It’s easy to be cynical about Yellowstone National Park. Sometimes – perhaps for most visitors – the place comes off a lot like Disneyland. After all, most folks drive from one part of the park to another on the “grand loop,” a 140-mile road system that allows visitors to pop in and out of their cars to take in a view or, most often, snap pictures of wildlife that has grown so used to homo sapiens that they – the animals, not the humans – show no hesitancy about crossing roads or grazing within a few feet of the awestruck tourists.
On the other hand, the fact that folks who cannot get into the wilderness easily can still see animals in the wild is pretty cool. I lost my cynicism about Yellowstone when I met a 65 year-old Michigan woman who had lost the use of her legs. For her, the opportunity to sit in her car with binoculars and watch bison, pronghorn antelope and elk do their thing was, in her words, “a blessing.” Yellowstone is massive – more than 3,400 square miles. The wilderness it is part of is even larger when you add surrounding national forest land and the adjacent Grand Tetons National Park. That some small percentage of all this natural beauty might be accessible by car seems appropriate, though admittedly I might feel differently were I to visit in the summer, when the traffic jams can be epic and the park’s most popular sights overwhelmed with visitors. It’s easy to be charitable about the park’s accessibility in the fall, when the crowds are much, much smaller.
Plus, I will confess: it is cool to get so close to wild animals. I’d like to note that I took the accompanying photos with an Olympus EP-3 digital camera and a modest telephoto lens – a great point and shoot combo for an amateur like me but hardly professional grade – and got some great shots of some cool creatures.
I was determined to make use of the 2011 Ford Explorer I nicknamed the Tuxedo, to access key points in Yellowstone, but also to go beyond where vehicles are allowed. That said, the signs at nearly every trailhead in the park warning hikers about the presence of bears are the most obvious indicators that just beyond most of the roads (or in some cases alongside them) there is a wild side of Yellowstone that is easy to overlook. Visit any ranger station for a backcountry permit and you are required to watch a 15 minute video that, among other things, provides instructions about what to do if a bear attacks. (Personally, I found the advice to lay face down, protect my neck with my arms and play dead of little comfort). And while carrying a $50 bottle of bear repellent – nuclear-powered pepper spray, really isn’t required, it’s strongly recommended.
Statistically, the odds of being hurt or killed by a bear in Yellowstone are pretty small. The park has more than 3 million visitors annually but averages just one bear-related injury per year.
Of course all the bear talk in Yellowstone can mess with your head. Especially when it’s dark, you’re alone in your tent and there is no one around for, say, three or four miles. I dealt with the stress by treeing my food well away from the tent, keeping the bear spray handy and taking more than a few deep cleansing breaths. Thankfully, the best cure for bear-related insomnia is a really long hike. By the time I was in my tent, a day spent hiking and backpacking quickly caught up with me. Before I knew it, the sun was coming up, the elk were bugling to their mates in the distance and I was ready for more Yellowstone adventures.
The next stop was Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. For generations, Americans have been flocking to Old Faithful to see it spout hot water and steam hundreds of feet into the air and marvel at the regularity with which it does so. And the fascination shows no signs of abating. During the summer months, more than ten thousand people per day – PER DAY – move through the Park’s Old Faithful visitor’s center to see the old girl blow her top.
I will confess that I was dismissive of this fascination with All Things Geyser before I arrived to Yellowstone. I had read about the crowds – which I have a low tolerance for to begin with – and I have a backpacker’s natural disdain for efforts to pave paradise to make it more accessible to the motorized masses.
But once I got to Old Faithful – or more accurately, the Old Faithful Geyser Basin – I was utterly mesmerized by the place. For starters, the basin is so much more than Old Faithful: It’s two square miles of spritzing, sprouting, spitting and spewing, with a lot of bubbling and some colorful hot springs thrown in for good measure. All together the basin includes the world’s largest concentration of geothermal wonders and nearly one quarter of all the geysers in the world.
