THE MAJESTY OF YELLOWSTONE
IN THE WILD and WONDERFUL WEST
Article by Joan McIver Photography by Joan, Laurel and Barbara McIver
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
High in the stormy western sky, jagged snow peaks etched a majestic vision on the distant horizon. The Teton Mountains in all their showy glory rose sharp and straight from Wyoming’s prairie land. It was a stunning sight for four road-weary travelers who had driven over 2,400 miles to enjoy the wonders of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Cameras in hand we jumped out of the car, yelping with excitement as we snapped dozens of photos.
Planned for a year, our road trip began in early June. My daughter Laurel McIver and I drove from Lighthouse Point home to Anderson, South Carolina where we picked up two more daughters, Jan Ray and Barbara McIver. At dawn the next morning, we climbed into a car stuffed with road maps, cameras, water and bags of snacks.
Our route took across took us through the center of the country from the highlands of Tennessee to the grasslands of Nebraska to Wyoming’s windy mix of mountains and prairie inhabited mainly by graceful pronghorn antelopes.
On day four of our journey, we pulled into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a valley nestled in the shadow of the Teton’s sharp peaks. Hole is Wyoming-speak for the valley that surrounds the town of Jackson, a bustling mix of old west, big money and wide-eyed tourists like us. It was twilight; Jackson was abuzz with traffic, bright lights and boutiques stocked with high-ticket camping gear, jewelry and art. We checked into our lodging, and then walked several blocks along the town’s wooden walkways lined with Old West storefronts.
Downtown Jackson’s landmark arches built of elk antlers led into a small town square. In 2007, it took 1,948 antlers to rebuild the arch at the square’s Southwest corner. Male elk shed these antlers each spring as they graze in the National Elk Refuge just outside of town. Local Boy Scouts collect the antlers to be sold at an annual auction in Jackson
Like scores of other tourists, we took pictures of ourselves standing beneath the arches and then celebrated our arrival at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a venerable town hangout since Prohibition days. We toasted ourselves with pink, prickly pear margaritas and dined western style on bison burgers, elk bits and steak. In the western-style dining room the heads of antelope, moose and elk peered down from the walls. In the bar, dancers rocked to the loud and lively country music played by a band from Georgia.
Besides nightlife and shopping, the area around the Jackson and the Tetons is renowned for skiing, outdoor sports and recreation. Numerous park trails wind high into the steep, rockbound cliffs, so inviting to hikers and rock climbers.
We passed on those strenuous activities in favor of looking for wildlife as we drove onward to Yellowstone, about 50 miles north. The desk clerk in Jackson told us that the elk had left the refuge area for higher ground in Yellowstone, but we’d likely see buffalo herds in the fields along Antelope Flats Road.
Great Advice! We spotted a herd of buffalo munching grass near the historic Moulton barn, a relic of a pioneer Mormon settlement. Young calves covered in golden brown fur stayed near their massive mothers. Seeing the bulky adult buffalo was a first for my excited daughters. These animals still shedding their furry winter coats looked shaggy and unkempt, yet majestic. We later learned from a ranger that they are not buffalo and should be called bison.
The distance from Grand Teton National Park to the Yellowstone’s south entrance is a is about 50 miles, but the need to be alert for wildlife made for slow driving. The route followed the Snake River as it meandered along the edge of Jackson Lake.
Not long after entering Yellowstone, wildlife seemed to pop up everywhere. A handsome elk boasting impressive antlers elk rested among a grove of trees. Further on our car surprised a coyote stalking a Canada goose. The noise caused the goose to flutter away into a nearby lake while the coyote gave us a dirty look before skulking into the woods. Click, click went our cameras. So far, we had seen elk, buffalo and a coyote and the day was not over. It was easy to see why Yellowstone is often called National Park “the Serengeti of America.”
Created by Congress in 1872 Yellowstone became America and the world’s very first national park. In size, Yellowstone encompasses over a two million acres, mostly forests and wilderness. Since most visitors come to Yellowstone to see the geysers, hot springs, mudpots and other unique features, the park’s Grand Loop Road makes it easy. On a map, the loop road appears like a giant figure eight that divides the park into an upper and lower area. The road winds about the main landmarks, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and trails. In many areas, boardwalks offer close-up views of many of the park’s 10,000 hot springs and 300 active geysers.
