At times in Yellowstone National Park, you feel like you could be on an African safari. Except instead of wildebeests, elephants and lions there are moose, bison and bears in the Unites States' oldest national park.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone sprawls across the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, with almost 9,000 square kilometres of forests, snow-capped mountains, steaming geysers and grassy valleys. The biggest national park in the United States, it’s an incredibly wild and isolated part of the country. To reach it, my tour group and I catch a flight from San Francisco to the tiny Jackson Hole Airport, situated in a valley of mountains a few hours’ drive from the park. This year, the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, a spotlight is being shone on this and other, lesser-known destinations.
Our tour group – travelling through the US to visit several national parks – stay overnight at the cute Hampton Inn in the rustic town of Jackson Hole, before driving through Grand Teton National Park en route to Yellowstone the following morning. Driving through both parks in a minibus, it’s common for our vehicle to stand alone amid grassy paddocks surrounded by herds of woolly bison and deer, with mountains towering above and clear blue lakes nearby.
While the wildlife is impressive, it’s the park’s famous geysers that attract thousands of visitors. Yellowstone spreads on top of a dormant volcano, and has more geysers and hot springs than anywhere else on Earth, with about 50 per cent of the world’s hydrothermal features.
The park’s most famous geyser is Old Faithful, a tourist attraction that emits a spray of steam that rises up to 60 metres, erupting every 35 to 120 minutes – much to the fascination of the hundreds of visitors who surround it.
Passing through grassy valleys rimmed by forests, lakes and peaks, herds of bison are common, and these burly, buffalo-like creatures seem exceptionally chilled. Stop to photograph them, and they barely raise an eye. In Yellowstone, it’s normal to see bison milling on the roads or even near the villages.
That said, park rangers caution visitors to stay at least 25 metres from the animals, and not turn your backs to them – selfies are best avoided. Last year, there were five incidents where people were charged by bison, the most recent being a mother and child who were just six metres away from one.
A national park largely dominated by pine forest, Yellowstone has many roads that follow rivers and lakes. One popular attraction is Yellowstone Lake, a vast body of water with bison, elk and pronghorn antelopes grazing near its shores, while ospreys soar above.
The Lake Lodge is a historic site worth visiting, a stately yellow and white complex about 100 metres from the waterfront. Here, bison often walk along the streets and often mill near the buildings.
“You’ve got to keep an eye out for them on the road,” our guide explains. “They seem to think they have right of way.”
Moose are also present in the park. When our tour guide stops the minibus so we can watch a few, many passengers are gobsmacked. These massive horned creatures are the largest species of the deer family, famous for their enormous antlers.
“After the mating season, male moose lose their antlers so they can conserve energy during winter,” our guide says. “They then get a new set of antlers in the spring, which take three to five months to fully develop.”
He says that male moose often weigh more than 700 kilograms, while females weigh up to 500kg. In the US, moose injure more people than any other wild animal, he adds.
Grizzly and black bears are in Yellowstone, and visitors regularly catch sight of these animals, which often wander through campsites in search of dinner.
Most campsites have steel lockers where you can store food, plus signs warning you not to keep food unattended or eat in a vehicle while your window is open.
Spotting a black bear waddling along the tree line of a grassy plain later that day, our guide passes around binoculars so we can see it better, then starts to explain the habits of these creatures. Then suddenly he stops. “For the bear, you need binoculars – but you don’t need them for these coyotes,” he says, pointing to two of the fox-like critters two metres from the road.
The coyotes, completely unperturbed by our presence, frolic through the grass, hunting for something. Eventually, they scamper off towards the tree line.
Our guide tells us that more than 50 out of a total of about 720 grizzly bears died last year in and nearby Yellowstone because of conflicts with hunters, farmers and livestock. The number of deaths was the highest since 1970. This is despite a US government campaign to retain a population of bears in Yellowstone. It isn’t all bad news, however: there are still three times as many grizzlies in the park today than there were 46 years ago.
One popular hot spot is Mammoth Hot Springs, a couple of hours’ drive north of Yellowstone Lake. This pleasant tourist town is full of lovely historic buildings, and like most other sites here, is frequented by animals – with mule deer and elk lounging near buildings and nearby geysers. With various attractive restaurants and cafes within walking distance, Mammoth Hot Springs is also a nice spot for lunch.
Driving south back towards Old Faithful, we spot mountain goats – massive woolly animals – clambering along the slopes.
Another point of note on the way is Norris Geyser Basin. Here, we stroll along wooden walkways, passing various steaming geysers. Many of the bubbling ponds are aqua-blue and steaming, occasionally erupting.
It’s only appropriate to end our trip at Old Faithful, the most famous of the 500 steam-spurting ponds in Yellowstone. It’s like the New York of Yellowstone. While there’s forest behind it, the geyser is surrounded by hotels, restaurants and a packed car park.
After waiting for about 20 minutes alongside hundreds of people, all grasping cameras, we see the geyser begin to splutter, then steadily unleash a huge spray of water and steam.
“Oh my word,” says an elderly American lady, watching this with her husband. “We came here on our honeymoon 50 years ago, and it’s still as amazing.”
That evening, still inside the national park, we stay at Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village, where we enjoy dinner in the forest.
The next morning, we drive back to Jackson Hole Airport – again passing hundreds of bison – to return to San Francisco. Flying out, we see the enduring image of clusters of animals below the mountains.