Destination: Yellowstone

Established in 1872, the world’s first national park is an iconic landscape of exploding geysers, deep canyons and magnificent wildlife. And with more than 1,450km of trails, walking is by far the best way to experience its wonders – and escape the millions of visitors it receives annually.

By Bradley Mayhew

Yellow aspen trees in the foreground and blue skies, brown rolling hills and mountains.

From the summit of Mount Washburn (3,122 metres/10,243 feet) a fire lookout tower provides sweeping views over almost half of Yellowstone National Park. To the north rise the volcanic crests of the Absaroka Range, while to the south the Yellowstone River in its deep canyon snakes its way to the shimmering blue of Yellowstone Lake, one of North America’s largest alpine bodies of water. It’s the stunning climax of what is deservedly the park’s most popular hike.

But it’s only after you read the nearby interpretive signs that a bigger, more ancient landscape reveals itself. You begin to make out the outline of a huge caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater, 50km/30 miles wide and eroded almost beyond distinction. Slowly, it dawns on you that you are looking down over one of the world’s largest super volcanoes. And that you are standing right on its rim.

Much of the feted landscape that visitors marvel at on a trip through Yellowstone National Park owes its existence to this super volcano and its last great eruption, some 640,000 years ago. Most of the campers in the park’s Canyon or Madison campgrounds are unaware that they are toasting their marshmallows atop a 190km/120-mile deep magma chamber, which roils away as close as 5km/3 miles beneath their feet. 

It’s this underground hot spot that fuels Yellowstone’s 10,000 or so thermal features – gurgling mud pots, hissing fumaroles, exploding geysers, steaming hot springs and sulphur-bleached thermal basins. More than half of the world’s geysers cram into this one park, including the world’s tallest, Steamboat Geyser, and the world’s most famous, Old Faithful. 

In Yellowstone you can see the earth raging, churning and shifting in near-constant primeval flux. At times it feels as if you are witnessing creation.

I’d hiked up to Mount Washburn because it’s one of the few places where I can start to comprehend the scale of Yellowstone’s geology (it turns out that supervolcanoes aren’t as easy to spot as you’d think). Coming from densely packed south-east England, I found it takes time to adjust to the scale of Montana and Wyoming. From landscapes to restaurant portion size, things just seem bigger and bolder here in the American heartland. 

Hiking is easily the best way to experience Yellowstone, up close to the land and far from the crowds. Statistics claim that only 10% of the park’s visitors ever hike a trail and only half of those get further than a mile from the parking lot. Invest in a bit of research and it’s not difficult to find your own private backcountry geysers, canyon views, lakeshore picnic spots, petrified forests, secret hot springs and stunning mountain panoramas. With more than 1,450km/900 miles of marked trails, you are spoilt for choice.

The first national park

Yellow Aspen trees, Lamar river and mountains.

After a morning hike up Mount Washburn (six miles return), I go back to my rental car and drive north, down past the basalt cliffs and salmon-pink canyon walls of Tower district and then north-east to Mammoth Junction, the historic centre of the park. 

Congress established Yellowstone in 1872 as America’s (and essentially the world’s) first national park. Yosemite and Sequoia national parks followed in 1890, with Mount Rainier next in 1899, solidifying a concept that would quickly spread to provide global inspiration. Within 30 years of Yellowstone’s founding, parks had been established in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. ‘National parks are the best idea we ever had’ wrote American author Wallace Stegner. ‘Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.’

I’d come to Mammoth’s Albright Visitor Center partly to get some suggestions on local trails, but also to trace the park’s history back to its earliest formation. Yellowstone may have been signed into existence in 1872, but it would be over 40 years before the National Park Service was created to run it, and for most of the intervening years the park was administered by the US Army from the sandstone buildings of Fort Yellowstone. 

Today elk graze the manicured lawns of Mammoth, as rangers give guided tours around the former barracks, stables, guardhouses and granaries that helped preserve the fledgling park. The visitor centre itself is a former bachelor officers’ quarters dating from 1909.

On a ranger’s advice, I set off on the nearby Howard Eaton Trail. It’s an easy stroll through one of the park’s most popular corners, yet because there’s no signed trailhead, there is rarely anyone on the trail. For me, this is one of Yellowstone’s great joys; that it is big enough still to hold quite a few secrets.

Contradictory demands

As the path skirted the backs of giant travertine mounds and layered limestone terraces, I would catch the occasional glimpse of boardwalk crowds taking selfies on the other side of the basin, before veering away to pass cascading hot springs, coloured mandarin orange, canary yellow or salmon pink, depending on the temperature of the water. The terraces around the springs form as intricate layers of coral-like limestone, deposited by the acidic hot spring water – a process described by one guidebook as ‘a mountain turning itself inside out’. It’s yet more evidence of the dynamic underground forces that shape Yellowstone. 
As I got closer to Mammoth Junction, the dirt trail underfoot turned into boardwalk, then a concrete path, and then a giant parking lot, full of tour buses and RVs. The ugly truth is that Yellowstone in August is a busy place. Popular parking areas fill by 9am and every campsite in the park is claimed by noon. Lines of RVs clog the highways at even the rumour of a roadside bear sighting, and park rangers spend more time corralling tourists than they do wildlife.