From the south entrance, the road brought us to Yellowstone Lake and the West Thumb Geyser Basin, a bizarre landscape alive with smoke, steam and wild geothermal activity. As we walked a boardwalk along the lake, we saw bubbling mud pots, crystal hot springs that ranged in color from inky black to crystal clear turquoise that would be the envy of any owner of a South Florida swimming pool. But a dip in these superheated pools would be instantly fatal. The air smelled of sulphur and steam belched from fissures in the ground.
Beyond the boardwalk was a barren landscape of dead trees, scorched earth scarred with steaming fissures. Signs warning “Dangerous Ground” added to a surreal scene atop the caldera of a super volcano that last erupted 600,000 years ago. Nobody knows when it will blow its top again. It was epic, creepy and scary all at once.
We ended the first day of Yellowstone adventures in the grand old Lake Hotel. The rambling yellow inn on the shores of Lake Yellowstone was the park’s first. Originally built in 1891 then rebuilt in 1903, the hotel amenities include a first-class dining room and large lobby and sunroom, banked by windows overlooking a view of Lake Yellowstone. After dinner, a pianist played show tunes in the lobby. We sat on the lobby’s comfy sofas and chairs, sipped a mud pot cocktail and played scrabble as we listened to the music.
Here’s a bit of advice about staying here and other lodges within the national park: From late June to September, this is a much-visited park, so make your reservations as early as possible. My daughter Jan booked a two-night stay at the Lake Hotel in January and was told they were the last available rooms. And one more thing to remember, there is no television, no cell phone service and only spotty wifi access within the park.
Overnight, the air turned cold. Luckily, we had packed an assortment of sweaters, mittens and jackets. Even bundled up we shivered as we walked to breakfast, served in the cafeteria housed in nearby Lake Lodge that was kept warm by a glowing fireplace in the rustic lobby. Despite the chilly temperature, there was no hesitation to hit the road for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. To get there, our course led through the idyllic Hayden Valley formed by the Yellowstone River on its meandering southeastern journey. Distant snow-capped peaks of the Abrasoka Mountains sparkled against the sky. Herds of bison grazed amid the meadow’s lush grassland.
All at once, we saw an animal digging in the grassy meadow. It was a wolf, a big gray wolf. We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was so unexpected, especially as there was no traffic jam clogging the road. We gazed transfixed with wonder at seeing the rare, wild canine. Wolves had once been wiped out of the park by hunting and trapping. In 1997, 14 Canadian wolves were released into the park. Today 11 wolf packs roam the wilderness.
The roar of waterfalls filled our ears as we walked the path leading to the canyon were the magnificent Upper Falls cascaded down the steep canyon walls of yellow rock. From an overlook, we could view the canyon’s Upper and Lower falls and the river’s turbulent downhill plunge. Steep paths curved downward to overlooks closer to the canyon. After a bit, the cold wind sent us back to the car.
Another surprise, snowflakes swirled and dotted the windshield as we drove back to the wonderful Lake Hotel. To us it seemed like a blizzard in June.
The next morning we said goodbye to the Lake Hotel and planned a leisurely drive to Old Faithful Village, for a one-night stay in the cabins at Snow Lodge.
Once again we followed the Hayden Valley until we left the main road for a less traveled link to Madison Junction and the Lower Geyser Basin on the opposite side of the park. The route brought us to the Virginia Cascade, a rushing waterfall that splashed into a narrow tree-lined gorge
This backcountry route took us to a camp and ranger station at Madison Junction. From the Nez Perce parking lot, we watched three bison stroll through a picnic area on the opposite side of narrow, slow moving stream. Before crossing over, the bison dipped their hoofs daintily in the water then splashed with care as they came toward the parking lot. It was time to jump back into the car.
The scenery soon changed from pastoral to the weird world of noisy, smelly, spouting, geysers and boiling hot springs. The three-mile Firehole Lake Drive leads to the Lower Geyser Basin that boasts the Great Fountain and White Dome geysers and the smoky blue lake.
As if we hadn’t had enough weirdness, Midway Geyser Basin proved a spectacular other-worldly vision. “Hell’s Half Acre,” as author Rudyard Kipling described the site, is home to a 270-foot crater formed by the Excelsior Geyser with a constant stream of water overflowing its rim. On the same loop walk, this geothermal marvel is topped by the larger and more colorful Grand Prismatic Spring. Measuring 300 feet across, it is the largest hot spring in the park and third largest in the world. The spring’s water glows in shades of turquoise, greens and blue with rays of yellow, orange and brown spreading across the surface. The ray’s colors are created by algae, nurtured by the heat. A steamy mist wafted across the heated water. The spring edges close to the boardwalk. There’s no railing, so we walked carefully. A fall into the spring could be painful.
