Yellowstone’s natural wonders never cease to amaze

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - It's been a summer of headlines for Yellowstone, though the news has not all been good: Three people were mauled (one fatally) by a grizzly at a campground near the park, authorities briefly staged a manhunt for fugitives in the area, and a buffalo charged a tourist earlier in the summer, flipping her.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - It's been a summer of headlines for Yellowstone, though the news has not all been good: Three people were mauled (one fatally) by a grizzly at a campground near the park, authorities briefly staged a manhunt for fugitives in the area, and a buffalo charged a tourist earlier in the summer, flipping her.

But there has also been a major piece of good news, which has underscored the very reason for the park's existence: There were more visitors to Yellowstone in July — 957,000 — than in any month in its history.

The recession has undoubtedly contributed to vacationers choosing the park as a destination; attendance records were set last summer too. But the high numbers of visitors are also a testament to the park's enduring appeal. And it's not just Old Faithful that keeps people coming back, generation after generation. In addition to being home to 75 per cent of the earth's geysers, Yellowstone is also a wonderful place to view wildlife. With mating season for buffalo taking place in August, followed by mating season for elk in September, late summer is an ideal time for a trip.

For my two sons and me, wolf-watching was a prime objective of our visit to Yellowstone. But we knew there were no guarantees that we would see the elusive animals. There are only about 100 wolves living in the park's 9,065 square kilometres, according to park spokesman Al Nash. They're small, they blend in to the landscape, they can quickly change position, and they will not go near people.

In contrast, bison were easy to find. They're slow-moving, they don't mind congregating near busy roadways and other tourist-heavy areas, and they're so big they can be spotted from a long distance.

But we did our homework and learned that there are two easily accessible areas of the park known for wolf-watching: Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. "They have been seen everywhere," said Nash, "but we do think some of the best places to look for wolves would be out in Lamar and in Hayden."

We got lucky. Just a few hours after arriving in the park, we spotted a dozen parked cars in Lamar Valley and saw a group of visitors with telescopes and binoculars up on a hill. With them was park ranger Rick McIntyre, a wolf specialist. Using an aspen tree in a field of sage as a landmark, McIntyre repeatedly located and pointed out two black wolves, a black pup and a grey wolf.

We stayed with the group from 6 p.m. until after 8 p.m. when it got dark, and were able to see the animals over and over. McIntyre shared the view through his high-powered scope, and later told us: "I get up before dawn, rest in the middle of the day when the wolves rest, and go back out in the evening" to spend as much time looking for them as possible.

Nash said visitors keen on finding wolves might even keep their eyes peeled for McIntyre's SUV — a yellow Nissan Xterra — amid whatever cars are parked in the pullouts at prime wolf-watching areas. "That's the best advice I can give," he said with a laugh.

Nash also noted that many of those who watch for wolves regularly are generous with their expertise. "Wolf enthusiasts love to share that experience with other visitors," he said.

We rented a small telescope from one of the park concessionaires for the remainder of our stay and went out looking for the wolves in other locations just after dawn and the next evening, but had no further luck.

In addition to seeing buffalo, including large groups gathered by Yellowstone Lake, we had a magical encounter with an elk, who stepped out of the woods by the lake in the early-morning fog, lifted his head with a full rack of antlers, and bugled the distinctive mating call of his species. My older son, a teenager who is not so easy to impress, was filled with wonder at the spectacle. We also saw sage grouse, eagles, and osprey. For those looking to see elk now, Nash says the area around Mammoth Hot Springs is considered prime territory.

While wildlife-watching was our No. 1 reason for visiting Yellowstone, the park's other-worldly landscapes turned out to be just as fascinating. Yellowstone has about 300 geysers and 10,000 hot springs, bubbling mud pots and steam vents, constituting more thermal features than are found anywhere else in the world.

A hike through the Norris Geyser Basin was a great introduction to this landscape. It felt like a walk on another planet, or a set for a movie about a prehistoric era. White steam rose over the dark green pine trees, and the ground was potholed with bubbling cauldrons and boiling fountains. Each geyser and mud pot seemed to have its own personality, with different smells, sounds that ranged from gulps and burps to roars, and even individual colours. The springs are streaked with ribbons of sky blue, Creamsicle orange, rusty red, lime green and swirls of bright yellow, all formed by bacteria that thrive in the high temperatures.

Naturally you must be cautious around the geysers — the scalding water can burn or even kill you. Geyser eruptions can vary from every few minutes to every few days to once every 50 years, and part of what made the walk through Norris Basin so spooky was the unpredictability — not knowing when one of them might blow.

Of course a visit to Old Faithful is mandatory. It erupts to a height of more than 30 metres every 66 to 80 minutes, although occasionally the wait stretches to two hours.

Nearby during our visit, a crowd was gathering around another geyser called Beehive. We were lucky to witness this one blow too. Its timing is unpredictable, but it bubbles and snorts as the eruption nears, so Beehive watchers can often tell when it's about to go. It roared as it blew, and it's known for misting onlookers with a spray that instantly cools.

We also visited the park's Grand Canyon and enjoyed the views of the water below and the falls. The 30-kilometre-long chasm, which plunges 366 metres at its deepest and is about 1,220 metres wide at its broadest point, is a popular spot for photos.

The park has a variety of accommodations, including campgrounds, cabins, lodges and hotels. We stayed in hotels at Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake, and while we appreciated their history and the setting, they do lack some amenities. The park has five entrances, so it is possible to stay in nearby towns if you must have air conditioning and cable TV and you don't mind what might be a long drive into and out of the park each day. Given the park's remote location, it's also unsurprising that dining options are limited. Restaurants are crowded, and menus are on the pricey side. Dinner reservations are a must and you could easily end up eating supper at 8 p.m. We tried cafeteria food as well but did not find it terribly appealing.

But then again, you don't go to Yellowstone for the food. We went to see the wolves, and we came home with memories of so much more.

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If You Go...

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK: http://www.nps.gov/yell/. The park borders on Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with five entrances and a series of interior loop roads providing easy access to major features like Old Faithful, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon and Norris Geyser Basin. Check the website for road closures and other advisories. Admission is $25 per car.