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The Magic of Yellowstone

9 min read
The Magic of Yellowstone

That’s right – they’re all here in Yellowstone, and by the thousands. Ten thousand geo-thermal wonders – half of all that exist in the entire world. Two thousand buffalo. Twenty thousand elk. Plus a waterfall twice as high as Niagara Falls, a park that’s larger than two entire states, more than a thousand miles of trails, and historic hotels built for the rich a century ago – including the largest log structure in the world, the enormous Old Faithful Inn.

But that’s not all: You can fish or boat on the largest mountain lake – Lake Yellowstone – in all of North America (20 miles wide by 14 miles long – a shoreline of 110 miles!). And if the economy has you bummed about having to put off that African safari for a year or two, think instead of visiting “the largest sanctuary for western large mammals in the lower forty-eight states.” Granted, you won’t come face to face with a rhino. But a one-ton bison can be just as intimidating. And in addition to the elk and moose and griz and buffalo there are wolves, black bear, bighorn sheep, antelope, cougar, coyote, mule deer, and those are just the larger critters.

Are feathers your preference? Yellowstone is known to America’s 46 million birders for its trumpeter swans, osprey, bald eagles, golden eagles, white pelicans, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, Canada geese, ravens, magpies, killdeer, yellow-headed blackbirds, dippers, and more. Even if you can’t tell a bluebird from a duck you’ll get a kick out of the variety.

But enough of lists…you get the idea. There’s so much to see and it’s easy to get here. There are airports nearby (West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Jackson…), should you choose to fly. But if lower gas prices have you thinking of a family road trip, of seeing the USA in your Chevrolet (other makes are allowed), know that just driving in can be a wonder. (“Wonderland,” by the way, was a common 19th century name for this place, before it became the world’s first national park way back in 1872 and was later officially monickered Yellowstone).

Five paved-road entrances beckon you to the heart of the park, a figure-eight road system designed to take the visitor to and through an unforgettable land. But even before you reach this huge quarter-million-acre thermal and animal sanctuary of Rocky Mountain wilderness, you’ll have traversed the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” Like a jewel in a velvet box, the park is nearly surrounded by the Gallatin, Madison, Absaroka, Gros Ventre, Wind River, and Teton Mountains, plus five national forests. As the old saying goes, getting there is half the fun.

As the director of an active-travel tour company I’m often asked “What’s your favorite trip?” If I’m just back from somewhere I almost always answer wherever I’ve just been, because I’m thinking of the people – the guests and the guides – whom I’ve just enjoyed for a solid week.

But my favorite favorite place? You guessed it – Yellowstone. Much of the reason is all that I’ve already mentioned, the wondrous sights and even the sounds of the place – the whoosh and gurgle of exploding geysers, the bubbling, plopping sound of mud pots, the giggle of kids when seeing these things for the very first time (my guides are unanimous in preferring family trips for this precise reason). Clark’s Nutcrackers and huge black ravens fly overhead, making their distinctive sounds, while nearby buffalo grunt their displeasure at having to move to remain in the shade. There’s always something happening in the Park.

And then there are the stories. Dinnertime for group travel is when one hears what everyone has seen and experienced during the day, and in Yellowstone that adds up to a lot. That would be true even if you only drove through the Park and took the boardwalk strolls around the hissing pools and geysers. But the road system covers only two percent of what there is to see. Our tours take people off the roads and into the backcountry by mountain bike and on foot trails, and just north of the park boundary (still in the Yellowstone Ecosystem) by horse into the high country guided by real cowboys. You can imagine the stories that spill out at dinner after these activities.

For all the natural history of the array of animals and geologic wonders of Yellowstone, the Park’s human history is equally fascinating. We have to imagine the reactions of the Crow and Blackfoot and Shoshone Indians as they traveled through today’s Park lands, and of John Colter (a former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) who was perhaps the first white man to see this region – alone and in winter to boot! Luckily, there are better records of mountain man Jim Bridger marveling at the sights two decades later in 1825..

Like Colter when he had attempted to tell the truth of what he’d seen, Bridger was faced with smiles and shaking heads when he reported boiling springs and petrified trees. So, in perfect fur-trapper style, he cranked things up a bit. He told, with a straight face, of catching trout deep in the cooler waters of those springs and pulling the fish up ever so slowly, cooking his dinner on the way out. The unstretched stories of petrified trees likewise weren’t believed, so they became “peetrified forests where peetrified birds sang peetrified songs.” He swore of the useful “eight-hour echo that you can wind up by shouting ‘Time to get up!'” when you went to bed.

Three somewhat scientific expeditions (1869 – 1871) were required to make Americans believe what had been earlier rumored, and all make interesting reading. But more fascinating, for its human element, is Truman Everts’ lengthy Scribner’s Monthly magazine article “Thirty-Seven Days of Peril” (now available as a book titled “Lost in Yellowstone”), in which he describes becoming separated from the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition and having to live in the wilds until rescued.

