Nature

Yellowstone and Wyoming – Big Sky Country

Yellowstone

Great geysers – Yellowstone

What’s your favourite holiday destination?  One of mine is Wyoming in the United States which boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

If you’re looking to book a vacation this summer, why not head to the ‘big sky state’ with its wonderful wildlife and wilderness landscapes?

Here are five reasons to love Wyoming.

1. Dramatic landscapes and big skies

Wyoming’s dramatic scenery is the main reason to visit the state. This is where The Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains.

Its expansive, blue skies are legendary. This is a place where you can lose yourself in nature and its many great wilderness spaces.

Big Skies - Wyoming

Big skies – Wyoming

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are the two biggest tourism attractions with their stunning scenery which takes in everything from mountains, meadows and forests to canyons, rivers and lakes.

And the picture perfect scenery doesn’t stop there. Less well-trodden areas of Wyoming throw up surprises, from the ranching landscapes of Powder River Basin to the stunning mountains of Beartooth Pass and Shoshone National Forest.

Wyoming

Wyoming’s dramatic scenery

Coming from a small country like Great Britain, it’s hard to appreciate the expansiveness of Yellowstone National Park which covers an area the size of the north of England.

When planning my trip, I under-estimated the size of Yellowstone so badly that my itinerary looked hopelessly flawed as soon as I arrived at the park gates where the ranger handed me a proper map.  Could it really be that big?

I’d allowed three days to explore the park which is achievable if you focus on two or three ‘honey pot’ areas, but is bonkers if you want to get to know the park properly.

Getting around Yellowstone National Park is a lot slower than you might think, mainly because of the frequent animal ‘jams’ which reduce traffic to a snail’s pace.

Everyone enjoys seeing a bison or bear grazing by the road so prepare to be patient. In wilder areas of the park, look for families of wolves which have recently been reintroduced to the area.

And if you’re thinking of hiking on one of the many trails, you’ll need plenty of time to complete your excursion, especially if it requires camping overnight.

In some ways Yellowstone is best seen on horseback or foot but most of us have to settle for a drive around the park. In two days you can complete the Upper and Lower Loop Drives, but even this provides only a cursory glance at the scenery.

Wyoming

One of the stunning landscapes

I’d recommend seven days staying in one of the park’s lovely lodges with their impressive wooden atriums and western-style decor.

Although Yellowstone steals the tourism thunder, Wyoming is blessed with many natural wonders from the badlands of the Bighorn Basin to the Black Hills and Thunder Basin.

In southern Wyoming there’s Fossil Country with its dry, open spaces as well as the remains of ancient petrified forests and historic mining towns. If you’re lucky, you might even see wild horses, a throwback to Wyoming’s pioneer days.

Yellowstone

Typical Wyoming scenery

One of the USA’s greatest scenic drives is the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming. Again, I messed up because I didn’t realise that this spectacular road takes so long to drive and reaches heights over 12,000 feet over its 68 mile length.

The scenic route gets windier and windier as it twists upwards along a sequence of never-ending Z-bends which take you over the top of the ski lift and across a desolate landscape where only small Alpine plants can survive.

Just when you think the road has almost reached the summit, its starts winding upwards again, a bit like a giant stairway to heaven. After a couple of hours, you realise that this scenic drive warrants a day trip in its own right.

2. Hot springs and geysers

It’s easy to forget that Yellowstone is said to be one of the most dangerous places on Earth. It sits on top of a giant magma chamber which could blow up at any time.

One of the last small earthquakes devastated an area several miles wide to create Quake Lake, an eerie area of water with dead, submerged trees sticking out of it.  Another earlier explosion blew a hole to create the extensive waters of Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone

Eerie Quake Lake  – Yellowstone

Guide books assure visitors that it has been 230 million years since Yellowstone experienced a major volcanic devastation. The area averages one large earthquake every 200 million years so we’re 30 million years overdue for the ‘big bang’. It could blow anytime!

