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Yellowstone – no nanny state in the USA’s national parks

A large brown and white osprey sits in a tree just 25 metres from me. As I watch it shoots down, feet first into the icy chaos of water below, disappearing completely, swallowed by the foam. I have to admit I’m impressed.

There’s a moment’s pause before the bird reappears; wings labouring to pull it from the water. As it rises higher I see a large fish held tightly in its talons. The fish squirms. The osprey holds its grip keeping the fish parallel to the direction of flight. With a few more flaps of its wings it clears the tops of the trees and heads west to its nest and a family supper.
Yellowstone was created in 1872 – the USA’s very first National Park. It covers over 3,000 square miles, most of which are in Wyoming. It was created to ensure the area was protected, rather than exploited.

National Parks in the USA play a different role to those in the UK. In the UK people live, work and farm within the parks. Some, like The New Forest for example, contain entire villages. Although there is visitor accommodation in Yellowstone there are no working villages or towns – these are preserved “wilderness” areas.

In the UK we actively manage our parks. We cut down trees, we cull deer, we artificially ensure that the landscape remains the same. In the US they have a more hands-off approach. For example in the 1990s grey wolves were re-introduced (from Canada) into Yellowstone. They help to balance the ecosystem naturally, keeping the numbers of ruminants at a manageable level.

In this way you could argue its more “natural” than our national parks.
Yellowstone is famous for its bears – and if that’s what you’ve come to see you’re unlikely to go home disappointed. Within hours I have spotted my first black bear and not long after a traffic jam (or “bear jam”) of cars and long lenses signals that another celebrity mammal is in the vicinity.

I pull over and am rewarded with the sight of a Grizzly and two young cubs. These are last year’s brood, the survivors from a litter of four. The family are about 400 metres away on the horizon. With binoculars it’s a great view. I feel pleased to have caught one so close.

The roadside is crowded as more cars join the jam and all eyes follow the Grizzly. We stare in fascinated silence as the huge animals meander our way. Mother Grizzly leads the group, nose down sniffing at the sage bushes; first this way then that, but always moving steadily closer.

The days of Yogi Bear and feeding jelly sandwiches to the wildlife are nothing more than a distant cartoon memory. Since the mid 1970s the Park has had a strict “do not fed the wildlife” rule and signs regularly remind us that we must stay at least 100 metres away from bears and wolves and 20 metres from all other animals.

You need to remember this is a wilderness. The animals are wild – it’s not a fancy safari park. So be sure to keep your distance. Bears, and even Bison, have been known to kill people. Too often we expect our wild areas to be “not too wild”, as a result we end up with barriers, barbed wire and “beware” signs at every turn – it’s a pleasure to visit an area where you are expected to take responsibility for your own safety and not moan that somehow the world isn’t quite tame enough for you!

Of course, not everyone comes for the wildlife – many people make the trip here to see the geysers, mud holes and sulphur lakes.

Yellowstone sits on a restlessly sleeping volcano, the molten magma just a few miles below the surface heats underground water sending it shooting up in violent spurts. Old Faithful is a must. But it’s certainly not the only geological show worth seeing.

Be sure to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring – and be even more sure to stay on the walkways. These are not luxury hot tubs, but boiling water that will kill you if you’re daft enough to dive in for a swim. The Prismatic Lake is a stunning mix of vibrant colours – the result of pigmented bacteria in the microbial mats that grow on the edges of this mineral rich water. Stand still for a moment and let the tinted steam blow over you – it’s an unusual outdoor experience.
You’ll need at least three days to get any sense of what Yellowstone has to offer – and you’ll want to stay longer. There are plenty of lodges and cabins within the park that will accommodate you – but it’s essential to book early. The busy summer period is usually full months in advance.

I can recommend Canyon Cabins. These are well designed cabins with a rustic feel. Once inside you can’t actually see the other cabins – so you do feel as though you are alone in the wilderness (almost!)The operators have also made an effort to be environmentally friendly with natural bath products, recycling facilities and a commitment to reduce their energy consumption.

If you don’t fancy a cabin and would prefer the Lodge experience then try Old Faithful Lodge. This large wooden lodge has an elegant exterior but it’s the interior that really takes your breath away. The lobby area, with its high ceiling, is like something out of The Lord of the Rings – at any moment I expected elves to come swinging down from the galleries above me, their laughter echoing off the walls.

But if elves aren’t your thing – then you can always grab a drink (or some ice cream) and watch Old Faithful from the roof terrace. Yellowstone may not be entirely wild with its luxury lodges, restaurants and roadside composting toilets. But it’s about as close as you will get in the developed world – and don’t be fooled, it can still be a dangerous place. Bears, Bison and even the hot springs have been known to kill people, so treat nature with respect and take responsibility for your actions – and you’ll be guaranteed an unforgettable experience.

FACT BOX
For more information about accommodation in Yellowstone: http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com
For information about Yellowstone: http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm
It’s generally recommended to fly to New York and then take an internal flight to one of the local airports close to Yellowstone, including Billings, Cody, Bozeman and Jackson. British Airways fly direct to the USA. http://www.britishairways.com/travel/home/public/en_gb?countrycode=GB&eId=101001

One Comment

  • Phil B says:

    Sounds wonderful. I recently watched the series on TV about how many wilderness areas (incl Yellowsone) are not that “virgin” and untouched by humans albeit that our “management” is more discrete on occassions these days. We impact everywhere – sometimes like a virus or a cancer, somethimes as custodial guardians. Let’s hope for more of the latter.

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