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.