Where can you see eagles soar, buffalo roam? At some of our best national parks. Not to mention some pretty terrific natural wonders found right here in the good ol’ USA. Here’s a trivia question for you. What was America’s first national park? If you guessed Yellowstone, you are absolutely correct. Good job. Well, did you know that it was also the world’s first national park? How about that? Here’s another question – do you know who designated Yellowstone as a national park? Huh? If you said President Roosevelt, you’re wrong. It was Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, right after the Civil War, paving the way for many more of our national treasures.
Yes, Yellowstone was the first, covering almost 3500 square miles of lakes, rivers, forests & mountain ranges… in what state? If you said Wyoming, you are good… but that’s not a fair question because it also reaches into Idaho and Montana. This is one of the last wide open spaces, where you can see elk, deer, buffalo and more, with not a cage or fence in sight.
Yellowstone may be known for its wildlife but it’s famous for its geysers… well, at least one! There she blows! Old Faithful was named in 1870, even before Yellowstone became a national park. During the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition, through Northwestern Wyoming, the explorers noticed one geyser was erupting every hour. While you couldn’t set your watch by it, we know today that Old Faithful erupts 60 to 90 minutes after the previous eruption. The wait time is based on how long she blew the time before… give or take ten minutes! Well, that’s faithful enough! And what a spectacular sight!
The Old Faithful Geyser might be the most famous, but it’s only one of the 300 geysers here in the park. There’re also about 10,000 hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and hissing, steaming fumaroles, unlike anywhere on earth. If you’re wondering what causes all this thermal activity, well, it’s just your normal, everyday active volcano. Really! In fact, take Yellowstone Lake, that beautiful photogenic lake we all take pictures of. Well, the lake is sitting right on top of the Yellowstone Caldera – the largest super volcano on the continent! But don’t worry, it probably won’t blow for another thousand years or so.
All this boiling and churning has created quite a few tourist hot spots. The Dragon’s Mouth with Mud Volcano is definitely one of the most popular. But before you decide to walk out and take a few pictures, there’s something you gotta know what’s important? The paths and the boardwalks. Because even though it would be a great shot to get out there and take a different angle of Mud Volcano, it’s not really safe. Why? Because the earth’s crust out there is really fragile, it’s really thin. And right underneath is boiling water and scalding mud. You could break right through and boil yourself like a lobster. Ouch. We don’t want that to happen. So be safe. Stay on the path.
Water is all around you in Yellowstone. Running hot and cold – in geysers, streams, rivers, lakes, and rapids. Stunning waterfalls are created from these mountain elevations, as water flows down over the rocky terrain, it rushes over the cliffs. The best view is at Lookout Point, about a five minute walk up a windy path. From here, you can look across to the brink of the lower falls, the larger of the two waterfalls in the park. Wow! Now that’s a waterfall. Just incredible! And, you know, I just found out that it’s taller than Niagara Falls. Not wider, but taller, at 308 feet. The best view is from Lookout Point. But you can walk down and get a lot closer. You do have to walk back up, though, so the easiest thing is to just enjoy the view from here, a lot easier on the knees!
Yellowstone has some of the most amazing scenery in the country. Where else can you see such an abundance of wildlife in their natural habitat? Elk are the most abundant of the large mammals here and can be seen all over the park. Mature males are known for their tremendous antler spreads. White tailed deer and mule deer graze everywhere, taking very little notice of visitors. You can tell the mule deer by their long ears. Climbing the ridges are the pronghorn antelope, the fastest North American land animal, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. Their numbers were reduced from 40 million to less than five thousand during the settling of the west.
Then there are the foxes out hunting for food. Watch how sly these cunning animals can be in search of prey. And what would the northwest mountains be without the bears? Brown bears, black bears, and grizzlies. And there’s nothing like seeing the babies!
Bird life is everywhere in Yellowstone. Wild geese fly in from Canada with their babies in tow. And the park has been a refuge for the trumpeter swan after their feathers were hunted for ladies hats in the 1800s. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the mighty eagle soar overhead, as well as lots of hawks and ravens. But there’s nothing more exciting than to come across the most famous animal in the park!
