We left Chicago behind, albeit reluctantly. When we booked our first ever Amtrak vacation, it was on a whim but at the heart of it all was to experience the California Zephyr. This train journey is considered to be one of the prettiest and scenic routes across the USA. It starts from Chicago Illinois to Emeryville California (San Francisco). To reach the west coast, the train crosses the state of Illinois, over the Mississippi River, then to the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Utah and Nevada. Without getting off the stops, the journey takes two nights and three days, covering 2438 miles (3923.5km). A truly fantastic and relaxing way to see the breathtaking views across America.
With the California Zephyr as our mode of transport, we were in a great position to see the rest of America from the Midwest to the West. We also had the opportunity to stop in Utah so we could make our way north to visit Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Well, not exactly just in Wyoming as this huge park, the first national park in the USA, and part of the South Central Rockies forests is actually in three states: most of it in Wyoming, then straddling Montana and Idaho.
The California Zephyr stopped at Salt Lake City, where we got off very late at night after having thoroughly enjoyed the scenery along the way (not to mention the food prepared on the train). An overnight stay at Salt Lake City prepared us for our road trip to Yellowstone on our rental car, going north to Wyoming and Montana that led us to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. (There are 5 entrances to Yellowstone; the west adjacent to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, the north in Gardiner Montana, the northeast entrance in Cooke city, Montana, East entrance in Cody, Wyoming and the south in Jackson, Wyoming).It was a very easy and scenic five hour drive through alpine forests and snow capped mountains visible in the horizon and approximately 370 miles ( 595 Km) from Salt Lake City.
It may have been spring but light snow dusted the roads and was a novel sight for us, having come from sub-tropical Queensland Australia where we don’t get snow.
Food was not the motivation to see Yellowstone. When we included the stop at Salt Lake City, we asked for an independent package, with focus on seeing the main attractions we’ve heard so much about and seen on the National Geographic wildlife TV series. Yellowstone National Park, has an area of 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2), made up of mountains, lakes, geothermal areas, canyons, and rivers. It is known for its wildlife, protected and left in their natural habitat. It is so vast that to see the entire area would be impossible to do even if one opted to stay there for a month. The National Park Services (NPS) manages the park, making sure that while visitors enjoy what numerous activities and sights there are, the natural beauty is preserved and the wildlife and ecosystem are protected. Although archaeological evidence shows that humans( thought to be nomadic hunters and predecessors of Native American tribes) inhabited this area as far back as 11,000 years ago, the first Western man to discover Yellowstone was John Colter, who in 1807 was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific (Corps of Discovery Expedition from St Louis to the Pacific coast). No one quite believed his account of the geothermal wonders he stumbled upon. However proof of these discoveries was made in 1869 when the Folsom-Cook expedition made the first formal exploration to Yellowstone, followed in 1871 with an exploration by government geologist Ferdinand Hayden, photographer William Jackson and landscape artist Thomas Moran. With visual evidence recorded from the expedition, US Congress acted to allocate and protect the area as the first US national park. In 1872, President Grant signed the bill into law, known as the Yellowstone Act of 1872.
As we made our way to the entrance, we could only thank these men for having had the foresight to preserve this beautiful wild place for everyone to enjoy and experience. The sight of wild bisons and elk grazing on the snow sprinkled grassland and some ambling alongside our car, totally unperturbed by humans was certainly unusual. This shouldn’t have surprised us as Yellowstone is home to grizzly bears, wolves, herds of bisons and elk as well as mountain goats, ospreys, eagles… you name it, and Yellowstone has it.
Settling at the Yellowstone Park hotel, we intended to see as much as we could with the little time we had for this stop. Our priority was to see the geothermal features of Yellowstone Park, the mudpots, hot springs, mud volcanos, geysers notably Old Faithful (known for its frequent and predictive eruptions), canyons, waterfalls and lakes. We were informed that the wildlife is abundant and as long as we played by the rules, we should be safe. Many visitors were there to look for bears as they came out of their winter hibernation in caves, but we were just as content to blend in with the wildlife and experience the natural wonders of this vast place.
If like us, time is an issue, the best way to get around and explore Yellowstone is by car unless of course hiking and camping are the preferred options. With approximately 350 miles of sealed road, most areas are accessible for driving tourists. There is an entrance fee for visitors upon entry including private and non commercial vehicles.
As there are no shuttle buses in Yellowstone we booked a couple of days with Xanterra Parks & Resorts to provide us their bus tour within the park. At the height of the summer season there are many other commercial bus tours from outside the park offering tours from different entry points and towns.
At the NPS West Yellowstone Visitor Information centre, armed with various maps and literature, we waited for our bus to take us to our chosen first point of interest, the Fountain Paint Pot area within the Lower Geyser Basin. Here, four types of hydrothermal features were concentrated, namely; geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles. The number of thermal features in Yellowstone is estimated at 10,000. Following the walking trail, we were mindful of the toxic gases emitted by these steaming treasures and attentive of the warnings and stories of accidents or foolish actions of visitors that have resulted to death. One story in particular was of a man who jumped (head first) in the pool of steaming boiling hot water in an attempt to rescue his friend’s dog, which had jumped into the mudpots. The man of course died of burns quite slowly (he was still conscious and alive when rescued), went blind and his entire body covered with three-degree burns. Hence the BOLD warning with the sign: DO NOT TAKE YOUR DOG ON TRAILS IN YELLOWSTONE.
The hot springs average a temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or 66 Celsius and can reach temperatures of 185 to 105 Degrees F ( 85-96C). That’s HOT in any language!
Numerous stories of this nature was chronicled in a book we picked up in a generals store at Gardiner, Montana ( at the north entrance) by Lee H. Whittlesey , called Death in Yellowstone. A very interesting read and may even be available on Amazon.com
I couldn’t resist not talking a little bit about food, although as mentioned, food wasn’t on our minds when we planned the 3-day visit to Yellowstone. Despite my lack of culinary expectations, dinner at the Bar N Ranch restaurant was a delightful surprise. With its rustic setting, a view of the mountain and excellent service, we had no trouble enjoying the bison casserole ( for me) and the bison rib eye and filet ( for my husband) and side dishes of potatoes and corn. We also had a good meal at the Buffalo bar. In fact there are dining choices a plenty in West Yellowstone. Best to ask your concierge or explore the small town.
The next day, Canyon trail and Lower Falls was on the agenda. Not as big as the Grand Canyon, this formation is nevertheless spectacular and breathtaking and is one of the most photographed features in all of Yellowstone. Viewed from several vantage points, the visitor can really appreciate the beauty and splendour of this little understood complex geological feature. At the time we were there, some areas were closed to vehicles but for our benefit,our guide pointed out the best available points for photo-shoots. We couldn’t get enough of the spectacular view and still regard this attraction one of the better sights in Yellowstone.
It is common knowledge that Americans are patriotic and love their country with a fierceness very few other nationalities have towards their own homeland. With what we have seen in this journey and for many other reasons (America is indeed a beautiful and diverse country to start with), it’s not surprising that many Americans spend their vacations within their country. During the height of summer, the camping grounds in Yellowstone are littered with tents, Winnebago, and other camper vans. Hikers also take this time of the year to explore the attractions of Yellowstone. It’s always best to plan your trip to Yellowstone and check the accessibility and opening dates and times of the various attractions, roads and other activities including fishing in the lake (summer) and snow boarding in winter. Here are a couple of links that are worth looking at prior to finalising a trip to Yellowstone.