YELLOWSTONE - BEARS, BISON & BUBBLES
National Parks are places where animals live - and humans visit.
It is easy to put the case that these vast sanctuaries of nature are THE most cherished and loved treasures in this outdoor-loving nation.
The jewel in the crown, the koh-i-noor, is Yellowstone, a nearly 3,500 square mile oasis for wildlife, sitting at 8,000ft atop an active volcanic hot spot. Spreading into three states - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho - it proudly carries the title of being the world's very first National Park, having been 'roped off' by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
To drive through this wonderland is to feel a sense of privilege at gaining an insight into an untouched haven of nature where the abundant wildlife freely roams the pastures, climbs the mountainsides or spreads its wings to soar into the clear skies, just as they did a thousand years ago. There are only five access roads into the park, NW, NE, E, S and W, and then you all join a 142-mile loop, a figure-of-eight, taking you through green valleys, alongside the vast Yellowstone lake and to the dozens of volcanic geysers and colorful hot springs that bubble and puff away in the south, as well as the High Land plateaux and snow-covered mountains in the north.
We entered via the West Entrance, squeezed into the faithful Mini with our great pals Chris and Madelyn who had come up from Reno, and went around the southern loop for one day and the northern the next. Chris is a brilliant videographer and could not help trying to make a presenter out of your hapless blogger, hence a couple of the videos below (he totally squandered his considerable talents on his male ingenue but, as ever, took it in extremely good humor).
The highlight without doubt was our close encounter with a huge brown 'Grizzly' bear (the photo above was taken through the tightly closed tinted glass car window). Seeing this magnificent but brutal beast is the most sought-after and rarest event in any visitor's wishlist. We got lucky. But we were no less thrilled to see the black bears, bison, elk and a solitary coyote, leaving us with memories that will last forever.
For once, we shall be mercifully short on words and let the pictures and videos do the talking. The good news is that these very special wildlife moments will be there for you and everyone to experience for years to come, hopefully forever. The whole concept of the Parks is that nature is protected in its own evolutionary isolation, without threat from the worst kinds of human intervention. The animals are free and wild, but they wander nonchalantly across the roads, tolerating the cars and the peering humans - until that is, as we are warned, they don't want to tolerate it any more. Then, watch out. Respect for the wildlife and for your own safety is the code here.
So here is a brief 'videoblog' together with a few photos and short films snatched on our humble phones capturing a few moments in Yellowstone time.
And we start with the biggest moment, when we looked left and spotted a grizzly walking alongside us through the forest. We followed him until he suddenly and unhurriedly crossed right in front of us.
Bison are everywhere. Being Spring, their calves play or sleep in the pastures aside their watching mothers. The outcast males, meanwhile, wonder aimlessly, excluded from the herds and all those delectable females. Poor devils. Their expression tells you everything.
Elk herds graze on the spring grass but these two in the video crossed the river to say hello and showed no fear whatsoever of our presence, probably because they knew we were armed only with our iPhones, not shotguns or bows & arrows.
We followed a coyote as he scoured the riverside for his next meal. This photo was a tall order for a humble iPhone.
The famous bubbling hot springs and explosive volcanic steam eruptions livened up the tranquil scene. Below is the White Rock Geyser
Old Faithful (below) puts on its performance every hour or so.
Below are the fields of gurgling, spitting volcanic pools and mud baths
From the warm valleys to the Yellowstone Lake, which was still frozen even though it's nearly June.
The rivers and waterfalls cut through the verdant forest of firs
Gibbon Falls (above) and Firehole Falls (below)
In the mountainous north, there's more of a chill in the air and terrifying roads to match.
We had planned to head east towards Mt Rushmore after Yellowstone, but the realization that we had completely missed Oregon and Washington states caused us to head back towards the Pacific. That is the beauty of traveling with this freedom - whenever you come to a crossroads, at any time, you can choose to go left, right or just carry straight on.
So we pointed the nose of the bus West through Idaho. We drove for 260 miles, at one point boldly resisting the seductive charms of a sign that said 'Potato Museum - Next Exit' and arrived in Twin Falls. Here, three miles out of town, we discovered the 'Niagara of the West', the Shoshone Falls. This 1000ft (300m) wide torrent of cascading water flows over a rim 212ft (65m) high, that's 45ft (14m) higher that Niagara.
Nearby is the dramatic Perrine Bridge, once the tallest bridge in America. Today, it is a world-renowned venue for base jumpers, aka loonies who leap off static buildings and structures with only their parachutes to help them land safely back on terra firma.
We have for two years traveled the US trying to find those 'stubborn little corners' and we were fascinated when, while hiking two almost vertical miles from the Shoshone Falls up to and along the rim of the canyon, we came across this large mound of earth -
It sat perched on the edge of the precipice, overlooking the river far, far below and the other side a quarter of a mile away.
Then we found the answer. This sign told the whole story:
Yes, the biggest show on Earth in 1974 took place on this modest mound of earth. For it was here that that dare-devil Evel Knievel, the biggest showman of his generation, decided to jump the Snake River on his jet-powered 'motorbike', Skycycle X-2.
Forty-five years ago, our 'hero' Robert Craig Knievel was hoping to jump the Grand Canyon in his latest extravagant challenge. However, the authorities had a different view and (rightly) banned him from being so foolhardy in an effort to attract thousands and make millions in their National Park. He had had a steam rocket/bike designed and built (and we suspect sponsors and TV deals lined up) so now he had to look elsewhere and found this spot near Twin Falls, Idaho.
To stop anyone else putting a spoke in his motorcycle rocket wheel, he leased land on both sides of the chasm and created this huge mound onto which he put a metal rocket-launcher.
Well, some of you may recall, it all started well but, surprise, surprise, it ended in glorious failure when, he says, his emergency parachute malfunctioned and opened too early and he floated down to the river below. 'Oh, yeah - tell me another one', we say cynically. Anyway, Knievel boosted his pension fund and paved the way to his retirement in Florida. We should have thought of that.
The knee-trembling view from the top of the mound, looking out over his projected flightpath and landing area.
Knievel getting on board his craft on top of the mound in 1974
If you are interested in the whole wacky affair, you may like to watch this...