In Yellowstone you’re walking on a very thin area of the earth’s crust which is essentially a dormant volcano. The whole area is volatile and unpredictable. One National Park ranger told me that the next blow-out could destroy an area of 1,000 square kms including the town of Bozeman. A sobering thought.

Yellowstone’s geysers are some of the most impressive anywhere in the world. Old Faithful is the most famous with its spurting, thermal outbursts which can shoot 140 feet into the air.

But there are many more geysers in the park including my favourite, the Morning Glory Pool, with its beautiful, iridescent turquoise and gold rim. Grand Prismatic Spring is an equally impressive coloured geyser which provides a great photo opportunity.

Yellowstone - geyser

There she blows – simmering geyser

Popular hot spots and geysers include the squelching Steamboat, the spurting Whirligig and the glorious Great Fountain.

There are signs everywhere saying how dangerous the whole area is. “Take extra special care”. Every warden can be overheard telling visitors that “at least a handful of people are killed or severely scalded by Yellowstone’s geo-thermal features every year”.

Apparently, six-year-old boys are particularly at risk, presumably as they stick their hands in the geysers to test the temperature. Don’t even be tempted.

Yellowstone geyser

Hot, hot, hot – look but don’t touch

The geysers are a feast for all the senses. The smell of geysers can be a real knock-out with the characteristic sulphurous, bad egg odour which gets inside your nose.

Geysers are an unpredictable bunch. Some go off like clockwork whilst others erupt less often and you have to wait around for several hours to see them in full flume.

Hot springs abound in Wyoming but be careful before you’re tempted to bathe in their waters. Once again, there are endless stories of people being sucked under the springs  and boiled alive when they become trapped in an unexpected surge of hot water.

Yellowstone geyser

Keep a safe distance when the geysers blow

3. Wildlife wonderland

Bears, bison, wolves, beavers and moose are just some of the wildlife you’re likely to see in Wyoming particularly in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

With minutes of driving into Yellowstone, we enjoyed sightings of a couple of bald eagles guarding their nest. Further down the park road, we stopped in a lay-by where a golden eagle swooped down onto a wood post, perching just a couple of feet away from the car.

Yellowstone bear

Brown Bear at close range in Yellowstone

Driving through the Mount Washburn area, we spotted a commotion by the roadside. As we drew up and leapt out of our Jeep, we spotted a grizzly bear eating berries on the bank about 15 feet away.

Didn’t the park warden tell us not to get within 100 feet of these bears? This grizzly seemed unperturbed by the close proximity of a group of humans. It was passively turning over rocks and looking for food but we were warned that its amiable demeanour could change in a split second. My heart was racing with fear and excitement!

Further along the loop road, we watched a black bear scrambling around on the ridge in the distance. What a sensational experience to see two bears within 10 minutes. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising as Mount Washburn is one of Yellowstone’s biggest bear havens.

Bison

Bison watching from a safe distance

Elsewhere, we enjoyed frequent sightings of bison, elk and pronghorn antelopes. But you need to be quick to capture a photo of the antelopes as they are the speediest creatures I’ve ever seen.

Bison are amazing creatures and can be seen crossing the roads or grazing on the pastures in the park.  They are huge, furry eating machines with voracious appetites.

But ‘bison beware’ – some visitors have been gored by these large buffalo which can weigh 2,000 pounds and sprint at a speedy 30 mph.

They may appear tame but there are warnings everywhere telling you that they are wild and unpredictable. I wouldn’t want to get into a rumpus with one.

Yellowstone geyser

Bald eagle nest – Yellowstone geysers

4. Cowboy country

Wyoming is the cowboy state. It even has the image of a cowboy on a bucking horse on its car license plate, recalling its history as an important place for ranchers and farmers.

It’s also Buffalo Bill Country. William F. Cody was one of the state’s most famous citizens, renowned for his exploits as a US army scout, showman and early precursor of Ray Mears. He gave his name to the pleasant town of Cody where there’s a fantastic museum commemorating the man and the period in which he lived.

Cody, Wyoming

Cody, Wyoming

We planned a quick trip to The Buffalo Bill Historical Centre but soon realised this was yet another miscalculation. With five different collections – natural history, western art, native American crafts,  firearms and Buffalo Bill – there was a lot more to see than we’d reckoned on. The trip took three hours at a speedy canter.

