In your life you must go to Yellowstone. If you can't or haven't, come on, come along.
I was a tour bus driver and a park ranger there for several seasons. I've been taking folks who have never been for years, always early October — the tourist crowds of summer have gone and all the beasts of the wild abound.
The long way there from Sacramento is across Nevada, up through Idaho, through a slice of Montana and into Yellowstone. But I want to show you/share with you a more recent addition to the trip.
We will fly to Denver and rent a car. We will drive up through Wyoming and north to Montana, high plains and cliffs and bluffs and rocks and native mirages, with a stop for coffee in Chugwater, Wyoming, not even a gas station, and late breakfast in Wheatland, Wyoming, several gas stations, in a real ham and eggs, farming folks etc. And on up the high lonesome, cold snow clouds to Hardin, Montana, the Crow nation reservation and Little Bighorn — the one of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse — and Custer.
That night in the Western Motel — run by a Pakistani family — way out here in the grassland ocean. The Lariat restaurant, right out of mom and pop, strictly meat and spuds, Crow natives and white man hunters in camouflage gear. How the West was not won.
The morning is gray and windy, clouds low over your head. You drive into the battlefield, basically flat, the fighting ground an earthen mound above the Little Bighorn River, a pewter flow twisting through the cottonwoods below the gullies and ravines, a native camp numbering in the thousands and supposedly almost 20,000 ponies, then, 1876.
You drive out about five miles, turn around and start the fight, down on the river and where Custer and his men are headed.
You follow the fight by turnouts, hardly anyone but us. That's enough, you can look it up — to be here is so much more than enough.
US 90 West, 80 mph, to Livingston, Montana, a Berkeley, a bookshelf of Montana, and turn left for Yellowstone. My heart leaps. It always does.
Mountains, the Paradise Valley, literally, gateway to Yellowstone, shrouded mountains, the silver Yellowstone guiding you along, cattle, elite flyfishing, farming, celebrity ranches, canyon, Gardiner, Montana, motels, high schools, bars, tours, fly shops, just big enough and small enough to get a sense of place that you won't get in the resort hotels in the park. I am of this and you will be too for a bit.
We will take three days of Yellowstone National Park.
Day One: breakfast in the Mammoth Hotel dining room, great bull elk on the lawn. Thermal feature day, meaning trailing to Old Faithful, by car of course, turn out hiking, Super 8 Motel stay.
There are willows and moose sightings, snow white swans, two lanes, hardly anybody. There are bison in the meadow, brand-new visitor eyes seeing bison in the wild for the first time; elk you lose count of, steam rising from geysers and thermal vents among the lodgepole pines.
There is Roaring Mountain, a chalk hillside of boiling steam, the lava plume below boiling the earth, the Earth being made; grizz, always grizz on your mind, and wolves. They will appear later.
Sandhill cranes, Egyptian talismans. Norris Geyser Basin, a cauldron hollow of boiling mud and scalding water, the moon gone mad with heat from below, only a few visitors above.
Gibbon Meadow with bison, a Charles M. Russell in reality, coyote, prancing, indifferent.
Gibbon River, a narrow bracelet at the road’s edge, to the Firehole River, a deep, calm necklace. If you fish, this is it, scenic to melt your troubles away.
Melting colors, Grand Prismatic Spring, Van Gogh meets O'Keefe, meets Pollock, meets the rings of Saturn, walking the boardwalk, curtain of steam, boiling steam filling the Firehole River, a painter's earth studio. My guests never could have guessed.
Sort of a rush, onto Old Faithful Inn, dancing geysers and painted mud, extra bison, tourists, on auto interchange, Old Faithful Inn, an all-wooden, alpine, Viking Lodge, large.
Valhalla, surrounded by geysers, Castle — it is beehive it is — and Old Faithful itself, eruption forever, semi-throng of tourists already seated around it, at a distance, next eruption about every 73 minutes, since forever.
Best viewing is from the Inn’s wooden balcony, wooden benches, cold beer, Castle geyser going, Old Faithful starting, rising, rising from an ancient opening, rising, rising, steaming, gleaming, applauding, satisfying.
Bison burgers a must in the ample dining room. A whiskey in the wooden cave of the Bear Den bar. Now that's roughing it.
On foot, Firehole River, Mound Geyser, erupting every 15 minutes, brain coral like, bison across the river, grizz in the hair on your neck and here it goes bubbling, boiling, rising up about two feet, pouring scalding water into the Firehole. Nobody but us. Privileged life.