And this is the conundrum of Yellowstone. It may be one of America’s largest and wildest national parks, but it’s also one of the most popular, with over four million visitors crushing through its gates each year. It’s a wilderness managed by a bureaucracy; a park established to serve the contradictory demands of both environmental protection and a founding principle that the park exists ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’. 

How to balance the demands of conservation versus recreation – of tourists, locals, hunters, environmentalists, businessmen and backpackers – is a challenge that faces many protected areas across the globe and one that continues to raise debate across Yellowstone, almost 150 years after the park came into being.

The American Serengeti

Herd of Bison grazing in the foreground, wide open land and rolling hills and mountains.

On my last day in the park, I headed north-east into the wild sagebrush country of the Lamar Valley. For many, wildlife is Yellowstone’s greatest draw, and this green rolling corner of the park, known as ‘the Serengeti of North America’, holds the nation’s greatest concentration of mega fauna. The park is home to between 10,000 and 20,000 elk (depending on the season) and several hundred grizzly and black bears, as well as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, bald eagles and trumpeter swans. Its pronghorn antelope are the fastest land animals in the North American continent. Its 4,500 bison make up some of the last free-roaming herds on the continent. There’s simply nowhere better to spot wild animals in North America. 

As I drove into the roadside pullouts that dot the Lamar Valley, I noticed the groups of hardened wildlife-watchers, surrounded by collapsible chairs, spotting scopes and coolers of soft drinks, settling in for the long haul. These are Yellowstone’s wolf watchers and they are a dedicated bunch, returning year after year.

By the 1920s, Yellowstone’s wolves had been largely pushed to oblivion; hunted by ranchers outside the park and poisoned as ‘pests’ by early park employees. Then, in the winter of 1995, the first of 41 grey wolves from Canada and north-west Montana were released into the Lamar Valley. The population grew steadily to 170 by 2007, dropping back today to 80 individuals in nine packs (a decline put down to distemper and legal hunting outside the park). The reintroduction of wolves sent ripples of change across the interconnected Yellowstone Ecosystem. As wolf numbers rose, so elk numbers fell, allowing willow and aspen to expand. Coyote numbers dropped but other scavengers, including bears, benefitted from the wolves’ winter kills. A natural balance was restored.

While many see the reintroduction of the wolf as the park’s greatest modern achievement, others are less pleased. Wild animals care little for park boundaries, and ranchers just outside the park in neighbouring Wyoming and Montana still view wolves as a centuries-old foe, which, and at the time of writing can be hunted legally. In 2012 , the alpha female of the Lamar wolf pack, the park’s most famous wolf, was shot dead just outside the park, as was her daughter last year.

As the wolf watchers scanned the lush valley for movement, a ripple of excitement spread through the group. At the far edge of the valley, a single black wolf was skirting the treeline, loping along the edge of the meadow, probing for a weakness in the herd of elk, searching for an opportunity. Tension spread through the herd; the wolf and the elk eyed each other, both summing up the odds, until the wolf eventually disappeared back into the forest shadows. The tension was palpable. All that was missing was the David Attenborough commentary. 

Into the wild

For all of its gift shops and ice-cream stands, Yellowstone remains at its heart an astonishingly wild place. Taken together with the park’s surrounding national forests, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem forms one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. It is one of the few places left in America where you just might spot a grizzly sow lumbering across the horizon in front of you, cubs in tow, or hear the midnight howling of a wolf pack from your campsite.

If this happens, your pulse will quicken and the hair will stand up on the back of your neck. You will momentarily experience what it feels like to be part of the food chain. It’s a thrilling, primeval rush, and for me it encapsulates the true essence of Yellowstone – a protected pocket of the wild, whose very existence reminds us of what the world once was, and whose legacy continues to inspire beyond borders and generations.

Walk it!

Time/Distance

Yellowstone has more than 1,450km/900 miles of hiking trails. The Mount Washburn summit hike is a moderate 10km/6-mile out-and-back walk from the car park at Dunraven Pass. The 6.5km/4-mile Howard Eaton Trail is an easy stroll through one of the park’s most popular corners and starts at the Glen Creek Trailhead south of Mammoth Junction.

Guidebooks

Top Trails: Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks (£12.99, Wilderness Press) outlines 46 ‘must-do’ walks and Lonely Planet Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks (£14.99) is a good general guide to the parks.

Further info

nps.gov/yell