The Buffalo Bill displays were the highpoint of the trip with outstanding memorabilia and historical pieces. There’s Bill’s bison coat, his cowboy hats and his favourite rifle, which was so well-used that it was almost shot to oblivion.

I felt torn about Buffalo Bill because revisionist history marks him out as an early conservationist and supporter of North American Indians.

But this fails to take account of his track record of killing wildlife and almost driving the buffalo to extinction. After all, this was a man who had so many buffalo coats that he could have opened a department store selling them.

Cody, Wyoming

Buffalo Bill Centre – Cody, Wyoming

Lack of time meant that I had to run around the fine art collection which includes some great cowboy paintings, sculptures and an impressive reconstruction of famous western artist, Remington’s studio. The gallery is very impressive and it’s no surprise that this has been dubbed “the Smithsonian of Wyoming”.

Having spent too much time looking at the cowboy collections, we headed to the museum cafe which serves a mean and lean bison burger.

If you find yourself in southern Wyoming, don’t forget to check out Cheyenne and Laramie’s Stagecoach Corridor which recalls the days of the wagon train and pioneers.

5. Teton’s meadows and mountains

Drive south through Wyoming for a very different landscape, characterised by Grand Teton’s towering mountains and lush water meadows.

The Tetons form a dramatic sequence of jagged peaks rising to 9,000-10,000 feet. The mountains appear to rise up from the flat valley bottom like vertical daggers or teets (hence the name Tetons).

Teton

The dramatic landscape of Teton National Park

We speculated on what a hiking holiday would be like. Extremely hard work judging by the trail guide which suggested 3-4 days for most of the excursions!

This is ‘Moose Country’ but these odd-looking beasts are enigmatic and hard to spot unless you know where to look. It wasn’t till we arrived at our hotel, the Teton Jackson Lake Lodge, that the moose mystery was solved.

After dinner, we strolled onto the hotel dining room’s balcony – and there was a mummy moose with her calf in the wetlands around the lake.  Next day, we saw another pair of moose outside the hotel by a watering hole. What a thrilling experience.

Moose

Moose on the loose

A lovely half day trip is Jenny Lake, a pretty, idyllic spot where you can enjoy the fragile beauty of this remarkable landscape.

For a complete contrast, take a trip to Jackson Hole, an attractive, if slightly touristy town, with great cake shops and cafes. I was fascinated by the town square with its archway made entirely of elk antlers.

Wyoming’s wild landscapes are a great place to roam and let your imagination run riot. With truly spectacular scenery, this is the American road trip of a lifetime.

Tammy’s Travel Tips – Wyoming

Fly into Jackson or Cheyenne from one of the US’s larger city airports (Salt Lake City, Denver). Alternatively, why not drive over the border from Canada and combine a two-centre holiday in Wyoming and Alberta. To do this, fly into Calgary and then head south over the border into Montana and Wyoming.

Book early if you’re planning on staying in the National Park lodges as they fill up quickly. An alternative to staying in Yellowstone National Park is to overnight in nearby West Yellowstone town which has a wide range of well-priced hotels.

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Another option is to hire a camper van but check sites where you might stay in advance using the US RV Guide.

The Beartooth Scenic Highway can be reached from the north-east exit out of Yellowstone National Park The road travels for 68 miles past the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness and over the Beartooth Plateau at an elevation of 10,970 feet and to Red Lodge, Montana. Buy a decent map so you can make the most of this beautiful route.

Buy a local guide-book with hiking trails and detailed information about the national parks. Both the main parks also have great magazines, maps and free literature too. Look out for warden walks and talks. Check out the Wyoming Tourism website.

Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone rock formation

Enjoy reading one of the many books about ‘The Dangers of Yellowstone’ including the hundreds of ways you can die horribly in the wilderness.

Don’t miss a trip over the border into neighbouring Montana, one of the prettiest parts of the USA, with its sparkling rivers and lush meadows.

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