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Visit the Iconic Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming

Old Faithful GeyserThe danger of visiting Yellowstone isn't the threat of a bear attack, being gored by a bison, falling through a geothermal layer or drowning. Although these dangers exist, the biggest danger is that you might not be able to leave. If you're a city slicker (or a suburban socialite) and your idea of wildlife is the local bar after 9pm, then Yellowstone National Park will blow your mind.

Maybe you already know that Yellowstone is the first national park in the world, or that it has the largest concentration of free roaming wildlife in the lower 48, or even that it has more geysers and hot springs than the rest of the world combined. But knowing that there are 3,468 square miles of wilderness out there and experiencing them are two very different things.

Perhaps you'll drive through in mid-July, stop and take a picture of a bison grazing near the side of the road, get back in your car and say, "So what?" But if you want a real experience, get out of your car and hit the backcountry with a naturalist and learn as you explore.

A great way to do this is through the Yellowstone Association and Xanterra Parks & Resorts "Lodging and Learning" program. The Yellowstone Association is a non-profit organization that has been fostering the public's understanding of this wild place since 1933. Xanterra operates the Yellowstone National Park Lodges, which means that you can learn about the park through the Association during the day and stay in civilized comfort at night.

Bison at Yellowstone National Park
Bison are plentiful in Yellowstone

A "Lodging and Learning" program that I recently participated in is "Trails though Yellowstone." I stretched out my stay to visit the Old Faithful Lodge and the Lake Hotel, but normally, this is a four-night package where nights are spent at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Grant Village. Days are spent hiking the backcountry with a naturalist, who will tell you everything you want to know about the area. Having someone put all this beautiful landscape into geological and historical context, as well as pointing out wildlife, enhances the experience beyond measure.

Yellowstone National Park spreads across three states, although it is mostly in Wyoming. The closest airports are in Bozeman and West Yellowstone, MT, and in Jackson or Cody, WY. I flew into Cody, met up with some friends, and made an adventure of it. If for no other reason, it's good to plan to stay for a day or so in Cody in case your luggage doesn't come in on the same flight as you do.

Cody was founded by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in 1896 and his mark is very much still on the town. If you have any interest in western history, you must visit the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. It's 300,000 feet of exhibition space-which includes five separate museums. My favorite was the Draper Museum of Natural History, which offers an in-depth look at the flora and fauna of the area.

When you're in Cody, you're in cowboy country. There is a nightly rodeo in town from June through August where you can witness cowboy hijinx first hand. While I was in Cody, there were gun shows and rancher conventions. Guys really do wear cowboy hats and Wranglers. These cowboys and cowgirls are downright friendly-coming from Brooklyn, the people were so nice I kept wondering what they wanted. Just to say "hey." One night I even hitched a ride on the back of a Harley.

After a few days of enjoying the wild wild West in Cody, we drove into Yellowstone via the East Entrance. We had barely gotten into the park when we ran into an "animal jam." (If you see cars pulled over on the side of the road, there's probably an animal in sight.) Right away, we saw a grizzly bear and two cubs frolicking in the distance. Key words here: in the distance. Surprising a grizzly on the trail would not have been so fun.

Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Inn, and view of the geyser

The first hike we went on was a small trek to Storm Point. We gave the grazing bison a wide berth, and marveled the lake and forest. Then we went to Old Faithful Inn-it's one of the largest log cabins in the world and stands right next to the famous geyser. After a delicious dinner at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge (next door), I wandered the paths around the geysers. Old Faithful is one of many-in fact, two-thirds of the world's geysers are in Yellowstone. Watching the earth bubble and steam was like being in prehistoric times. Like many aspects of Yellowstone, the feeling of being surrounded by untamed earth is impossible to put into words. The morning I woke up at Old Faithful Inn, I opened my window to check the weather and there were bison and calves so close I could hear them chewing grass.

Lake Hotel Exterior
Exterior of the Lake Hotel

The next day, we hiked to Mystic Falls. We passed Biscuit Basin, where sapphire hot springs steamed into the sky. Then we climbed through the forest and up a trail to see one of the steepest waterfalls in the park. Later, we did the Elephant Back Mountain Loop where there is a lot of climbing but the payoff is worth it. At the top, there is a stunning view of Yellowstone Lake (which looks more like an ocean) with the yellow sunburst of the Lake Hotel in view. The hotel looked so inviting, we scampered back down and checked in. The Lake Hotel has been around since the late 1800s. It still has a very classy, old fashioned feel to it. From there we hopped on a Sunset Tour, a ride on a bus from the '30s, and went to watch cutthroat trout fight the rapids to go spawn.

On another day we went to Hayden Valley - rolling hills covered in sagebrush and rimmed with pines - where we saw an elk and calf swim across a lake. On the way to hike the Canyon, we stopped at another "animal jam" and saw a moose with her baby, both walking on gangly legs near a stream. We passed bull elk with fuzzy antlers and more bison. Then we hiked up to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone where we saw an osprey sitting on a nest, surrounded by two swooping ravens, dying to steal an egg.

Mammoth Hot Springs
Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

One evening, worn out from hiking, we ended our day at Mammoth Hot Springs. This was the original entrance to the park. Here, long paths wind up through icy-looking hot spring terraces. Although we got in too late to walk the path to view the springs, the next morning I traipsed around the terraces. The magpies and I watched the sun come up over Mt. Everts.

It's a funny thing when seeing bison becomes mundane. There are over 3,000 bison in the park but this was not always so. By the early 1900s, the bison population was so low that concerned people built the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, where they brought in and protected the bison until the population could sustain itself. That was the first big victory for conservationists in Yellowstone. The second victory came more recently, with the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995. Now there are over 200 wild wolves in Yellowstone.

One morning we got up early and went to Lamar Valley, where we joined "wolf junkies" who were perched on a hilltop, looking for wolves through scopes. It didn't take long before a wolf appeared in the distance-I saw it through the scope. We also saw a grizzly pawing at the dirt, elk and pronghorn that day.

Yellowstone is different in every season. I went in June, which I highly recommend - the park isn't very crowded, there are baby animals to be seen, and the 50-60 degree weather is perfect for hiking. But remember, all this pleasure comes at a cost: Your hometown might seem claustrophobic when you get back, you might long to see wide open spaces instead of concrete and metal. You might squint your eyes and try to see a geyser in a broken fire hydrant, an elk out of a Great Dane, try to see an osprey in a pigeon. The city might lose some of her charm.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

Yellowstone National Park Lodges
Operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts

PO Box 165
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
(307) 344-7311
www.TravelYellowstone.com

Yellowstone Association

PO Box 117
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
(307) 344-2294
www.YellowstoneAssociation.org

For info on "Trails through Yellowstone"
(307) 344-5566

Park County Travel Council
836 Sheridan Avenue
Cody, WY 82414
(307) 587-2777
www.codychamber.org

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center
720 Sheridan Avenue
Cody, WY 82414
(307) 587-4771
www.bbhc.org

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