How do you find wild life in Yellowstone? Well, your best bet is to look for a big traffic jam as you’re driving along the side of the road. And you can bet that there’ll be animals over there, like a herd of buffalo. I mean, I’ve read stories about this. But to see it in person is really exceptional. You’re going to want to take pictures. But this isn’t a zoo and it’s not a theme park. These are wild animals and they can be mean. You know, they can run up to 30 miles an hour. They could cross a road in two seconds and wipe you out. You have to stay about 25 yards away. That’s about a quarter of a football field. Because if they do start to run, you’re going to want to jump behind your car, okay? Be safe. Stay your distance. And enjoy it. It is amazing.
Yellowstone is the only place in America that’s continuously provided habitat for free-roaming wild buffalo. Whether you call them bison or buffalo, they were once an integral part of Native American culture, but were almost wiped out by 1895. The American Bison Society was formed in 1905 and helped bring 23 animals here for protection. Today, Yellowstone has the largest remaining herd of genetically pure bison in the world, one of the greatest conservation success stories in American history.
Yellowstone National Park really is home on the range and there are various ways to see it. Here’s an idea. When the kids get tired of sitting in the car and driving around, why not stick them on the back of a horse? How about going on an old-fashioned family trail ride? There are a number of officially sanctioned riding stables in Yellowstone with everything from two hour trail rides to multi-day adventures. Even if you’ve never ridden, you can ride. Just get on, have a seat – and enjoy the view! Kids will love it! Go ahead… give a little kick and you’re off. Just follow the horse in front of you and soon you’ll be riding the trail just like in the movies.
Yellowstone is a destination in itself, and while some people plan to drive here from Jackson Hole, it’s not exactly a day trip. You know, getting around in the park is going to take you a lot longer than it looks on paper. Because of all the windy roads, you’re going to have a little bit of traffic, you’ll see wildlife, and you’re going to want to take pictures. So plan on spending the night. Now I’m not just talking about campgrounds. There have been luxury hotels here for over a hundred years.
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel is painted a soft yellow and, as the name implies, overlooks Lake Yellowstone. This is Yellowstone’s oldest surviving and still-in-use hotel, built on a site that was a meeting place for Indians, trappers, and mountain men. When it first opened its doors in 1891, it was just a run-of-the-mill Northern Pacific Railway hotel.
This plain, boxed-shaped building was transformed into a beautiful colonial-style luxury hotel during renovations started in 1903 by famous architect, Robert Reamer. He designed the ionic columns, extended the roof, and added the 15 false balconies. More renovations included the addition of the dining room, portico, and sunroom to create the gracious landmark seen today. The hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, the hotel’s centennial.
The Old Faithful Inn is another national historic landmark hotel. Also built by Robert Reamer with money from the railroad, this giant log cabin was built in 1903 to reflect the chaos of nature surrounding it. The lobby features a 65-foot ceiling, a massive fireplace, and railings made of contorted Lodgepole Pine. It is enormous, how’d you like to keep the home fires burning in that one?
The roof has windows everywhere, with wild timber branch supports and everything is designed with the view in mind. And the view is what everyone comes for… Old Faithful! Here’s a tip – In winter, you can take an all day snowmobile tour to Old Faithful that includes hotel pickup, outerwear, and two hot meals. Reservations for Yellowstone hotels and campgrounds sell out months in advance for weekends and holidays, so plan well ahead.
About halfway between the wildlife of Yellowstone and the wild west of Jackson Hole is where to find the perfect setting for a family adventure… Jackson Lake. Truly a natural wonder here in Wyoming. Jackson Lake is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States. Nestled in the majestic mountains of the Grand Teton range, this deep natural lake is fed by glacial runoff from the Tetons and by the waters of the Snake River. You know, one of my favorite things to do is to rent a boat up here on Jackson Lake. You grab the kids, you bring the dog, bring lunch and sunscreen, and spend the day waterskiing with a fabulous view. All I can say is, wow. This lake is not just your average swimmin’ hole, I guarantee! And what a great day for a boat ride! Blue skies, snow-capped mountains, plenty of sunshine… well, the water can be chilly but grab a wetsuit and strap on some skis! Water skiing is an age old family adventure, with plenty of slalom, sport, and splash! Now, even if you’re not a skier, you can still be a key asset to the waterskiing experience. Whatever your skill, everyone gets involved. Someone has to drive the boat, and then there is what I think is the most important job, being the flag person. This is when anybody’s in the water, you raise the orange flag to let the other boaters know that you’ve got a skier or a swimmer in the water.
