Wowed By Yellowstone Wonders
By Monique Burns
Heading to Montana, I set aside one day to visit Yellowstone National Park. Then I realize just how vast the park is. At 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is the second-largest national park in the Lower 48 after California’s Death Valley. Covering 3,472 square miles, it’s larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
With only a single day, how can I possibly hope to see even the park’s highlights? Yellowstone boasts 10,000 geothermal features, including over 500 geysers; 70 species of mammals, including bison, grizzlies, elk and wolves, and nearly 300 bird species, from gulls, pelicans and sandhill cranes to ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles.
Luckily, I hear about Yellowstone Wonders LLC, a two-person outfit that runs customized day and multi-day excursions. Designed for intimate groups, no larger than six, the company was founded by Mike Skelton, a former office-products salesman from Coppell, Texas, just north of Dallas. As a young man, Mike fell in love with Yellowstone and vowed to return. In 2013, Mike did return. Two years later, he founded Yellowstone Wonders with his wife, Ann C. Skelton, a gifted outdoor photographer and creator of Nature In Pixels.
Like most park visitors, I fly into Montana’s Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. But, before heading south, I spend a couple of days enjoying Bozeman, a laid-back Western town with big-city attractions like farm-to-table dining, award-winning breweries, world-class museums, and elegant vintage theaters.
Hopping into a sporty Jeep Wrangler, I finally head 85 miles south, through the splendid Paradise Valley, to Gardiner, Northern Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and its only year-round entrance.
With just a few major streets, Gardiner looks like a humble frontier outpost. But you’ll find some 50 hotels and resorts in and around town as well as countless restaurants, like the Wonderland Cafe and The Raven Grill, serving well-prepared meat, fish, game and produce from neighboring ranches and rivers, farms and forests.
Gardiner is also the first major entry for the 600-mile Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. I join Yellowstone Raft Company, Gardiner’s most experienced rafting outfit, and spend two hours cruising the river’s flats and battling its whitewater rapids. After a fine meal of bison tenderloin, I bed down at the Travelodge on Hellroaring Street.
Yellowstone Wonders bases itineraries on guests’ priorities and prides itself on giving them exactly what they want. Since this is my first visit, I want to see virtually everything in virtually every area of the park–from Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife to famed geothermal features like Old Faithful Geyser. It’s a tall order, but, Ann and Mike assure me, Yellowstone Wonders is equal to the task.
Several weeks before my trip, I receive a Yellowstone Wonders Tour Menu Form offering a choice of lunchtime sandwiches along with chips, nuts and other snacks. There’s also a Pre-Orientation Fact Sheet with information on park safety regulations and how to dress. In July, temperatures can range from 37 to 71 degrees. Brief showers can occur, too. Guests need to dress in layers and bring hats, waterproof jackets and sturdy hiking boots as well as lip gloss, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
At exactly 5:15 the next morning, Ann and Mike picked me up in their big Chevy Suburban with comfy padded seats and plenty of cargo space for binoculars, spotting scopes, camera gear, and daypacks as well as breakfast, lunch, snacks, and hot and cold drinks. Guests are free to choose pick-up times, but Mike has stressed that dawn is best for wildlife viewing.
Yellowstone, luckily for us, has hundreds of miles of well-paved roads. Within minutes, we pass through the historic Roosevelt Arch and enter Yellowstone National Park. The great stone arch–engraved with the stirring words, ” For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”–was dedicated by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. But it was President Ulysses S. Grant who actually established our first national park in 1872.
After only five miles, we’re at Mammoth Hot Springs, park headquarters and home of the 1936 Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel with its grand columned facade. Mammoth Hot Springs is also the site of Historic Fort Yellowstone with red-roofed clapboard and stone buildings that the U.S. Army Calvary built while overseeing the park from 1886 until 1918. Self-guided tours of the complex leave from the Albright Visitor Center.
Mammoth Hot Springs’ big claim to fame are its stunning travertine terraces. Millions of years ago, a vast sea beneath the springs receded, leaving behind limestone. Superheated water dissolved the limestone’s calcium carbonate and deposited it on the surface as lustrous, marble-like travertine. Adding to the splendor are colorful streaks of yellow, pale-orange, rust and, sometimes, pink and green, created by heat-loving microorganisms called thermophiles.
Following well-maintained wooden boardwalks, we stop at famous sites like Palette Spring and Canary Spring. Terraces are in constant flux, growing and receding depending on underground conditions. Minerva Terrace, named for the Greek goddess of sculptors, appeared in the 1990s. The Mound & Jupiter Terraces, named “the most beautifully colored ” in the 1930s, were inactive for decades until they recently began flowing again.
Continuing 18 miles east to the Tower-Roosevelt area, we glimpse a large elk herd coursing gracefully across a hilltop. After passing three-fingered Undine Falls and ghostly Wraith Falls, two of Yellowstone’s nearly 300 waterfalls, we reach log-hewn Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins, named for our wilderness-loving 26th President who camped nearby more than a century ago.
In the rustic dining room, visitors enjoy specialties like Fried Chicken and Ribs, Pan Fried Rocky Mountain Trout and, in honor of Roosevelt’s birthplace, New York Strip Steak. Locally made whiskeys are often quaffed in rocking chairs on the lodge’s long front porch. At the Roosevelt Corral, where trail and stagecoach rides, as well as Old West Wagon Rides and Cookouts, leave, I stop to see the ponies.
