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Discovering Yellowstone National Park

Rain poured from my hood, gritty chunks of tarmac dug into my ankles from where I’d been sat on the roadside, and I was desperately trying to keep my camera dry. I was, officially, soaked. But none of it mattered. We’d been waiting a solid 40 minutes before someone suddenly yelled, “there she is!”. Like something out of a wildlife documentary, a muscular grizzly bear emerged from the treeline, droplets of water clinging to her thick coat. Following closely behind, three cubs tottered down the hillside – as unfazed by the deluge as I was.

Seeing grizzlies in the wild has always been pretty high on my bucket list, but I wasn’t prepared for the intense emotion that came with the experience. My heart was pounding with excitement and I was forced to swallow back the lump in my throat as I watched the young cubs tumbling playfully with each other beside a stream. We were somewhere in the heart of Yellowstone National Park, on our way back from seeing dozens of steaming hot pools and gurgling geysers, when we’d spotted a few onlookers and rangers. It’s impossible to imagine that right there, a mere 100 yards from the road, these glorious creatures were just… hanging out.

That being said, when you’re discovering a natural, geothermal behemoth like Yellowstone National Park, incredible moments like this happen a lot…

Walking the Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs

On our first day we set off from Lake Yellowstone towards the Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s one of the park’s most popular sites, but it’s also one of its most unique. Here you can wander the boardwalks that weave in and out of the bleach-white terraces, made up of hot springs spilling down a steep hill. This natural sculpture is vast, making it a great place to warm up those hiking legs when you first come into the park. It’s also one of the best places to learn about the geothermal features of the area, in particular how tonnes of travertine, a.k.a calcium carbonate, created this alien landscape.

Spotting Wildlife in Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley

Located in Central and Northern Yellowstone respectively, the Hayden and Lamar Valleys are some of the best places to spot wildlife. Here we were lucky enough to see black bears on the side of the road, as well as vast herds of bison. Chances are if you see people gathered or parked up by the side of the road, they’ve spotted some kind of wildlife – potentially bison, wolves, elk and even grizzlies.

Gazing across the Grand Prismatic Spring

It can take patience to experience the best of Grand Prismatic. But, wait for a gust of wind to clear the steam, and you’ll see some of the most arresting water colouration in the park. There’s a reason this is one of Yellowstone’s most beloved spots. It’s huge too – the largest hot spring in the USA in fact, not to mention the third biggest on the planet! We wandered from viewing point to viewing point here, spending at least half an hour just watching the colours shift with the changing weather. It’s worth battling the crowds to see this one up close.

Seeing the Geysers Erupt

Most people who’ve been to Yellowstone will tell you to see the Old Faithful Geyser. Located just behind Old Faithful Lodge, it’s renowned for its easy accessibility and, most importantly, its reliability: eruptions happen every 90 minutes or so. It’s a deep, guttural-sounding explosion, and a real must-see, especially if you’re short on time and want a guaranteed experience. But there are over 500 geysers in the park – some of which are vastly more impressive, particularly in the Upper Geyser Basin area.

Start with Old Faithful, then head to the Daisy Geyser trailhead – just a few minutes’ drive in the car. From here you can walk to the Daisy Geyser and – crucially – the Grotto Geyser (pictured above). This is one of the most unusual in the park and its eruptions can propel skywards for 40ft, lasting anything from 50 minutes to several hours. And that’s not the best bit. All the geysers are interlinked here so, catch Grotto going off, and soon behind Riverside Geyser, Rocket Geyser and Spa Geyser (to name a few) will follow. We were lucky enough to experience this first hand – surrounded by the roar of multiple plumes of water, we ran from geyser to geyser to see each one up close. It was truly spectacular.

But the geyser everybody was whispering about was Beehive. Located just behind Old Faithful, it’s near-impossible for rangers to predict. But keep your ear to the ground for tips and, if you are lucky enough to catch it, it shoots a column of water for a staggering 190ft.

Gazing into the Morning Glory Pool

Just a short walk from Grotto Geyser, you’ll find one of the most photographed pools in Yellowstone: the Morning Glory Pool (above). In recent years it’s made the news for being the most-littered pool in the park – coins, rocks and, reportedly, a sofa(!) have all been dredged from the bottom. Geologists were worried the pool would lose its beautiful colours, created by the bacteria and minerals on the stones, as a result of the littering. However, thanks to the hard work of the rangers, it’s still absolutely breathtaking. And, unlike the stunning Sapphire Pool (below), it’s a bit more off the beaten track too, so visit in the shoulder season like we did, and chances are you’ll have the beauty all to yourself.

Embracing the fumes

We spent three days in Yellowstone and pretty much the entire time, the scent of sulphur clung to my nostrils. Now I’m not saying you get used to the egginess, but it does make you more attune to your surroundings. In fact, we found that the stronger the smell, the better the geyser/hot spring/mud pool. The Churning Cauldron, for example – a fierce, boiling pool in the Mud Volcano Group – emitted huge plumes of sulphurous smoke… but it was one of our highlights. Likewise, the hydrothermal Fountain Paint Pots area; the smell was pungent, but the chance to see geysers, mud pools and hot springs next to each other was undeniably impressive. All in all, it’s not a bad price to pay for experiencing one of the most volcanic landscapes in the world…

Images: Alexandra Cronin

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Written by Alexandra Cronin (Gregg)

Once a roving local news reporter and now a travel-obsessed writer/sub, I'm head-over-heels for nature, wildlife and the ocean. When I'm not getting up close to animals and sea creatures, I'm seeking out the sets of my favourite TV shows around the world. 

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