Privileged night, up in the mountains of the Paradise Valley, Chico Hot Springs like Will Rogers designed a restaurant and lodge, steaks, Day One done.
Day Two: cowboy breakfast in town, pronghorn antelope out for a stroll. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Mammoth Hot Springs a terrace of Merlin shaped forces, back a bit of the way we went yesterday.
Get to Norris Junction and turn left for Canyon Village. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I bet you didn't know. My guests didn't.
Canyon Village is a bit Howard Johnson's but you wait. Down the road to the south rim of the canyon and no one can believe it. Walk out to an inspired point and behold, the lower falls falling into a canyon of yellow stone, narrow by Arizona's standards, awesome by any standard, the falls almost perfect, straight down, far down below in the narrow yellow stone, osprey, eagles, an ancient place, cathedral, mesmerizing, inspiring the awe of being our earth, ours not quite alone, tour buses, more cameras than actual awe. Move on.
Not too far to the Upper Falls, right at your feet, a liquid lava flow over lava rocks, powerful, continuous, rapids above, bigger Yellowstone below, curving, tumbling to the lower falls. We don't ever want to leave.
But you still ain't seen nothing yet, along the wide, languid Yellowstone you can almost see the cutthroat trout on the way out to Hayden Valley, the African plain of Yellowstone, some boiling cauldrons and then the road opens to a wide open valley, paradise on earth, a wide turnout to get out, a herd of bison — you are before our time, blue and gray skies, tufts of snow higher up, telescopes and mega-camera lenses. Yep, wolves.
Up there along the snow lines. Naked eyes, almost, binoculars, yep, black shapes, moving, stopping, moving, wolves — one of our greatest accomplishments — wolves in the wild that are left to us. This is why October, when you see them. We worship them.
On the road again, the lake awaits. Yellowstone Lake, again, I bet you didn't — Lake Area and the Grand Georgian Colonial Hotel set on the shore of the Alpine Lake, the Caldera Lake, large enough for ocean storms and sailboats and ringed by snowcapped mountains, glistening, empty, the season on the water now over, the Grand Hotel still open.
Sit in the grand leather chairs with a grand view of the lake, whiskey in hand, the best that man and woman can offer, my guests filled to the brim, with another day ahead.
The K bar in Gardiner for dinner — good pizza and cold beer — my tales of seasons here, thousands of coeds, Adams and Eves where anything goes, my guests jealous because in their 20s they never knew. Now they do.
Day Three: in-house, Super 8 breakfast to save a few dimes, out to the park that used to be mine, the Lamar Valley.
Across the high bridge over the Yellowstone below, a more rugged version of the park, burn scars from 1986 with new growth like teenagers, Hell Roaring mountain in a black Inca forest.
Tower Junction Ranger Station, a mere stagecoach stop of a station, turn left for the Lamar Valley, Bison right beside the road, nobody, and I mean nobody, but us on the road.
Out here there's no major feature just an almost pure wilderness, boulders scattered around, pronghorns and elk, Specimen Ridge like a great loaf of mana from heaven, a narrow cut above the Lamar River and it opens up to the milk and honey of the Lemar Valley, Shangrila sedate, smooth, cottonwood clusters, the Lamar River a silk road of curves and loops.
I used to live here, at the Buffalo Ranch, just up on a knob, 1902 or thereabouts, to rebuild the park’s diminished bison herd. Perhaps the finest ranger lodging in all of parkdom. Why I return every year. Here.
On up past Soda Butte Creek, one flyfisher person as if casting a net in the ancient Nile.
Pull out in the big turnout by the extinct Sada Butte Thermal, a micro-volcano bone-dead.
Behold the Thundered Mountain, one bad-ass, broad shouldered, black storm catcher. Here you are in raw Yellowstone, no hotels or parking lots, bison skulls in the grass, the best for last.
Need to soak in the days of splendor? I've got just the right spot, boiling river, a hot pot just above our town of Gardiner. The boiling water from Mammoth Hot Springs up above pours down under ground and into the nice cold Gardiner River. You can get in. Mother's nature, nurturing you.
You, we can go back to Denver by way of the Tetons, but I'll save that for another trip telling.
I'm always available in October — so get in touch: with deep interest and your deep financing I can make it happen.
William J. Hughes, 916/443-1928