Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
Yellowstone National Park, named for brilliantly mineralized cliffs along the Yellowstone River, is the world’s oldest national park and many feel its most splendid.
Buffalo roam here and deer and antelope play as in America’s old west, against extraordinary scenery, amid more boiling-hot springs and spectacular geysers than are in all the rest of the world combined.
About 300 huge, lumbering endangered grizzly bears (dangerous themselves if crossed) forage for berries and nuts and dig winter dens on these 3,472 square miles (8,987 km2) of forest, grassland, meadows, lakes, streams, and the extraordinary “Grand Canyon” of the Yellowstone River, located in adjoining portions of three western states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
Thousands of elk grow five-foot (1.5-m) antlers every fall and “bugle” for mates through yardlong windpipes, resounding for miles. This is one of the places where bison—now 2,000 here—were brought back after indiscriminate killing reduced them from an estimated 60 million, most numerous hoofed animal the world has known, to a scattered few.
There are mountain lions; shy, half-ton (up to 450 kg) moose standing seven feet (2+ m) high at the shoulder; swift pronghorn antelopes—fastest animal in North America, clocked at up to 70 miles an hour (113 kph)—as well as black bears, bighorn sheep, big-eared blacktail or mule deer, and now, in a conservation success, gray wolves, reintroduced after ill-conceived management practices exterminated them, and so far doing well (mistaken sometimes for coyote look-alikes pouncing on rodents around Mammoth Hot Springs).
Trumpeter swans, world’s largest waterfowl, once thought to be extinct—snowy white, up to 34 pounds (15.5 kg)—float serenely along the Madison River, honking occasionally, sounding, some say, like a French taxi horn. Flocks of white pelicans soar in summer on nine-foot (2.7-m) wingspreads over Yellowstone Lake where they nest. The bird list of 290 species includes dippers, small songbirds that forage underwater in mountain streams, warbling vireos, pine grosbeaks, Barrow’s goldeneye ducks, and both bald and golden eagles. Gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers try to panhandle picnickers, though feeding them or any other wildlife is prohibited.
When early explorers and fur trappers sent back stories of huge numbers of animals, spectacular scenery, and boiling cauldrons here, no one believed them. “Jim Bridger’s lies,” they said. Finally a government-appointed group went out and found it was all true—and still is.
Besides finding what is still the continent’s largest and most varied large mammal population and a glorious birdlife, they found 10,000 thermal features, including fumaroles, mudpots, and geysers spewing hot water hundreds of feet skyward. There are fossil forests, waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet down, rushing rivers in a volcanic crater 47 miles (76 km) across, and a deep canyon 20 miles (32 km) long, 800–1,200 feet (245–370 m) deep, and as much as 4,000 feet (1,230 m) across. The Yellowstone still is the longest undammed river in the lower U.S.
It became a national park by act of Congress and signature of President U.S. Grant in 1872, setting the pattern for similar significant set-asides the world over. Exploiters still wanted to develop it for financial gain, so the U.S. Army was given the mission of protecting it, serving as model for today’s national park rangers.
Two locales particularly frequented by wildlife are Mammoth Hot Springs in the north, with moose, elk, deer, coyotes, and others; and on the western side, Norris Junction to Madison Junction, Madison west to the river crossing, and Madison south to Old Faithful geyser, at all of which are numerous elk, bison, coyotes, trumpeter swans and, frequently, moose.
Smaller four-footed residents (more than 60 mammal species in all) that can be encountered at any time include bobcats, badgers, river otters, foxes, golden-mantled and flying squirrels, beavers,snowshoe hares, porcupines, pocket gophers, and a few wolverines.
About 45 percent of the park was burned in a huge forest fire in 1988 and evidences of it remain, but wildlife populations, while changed somewhat in composition, do not appear to have been adversely affected; long-term studies continue.
Best times are September–October, though any month can be grand. July–August are popular but often jammed with most of the annual 3-million-plus visitors. Antlered animals are at their best in fall, and bison and bighorn sheep come nearer then. Winter is bitterly cold but gorgeously snow-covered. Geysers erupt in steamy mists. Spring can be anytime from April to June, and brings young animals and wildflowers en masse.
Dozens of lodges and campsites are in the park and nearby, some open year-round (reserve well ahead). Check out historic, elegant Lake Yellowstone Hotel, also Old Faithful Inn, even if you don’t stay there (both close seasonally in October).
Best and closest air connections are through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Bozeman, Montana. There are five park entrances, accessible from Gardiner, Cooke City, and West Yellowstone, Montana, and from Jackson and Cody, of which only the north entrance from Gardiner stays open in winter.
More time-consuming and sometimes hair-raising over switchbacks—but worth it if it’s possible— are driving the Beartooth Scenic Byway or Chief Joseph Scenic Byway to the northeast entrance (best plan all this ahead). The park has 370 miles (595 km) of paved roads (not all maintained all year), 1,200 miles (1,930 km) of trails and in winter, snowcoach transportation. Yellowstone is known as best place in the lower 48 states to photograph wildlife, though it should be remembered, park rules, enforced, require visitors to stay 25 yards (23 m) way from most wildlife and 100 yards (93 m) away from bears.
Incompatible activities, some inside park perimeters, include various kinds of development, including mining and oil and gas extraction, which threaten wildlife. Some animals which wander outside park boundaries are shot. What is needed is an overall ecosystemwide protection plan. For these reasons, the park has been listed as an endangered U.N. World Heritage Site.
The park has a wealth of literature on everything from park geothermal activity to trip-planning and where to see and photograph bighorn sheep, available from park service, bookstores, Internet sources.
Places of interest nearby include GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, just south, NATIONAL ELK and RED ROCK LAKES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES
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for lodging information about this Reserve