Though he took care of hundreds of wounded Civil War soldiers on the field at bloody Fredericksburg, he had trouble caring for himself after his horse bolted on day two of his separation from the group. “My blankets, gun, pistols, fishing tackle, matches – everything, except the clothing on my person, a couple of knives, and a small opera-glass were attached to the saddle.” Our tour guides point out to guests the plant that sustained him, today called the “Everts Thistle.” The poor lost man had been four days without food when he chanced upon one and, finding it “not unlike a radish,” ate several. (He cooked them in a “small, round, boiling spring, which I called my dinner-pot…”)

Everts was “overjoyed at this discovery” and, with “hunger allayed,” went to sleep beneath a tree – only to be awakened in the dark by the screech of a mountain lion. He hurriedly climbed the tree and kept the cat at bay by throwing branches and howling back. Hundreds of thistles, two minnows, some grasshoppers, a small bird and a month later, the man who found him reported, laconically, “He is alive and safe, but very low in flesh.” He wasn’t kidding, for Everts’ weight was guessed at only fifty pounds. Another writer, who interviewed his rescuer, described his condition more fully:

…he never saw so forlorn a looking human being as was Evarts [sic] when found. A few tattered rags upon an emaciated skeleton, frozen, scalded, singed and festered into the semblance of a two-legged animal, hideous beyond description….

Truman Everts was wasting away, but no one has ever been lost so long in Yellowstone and survived. The man had grit. In further proof of his staying power he married a second time at sixty-five, fathered a child at seventy-five, and died a decade later. (I include his tale not only because it is fascinating, but because his report’s publication in 1871 riveted the nation and helped the push toward saving this huge piece of wilderness as a national park.)

Don’t think human history becomes dull once Yellowstone becomes a park in 1872. Just five years later, when gold is discovered on the lands of the Nez Perce Indians and the tribe is ordered to a reservation, they chose a fighting retreat to Canada instead and routed themselves through Yellowstone. While in the Park they encountered a number of tourist parties, including that of a Mrs. George Cowan, who later wrote a lengthy description of their capture. Her husband, a Civil War veteran, was shot first through the thigh and only minutes later in the head by an Indian holding a pistol at point-blank range. Left for dead by the Nez Perce, he awakened after a few hours (the soft pistol ball had flattened against the skull and didn’t penetrate), but when he stood up he was seen by another Indian and shot – this time through the hip.

More hours passed as he faded in and out of consciousness. Then he came to and, hearing only silence, began crawling toward water (he no longer could walk). Five days later he’d covered the ten miles to a former camp at Lower Geyser Basin and was found by two Army scouts. They fed him, wrapped him in blankets against the night chill (almost all of Yellowstone is above 7,000′), built a warm fire and, explaining that they had to continue scouting and would send an Army patrol out to rescue him, rode off.

Later in the night a high wind blew the flames into the nearby trees, creating a forest fire; George Cowan barely managed to crawl away to safety, burning his hands and knees. But he was picked up later by an Army patrol and packed out of the park, then transferred to a wagon that flipped down a ravine when the horses bolted. Thankfully, its occupants had been tossed out before the descent. The thrice-up, burned, and now severely bruised Cowan required all fall and winter to recover from his visit to Yellowstone.

But don’t get the wrong idea. For every old-time story of someone lost, shot, or eaten by a bear (inevitably an Easterner who has tried to pet the nice griz or feed the black bear by hand), there are countless magazine articles written by visitors extolling the peaceable beauties of “Wonderland” (that name died a slow death). In fact, as early as 1883 a group of cycling enthusiasts pedaled the dirt roads on high-wheelers. John Muir, more often associated with Yosemite, visited two years later, and suffered nothing worse than the equivalent of a fender-bender today – he was thrown from his horse.

In 1887 Owen Wister, author of many Western novels (including The Virginian) and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote that the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River (the one that’s twice the height of Niagara Falls) is “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Then he and his hell-raising buddies shocked the tourists by washing their underwear in a geyser, and bought blackberry brandy from a hotel clerk to “…check disturbances which drinking queer water from highly chemical brooks often raised in human interiors.” You’ll find the water purified today.

If Rudyard Kipling had ridden horses through the park with Wister’s band of cut-ups he might have enjoyed himself. Instead, thinking to see Wonderland on his long trip to London from India he managed to get stuck in a carriage with two “old people from Chicago”; the missus “chewed gum and talked about her symptoms,” while the husband at every geyser complained about the “dreffel [dreadful] waste of steam-power.” Whatever the cause, the author of The Jungle Book was not a happy man. He begins his article with “To-day I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.” Things don’t improve much from there:

“The Park is just a howling wilderness of three thousand square miles, full of all imaginable freaks of a fiery nature.”

“The ground rings hollow as a kerosene-tin, and some day the Mammoth Hotel, guests and all, will sink into the caverns below and be turned into a stalactite.” [It hasn’t happened yet.]

“…we walked chattering to the uplands of Hell. They call it the Norris Geyser Basin on Earth…There were no terraces here, but all other horrors.”

Needless to say, Kipling wouldn’t have made it as a park ranger. Or as an Austin-Lehman Adventures guide!

I’ve written too much about this one-of-a-kind place on earth, and there’s still more than a century of history to tell…like the contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” in 1896 who pedal to Mammoth Hot Springs from Fort Missoula and back (you’ll see photos of these stalwart bikers when you visit Old Faithful Inn) – a distance of 790 miles with full field kit; the next year they rode their heavy bikes with field gear from Montana to Missouri! And then there’s Teddy Roosevelt’s visit in 1903.

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