The king of US national parks
A herd of bison in Hayden Valley, north of Yellowstone Lake. (Matt Munro)
Yellowstone is home to more than half of the world’s geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and other related phenomena. The world’s first national park, and with 3,000 square miles of unspoilt beauty, Yellowstone is like nowhere else on Earth.
‘I sat there in amazement while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke.’ So wrote Charles Cook in 1869, recording his expedition’s dumbstruck arrival at the head of a 20-milelong, 350-metre-deep gorge, crowned by a mighty green cataract and flanked with steaming, hissing walls of crimson, mauve and yellow. Cook’s expedition had been despatched to the lonely Montana-Wyoming border after wide-eyed fur trappers and prospectors came back from the region with tall tales of hot waterfalls that rose upwards, of petrified forests and an alien world of fire and brimstone, which trembled underfoot and belched orange gas and boiling mud. Silenced awe became the Cook party’s default mode – it was all true. That such a well-trodden nation, by then already an established global superpower, should have secretly nurtured this extraordinary lost kingdom seemed almost unbelievable. For most, it still was: the US only accepted Cook’s account when a further expedition returned with irrefutable photographic evidence.
Approaching Yellowstone National Park, I can understand the scepticism. Wyoming is one of the larger states by area, but the smallest by population, dominated by the discouraging, dun-coloured nothingness of the High Plains. The scenery wakes up outside Cody – founded by and named after William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody – and suddenly I’m driving through mighty canyons and gilded forests. A huge-skied sunset lends every vista a cinematic majesty. This is an epic land fit for all-American movie heroes – from John Wayne to Bambi.
By the time I pass beneath the twilit pine-log eaves of Yellowstone’s eastern entrance, I’m beginning to channel Charles Cook, to grasp the sudden surge of protective pride that led to the 3,000 astounding square miles before me being enshrined – just two years after its resident wonders were proven to exist – as the world’s first national park. ‘Withdrawn from settlement, occupancy or sale,’ as the 1872 Yellowstone Park Act stirringly decreed, ‘and for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel overlooks a vast and placid body of moonlit water, its distant east shore smudged with the glow of a long-burning forest fire. Built in 1891, it exudes the genteel grandeur of a bygone tourist age, with a White House-grade portico, iron bedsteads primly clad in sheets, and an unapologetic absence of TV and air conditioning. Patrolling the endless corridors and cavernous reception areas, my lungs remind my head that we’re 2,500 metres above sea level. ‘We’re all suckers for nostalgia,’ says a uniformed receptionist. ‘Folk come here to see what their country used to look like and to experience it how those early visitors did.’ Though not exactly how. Just before the park’s fifth birthday, 700 Nez Perce Native Americans charged through Yellowstone in desperate flight from a US Army force ordered to corral them into a distant federal reservation. Twenty tourists were taken hostage and three killed, including one cut down in the doorway of his hotel. After a five-month, 1,000-mile pursuit, the Nez Perce eventually surrendered just 40 miles south of their goal – the Canadian border.
Even overlooking the perils that lay in wait once you arrived, simply getting to Yellowstone in the pre-railway age was a substantial undertaking. The reward that made it all worthwhile was first-hand experience of the park’s uniquely weird geothermal wonders. Yellowstone is home to more than half of the world’s geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and other related phenomena, and the sole founding purpose of Yellowstone National Park was to save them from mineral exploitation and the tacky intrusiveness that had recently despoiled Niagara Falls.