of bison graze Yellowstonea s pastures. More than 60
million of the "shaggy beasts," a fitting
term for the animals, once roamed America's Great
Faithful isn’t as faithful as it is supposed to be, at
least according to an impatient gentleman standing right
behind me at Yellowstone National Park. The posted
prediction time for its eruption on that sunny yet cool
summer afternoon is 2:25, but the geyser seems in no hurry
except for a few preliminary wisps of steam.
beloved geyser, the rock star of Yellowstone, is running
late, an eruption disruption, if you will, with O
Impatient One clicking off the minutes like a drill
sergeant. It’s 2:26, he says to anyone who would listen.
Now 2:27. Erggh, he huffs at 2:28.
then fickle and mischievous Mother Nature, who isn’t one
to be hurried in the first place, rises to the challenge,
and iconic Old Faithful, summoned by fires smoldering and
sighing beneath Earth’s crust, forces thousands of
gallons of silvery, scalding water and steam a couple of
hundred feet skyward.
she blows!" O Impatient One roars, as if he is the
first person who ever uttered those words in Old Faithful’s
he fails to realize is that, according to the National
Park Service, the geyser’s eruptions are anywhere from
about an hour to 110 minutes apart. In other words, it was
right on time.
tourists aside, there are more geysers in the park than
any other place in the world, a fact that helps make it as
much a national treasure as it is a national park. Such is
the allure of Yellowstone.
with its melange of geysers, mountains, waterfalls and
meadowed grasslands, is only the second stop on my journey
to the national parks and monuments of the West.
Yellowstone, our tour group had visited Grand Tetons and
then afterward sojourned across the breadth of Wyoming and
across the Bighorns before ending the trip at Crazy Horse
Memorial and Mount Rushmore.
a trip of this magnitude requires some planning, and my
husband and I shuffled the idea of driving from our home
in Georgia, flying and then renting a car, or flying and
taking a group bus tour.
we drove to Jackson Hole, near Grand Teton National Park
and our starting point for the sojourn, we would have to
add three days on both ends of what we had planned to be a
weeklong trip. With kitty cats at home and a garden in
need of daily water, plus not having six extra days to
spare, that wouldn’t do. A bus trip, it was, mainly so
we wouldn’t have loads of driving.
some research, we ultimately chose Tauck, a
long-established tour bus operator, for the journey,
although several offer pretty much the same itinerary. But
it was film documentarian Ken Burns who finally helped us
decide the road more taken.
a fan of Burns and his compadre Dayton Duncan, we had
watched their documentary, "National Parks: America’s
Best Idea," on Georgia Public Television. It is
impressive for the sheer information it provides. Then we
learned that Burns and Duncan produced more than a hundred
original narratives for Tauck that are shown on the bus
trips en route to each of the national parks where Tauck
were sold on the idea, boosted by stays at historic
lodging and having all the details of meals, luggage and
tips taken care of. Plus we wouldn’t have to worry about
moments of sleepiness brought on by long stretches of open
highway. All we had to do was kick back and enjoy the
a tip of the hat to Burns and Duncan, we set out on an
eight-day journey to see the sights of the American West,
kickstarted by a scenic 10-mile float trip down the Snake
River and through Grand Tetons National Park. Our group of
50 is chiseled down to 10 per raft for plenty of elbow
room for taking photos.
is probably what people come here for most," says our
guide, Mike O’Neil, as he paddles past great stands of
Engelmann’s spruce and lodgepole pines. "The only
traffic jam here on the Snake River might be fallen
are no rapids on this part of the Snake, even though the
river is fast-flowing from snowmelt. We peer everywhere
for the legendary beasts of the West, the great bear and
bison, that we wrongly assume would be prevalent in the
wilds on the river’s edge but they are scarce on this
best way to see wildlife here is to just stop looking for
it," Mike instructs. "That’s when it shows
Mike’s reverse psychology doesn’t work, as we see only
birdlife, including pelicans, swans and a pair of
magnificent sandhill cranes. But with the jagged,
snow-tipped Grand Tetons as a backdrop for scenery, it
doesn’t seem to matter that wildlife remains hidden from
days later we leave Grand Teton behind, the bus motoring
northward to Yellowstone and passing through forests and
alongside the bluest of lakes that reflect the sun like
scads of sapphires.
then we had gotten to know our tour director, Murray Rose,
an affable and exceptionally knowledgeable gentleman who
has led hundreds of trips for Tauck.
knows all the best stops for photo-ops, including an
unscheduled one for a "bear jam" when a single
big, black bear is sighted in the woods along the highway.
