About 10 minutes after entering the park, the car in front suddenly pulls over. We quickly follow suit, and my eyes dart around the clearing to the right. There must be something good here. A moose or a bison maybe? With my eyes trained on the scrub on the far side of the clearing I almost miss her. A mother grizzly bear, feasting on foliage a mere five metres from my window. I gasp. How majestic, how calm she is. How lucky am I?
Little did I know at the time, but she would be the first of four grizzlies we would see in just three days here. Yellowstone is like nowhere else on earth.
Humans have conquered, touched and changed almost every corner of the planet. Yellowstone National Park, which welcomes some 900,000 visitors each July alone, is not so different. What sets it apart from other magnificent destinations like Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, or the Great Wall of China, however, is its architect: Mother Nature.
Yellowstone, which covers some 2.2 million acres (890,008 ha), sits atop a supervolcano with a magma chamber that stretches 966 km deep. This fiery core fuels the largest collection of geothermal features on earth (over 10,000), and is the centrepiece of an ecosystem that supports a truly unique and fragile collection of flora and fauna. This is a place that, with a lowest altitude of 2,500 metres, completely freezes over and shuts down in winter, rebirthing with life come late spring.
Today, thanks to the steadfast National Parks Service, and some very bold decisions, like the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, all of the original native mammal and bird species that were here when Europeans first arrived in North America 500 years ago, are here today.
Yellowstone’s great valleys, often likened to Africa’s Serengeti, are where you’ll find many of the 5,000 bison that now inhabit the area. They’re also where some 10-20,000 elk migrate to during the summer months; and a good place to spot the elusive wolves, of which there are now over 100.
On the slopes of Mount Washburn, and Yellowstone’s other high peaks, you can spot bighorn sheep and mountain goats. While mule deer, pronghorn, bald eagles, foxes, and even fleeting glimpses of moose are found all over the park. Grizzly bears, of which there are now over 700 in the wider region, are the icing on the cake.
The story of America’s first national park is proof that humans don’t have to change nature for worse, we can also help protect, rebuild and respect.
Tips for viewing wildlife safely in Yellowstone:
- Stay at least 91m from bears and wolves
- Stay 23m from all other animals
- Never feed wildlife, or pursue them to take pictures
- Carry bear spray and know how to use it (cans can be rented from the park, or purchased in most grocery stores)