Safety first! Okay. Another key component for your family outing at Jackson Lake is the resident water ski instructor, the true key to slaloming success. So for all you first-timers: keep your tips up, your arms straight, and hug those knees! As they say, it’s just like sittin’ in a chair. Well… a chair that rolls around a lot! Okay, not your average chair. Or your average day. What a blast! A family ski adventure on the glacial waters of Jackson Lake is definitely a day to remember! One of the main gateways to Yellowstone is about a 90 minute drive from the park – Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And here in Jackson, the adventure continues.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “one if by land, two if by sea.” Well, how about three if by air? Now that’s a signal to fun! For those of you who have always wanted to fly, paragliding is an airborne adventure that anyone can learn. Really! A few minutes of training and you’re flying. Start simple with a hike up the mountain – go ahead! Any adventure starts with the first step! And just think of what you’re about to see!
You get to fly over the tops of the trees and look at the tops of the red-tailed hawks and look at the ski lifts and get a nice view of the valley and often times, if you get up high enough, you can look over the backside of the mountain, too. Once on the mountain top, expert paragliding guides are there to ease your worries and fluff your wings. Remember… you’re just along for the ride!
You are actually going tandem, in a harness, which is basically the seat that you sit in with the instructor. You just sit back and enjoy the site and, you know, take in the perspective from a birds-eye view. There aren’t that many restrictions on who can fly. There are some basic weight and health requirements, but other than that, almost anyone can take to the air. Once these power gliders get into flight, they soar like eagles at five and six thousand feet! This has to be one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have, just like a bird!
I prefer to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, and wearing my cowboy boots reminds me of the days of the Old West in Wyoming. From the early 1800s, cowboys ended a day of riding the range with an evening of tall tales and music around the campfire. Today, covered wagons still rumble down the trail in Jackson Hole, where you can experience the spirit of the Old West. At the Bar-T-5, you’ll be welcomed like family. While the horses are hitched to the wagons, you’ll meet the cowboys and find out what the evening’s gonna be like.
You come up the canyon on horse-drawn wagons, memorable of the days of old. The wagons are pulled by draft horses, some of them over 2000 pounds and they pull together, bringing the folks right up the canyon for an enjoyable evening. After an orientation, hungry visitors pile into authentic horse drawn covered wagons. And then it’s “wagons ho!” as we hit the trail towards Cache Creek. Cowboys keep this train rollin’ along, but just like in the Old West, it’s not always smooth sailing in a prairie schooner. But not to worry… it’s all part of the show!
After a scenic ride into the canyon, you’ll roll into the campsite where the smell of a Dutch oven dinner welcomes you to the table! Lots of great grub to choose from and plenty for all! Come hungry – you can go back as many times as you want. At least ’til the pot’s empty. Okay. All right, let’s see what you really get. Barbecued chicken, barbecued beef, corn on the cob, salad with ranch dressing, huge bread rolls, and some ranch beans. Yee haw.
Afterwards, in cowboy tradition, the guitars come out as the sun goes down. Lots of singing, hand clapping and jokes. Here, everyone gets in on the fun! They even had me up on stage for “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” I did the “YEE HAW” parts!
If you kinda like things done the old-fashioned way, the Bar T-5 also does overnight adventures! They provide a four day/three night, uh, wagon trail experience crossing the Tetons near Yellowstone National Park where folks, can ride the wagons, ride horses, camp, canoe – there’re just a million things to do that are a lot of fun. A great family experience for young and old alike!
At the end of the evening, the wagons follow the setting sun out of the canyon and back into Jackson Hole, just as they did it in the Old West! There are several adventure outfitters operating around Yellowstone and Jackson Hole and it’s wise to make advance reservations as space is limited and they sell out fast.
Well, we’ve certainly seen some great natural wonders on this trip! And a vacation in Wyoming is one of the best places to experience it. So, on the Laura McKenzie scale of 1 to 10, I’d give Yellowstone and Jackson Hole a 7 for hotels, 8 for food, 7 for getting around, and a 10 for sights and attractions. Would I go back? Yee haw… I gotta go back for the winter!
You know, sometimes we get so busy with our lives and our jobs and even our vacations that we forget to slow down and just enjoy what nature has to offer. Our national parks have some of the most beautiful country in America waiting for you to enjoy every year. You don’t have to leave the States for adventure, it’s right here on our soil.