Inside Yellowstone National Park as it celebrates 150th birthday
As Yellowstone turns 150, Lynn Houghton finds a National Park that’s future proofing with the much-needed help of its tribal people
I ’m sitting on a vast rock and casting my gaze over 15 kilometres of smoking volcanic landscape at the entrance to the Norris Geyser Basin at the Yellowstone National Park. Known for its geo-thermal features, the geyser is located in the middle of the seismic Park. I don’t expect to see in mountainous, wooded Wyoming a landscape reminiscent of a movie set from a film about an alien planet. But under leaden skies and after an unexpected snowstorm, this strange monochrome landscape is what I’m confronted with: and it makes me feel uneasy.
The lodgepole pine trees are blackened and skeletal. There is billowing smoke all around and on the boardwalk below I see shadowy figures and hear the odd masked conversation but, otherwise, an eerie silence mutes the scene. This scorched tableau also has boiling mud pots and ponds with shades of glowing turquoise, shrieking yellow and bright red. A thin coating of moisture covers everything I see. Snowmelt trickles through a layer of sandy material known as rhyolite, then oozes back to the surface as superheated sulphurous water. If constricted by rocks on its journey, this liquid may eventually become expelled steam that erupts as a geyser.
What causes the explosively high temperature? Magma lying just a few feet below the ground. Yellowstone hasn’t had an eruption for 640,000 years, but even so, I’m acutely aware I’m observing an active volcano. And, yes, it is unnerving! It’s not all dystopian. A single bison is grazing at the northeast corner of the geyser. Oblivious to the presence of visitors, I was mesmerised with the animal. Others scrambled to take selfies with the beast from the safety of the raised boardwalk. Yellowstone has a bonanza of wildlife.
Animals native to here even had descendants that roamed this land in prehistoric times. Bison, elk, white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope populate the Lamar, Hayden and Madison river valleys. So do predators like the black bear, bobcat, coyotes, grey wolves, grizzly bears, bald eagles, and other birds of prey. My feeling at seeing two grizzlies rambling along hilltops – though they were quite a distance from where I had pulled over – is almost indescribable. Grey wolves were hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, although reintroduction means there are now several packs roaming here.
There is life where you would assume there could not be: heat adapted sponges have even been discovered at the bottom of the extremely cold Lake Yellowstone, amongst the vast fields of vents, spires, craters, and gas-filled domes. Most prevalent throughout the park are thousands of bison. Small calves are frequently tagging along with mothers which I adore to see. On my travels, I pull off a road which runs alongside the Firehole River to scout out baby buffalo.
To my excitement, I spotted several calves (aka ‘red dogs’ due to their orange coloured fur). I was thrilled to be close enough to get a few choice photos of red splodges on a white snowy background. The park’s rivers are also home to otter, beaver and indigenous fish such as Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, Mottled Sculpin and Mountain Whitefish. These fish are a huge draw for fishermen and fly-fishing is a huge sport here. As rivers are often near the road, it is easy to spot them enjoying this balletic looking activity.
A visit to the Yellowstone Indigenous Centre affords the opportunity to meet a member of the Shoshone tribe and learn about conservation
I happily scamper off downstream to see several Ornamental Mallard Ducks with astonishing colouring having a swim. Their feathers are beautiful even on a dull day. After getting a tip from someone at the tourist office in Gardiner to drive along the Old Yellowstone Trail, I pass under the beautiful Roosevelt Arch erected in 1903 near the park entrance. I have my first sighting of pronghorn antelope in the town’s cemetery just off this road as well as seeing Bighorn sheep on the higher slopes.
Further along, I slow down when a mother elk runs across theroad in front of my vehicle. She left her youngster delicately crouched in the grass nearby. She had used herself as a decoy to deflect attention from the baby. Keeping and returning things to a natural system, to the way they were before humankind altered things, is the raison d’etre of this place. “Since our beginning, it has been a struggle to figure out what a natural park should be like. But one of our founding philosophies is it should be a natural system that functions the way it did before humans altered it. And the modern idea of a natural system is that it should include natural predators,” says Doug Smith, in charge of wolf reintroduction.
Records confirm that in the early days of the park’s existence, tribal people were driven away even though the Kiowa, Apsaalooké, and Shoshone people would have called Wyoming and Montana home for millennia. They were discouraged from hunting, fishing, or using their ancestral land. Trappers and frontiersmen were also meant to be turfed out because of poaching bison. There is now much more interaction between tribal people and the park’s rangers, and concessioners about conservation.
A visit to the Yellowstone Indigenous Centre (located near the historic Old Faithful Inn) affords the opportunity to meet a member of the Shoshone tribe and learn about conservation workshops they hold for local young tribespeople. The Shoshone people have the historic right to hunt as many bison in Yellowstone as they wish but they only take one animal each year and share the meat with the entire tribe. One example of an historic aboriginal practice returning is allowing lightning strike fires to burn. This allows natural renewal by removal of undergrowth. It is a rather controversial practice particularly for any property owners living outside the park boundaries or in areas of the park where employees live.
Looking to the future, the park is doing all it can to bring down its energy consumption. It is said that the size of its fleet of vehicles has been reduced to bring fuel use down. There are six rapid charging stations throughout the park for public use and, during winter, Snow Coaches provide tours for large groups which are fuel and cost effective. I was thrilled to see clearly marked recycling at concessions and in hotel rooms.
The national park service reports that 65% of rubbish avoids landfill in Yellowstone partly for this reason. I really love the free water-filling stations installed to reduce the production, shipping, and use of approximately 35,000 plastic water bottles. Returning to Yellowstone during its important 150 year anniversary feels like coming around full circle since my first visit. With the park’s renewed focus on sustainability and conservation, as well as a new way of working with its indigenous people, the future looks bright for Yellowstone.
Visit Yellowstone National Park yourself
America As You Like It offers a two-week itinerary to Yellowstone priced from £2,998 per person. 020 8742 8299; Americaasyoulikeit.com) Visit travelwyoming.com; visittheusa.com and visitmt.com
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