Thermal site
Buffalo with calf
Old Faithful Inn
West Gate
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Where buffaloes roam, geysers gush and the stars at night are big and bright

I’ve visited Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and many other National Parks across the country and even many in other parts of the planet (there are now ninety globally), but for some reason, I never got to see Yellowstone, the granddaddy of them all.

It was the first, is the largest (over 2.2 million acres of waterfalls, canyons, geysers, bubbling hot springs, forests, meadows, and foot trails), and by all accounts, it’s considered the very best.

So after visiting Mount Rushmore (another thrilling first-timer) and the monument to Crazy Horse (ditto) in South Dakota, Little Big Horn (also known, sadly, as Custer’s Last Stand) in Montana and spying from the road the awesome, unmistakable (even through the unfortunate misty fog) silhouette of Devils Tower (remember Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), we finally, excitedly reached our destination and drove through the enormous East Gate entrance to the legendary Yellowstone National Park.

We booked into the marvellous and oldest of the park’s lodgings (built in 1904), the Old Faithful Inn, a historic and architecturally impressive hotel, fashioned entirely of gnarled and wonderfully twisted wood from a nearby forest, with a soaring lobby atrium that rises an awesome seven stories. It’s very popular, and massive (often blazing) fireplaces took five tons of local rock to construct. Amazingly, the original 140 rooms, usually booked many months in advance, still don’t come equipped with bathrooms. One must take a short stroll down the hall, following in the footsteps (so to speak) of President Teddy Roosevelt, the visionary, nature-loving, conservationist who had the foresight to found the park in the late 1800s. As we are twenty-first-century travellers, and fond of our creature comforts, you can understand why we decided to request a room in the new wing. It’s a remarkable building in so many ways, but one outstanding feature is its location. The eponymous and world-famous geyser is just a stone’s throw away, and we happily watched the legendary (and aptly named) “Old Faithful” geyser (which does its thing on schedule, like clockwork, every 90 minutes) right from the hotel’s comfortable terrace bar.

Spending three wonderful days in this beautiful, natural environment was like going on a safari. We saw bison (aka buffalo) by the dozens ambling along in the meadows, pronghorn deer (that everyone refers to as antelope), humorously scurrying raccoons and scores of beaver handiwork called “lodges” or dams. We snapped photos of lots of cute prairie dogs, watched as three wolves circled a feisty deer who made the attackers back off, a group of elk, a couple of foraging black bears and even a single baby moose, sitting in the shade.

There are animals and birds everywhere, but by the time you figure out the hundred yards distance you must put between the camera and the grizzly, it’s gone. It was at this point we began to appreciate the photographers of National Geographic for their incredible patience and stacks of special equipment needed to capture their seemingly ”candid” close-ups. There are warning signs everywhere advising not to feed the animals or get too close, because, after all, Yellowstone is for the animals, not us humans.

As we drove around, we were repeatedly startled by all the thousands of acres of charred remains of many dozens of destroyed pine forests. We were told they were the victims of the fire of 1988, the worst in the history of Yellowstone. But we were encouraged to notice Mother Nature at work, with healthy, young saplings already bursting through the undergrowth. We strolled along specially built boardwalks, stopping along the way to observe pools of bubbling, boiling clay-like earth, steaming hot springs, other-worldly formations left by quickly cooling volcanic lava and so much more.

Wyoming, the state that encompasses the whole of Yellowstone, has a population of little more than 600,000. And while many millions visit the park every year, nobody lives within its four gates. We must have passed back and forth across the Continental Divide half a dozen times as we drove alongside roads past waterfalls and canyons, gorges and colourful geothermal lakes, hot springs and geysers and fissures in the earth belching out steam. All this activity proves that the park sits on a volcano just itching to demonstrate its mighty power.

The days were glorious. We enjoyed great weather, were in touch with nature and had excellent food, all surrounded by contented animals, with ospreys and bald eagles gliding on thermals overhead. Sheer bliss.

But the nights were a rare and unexpected bonus, a very special treat for us city folk. Around 11:00 pm we’d go out on the patio in our jammies and look up. With no distracting lights from tall buildings, car headlights, neon signs and such, the sky is inky black, and the stars are crystal clear. You can make out the big dipper, the milky way, a slow-moving spacecraft and even the signs of the zodiac. It was better than a planetarium because it was real. And so quiet. The birds and the animals were asleep. And very soon, we would be too.

After three memorable days, we had to say goodbye to Yellowstone, our thoughts full of our magical time in another world.

We drove through the park’s West Gate, en route to Jackson Hole (and from there on to the airport in Salt Lake City, Utah and then home). Heading southwest, we turned the car to the right and gasped in unison. There in front of us lay the staggeringly majestic, snow-covered peaks of the Grand Tetons etched in our memory banks forever.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran