythmically in the wind or that each of the pine trees on that slope are leaning against a big boulder. You might not catch that bald eagle closely watching you from the tree behind you, and you’ll very likely miss the wolf on the hunt, silently moving across the grass covered valley as the sun sets.
Even if you miss all that, there’s much you can’t in Yellowstone. Its genuinely impressive Grand Canyon (just don’t start comparing it to THE Grand Canyon) to the enormous Yellowstone Lake or the bison everywhere, the hike to a 10,000 foot summit, the majestic lodges and the fire-ridden forests are sure to grab a hold in your memory. And then, of course, there’s all the thermal activity – I strongly suggest leaving Old Faithful for the masses and touring the entire geyser basin, finding a bubbling hot spring or pool or one of the other, less predictable but often more impressive (and you can get a lot closer to) geysers scattered around. Check out the geyser basins at West Thumb or Mammoth too, and you’ll have some great photographs, some good memories, entertaining stories.
And all of that will be Yellowstone. But only when you’re there and you dive deeper can you possibly understand this place: here, in this epitome of the natural world, plants and animals behave as they should, and people have the opportunity to watch and understand the unmistakable purpose and focus of the wolf as it floats across the prairie, the exceptionally dangerous mama grizzly as it gently and disarmingly nips at a flower and nudges its cubs along, the irreverent bison doing exactly as it might want to.
This is Yellowstone at its finest: the first and in many ways only place where you can see nature as it is, and understand how it should be. Appreciate its spectacle, but don’t leave until you feel its character.
View pictures from Yellowstone.