Leaving Tower-Roosevelt, we spy ospreys nesting in cliffs high above the Yellowstone River. It’s a good sign, says Mike. Osprey populations have dwindled along with the park’s native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. At Calcite Springs Overlook, we see a yellow-bellied marmot curled up on the narrowest cliff ledge, taking a nap. Just beyond, topped by volcanic formations, is 132-foot Tower Fall, the only park waterfall with a singular name.
Entering the broad Lamar Valley, our vistas widen considerably. Known as “America’s Serengeti,” after Tanzania’s famous game park, it’s home to Yellowstone’s “Big Five”: bison, grizzly bears, black bears, elk, and wolves. After waving to a few fly-fishermen, thigh-deep in the Lamar River, we reach a broad plain where several large herds of bison graze and gambol with “red dogs,” knobby-kneed calves with curly reddish-brown coats.
Since prehistoric times, bison have roamed Yellowstone. North America’s largest herds, they now number 2,300-5,500 individuals. That’s a far cry from the 30-60 million bison that once roamed our continent. But it’s still a grand–and uniquely American–sight.
Heading 19 miles toward Canyon Village, we pass 10,243-foot Mount Washburn where visitors can often see the Big Five and, at higher elevations, bighorn sheep. On a clear day, views from Mount Washburn’s Fire Tower stretch as far as Wyoming’s Grand Tetons.
At Dunraven Pass, we’re caught in a patch of sleet-like freezing rain. Since we started at Gardiner’s Northern Entrance, four hours earlier, the elevation has risen by almost 2,000 feet. Suddenly, I’m glad to have a warm jacket, hat, and gloves.
In nearby Canyon Village, Canyon Lodge & Cabins offers Yellowstone’s newest accommodations plus a corral for trail rides. The modern Visitor Education Center has a room-sized topographical map of Yellowstone, exhibits on the park’s volcanic activity and a well-stocked gift shop.
But the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone attracts most visitors. Carved 10,000-14,000 years ago by the Yellowstone River, the canyon is 20 miles long, 800-1,200 feet deep and 1,500-4,000 feet wide. With majestic Upper and Lower Falls, and colorfully striated rock faces, the chasm has drawn artists and photographers for over a century.
Created during the 1871 Hayden Expedition, Yellowstone’s first federally funded geological survey, Thomas Moran’s oils and watercolors, along with William Henry Jackson’s large-scale photos, helped convince Congress to make Yellowstone a national park.
We stop briefly in the nearby Hayden Valley, named for the surgeon, geologist, and professor Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the 1871 Expedition leader. A wildlife paradise, the Hayden Valley is the scene of the world’s largest rut of free-roaming bison from late July through August.
Several major geothermal features hug the valley’s southeast edge. At 190 degrees Fahrenheit, Sulphur Caldron’s waters are as corrosive as battery acid. Across the road, Mud Volcano bubbles quietly while cavernous Dragon’s Mouth Spring hisses menacingly.
Minutes away, on Lake Yellowstone, is the yellow-and-white Colonial Revival Lake Hotel, a National Historic Landmark. Completed in 1891, it’s the country’s oldest operating hotel. Guests listen to the classical strains of the Lake String Quartet in the waterside Sun Room before retiring to the elegant dining room for well-wrought entrees like Bison Tenderloin and Grilled Elk Chops.
At Bridge Bay Marina, just south, you can take an hour-long cruise aboard the Lake Queen II. Or book a guided sightseeing cruise or trout-fishing trip on a 22-foot cabin cruiser. Outboard motorboats can be rented by the hour. For a real adventure, take a Backcountry Shuttle, along with your canoe, to a remote campsite.
West Thumb Geyser Basin, on the lake’s southern fringe, boasts virtually all the park’s geothermal features: geysers, bubbling hot springs, steam vents called fumaroles and acidic hot springs known as mud pots.
From there, we head 17 miles west to the world’s most famous geyser: Old Faithful. It’s in the Upper Geyser Basin, across from the Old Faithful Inn, the world’s largest log structure and a National Historic Landmark.
Old Faithful Geyser was discovered by members of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition who timed eruptions to 74 minutes on average. Eruptions actually occur every 60-110 minutes, and predictions are posted in park buildings and on the Yellowstone National Park website.
Having heard about Old Faithful for years, I’m excited just to join the throng waiting around the geyser field. After the Beehive Geyser erupts, it’s Old Faithful’s turn. Watching the plume of superheated water shooting upwards of 100-180 feet into the air is a thrill.
Beyond, in the Midway Geyser Field, Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest and most beautiful spring, a concentric rainbow of vibrant blues, greens, and yellows.
In the Lower Geyser Basin, just north, we stroll boardwalks at Fountain Paint Pot with iridescent-blue springs rimmed in yellows, browns and reds. Here, too, is Great Fountain Geyser whose eruptions can reach 220 feet and last up to two hours.
But, alas, Grand Fountain’s eruptions occur every 9-15 hours and my Yellowstone Wonders odyssey is finally ending. After driving a few minutes north to Madison Junction, I find my Jeep Wrangler waiting in a Yellowstone parking lot just as Ann and Mike promised.
Incredibly, we’ve covered nearly 150 miles, and I’ve visited virtually every major sight in Yellowstone National Park, in only a single day. Ann and Mike kept that promise, too.
IF YOU GO
Yellowstone Wonders LLC, Box 517, Gardiner, MT 59030; 406-224-3561. www.YellowstoneWonders.com
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.