“Nature’s sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups of endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing.” – John Muir, conservationist.
Yellowstone. Oh Yellowstone. Where do I even begin? As a Western-European, I could not have imagined this vastness of wilderness. We drove for hours and hours and hours through the park. It felt as if Yellowstone easily covered more territory than our home country of Belgium. Looking up the facts, that’s not quite true – Belgium measures about 30.000km2 and Yellowstone park close to 9.000km2. Still. Immense.
It’s interesting. Chatting with some people we met underway, one commented: “Why would I visit Europe? It’s just a lot of old buildings. There is no comparison to the wildlife here.” Despite being in absolute awe for the vistas, wildlife, mountains, valleys, and plains we’ve encountered on our road trip so far, I couldn’t help but feeling ever so slightly offended. I am sure there are West-Europeans who say “Why would I visit the US parks? It’s just trees and animals.” To me however, both are equally impressive, important, relevant, and interesting, and both deserve our appreciation.
Yellowstone is known for its geothermal features and wildlife, and we took our time exploring both. We were not disappointed … Yellowstone offers a very diverse landscape, with lakes, canyons, rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges, and animals everywhere. You can check out our gallery.
We witnessed and learned about geysers, hot springs, mud pools and steam vents. Old Faithful erupted like clockwork, Grand Prismatic Spring was a colorful feast to the eye, the rotten egg smell of Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Breath is hard to forget, and Mammoth Springs was of spectacular beauty. We hiked along the Canyon of the Yellowstone; it’s steep walls like a painting. We were lucky enough to encounter a black bear up close, we found bison everywhere, and elk camped next door (again). We saw 2 lazy wolves lying about in the far distance, and zoomed past a red fox by the side of the road. Bald eagles soared overhead. At sunrise, in Hayden Valley, we heard the bizarre bugling of an elk bull, and we heard wolves and coyotes howl. The coyote must have been quite close, but sadly mist in the valley prevented us from seeing any wildlife at all.
On our first day, we were treated to a spectacular bison viewing. We hiked the trail to Fairy Falls, for a great view of Grand Prismatic Springs. Out of nowhere, this gigantic bison bull came down the trail, facing us head-on. We jumped behind a fence, and tried to get a bit higher up, while he casually strolled past us. That said, our siting of a black bear was the most impressive. Probably because we had to be so patient to see it. All through Banff and Jasper, we had hoped to spot a bear. We did not. We did not find it in Yellowstone either those first couple of days. On our last evening, we drove over Mt Washburn and I had all but given up on the bears. We turned a corner, and nearly bumped into a couple of cars on the side of the road. Human congregation is the best indicator of wildlife! These folks had seen a black bear, but for the past 10 minutes it had disappeared into the woods. I cursed our luck. We decided to park in the next pull out and just hung around a bit longer… And yes … Vincent’s eagle eyes spotted the bear emerging from the woods in the far distance. Too far to truly get a good look, but some folks shared their scopes for an up-close-and-personal view. (Our carefully selected binoculars turned out to be quite useless). To our astonishment, the bear gradually made its way back to us. Right to the parking lot! Literally under our noses. He got very close – probably just 1 bus length away. Way too close to be safe, as 10 bus lengths is recommended. We backed away as much as we could. Dad had bear spray in his pocket. We all very quietly observed the animal for a while and when the darkness set, made our way back “home” to our Tin Can, where we sat and watched the night sky.
Again, we were overtaken by awe for nature. Yellowstone’s active caldera is the largest supervolcano on the continent. Massive eruptions occurred 2 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 650 thousand years ago and shaped the landscape in the USA … Makes you wonder how long before it erupts again, and what the consequence will be. Oh well, that’s a concern for humankind in another 10 to 50 thousand years…
Formal “school” was a big nada. We did a couple worksheets, but that was about it. At the same time, we learned so much! We spent a ton of time in the visitor centers, and attended several ranger talks. The kids now are very proud Yellowstone National Park Junior Rangers. They all completed the park’s activity workbooks; a fantastic way to keep them engaged and spark their curiosity. They were beaming with pride when they got their patches, raised their right hands and repeated after the ranger “As a junior ranger, I, (name), promise to learn all I can to help preserve and protect Yellowstone’s wildlife, history, and natural features. When I return home, I will teach others how to protect the natural world.”
We were also (very) happy that there was no fire ban in Yellowstone. Campfire!!! The boys could eat their pyromaniac hearts out J. I loved finally using our heavy dutch oven to make yummy stews. And yes, we worked through at least a bag of marshmallows … Which were difficult to “run off” at an elevation of 7770ft (2368m); both Steven and I huffed, puffed, and suffered through our workouts.
In some ways, this trip makes me understand why there seems to be so little environmental concern with the general public here. There is simply such vast and wild nature, and you can drive for hours and not see a soul, that it’s hard to imagine we are slowly and painfully exploiting our planet.
Can I also add that we are struck by the duality between what we know of Portland, OR, and what see along the way? Small towns that were booming for just a couple decades, and now are seemingly deserted. Run down and worn down. Rusting equipment everywhere, buildings almost falling over. We wonder how folks survive – what jobs there are, how to afford health care, how these kids go to college, what about retirement etc. It makes us reflect again on how incredibly fortunate we are, and how grateful for our opportunities.
Finally, I’ve been feeling a little wary about the blog. It’s a lot of “we”, and no “you”. It’s intended to be our personal travel journal, to capture our memories and to read back when we are gray and old. We’re inviting you to read over our shoulders, but I hesitate, as I would not want it to be self-indulgent. (Often the criticism of blogs). If anything, we hope to inspire others to pursue their dreams. Or as Bill Clinton said the other day: “If you don’t like it, don’t read it”?
I will remember our time at Yellowstone as a happy episode of our trip. We hiked, laughed, admired, talked, sang, played. We were truly disconnected from the world – no cell or wifi service. I hope to return to Yellowstone one day. This week, we often told our kids “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life”. At which M keenly observed “yeah, you are old already and we are still young”. They get these experiences engrained in their memories at an early age, and we hope it will influence their choices and decisions in life. We met retirees who work their summers in the park, and spend their evenings roaming the park. Maybe that’s a nice goal for our retirement one day?!
We now left Yellowstone behind us. We traveled through Grand Teton, and are crossing Nevada to Lake Tahoe. From there, onto Yosemite. I must admit that we are feeling a bit “out-natured”, “out-dry camped” and “out-frozen”. I long for warmer weather; we didn’t quite pack for these crisp mornings and nights. The coffee shops and pancake parlors around Lake Tahoe can expect good business from us in the next couple of days!