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Travel: Yellowstone National Park

You can’t quite set your watch by Old Faithful’s eruption cycle, but you won’t wait long for a show.

Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo/Getty Images
Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo/Getty Images

The sounds of sniffing and pawing outside my tent woke me sharply in the darkness. “It’s probably a badger,” I thought, anxiously. “There’s a chance it’s a bear. There’s no way it’s a wolf.” I had decided to spend two nights camping in Yellowstone National Park to acquaint myself with the sights, smells and rhythms of the natural world. But as nature’s hungry snout probed nearer, the comforts of a lodge gained a sudden appeal. At last, the mystery creature shuffled away. A pack of coyotes howled from the forest.

I rose early the next morning and retrieved my breakfast from a locked metal bear box. “They have an excellent sense of smell,” a park ranger had warned. “Keep all your food and toiletries in the bear box, not in your car. A motivated bear can easily smash a window. And don’t try to run. Bears can sprint faster than Usain Bolt. Stand your ground and make yourself look big. Oh, and carry some of this.” She unclipped a jumbo-sized can of bear spray from her belt. I wondered whether I’d have the composure to spray a charging grizzly in the face, as if it were a giant mosquito.

At sunrise, I left Bridge Bay Campground and drove along Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, hoping to glimpse some charismatic megafauna. Many species are active at dawn, feeding and socialising in the hours before the summer heat becomes oppressive. After several miles, the road passed an area of wetlands, and there a herd of about 50 bison grazed near a fuming geothermal vent, the nervous calves encircled by their protective parents. It was a prehistoric scene, the spell broken only by the presence of other visitors observing from the legal minimum distance: 25 yards from big herbivores like bison, elk and moose; 100 yards from bears and wolves.

Bison abound in the park, established in 1872 and covering almost 9000sq km. Photo/Getty Images
Bison abound in the park, established in 1872 and covering almost 9000sq km. Photo/Getty Images

“Bison have lived uninterrupted in Yellowstone for millions of years,” said an onlooker solemnly, before moving close enough to interrupt a tender moment between cow and calf.

Further along the road, I spotted my first bear – a female grizzly – foraging for berries on a nearby hill. She was wearing a radio-tracking collar, and retreated warily from view as queues of vehicles began to back up. The visibility of any large mammal or interesting bird from the roadside is often signalled by a traffic jam and an instant crowd.

Later, in the 30°C heat of a July afternoon, I visited Old Faithful, the famously – and conveniently – predictable geyser. “Next eruption: 12:42, plus or minus 10 minutes,” announced a digital sign in the enormous air-conditioned visitors centre. Outside, a fenced wooden arena had been built to accommodate the thousands who gather to view each dramatic eruption. The crowd swelled as the appointed time approached, and at precisely 12:42pm, the geyser sighed, exhaled and ejected a boiling pillar of water more than 30m high. Many people stood with their backs turned to the spectacle, missing it entirely as they huddled together for selfies.

Networked boardwalks in the Old Faithful area pass by dozens of other geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pools and fumaroles. Visitors are warned never to stray from the planks, so as not to damage the precarious communities of microorganisms that thrive in the rich waters. “Don’t step on the microbes!” one woman shrieked at her wandering child. A ranger roamed the boards with a clawed contraption attached the end of a long pole, stopping occasionally to prod the ground with it; I realised she was using it to retrieve hats, handkerchiefs and other items blown out of reach of the boardwalk.

Old Faithful, steaming at dawn. Photo/Getty Images
Old Faithful, steaming at dawn. Photo/Getty Images

After completing a 5km loop, I visited the Old Faithful Inn, a magnificent multi-storey wooden hotel that opened in 1904. The largest log hotel in the world – there are claims it’s the largest log structure – the inn is designated a national historic landmark. The main lobby, decorated in an appealing rustic fashion, is dominated by a gigantic stone fireplace. In the crowded dining room, visitors queued for ice creams, though business was slow at a stall serving piping-hot chilli dishes. As I lunched by a picture window, I watched Old Faithful detonating again, right on time.

It was unsettling to be holidaying directly on top of a supervolcano. The Yellowstone Caldera has erupted several times in the past two million years, ejecting climate-altering clouds of ash. I’d googled “odds of Yellowstone eruption” before the trip, concerned at the disruptive potential of such a cataclysm to my holiday plans and, perhaps, human civilisation. The answer was one in 730,000 for any given year, according to the US Geological Survey website. I could live with those numbers.

To escape the crowds, I drove for an hour to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a 39km trench eroded over millions of years by the Yellowstone River. Mineral deposits on the canyon’s slopes have painted it with vivid splashes of red, pink and yellow. The name Yellowstone is thought to derive from these rocks.

A bear in the park. Photo/Getty Images
A bear in the park. Photo/Getty Images

Beginning at Lookout Point, I took in a waterfall view and hiked a few kilometres along a forested and nearly deserted trail by the canyon’s edge. Tree squirrels darted across the path, stopping to warn their comrades of raptors soaring on the thermal currents above. Walking alone, I clapped and shouted “Hey bear!” at regular intervals. Bears don’t like to be surprised by hikers and will generally avoid human contact.

After two hours, I descended a staircase to Inspiration Point, an overlook offering a panoramic view of the canyon. In 1870, an explorer named Nathaniel Langford had been so moved by this spot that he wrote: “As I took in the scene, I realised my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.”

Reading between the lines, I suspect Langford had a problem with heights. I returned to the campsite feeling exhilarated by the wild vistas of the canyon.

While exploring that evening, I drifted into a small meadow of yellow flowers and came face-to-face with a grazing elk. It stood its ground and looked me directly in the eye for a moment, then turned and slipped quietly into the trees.

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