I cannot explain it but there is something just so cool about seeing a geyser that only goes off once a day do its thing. And they are all different. Beehive Geyser gets its name from the hive shape of its cone. Riverside Geyser from its proximity to the Firehole River. Rocket Geyser because of its long straight plume. And on and on.
But despite all of the various geologic attractions – many of which are more spectacular than Old Faithful itself – the Old Lady is still number one. As I sat on bleacher seats with a few hundred other folks waiting for her to blow, I was charmed by the thought that I was one of millions of Americans – and others – who have been trooping to this very spot since at least 1870 to see the geyser blow. Past all the crowds and asphalt, there is something still very wild and inexplicable about Old Faithful and the whole basin. For one thing, the water is still scalding – and dangerously – hot. And it smells odd, like sulphur. And the geysers themselves can look like something from another planet. And they go off willy-nilly. All of which makes it possible to look past the efforts to tame the place and understand that beneath it all – literally – is a force of nature that is massive and awesome and so hot that it keeps things really, really interesting on the surface.
So if you have a chance, take half a day walk around the basin. Take a million pictures. Sit with your countrymen and all the international visitors and watch Old Faithful awe the onlookers for the millionth time. Go to the historic Old Faithful Lodge – an iconic American space of another kind – and have a beer and look over the basin from the upstairs terrace at sunset. For my money, it’s better than the Empire State Building and Mount Rushmore and all the rest combined.
After getting out of the Shoshone Creek area mid afternoon, I was determined to avoid the suburbs that are Yellowstone car campgrounds. So I popped into a ranger office, got a free backcountry permit for the Lamar River Trail and headed to the trailhead about an hour away.
The Lamar River is a 40-mile tributary of the Yellowstone River that is located entirely in the national park. The region that surrounds it is less a valley than a massive plain, wide and largely flat, which makes it ideal for gazing herds of bison, elk and antelope as well as wolves, coyote, and grizzly. In the summer, the Lamar area becomes ground zero for Yellowstone wildlife viewing – with bumper to bumper traffic. In the fall, however, it is just as beautiful, but with less traffic and fewer bears, which move to higher elevations to gorge themselves on white bark pine nuts.
Traveling east, the highway follows the Lamar River for most of the valley floor, until it bends north to the park’s northeast entrance. Where the road departs the river, however, the Lamar River Trail begins. While I had hope to hit the trail before dusk, I ran out of daylight, so when I left the comfort of the Tuxedo, it was basically pitch black. So I turned on my headlamp, made sure my bear spray was within easy reach and headed into the darkness with hopes of reaching my campsite within a couple of hours.
I won’t soon forget that hike. My headlamp burned 12 feet or so into the darkness, highlighting a bit of the chaparral that stretched for miles around me, but beyond that perimeter of light, the rest of was inky blackness. And silence. The trail out there is nearly impossible to lose but hiking it solo in the darkness was an eerie feeling just the same, like jumping off a cliff blindfolded, without a good idea of where the bottom is or how long it might take to reach it.
Then I noticed the stars. At first just a few that were bright enough for me to see past the glare of my headlamp. Curious about what the night sky might offer, I turned my light off. As I stood there, looking up, my eyes adjusted and the night simply exploded with light. Thousands of stars, on a moonless night, burned like fires above me. The entire Lamar Valley plain becomes visible in the starlight. Suddenly, the idea of walking out into that blackness went from an idea of questionable judgment to a unique, breathtaking privilege. I was tempted to spend the night right there, just watching the heavens burst forth, but decided to keep on toward my campsite, taking several more star breaks in the process. By the time I arrived to my campsite it was 11 p.m. What I expected to take 90 minutes or so had taken three times that, as the skies kept tempting me to stop and watch in awe.
Rob Lamme is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Backpacker, Sky and other publications. This fall, Rob is trying to cram as much backpacking, hiking, cycling and mountain biking as possible into a three week trip through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Look for periodic updates about his adventures on thefordstory.com over the next few weeks.