As an American, albeit (after 47 years living in Europe) a real Ex-Pat, I have always wanted to see two of America’s most famous national parks – Yellowstone and the adjoining Grand Teton. A couple of weeks ago we had our chance, as Helga and I were invited to a family wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – just south of the parks. We didn’t need to think twice!
Yellowstone is widely recognised as the first national park in the world. It was established in 1872 by act of Congress signed by President U.S. Grant, and has been managed by the National Park Service since that service’s creation in 1916. It is roughly square, located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming and comprises almost 9,000sqkm of lakes, canyons, rivers, forests, grasslands and mountain ranges.
However, the key feature of the park is that it sits (at an average elevation of 2,400 metres) on top of a caldera of the largest supervolcano in North America. This volcano has erupted, with tremendous force, several times over the past two million years, most recently about 640,000 years ago. Half the world’s geothermal features, and two-thirds of the world’s geysers, are located in Yellowstone.
Of course, the best known of Yellowstone’s geysers is Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin, which conveniently erupts roughly every 96 minutes. However, it is neither the largest nor the most spectacular of Yellowstone’s 1,283 geysers – just the most famous (that’s what predictability gets you). Steamboat geyser, located in the Norris Geyser Basin about 60km north of Old Faithful, is three times bigger, but its problem is unpredictability, as it takes anything between four days and 50 years to erupt! The last eruption, on September 3, 2014, was impressive indeed!
Of course, there is a lot more to Yellowstone than geothermal features. Hiking (on 1,800km of trails), cycling, fishing (but not hunting), boating (on Yellowstone Lake) and camping (at a dozen campsites) are all wonderful pursuits in this natural fairy-land. As is animal spotting for the casual car-bound visitor (like we were). Yellowstone is home to grizzly and black bears, free ranging herds of bison and elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep and, since they were reintroduced in 1995, grey wolves.
Rivers and lakes cover about 5% of the park, with forests covering 80% and grasslands 20% of the land area. The Continental Divide runs diagonally through the southwest part of the park – we drove across it three times on our way in, once at an altitude of 2,560m. Interestingly, of the park’s two major rivers, the Snake flows to the Pacific while the Yellowstone flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Because the park itself is so elevated the mountains around it don’t seem very high – the tallest being Eagle Peak at 3,460m. Yellowstone’s geography is much more characterised by its beautiful canyons than its mountains.
There are 290 waterfalls in Yellowstone of 4.6m or more, the largest being the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River (94m high). Interestingly, the park has one of the largest petrified forests in the world.
Yellowstone is the centrepiece of a huge protected ecosystem; it is surrounded by national forests – Bridger and Shoshone to the east, Gallatin north and northwest and Caribou-Targhee west. And 16km to the south lies Grand Teton national park.
With 1,300sqkm area, Grand Teton is only 15% of the size of Yellowstone, but the park, established in 1929, includes some truly spectacular mountains. Chief amongst these is the Teton range, including Grand Teton itself which, at 4,200m, is higher than most of the Alps (the highest Alp Mont Blanc is 4,800m). In addition, there are nine other peaks of at least 3,700m in the range. The Tetons rise abruptly from the Jackson Hole grassland and 25km long Jackson Lake (which we had the pleasure of spending a day on in a float boat), which is fed by the Snake River as it flows south from Yellowstone.
The mountains in Grand Teton park are much more evident than any peaks in Yellowstone, because: a) they rise sharply, without foothills, from ground level; and b) the park is about 400m lower than Yellowstone but its peaks are higher and much better defined. The Jackson Hole grassland, and Jackson Lake, are averagely just over 2,000m above sea level. It is interesting that there is no geothermal activity in Grand Teton at all.
Mountaineering, rock climbing, camping, hiking (320km of trails), skiing (at the famously difficult Jackson Hole ski area, which is in Teton Village), boating, fishing (especially for the treasured cutthroat trout) and hunting (but only for elk) are all widely practised activities.
After three days of wedding celebrations, we started our private visit in the town of Jackson (pop. 10,000), which was only settled about 125 years ago. In 1890, it had a population of 64! We took five days to drive north into and through Grand Teton to Yellowstone and, eventually, back again to Jackson Hole airport, which is the largest in Wyoming and is entirely inside Grand Teton park.
Although our trip included the July 4 national holiday, and although both parks attract millions of visitors in the course of a year, we never felt overwhelmed by other people and often were quite alone to appreciate and enjoy the natural beauty of each park. We even did our share of animal spotting, often feeling we were on sort of an American safari.
To ease our weary bones, we stayed in some lovely hotels – The Snake River Lodge in Teton Village, the Signal Mountain Lodge on Lake Jackson, The Grey Wolf Inn in West Yellowstone and the Wort Hotel in Jackson.
If your tastes run to the outdoors, mountains, lakes and very casual living, these parks could be just the thing for you.
By Larry Hampton
Photos: LARRY HAMPTON