THE WORLD’S FIRST NATIONAL PARK

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It’s easy for most of us to take technology for granted these days. It’s almost impossible to believe that only some twenty years ago, the internet was in its infancy. Go back almost twenty more years and color televisions, computers and video games were a considerable luxury. Heck, TV isn’t even 90 years old yet and there are people still around who remember a time without it.

Try this one on for size: 143 years ago there was no such thing as a national park. Not just in the U.S. Literally anywhere.

The Lower Geyser Basin was the first stop on our whirlwind Yellowstone Park day tour.

The Lower Geyser Basin was the first stop on our whirlwind Yellowstone Park day tour.

The difference between technological advances and the labeling and governance of parkland is that the park was always there, at least in some form, while we humans have kicked around on this planet. Yellowstone National Park could have been a national park in, say, 1082, if somebody was there to understand the importance of such a place in relation to the rest of the world (no doubt if someone wandered by what is now Yellowstone some one thousand years ago, they would be awestruck, but they wouldn’t carry much knowledge about what existed elsewhere on the planet. Another “Yellowstone” could be a few hundred miles south for all they knew).

Boiling water streaming down into the river below...

Boiling water streaming down into the river below…

Once humans began to have a better understanding of the world, protecting Earth’s most unique wonders became an important practice. This essentially kicked off with Ulysses S. Grant granting the Yellowstone area as a national park on March 1, 1872 (Canada would follow suit in 1887 with the creation of Banff National Park). Early travelers had to be quite resilient to even make the journey to Yellowstone, but rail and roads eventually helped open up the floodgates, and the advent of air travel opened the parks up to the rest of the world.

A gathering crowd about 45 minutes before an Old Faithful eruption.

A gathering crowd about 45 minutes before an Old Faithful eruption.

National parks (and other various government-protected entities under a national park banner) can now be found in nearly every country. However, for about 15 years in the late 1800s, the only travel itinerary with a national park would have taken you into the wild Wyoming territory of the still growing United States. For the few that were fortunate enough to visit then, it must have been quite a story to bring back home.

Not really Old Faithful in all its glory. We got soaked as the wind pushed most of the water onto us. That, and it was generally on the smaller side of Old Faithful eruptions.

Not really Old Faithful in all its glory. We got soaked as the wind pushed most of the water onto us. That, and it was generally on the smaller side of Old Faithful eruptions.

I used to live two-and-a-half hours from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Up until March of 2011 I had spent all but the first 2-3 years of my life in Billings, Montana. I took it for granted that Yellowstone was just part of the area I grew up in. We visited plenty of times, and, while I certainly enjoyed it, I probably got too used to the fact that such an astonishing place was essentially my backyard.

Mammoth Hot Springs and its otherworldly terraces.

Mammoth Hot Springs and its otherworldly terraces.

Three-and-a-half-years removed from Montana and now on the east coast has made me appreciate all that I grew up with back west, Yellowstone included. Logistically, Montana or Wyoming isn’t an easy place to head back to for a quick trip and my longer trips are generally reserved for exotic locales I’ve yet to see. Since I left, I’ve only set foot in my hometown for a total of two-and-a-half days.

We particularly loved this colorful section of Mammoth.

We particularly loved this colorful section of Mammoth.

A chance to revisit Yellowstone National Park, if only for a day, seemed possible when I started planning a trek to the aforementioned Banff National Park (go back to my previous post for a summary of that adventure). As my girlfriend, Breeah, had yet to visit, I thought swinging down to see Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs was worth the effort – if only for the nostalgia.

Mammoth Village seen below.

Mammoth Village seen below.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Dropping down to Yellowstone from Banff could maybe be done in a full day’s drive, but we decided to take a slower route via picturesque Waterton Lakes before making it to Bozeman for the night. Additionally, we were planning on taking the breathtaking Beartooth Highway out of Yellowstone and planned to make it into Billings by 7 p.m. Doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for sightseeing in the world’s first national park.

A herd of buffalo on the road towards Cooke City.

A herd of buffalo on the road towards Cooke City.

However, we managed (we always seem to). Here’s a list of basically everything we did upon leaving Bozeman that morning…

  • Drove into West Yellowstone, MT (having already gone through the un-gated portion of the park). Decided that since Breeah has never been to Idaho, it was worth swinging over there to pick up that state for her. She’s now at 45, one behind me. She has one I don’t have (Oregon). I have two she doesn’t (Utah and Michigan).
  • After entering the park (officially now), we head to Lower Geyser Basin and check out the geothermal activity along the boardwalk.
  • We make our way to Old Faithful, where we find out we narrowly missed an eruption. That’s ok, we head to the gift shop (where I add to my patch collection and get our park passport stamps) and pick up ice cream. We are able to see the next eruption and end up getting doused as the wind decided to blow quite a bit of the water our way.
  • Now it was time to make the relatively long journey up to Mammoth Hot Springs (a day trip that we’d oftentimes make exclusively from Billings). We walked the boardwalk around the various terraces formed by calcium carbonite. I think Mammoth was always my favorite place in the park as a kid and I’d have to say it still is to this day. It’s just so utterly unique (not to say that the geysers or pools aren’t), especially for North America.
  • We spotted huge herds of buffalo (some quite close to the road) en route to Cooke City, Montana. I’ve seen buffalo before out in the wild (numerous times, in fact), but it never gets old for me. They are truly an American treasure.
  • The Beartooth Highway, which I’ve been on before but never driven myself, was better than I remembered. It might be akin to traversing a high-altitude road in Switzerland or Patagonia. It was July and we could get out of the car and walk right up to snow.
  • Somehow we made it to Billings just a couple ticks before 7 p.m. and managed to eat, take in the 7th and 8th innings of the Billings Mustangs baseball game and visit with a few old co-workers at the Billings Gazette (my former employer) before heading in for the night. Of course, we had to be out at daybreak the next morning for a long drive back to Minneapolis…
There are an abundance of photo ops from the higher altitudes of the Beartooth Highway, connecting Red Lodge with Yellowstone.

There are an abundance of photo ops from the higher altitudes of the Beartooth Highway, connecting Red Lodge with Yellowstone.

I wouldn’t recommended spending just a day in Yellowstone, but if it’s all you got time for, I wouldn’t dissuade you either. You should absolutely make the trip in if you’re in the area, as it’s not always easy to know when (or if) you’ll have the chance to return. If you can, stay a little longer. I would have loved to visit Yellowstone Lake and the Upper and Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Heck, don’t forget Grand Teton National Park further south (which is included on the same $25 pass into Yellowstone, a pass which is good for a week).

Easily one of the best drives in America, the Beartooth is only open for a maximum of five months during the year, weather permitting.

Easily one of the best drives in America, the Beartooth is only open for a maximum of five months during the year, weather permitting.

I’m back to missing it again, but glad I took the chance to see one of my old stomping grounds – if only for a few hours, and to share it with someone who is immeasurably special to me.

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