Old Faithful wasn’t quite as faithful as I thought it would be. The iconic geyser is said to be one of the most predictable geothermal features on the planet. It erupts every 66 minutes says the guidebook. But you have to read the small print to find that there’s a ten-minute margin of error.
And what a nail-biting wait that is, standing alongside hundreds of other visitors who gasp then deflate every time a trickle of water or a puff of steam erupts from the hole in the ground, only to fizzle out again. It’s like a British pantomime performance.
Old Faithful sits in Yellowstone National Park, a 2.2 million acre patch of mountain peaks, plains and forests in Wyoming, with a toe in neighbouring Montana and Idaho. It’s one of the world’s great wildlife reserves – home to bison, elk and moose as well as grizzly and black bears.
It also sits directly on top of one of the biggest active volcanoes on the planet – something you’re reminded of constantly as you travel across the park. As well as the erupting geysers, like Old Faithful, you’ll also find bubbling mud fields and steaming, multi-coloured mineral pools, as well as the highest lake in North America, at 7,732 feet.
Tourism is well established here. It was hoped when Yellowstone was given its charter in 1872 that its attractions could dissuade rich Americans from crossing the Atlantic for their holidays. Nowadays, it attracts huge numbers of visitors from outside the country.
Americans tend to rely on cars more than we do in Europe and US national parks offer easy access by road to most of the popular sites, usually with extensive parking facilities. There are suggested circular routes around Yellowstone including ‘The Grand Loop’ – a 142 mile figure-of-eight. The circuit takes between four and seven hours depending on traffic, which has to stop for wildlife quite often. You’ll get a map with your $30 per car entry fee.
My base to visit the park was West Yellowstone, a small town of 1,700 people around five hours drive, or 320 miles, from Salt Lake City. It’s one of the five entry points to the park and it’s just 45 minutes to the most famous attraction – the Old Faithful Geyser.
When it finally goes off, it’s an impressive sight. A hot, steaming fountain shooting 32,000 litres of water up to 56 metres into the sky. And a single eruption can last as long as five minutes. Of course, onlookers are kept well back from the boiling jet but it’s all very well organised with a viewing platform arranged in an arc around the attraction. It can get crowded at busy times and the click of camera shutters can be louder than the geyser!
There is a better way to see it if you’re a night owl. Travis Watt of the Yellowstone Tour and Travel Company and owner of the Three Bears Lodge takes trips out after dark. One of the most spectacular views, says Travis, is to hike up to a ridge just above Old Faithful on a night with a full moon. He says the experience is amazing and perfect for keen photographers.
Another must-see sight in Yellowstone is the Rainbow Pool. This small, hot water lake contains multi-coloured, concentric circles ranging from deep reds, through yellows and oranges to turquoise and green. Travis says they’re created by numerous forms of algae growing at different temperatures and on different mineral layers. Kids can get special ‘pinwheels’ where they match the colour and get an explanation of which algae are present. It’s a school science teacher’s dream!
When I visited, there was a thin layer of steam rising from the water and it had an almost magical feel. You can walk out over the pool on specially constructed wooden decks, but signs warn you to be careful – the water is scalding hot and acidic. There were a few items of clothing, like sunglasses and a hat, floating in the boiling cauldron. Apparently no one had fallen in and staff can retrieve lost items with a big stick if you ask!
Apart from the spectacular geological features, there’s also wildlife all around you – literally. Normally I get grumpy if I get stuck in a traffic jam. But when the cars in front grind to a halt as a herd of bison slowly meander along the highway, you tend to look at the experience in a different light. Watch out for parked cars and groups of photographers by the side of the road, marking the fact that some interesting beasts are hanging around nearby.
Bears and wolves also live in the park but they tend, luckily, to keep away from the tourists. To get a safe look, try visiting the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Curator AJ Chlebnik gave me a tour.
AJ says grizzly bears are “very smart” and have a huge appetite. They’ll try their best to get hold of our “easy” human food by wandering into campsites and even breaking into cars. The bears at the centre are ones that have learnt to frequent human areas for food so have become a danger to the public. AJ says visitors planning to hike in the park are encouraged to take pepper spray, in case a bear attacks, and to hike in big groups. They also provide advice on how to store food properly.
I felt like a dumb Brit having to ask what you do if you encounter a bear. The scariest things we have at home are stinging nettles and badgers. AJ says if you see one, never run. She says running away will trigger the animal’s instinct to chase you. In most cases, you need to make yourself look bigger and scarier by holding out your arms and creating lots of noise. Incredibly, these huge beasts are usually afraid of humans. In the rare case that one makes a charge at you, AJ says it’s best to play dead and show you’re no threat. At this point I was glad I was seeing the bears in the controlled environment of the sanctuary! The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center also has bird of prey exhibits between May and November.
Once you’ve exhausted the wildlife sights, what else is there to do in Yellowstone? Well there’s more than 900 miles of hiking trails. And if you’re a fly fishing fan then lake trout, rainbow trout and the native mountain whitefish are among the potential catch within the park, which boasts over 100 lakes and 1,000 miles of streams. You’ll need a permit, which costs $18 for three days.
If you really want to get the most from a Yellowstone visit, Kelly Hart of Freeheel and Wheel, the town’s ski and bike hire company, recommends getting onto two wheels. Kelly says it’s the best way to see the park – taking in the sights and smells that you’d miss if you were stuck in a car. And if you time your trip correctly you won’t be sharing the road with trucks or vans. For a day every year, usually around the 1st April, the park is closed to all vehicles. Kelly says it’s a “once in a lifetime” experience to cycle or walk in the park without any cars around – it’ll be just you, your bike and wandering bison.
New attractions are being added all the time in an effort to make the park attractive for all age groups. Wendy Swenson of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce says a multi level zip-line trail was opened in 2014 and she says spending a day out on the lake in a boat is popular. If you’re into art, several local artists and craftspeople work out of the park, offering great souvenirs to take back home. And for history buffs, the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone is worth a visit. It’s based in the former Union Pacific railway depot buildings and you can learn how West Yellowstone sprung up as a company town, built to service the needs of tourists.
Yellowstone is a year-round destination. In winter, it’s popular with cross-country skiers and caters for all abilities and fitness levels. The season starts in November when the snow is deep enough, often running through until May.
But you can get out in the snow without getting on skis. Snowmobiles give you a chance to whizz across the white landscape like something out of a James Bond movie. But if that’s a bit scary, Travis and his team can drive you in a snow coach – a larger tracked vehicle that can take you across the park. Travis says he thinks winter is the most beautiful time of the year in Yellowstone, but you need to dress for the cold weather. Fortunately, you’ll still be able to see Old Faithful – the geyser can’t freeze!
Getting To Yellowstone National Park
I flew into Salt Lake City and took a five-hour drive to West Yellowstone. You can fly from Salt Lake City into West Yellowstone’s tiny local airport, which is open during the summer, between June and September.