Yellowstone National Park, an American safari

Before I ever went on safari in Tanzania’s national parks, I traveled with my family to Yellowstone in mid-May of 2000 and saw so many large mammals that I felt as if I were on safari in the American West.

Winter had only just released its grip on the park, which straddles the border of Montana and Wyoming. Some of the roads were still closed, and crowds were thin. Herds of bison grazed alongside park roads—and held up traffic on the roads—and fuzzy, orange calves gamboled among their massive parents. The adult bison equaled the size of our rented minivan, no joke. One evening we were held up by a herd walking right down the middle of the road. Unfazed, incredibly large bison passed mere feet from our car in a single-file line. We watched through our windows with a little trepidation and exhilarated amazement.

The Lamar Valley, in northeastern Yellowstone, is an animal-watcher’s paradise, frequented by wolves, bears, bison, elk, and more. We drove through it several times, early and late, stopping when we saw a group of people gathered with telescopes and cameras. These were friendly folks. We were out of our league but only had to ask what was out there to be offered a look through someone’s scope.

Some people were bear-watchers, pointing out a grizzly bear on a hillside in the distance. Some of the bear-watchers were disparaging about “dog-watchers,” those who scanned for a wolf sighting. We were happy to see it all—and we did, though I have almost no pictures to show for our visit to this remarkable place. Aside from a couple of grizzlies spotted through scopes, we saw with our own eyes a wolf tearing at an old elk kill, bison, elk, mule deer, moose, black bear, pronghorn, coyote, red fox, river otter, beaver, marmot, pelican, trumpeter swan, sandhill crane, Canada goose, and mountain blue bird.

And then we saw, only a few yards away, what we longed and feared to see: a mother grizzly bear and two first-year cubs.

What saved us was the fact that we were in our car. We were staying at Lake Yellowstone, where the easy walking trails around the lake were closed because of grizzly activity; mother bears and their cubs had recently emerged from hibernation and were refueling, we were told. That morning we’d walked out from the hotel with our 4-year-old son and our 4-month-old daughter in a jog stroller, looking for a scenic stroll. When we saw the chain across the trail and the warning sign about bears we got a bit nervous and went back to the car for a scenic drive instead.

We drove around the area all day and saw many beautiful sights and quite a few animals but no bears. We were a little disappointed as we headed back to our cabin just before dusk. I was driving, and about a mile from our hotel, as another car came toward us, I saw movement on the left out of the corner of my eye. Something big erupted from the undergrowth and ran into the road. I slammed on my brakes, as did the other driver, and stared through my windshield at a grizzly bear, the hump between her shoulders and the grizzled fur on her back clearly identifying her. She moved swiftly across the road, between our two cars, and stopped just before plunging into the trees on the other side, not 25 feet away. She looked back, and so did I, and suddenly two dog-sized balls of fur appeared and ran to catch up to her.

I think at this point I had stopped whispering to my son in the back seat to look, Look, LOOK! and was now beating my husband on the arm and begging him to find the camera. He tried, without taking his eyes off the bears, but by the time he’d ripped it out of the case, they were gone. It was a magical moment. And I’m eternally thankful that we encountered them from the safety of our car rather than on foot with our two young children.

Aside from the wildlife there’s so much to see in Yellowstone. Early visitors, according to Ken Burns’ series on the national parks, were appalled and astounded by the landscape, likening it to a devil’s playground with its boiling mud pots, spouting geysers, and sulphur-smelling springs.

The landscape is a curiosity, no doubt about it. In the old days, visitors walked out on the fragile ground that rang hollow under their boot heels. These days long boardwalks lead visitors safely to the views. “Safe” is a matter of perspective, of course, since the whole park is sitting on a lava lamp of magma and is expected to blow its top one day.

We’re not worried, are we?

There goes Old Faithful.

Morning Glory Pool, a hot spring with water so blue and so clear that you can see, as if through glass, the crack in the earth from which the water emerges.

In addition to wildlife and geological oddities, the park has an impressively large waterfall and canyon known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

My son also loved that we saw snow during our visit. Snow in mid-May? You bet—it was chilly. But the springs are hot and so are the sights. Yellowstone is a national park that everyone should see.

This post is part of a week-long bloggers’ celebration of the National Parks. Please join in with a post about any park you’ve visited and leave your link here.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

14 Responses

  1. Janet says:

    Thought I just posted a comment?

  2. Janet says:

    Pam, if there are multiple comments from me, please delete the duplicates. thanks

    Your first one must not have gone through, Janet. Sorry for the difficulty. —Pam

  3. Town Mouse says:

    Ah, that’s amazing! I can’t believe I still haven’t been to Yellowstone. I should really try to go next year. Wonder what the wildflowers are like…

  4. I can’t believe the amount of wildlife you saw, Pam! Our visits to Yellowstone happened before the enormous fires of 1988, when the cover was more dense and sightings less frequent. I’ve read that as devastating as the damage seemed at first, after a few years there was more plant diversity and the fire created more grazing areas for wildlife. Bet a return visit would demonstrate many changes in a place where geysers stop and start with no warning and natural features go through phases. Morning Glory pool was not beautiful when we were there.

    Love the photos of the park and all 4 of the kids. Fun to see you with long hair and glad you were all safe in the car!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Another fine park I haven’t been to. WHINE…

  6. Robin says:

    I’ve enjoyed your park posts this week! I’m like Lisa, whining on the inside because I so want to visit some of these places. Hopefully one day.
    Even though you didn’t have pictures of the bears your wonderful description of the event more than made up for the missed opportunity.

  7. bangchik says:

    I love the look of bison…. a true display of strength and fighting spirit!!… The hot spring is awesome.. ~bangchik

  8. Pam Kersting says:

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s a place I’ve yet to visit. Glad to see that another family has enjoyed the National Park Series on TV. I’m glad it has inspired you to share your visits with us.

  9. Loree says:

    Someday I will see Yellowstone….someday….

  10. Thanks for this one on Yellowstone. I’ve been enjoying the park series, so glad you’re highlighting their extraordinary natural beauty.

  11. Lola says:

    That was a lovely visit. Through your pics is the only way I will get to see Yellowstone. I’ve enjoyed all you National Parks posts.
    Thank you.

  12. […] National Park, Wyoming and Montana Pam of Digging goes on safari in the American West in […]

  13. Chookie says:

    My own contribution to this thread is a washout, I’m afraid. I did get to the Royal National Park — the second oldest national park in the world — with my children, but I forgot to take my camera! Still, there are plenty of other photos on Flickr — enjoy!

  14. kerri says:

    Pam, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all your National Park posts. Thanks for sharing the beauty and fun family adventures. Love seeing those “young” family pics :)
    Yellowstone was part of our coast to coast tour in ’79. Just before arriving at the park we splurged on a zoom lens for our Canon and spotted a bull moose standing in a pond just as we drove in. What luck, and how exciting to see wildlife up close! It made the lens well worth the money.
    I badly wanted to see a bear but alas, it didn’t happen. Your grizzly sighting must’ve really got the adrenaline going!
    We had a close encounter while watching a couple of bisen cavorting on a hillside. They suddenly raced down the hill toward a bunch of us standing outside our vehicles (which we weren’t supposed to be doing, of course). We all dived into our cars as quickly as possibly, but thankfully, the huge animals were just heading for the other side of the road to continue their romp. Still, it was a scary moment.
    Thanks for sharing the memories and stirring some of my own. Fun times :)