Yellowstone’s wonders

Published 8:36 am Friday, August 1, 2008

It seems odd to venture out on an old-fashioned family road trip when the children involved are 26 and 27, but that is what my family did this summer. My mom, Marcia, and I loaded up the family hybrid to embark on what would become a memorable trip to Yellowstone National Park.

On June 14, we left the house at around 7 a.m. Our first stop was at my grandmother’s townhouse to say goodbye in case we were eaten by bears. From there, we opened up our Diet Cokes — neither of us are big coffee drinkers — and drove. The first night, we stayed at Belle Fourche, S.D., near Spearfish and Sturgis. We could have driven a bit farther, but we were working to meet my brother, Brad, who lives in Seattle. Brad was flying to Billings, Mont.

We made it safely to Billings, and the real family vacation began. The closest entrance to Yellowstone was through Bear Tooth Pass southwest of Red Lodge, Mont. This entrance had closed the week prior due to an avalanche. It opened that day. As we ascended the mountain it got progressively steeper with sharper turns. Toward the top, we could see evidence of the avalanche all around us. On one side of the car a 25-foot wall of snow, on the other side, a 10,000-foot cliff. We made it safely down the other side of the peak and headed into the park.

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We entered Yellowstone through the northeast entrance. A herd of buffalo were there on the road waiting to greet us. Yellowstone is like no place else on Earth. It was pretty clear that our trip was going to be amazing. That night we stayed at Grant Village near the southern edge of Yellowstone Lake.

The next morning, we went to Teton National Park to hike. We took a boat across Jenny Lake and hiked to Hidden Falls. It was beautiful. I decided to wait at a rocky point overlooking the lake while my mom and brother climbed to Inspiration Point. While waiting, a chipmunk started taunting me for some trail mix. I knew it would not be a good idea to feed him, so I put the mix away. Unexpectedly, Alvin, the chipmunk, crawled up my pant leg and stared me down. I refused to move. I had a bad experience with a hamster once, and I know these creatures have sharp teeth! He finally left, but this wouldn’t be our only close encounter with the wildlife. On the hike back to our car, we disturbed a yellow- bellied marmot eating on the trail. He wasn’t put out by our presence, but we were excited to be so close to him.

After driving back from the Tetons, we went to the Geyser Basin where Old Faithful lives. Yellowstone is an active volcano that hasn’t erupted in more than 600,000 years. It is well overdue. The thermal features that boil and erupt from the ground beneath one’s feet are spectacular. This was my favorite feature of the park.

Once we got over the smell of sulfur, we took in some famous geyser blasts. The coolest of these was Grand Geyser. It had three separate plumes of water and steam that seemed to blow to the tune of a symphony. Brad and I ran to get there in time to see its eruption. Little did we know it would shoot off for more than 20 minutes to heights of more than 200 feet. Wow! This was exciting.

We saw so many cool thermal features. It is hard to list what was great about all of them. They were boiling hot, linked to underground magma chambers, and very colorful because of living organisms and bacteria that thrive in hotter temperatures — a must see. The largest, most colorful spring, Grand Prismatic, is featured on all of the postcards. Its beauty is just as true as the postcards show. It is huge, hot, and shows off a grand spectrum of colors from its cooler orange edges to its boiling blue center.

The Yellowstone River has carved a deep canyon reminiscent of the famous Grand Canyon. The upper waterfall of this canyon was fantastic.

So much water was pouring over the jagged rocky edge, it was nauseating. As we were leaving the area, our car was stopped by a giant bison crossing the bridge we were on.

He stopped at one point, realizing he wasn’t alone on the bridge. He headed straight toward our car, but luckily changed direction and headed onward down the bridge.

On the second to last night, we stayed at the Yellowstone Lake Lodge. This area was beautiful.

The lake is more than 400 feet deep and is the caldera of Yellowstone’s volcano. The ground on one side of the lake rises several inches every year as a result of current volcanic activity.

It is wild to think that there are thousands of visitors in the park at any given time while all of this volcanic activity is taking place. There is never a dull moment.

The last night we stayed at Mammoth Hot Springs. This area is filled with thermal heat. Mammoth Hot Springs is the largest thermal feature we saw.

It is a giant white, pink and orange cliff where magma-heated water flows over the edge. This causes the cliff to grow higher with the calcifying particles. Most of the trees near the spring have died because steam below the Earth’s surface has boiled their roots. It is an eerie-looking sight with all of the dead tree stumps and steam rising from the spring.

That night we finished dining, and Brad and I decided to hike to the top of a hill overlooking the area. We could see where all of the hawks roosted to hunt the Uinta ground squirrels below. As we descended the hill, a herd of elk cows and their calves were entering our lodge area. We found ourselves surrounded by these mothers with their babies, cooing all the while feeding on the lush landscaping near the hotel. It was so neat to interact with these animals.

We met up with a park ranger trying to keep them off of the roadways. After finding out he was from Mankato, he entertained us with stories of ignorant tourists who have asked some of the dumbest questions in history. He told us of a father who tried to place his child on an elk’s back. He mentioned being asked what year Old Faithful had been moved.

It is terrible to think that many people visit this place as if it were an amusement park or a Disney creation. It isn’t.

Yellowstone is wondrous, pure, natural, beautiful, historic and not going to be around forever. If you are like me, and have never been there, I highly recommend this vacation. Whether you choose to camp, or stay in the lodging facilities, Yellowstone is sure to impress you and your family. We stayed all over different parts of the park over the course of six days. I feel we saw almost everything that we wanted to.

In the middle of June there was still snow, so check the weather and load up your hybrid to see the wonders of our Great American West.