Yellowstone National Park
June 2-4- Yellowstone National Park
When I was planning my trip, someone advised me not to try to tour Yellowstone on my bike -- the distances were too great, the roads too narrow, and the drivers dangerously distracted. Instead, they said, leave the bike in Jackson and rent a car.
It's excellent advice, for although Yellowstone is entirely passable by bicycle (the Transamerica Trail goes right through it), the park's single road is hilly, curving, and often shoulderless, and the full, figure-8 loop that it forms is more than 200 miles long. (There's a good map at <http://www.yellowstone-natl-park.com/bike.htm>.) Major attractions in the park are at least 30, and as many as 60, miles apart. What's more, when I was there in early June, six and seven foot tall walls of plowed snow still abutted substantial stretches of road, making comfortable riding space even scarcer.
The car was the right choice but my motorized tour of Yellowstone felt more like a break from the bicycle adventure than part of it. Nevertheless it was a nice couple of days, full of fascinating sights, and worth a few words here.
Yellowstone's tourist facilities (lodging, restaurants, gas stations, gift shops, etc.) are confined to five separate clusters located near some of the park's more popular attractions. These ersatz villages are spaced fairly evenly throughout the park and, although plainly contrived, are attractive (in a National Park Service sort of way) and provide visitors with a useful sense of place and destination within an area of otherwise overwhelming vastness.
Early June was a good time to visit. It was still chilly in the evening (temperatures dipping into the mid 30s) but mild enough during the day for short pants. More importantly, tourists had not begun to arrive in volume. Thus, even though one 40 mile leg of the park loop was still closed by snow (forcing a lot of backtracking), traffic was light. The most popular attractions were, at worst, manageably crowded, and stunning sights only the least bit out of the way could be enjoyed in complete solitude. Interestingly, Americans made up only about half of the tourists I did see. I met, among others, visitors from Japan, Holland, France and Germany.
The first few hours back behind the wheel of a car were jarring. The scenery sped by much too quickly, and seeing it through the windshield was barely better than watching it on TV. It was often impossible, and at best inconvenient, to stop or slow to take in interesting sights. Though I soon reaccustomed myself to the faster pace, I was surprised to discover that driving all day was much more tiring than bike riding -- by mid afternoon both days I was drowsy almost beyond the power of caffeine to cure. More surprising still was that my calves and feet quickly became tired and very sore. It made sense, of course, for despite all the work my legs had been getting on the ride, on any given day I might walk literally only a few hundred yards -- far less than I would in an ordinary day at the office. I was calling upon muscles that hadn't seen use in 6 weeks.
Here are a few high points from the (very brief) two and a half days:
Late on my first afternoon in the park, I met Jen from Minnesota. She was on a five day drive from Bemidji (Minnesota) to Bozeman (Montana) and back -- and had decided in spite of her tight schedule to spend a few hours in Yellowstone. We spent the rest of daylight exploring the sights along one 60 mile stretch of road. Afterwards we had a delightful dinner, finding no end of things to talk about; then at midnight we sat, alone together under a full moon, to watch Old Faithful erupt into the cold, crisp night air. It was superbly, sublimely romantic -- for me, anyhow. As for Jen, well, she had a boyfriend to whom she was unwaveringly devoted. Then too I didn't confess this as we sat, and if she noticed my giddiness I'm sure she ascribed it to the wine I'd had at dinner. Somehow, though, the asymmetry didn't matter in the least, and that night remains one of the very best memories of the entire trip.
Among the other things I remember vividly:
- The pervasive smell of sulphur
- spectacular erupting geysers (far more impressive and bombastic than Old Faithful)
- rainbow-hued ponds of crystal-clear steaming water
- the "sulphur cauldron", a pool of boiling mud with the pH of battery acid
- petrified trees
- bison wandering near the lodge at Old Faithful, their hot breath forming bright backlit clouds in the cold
- the broad and placid Yellowstone River flowing into narrow gorges and being transformed into violent, frightening cascades of whitewater
- towering waterfalls; and
- deep, green tree-lined canyons
Yellowstone is a magnificent national resource. Go see it, even if you have to drive.
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Page posted November 25, 2000