Once the bear is sighted, seemingly a hundred cars
magically show up to see the ursine wonder, creating a
traffic jam in the Wyoming wilderness.
Yellowstone, we see plenty of bison, with Murray
explaining that while the terms buffalo and bison are used
interchangeably, the U.S. really has no buffalo at all
except in zoos.
are found in places like Africa, like the Cape
buffalo," he explains. "The United States has
only bison. Once this was an entire land blackened by the
we pass several herds of bison grazing the sweet grass of
Yellowstone, Murray says that upwards of 60 million of
them once roamed the Great Plains. The "shaggy
beasts" were hunted for fur and meat down to fewer
than a thousand before steps were taken to preserve and
protect them before they disappeared forever.
times on our journey Murray points out that 2016 was the
100th anniversary of the founding of the national parks
system. While our jaunt is somewhat crowded in places such
as Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, he says that it isn’t
anything at all as compared to last year when all national
parks saw record visitation. That number, according to the
National Park Service, is an incredible 330 million.
two days in Yellowstone, the bus leaves through the east
gate toward Cody, where we make a lunch stop combined with
a visit to Buffalo Bill Historical Center. In between we
drive through Shoshone National Forest, a 5 million acre
conclave of bubbling creeks, rainbow fields of wildflowers
filled with the likes of penstemon and phlox, and deeply
verdant forests of juniper and cottonwood.
overnight stay in Cody is at the Holiday Inn, where for
the first time since we began our trip we had access to
television and uninterrupted internet service, two things
not found at the historic lodges of Yellowstone and Grand
Ken and Dayton — by then we had seen enough narratives
to call the documentarians by their first names —
serenade us with snippets of national park knowledge, the
bus buzzes toward Wyoming’s behemoth Bighorns, in the
far distance rising like ghostly apparitions from the
morning mist. Here and there we spot coyote, pronghorn elk
and mule deer. At several restaurants on the trip, elk and
bison are on the menu, but I seriously cannot eat what I’ve
just been photographing for its beauty.
mountain range on the tour except for the Black Hills are
part of the Rockies," Murray explains as we climb to
more than 9,000 heart-stopping feet in the Bighorns,
passing even more elk and deer. "It’s a vast land,
an impressive land."
a cerulean sky brindled with wispy clouds, we spot a mama
moose with her calf, which Murray calls a "mamoose,"
and then he directs us to search for bighorn sheep among
the dizzying heights and sheer cliffs of their namesake
Bighorns. On this day, though, they remain elusive and we
from out of the Bighorns, it is crazy how the land opens
up into the Great Plains. What seems a billion square
miles of open land and sky look 10 times bigger than that,
at least to me, a true-blue piney woods flatlander from
lunch stop of brisket and biscuits is smack in the middle
of nowhere at the windswept TA Ranch. The sense of
isolation here is magnificent at this ranch in the middle
of nowhere in Wyoming’s hinterlands. After horseback and
wagon riding and quite a show by renowned horse whisperer
Marchel Kelley, we overnight at the equally remote Ucross
Ranch near Clearmont.
grand finale of the trip is a stop at the work-in-progress
Crazy Horse Monument and then Mount Rushmore, both carved
from the mountains of the ancient Black Hills of South
Dakota. Both are impressive manmade works of art,
certainly, and worth checking off a bucket list, but I
felt myself longing for the backwoods of the Bighorns, for
whose beauty I was hopelessly smitten.
tapestry that is the American West, its national parks and
monuments coupled with their pure vastness, proves a
humbling reminder that nature’s forces are much bigger
than we will ever be.
YOU GO: Tauck partners with film documentarians Ken Burns
and Dayton Duncan, creators of "The National Parks:
America’s Best Idea," for "Stories by Ken
Burns," a series of behind-the-scenes narratives of
America’s national parks. The narratives are shown on
motor coaches en route to various national parks and
monuments on Tauck’s itineraries.
for Tauck’s "Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National
Parks" include Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Tetons
National Park; Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel
in Yellowstone National Park; Holiday Inn Cody in Cody,
Wyo.; the Ranch at Ucross in Clearmont, Wyo.; and the
Rushmore Hotel in Rapid City, S.D.
more information on this tour and other national parks
tours, visit www.Tauck.com or call toll-free 800-788-7885.