We have just passed two wonderful days in Yellowstone National Park and this is where our choice of tour operator has paid off a thousand fold. Rooms at the Old Faithful Lodge have to be reserved a year in advance but the Caravan company has a great deal of experience and such a reputation for reliability that sufficient block bookings are assigned. We can wander out and see the most regular geyser in the world erupt to a height of a hundred feet every 90 minutes. If you cannot exactly set your watch to it you can at least time your meals.

This hundred year old lodge is constructed from huge, exposed timbers and has only been partially modernised. It has no television, phone signal or wifi but step outside the front door and you are overlooking the greatest concentration of hydrothermal phenomena on the planet: geysers, fumaroles and mud pools, all surrounded by the rainbow colours created by rare species of heat loving bacteria. Behind these vistas are distant ranks of pine trees and behind those the snow-capped mountains.

We have travelled the complete 142 mile, figure eight road that allows vehicular visitors to see all of the major attractions. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking, horse riding and fishing for those who have longer to enjoy these idyllic surroundings but for a hundred years the Park Ranger service has been making sure that the once-in-a-lifetime visitor can take away a truly memorable experience without spoiling it for the generations to come. Naturally occurring fires are allowed to rejuvenate the forests, the diminished buffalo herds have had their gene pool strengthened with the addition of animals from other parts of America, wolves have been re-introduced and non-native species are being carefully eradicated. {Hence the fishermen, who are hard at work capturing the introduced species of lake trout while eschewing the protected cut throat trout upon which so many of the park’s animals depend}.

The landscapes are as dramatic as I imagined when I first saw Thomas Moran’s gigantic paintings in Washington DC, nearly twenty years ago. He must have suffered a lot of hardships when he came out here with some of the explorers of the 1870’s, but when he got back East and turned his wonderful watercolour sketches into giant canvases he became one of the region’s most influential advocates. I would have liked time to find out more about the native people who once inhabited the region but at least when I read about them I will have the experience of all this amazing scenery to draw on.

Although many Indians hunted here in the Summer, a branch of the Shoshoni was the only tribe who lived in the Park year round. They were semi-nomadic and drew many of their resources from the big horn sheep; not to mention the ubiquitous and appropriately named lodge pole pine. Apparently the other tribes referred to them by the pejorative term “sheepeaters” and neither the French fur trappers nor the early American explorers had much regard for them. Well, it turns out that as well as knowing how to survive the incredibly harsh Winters, they had developed a method of plasticising sheep horn by dipping it in the hot springs to produce a bow whose tensile strength had no equal on the face of the Earth until the 20th century invention of fibreglass.

We saw bison, elk and pronghorn, eagles, woodpeckers and bluebirds, a myriad wildflowers and a ribbon lake that empties from either end into different sides of the continental divide. The crisp air is slightly thin from the altitude so that at this time of year it always feels a little hotter in the sunshine and a little cooler in the shade. Apparently modern management and the considerate behaviour of (almost) all of its visitors has meant that it now closer to “pristine” than it has been for a hundred years*. The call of Yellowstone exerts itself on many who return time and again until the ends of their lives. It was a privilege to experience just a little bit of it.

(* although, of course, not so many people mention the effects of global warming)

Categories: North America

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