Yellowstone: a name that makes outdoors lovers shiver with delight. It is the oldest and one of the largest parks in the country. Located mainly in Wyoming (with little bits in Montana and Idaho), it's also one of the most popular. Named after the river that crosses it, the first European to see this wonder (a scout from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1807) had a hard time convincing people about his good faith, with his tales of colourful springs and water shooting from the ground. It was turned into a park in 1872 by an order of President Ulysses S. Grant and was the first national park.
Yellowstone is so spectacular because it is so rich in sceneries: swift mountain streams and glacial lakes, towering snowy mountains and rolling hills, little plains and canyons, grassy meadows and pine-tree groves, awesome geysers and serene alpine solitude...
But it is also rich in wildlife. You will probably read about the "big three" of Yellowstone:
1. The grizzly bear has found a haven here and feeds on the trouts provided by the river. It is probably the most popular.
2. The grey wolf, nearly extinct and completely wiped out of the Yellowstone area, it was reintroduced in the mid '90s with packs from Canada. They now thrive in their new habitat, but you'll still be lucky to see one.
3. American bison (buffalo): Those impressive, placid-looking ruminants are a symbol of the West and one of the easiest of the big mammals to spot. It was actually the only one I saw on my trip. You'll find them in grassy open fields, quietly chewing their food. Don't get too close, especially to a mother and calf. You don't want a 2,000-pound bulldozer running over you!
You'll find many more animals, too: mountain goats, mountains lions, otters, elks, moose, birds (amongst them the majestic golden and bald eagles), insects, fish, amphibians...
Unfortunately, Yellowstone is victim of its popularity. The number of tourists keeps on growing and is interfering with the habitat. Because cars are allowed freely in the park, noise and exhaust fumes are a real problem. In winter, it's the snowmobile. This is a recent debate. President Clinton, in the waning days of his administration, decided to bar snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton NP at the ire of the tourism industry. After a new administration friendlier to their interests took a look at a second study of the effects of snowmobiles and a lawsuit against the National Parks Service, the snowmobile industry has the upper hand. Seven hundred-twenty snowmobiles will be allowed in the park everyday. However, this year, because winter is unusually dry and warm (so far, writing in December 2004), many roads remain closed to snow vehicles, especially in the northern part.
Pollution is not Yellowstone's only enemy; geology is also one of them. The basin is located on an underground super-volcano, in a huge lava chamber that gives fuel to those beautiful geysers and hot springs you can find among the park. Unfortunately, it's like a pressure cooker, and it'll have to blow up someday. When it happens, it will be catastrophic. Signs of warning? If Yellowstone Lake suddenly empties, take cover.
That day is not here yet, and although I was only able to visit the very northern part of the park, it is best to devote at least three days to see everything and enjoy the trails. Another bit of advice: avoid summer holidays if you can and come in May and June or September and October, when temperatures are okay and you won't get swamped in tourist hell.