Driving Yellowstone National Park

My first trip to Yellowstone revealed the park to be both what I expected to find, but also a number of pleasant surprises. Less than a half mile after entering the park through the North Entrance, we saw two pronghorn antelope and pulled over to take pictures from one of the many convenient turn outs along the park roads.

The North Entrance Road climbed steadily until we reached the Mammoth Hot Springs area. I’ll call it a village for lack of a better term. Here there was a hotel, restaurant, gift shop, visitor center, and a historic U.S. Cavalry outpost. Perhaps the first thing we noticed though was a herd of Elk grazing on the lawns and lying in the shade of the trees. A park ranger patrolled the area keeping cars moving past the herd and keeping pedestrians distant enough to avoid provoking the large animals.

I spoke to the ranger who told me that the males present were all young and there was no fully mature bull present just yet, although the rutting season was just beginning. If a bull was present, he said, he would have people much farther away from all the animals. Bulls are very protective of the herd. They don’t like people or other animals to get between members of the herd, probably because this would be the tactic used by a predator to separate an individual from the herd’s protection.

As we toured the park we also saw bighorn sheep peering at us from the top edges of cliffs, wolves worrying an unidentified carcass across a field, mule deer, osprey, ravens, coyotes, bison, least chipmunks, golden mantled ground squirrels, bald eagles, sand-hill cranes, and numerous other bird species. We did not see either grizzly or black bears although the body of a hiker killed by a grizzly bear was found while we were in the park.

Grizzly bear attacks are quite rare the information center guides said, prior to the two fatalities this year, it has been more than 20 years since someone was killed by a bear within Yellowstone National Park. Still, visitors are constantly reminded that all the animals in the park are wild and dangerous. Hikers are told they should carry bear spray which, according to ShoShone National Forest’s radio station’s informational loop, is statistically more effective than firearms in preventing serious injury during encounters with aggressive bears.

Aside from the wildlife, visitors to Yellowstone National Park can’t help but be aware that they are walking or driving on active volcanic ground. The center of the park is a giant volcanic caldera, the depression left by an erupting volcano that has several times covered much of what is now the western half of the United States with thick volcanic ash. The last major eruption of Yellowstone occurred 640,000 years ago according to park signage. Hundreds, if not thousands of active steam vents, geysers, boiling mudpots, and fumaroles, however, provide very convincing and dramatic evidence that magma still roils quite close to the surface at Yellowstone, as do the large numbers of small earthquakes and tremors recorded there by the USGS on a continuous basis.

We spent three days traveling Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road and four of the exit roads, stopping frequently to see geysers and other geological wonders. We took several short hikes within the park on some of the marked trails which combine for over 1000 miles within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The roads within Yellowstone are not a drive for those with a strong fear of heights. At one point we reached an altitude of 8859 feet above sea level as we drove a shoulderless road along a cliff edge.

I took more than 1000 photographs of the animals and unique geological features of Yellowstone, but I would absolutely return to Yellowstone as I would love to spend more time hiking some of the more remote trails within the park. Next time, I will definitely bring a fishing rod and test the waters of the many rivers of Yellowstone.

For those who follow the rules and precautions which are constantly made clear within the park, Yellowstone is a safe and thoroughly enjoyable family vacation area. We saw many families with small children who were thrilled and entertained by the volcanic gases and superheated steam escaping from caves and fissures throughout Yellowstone National Park

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