There are so many things that I love about Yellowstone. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that we only live 5 hours away.
I am fascinated by the geothermal features, sure, but there's so much more. There's a magic about it, that I can't quite put into words, but I'll try.
The air has a special quality to it ~ the light is different there. It reminds me of the light in the Serengeti, golden and ethereal. I was talking to a friend about this recently who has also been to both Africa and Yellowstone and she agreed, though neither of us could figure out why the air seems different. Maybe there are just special places on our planet with this quality.
Bison migrate from Hayden Valley in the winter over the Central Plateau, to the Firehole River - and have been doing so since the last ice age. Think of it. Nature, unchanged, over eons. And we are there to witness it.
I love the rivers. There's no cattle and the herds of bison don't hang out in the river bottoms like domestic cattle. The rivers and streams are lush with grass right up to their banks. The water is so clear I could spend the whole day entranced watching the Gibbon River flow by.
The back country is amazing. Hiking even a mere mile off the beaten path you can find solitude. The majority of visitors don't leave the main boardwalks. Plus there's no logging, drilling, hunting, trapping, grazing, building, or other extractive or development-type uses allowed in the park. There are NO FENCES. I'm not against multi-use of the land per se. But having a place where preserving wildlife habitat in it's most natural and undisturbed state is the 'highest and best use' of the land is pretty special.
Which brings me to the wildlife. We were only a few feet from a coyote when he caught a vole and we could hear the bones crunching as he ate it. The kids were thrilled. We saw wolves, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, and deer all before 9 in the morning. On a separate trip we ran across a pack of wolves while hiking in the backcountry. They emerged from a stand of trees and one by one crossed into a meadow, only about 25 yards from us before disappearing back into the trees.
The science of the hydrothermal features is fascinating. Ninety-nine percent of the microorganisms that live in the hydrothermal features have not yet been identified. The scientist in me loves this fact! (The cyanobacteria and other microorganisms are what give the thermal features their different colors.)
Consider the supervolcano. The vast majority of the park is contained in a volcanic caldera. Over the past 17 million years or so, this hotspot has generated a succession of violent eruptions - three super eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowstone_Caldera.)
One morning I woke up in my tent to a small tremor. It crossed my mind in my half-sleep state that this could be THE eruption to blow the western half of the U.S. into the stratosphere. It turns out that there are 1000-2000 small earthquakes each year, measuring up to 3.9 in magnitude. There's a whole group of people that believe that the earthquake activity is increasing and that we could have the 'big one' at any time; the one that will incinerate the western half of the U.S. I say that we might as well live in the moment. But that's what I always say.
Bears. There's a heightened sense of awareness when you hike and camp in grizzly bear country. I appreciate the park service - they take their role seriously of educating visitors on bear safety. We have been recreating in grizzly habitat for 20-some years and know the risks. The reality is that there are about 2 million visitors to the park each year - 800,000 in August 2011 alone (a record). Add to that a population of about 600 grizzly bears and you will have occasional bad run-ins. But I like living in a place that is still wild and we do all we can to stay safe.
I love the rhythm and seasons of Yellowstone. We usually visit in early spring and late fall. It's a privilege to get to know a place intimately and I hope that over the years and decades I can continue to explore Yellowstone, just a stone's throw from our home in Lander. We met a man from Gillette, Wyoming that is retired and spends the entire month of September in Yellowstone, every year. I want to do that!
The kids discovered this song on our trip (I know, I can't believe they don't know about Jimmy Buffett), which is the main reason we had to make a video to go with it. I'm sure I'm not the first Yellowstone tourist to be this totally cheesy. Enjoy. (It's a mash-up of our last two trips.)
Camping footnote: We pitched our tent at Slough Creek which is far from most of the park's popular features and is an 'undeveloped' campsite (no flush toilets or hookups). We really liked it. We did not see the grizzly bear that wallked through camp right before we got there. Slough Creek is nice for being close to Lamar Valley, prime for wolf watching. You can also shoot over to the Mammoth area easily from here.