Onward to Old Faithful, the star of Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Visitor Center posts the times when the famed geyser is due to erupt. Eruptions can be from 60 to 90 minutes apart. We had several minutes to browse in the center’s exhibits, bookstore and gift store. Back outside we joined the crowd on hand for the big moment. Old Faithful did not disappoint. The great, steaming spout shot over 100-feet into the air accompanied by a rumbling roar.
We cheered the grand sight. But the Old Faithful Village offered another wonder –this one man made. Built in 1903, the Old Faithful Inn is a National Historic Landmark. Any visitor should step inside the huge log building with a lofty lobby that soars 80-feet high to the exposed roof ridge. Rocking chairs gathered about the hearth of a towering stone fireplace. After dinner, we took another look at Old Faithful as it let off a cloud of steam against in the evening sky. Tired but happy we hustled off to our cabins at the Snow Inn and to bed.
After a small bit of morning shopping at Old Faithful General store, we aimed the car north to Canyon Village, an area with a visitor center, post office and lodging where we planned to spend the night. The drive was spectacular especially when we took the turnoff at the Gibbon Falls and walked a bit on the river trail. Wildlife spotting included a wolverine on the opposite river bank, a mule deer and a brown bear and cub playing under the trees.
A big night lay ahead as we had made reservations for an exciting chuck wagon dinner in a remote valley, not far from the park’s north entrance. We had to check into our Canyon Village cabins and then change into warmer clothes because it gets cold at night in this mountainous region.
At the Roosevelt Coral, we climbed into Chuck Wagon seven, a big yellow covered wagon with room for 10 passengers. Dallas McCord recited cowboy poetry as cowhands hitched Shorty and Squirt, hefty Belgium horses, to the chuck wagon. James, our guide, hopped aboard and a caravan of wagons set off on a jaunt through Pleasant Valley. James entertained us with stories of the park’s, tumultuous history and its many colorful characters. We returned to the coral and the aroma of grilled steaks filled the cool air.
In the outdoor valley setting and to the tune of cowboy music, we filled our plates and stomachs with tender meat, corn, salad, cornbread and apple crisp cobbler. Cowboy coffee cooked in a metal pot over a campfire was better than expected. The evening ended too soon and it was time to drive through the lovely hills back to our cabin. Tomorrow would be our last full day in Yellowstone.
In the morning, we said farewell to Canyon Village. The plan was to drive north to the town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the park’s exit. Peregrine falcons soared from ridges, herds of bison enjoyed the good life in the verdant, stream fed valley, but no wolves appeared.
From the valley, we next drove to historic Mammoth Springs, a small village that’s home to the park headquarters, a hotel, post office and a housing community for park employees. In the 19th century this was the site of Fort Yellowstone and permanent army base for the US Calvary. Built in 1909, the Albright Visitor Center, a sturdy building of dark stone, once served as the Bachelor Officer Quarters. Today it provides information for tourists and showcases western art. Elk graze on the former army parade grounds and lounge on shady lawns.
But the most amazing thing is the terraced Mammoth Spring itself. From a distance, it appears like a huge tiered cake covered in white and tan icing. Up close, the stair step terraces stream with water bubbling from the spring. The water forms pools and leaves deposits of calcium carbonate that harden into travertine terraces. Boardwalks wind about upper and lower spring area.
Our last night in Yellowstone was spent at the Abrasoka Lodge in Gardiner, MT, a real western town on the banks of the Yellowstone River.
On our way back home, we reentered the park through the impressive Roosevelt Arch, a 50-foot basalt structure. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the basalt structure completed in 1909.
As we retraced our path, Yellowstone gave us a final thrill. South of Mammoth Spring, a huge traffic jam could only mean there was a bear by the road. We jockeyed for position. OMG! A grizzly bear mamma and cubs were frolicking in the in the grass. We tried to get out of the car for a closer look. But the park ranger said no, “Just get your picture and move on.”
What an ending to our park visit. We know we only saw a fraction of this incredible region. That would take years of time. But we did see how marvelous and alive our world could be with space for bears, coyotes, a wolves, elk and bison. Who could ask for more?