NATIONAL PARK — Most days, in most ways, this park’s
Upper Geyser Basin is a geothermal outlaw biker beach
party — belching and splashing at all hours, with a
sulfuric whiff of menace riding the breeze.
in one patch of boiling mud, about 17 times a day, the
bubbling becomes something bigger. Heated to 200 degrees
or more, the water and steam rise 50, 100 feet and beyond
into the vast Wyoming sky.
it’s a summer day, the surrounding boardwalk and benches
will be teeming with travelers from Chicago, China and
thousands of other places where mud doesn’t bubble. As
the splashes grow, so do the oohs and ahhs. Sometimes Old
Faithful blows for just 90 seconds, sometimes for a full
way, it’s one of the most thrilling scenes in North
America. There’s no telling what fiery volcanic
catastrophe might someday erupt in Yellowstone, but for
now, this geyser masks that menace as a charming little
ritual, a family photo op.
part of Yellowstone’s appeal. Its beasts and geothermal
wonders could kill you or bury several states in ash. But
in the meantime, they’re beautiful.
— except for the bison that dawdle in the middle of
Grand Loop Road — they usually don’t stand still. Two
black bear cubs scamper behind their mother across a
meadow near Roosevelt Lodge. A rainbow flickers above the
Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Steam
billows from Chinese Spring as dusk falls on a cold, windy
late July I spent four days among these iconic scenes with
Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster. (Yellowstone
is mostly in Wyoming but spills over into Montana and
Idaho.) And as I did, my mind kept wandering back to an
event in 1871, when photographer William Henry Jackson and
painter Thomas Moran arrived here on the first federally
funded expedition to document the area.
much chance did Jackson and Moran have of capturing a
landscape so thrumming with motion and color? After all,
it took so long to shoot and process an image that 13
black-and-white glass-plate exposures were a long day’s
did their best and took the results to Washington. The
next year, Congress voted to make Yellowstone the world’s
first national park. (The legislators also agreed to buy a
Moran oil painting, "The Grand Canyon of the
Yellowstone," for $10,000.)
days, the park gets about 3.5 million visitors a year.
Every park lodging was sold out when we were there. (In
later summer and early fall, your chances of landing a
room are better — especially this year, with the opening
of 249 new rooms in the park’s central Canyon Lodge
area. They’ll stay open through Sept. 20.)
had been to Yellowstone with my family just five years
ago, but I was thrilled again to behold the elk that
lounge on the lawns at Mammoth Hot Springs, to spy a dozen
bison roaming a ridge above the Hayden Valley, to watch a
man, his son and his grandson fly-fishing at dusk on the
massive log architecture and stone fireplace of the Old
Faithful Inn, perhaps the most emblematic lodge in the
national park system, were as impressive as ever. And even
though I knew precisely what was coming at Old Faithful, I
had to hang around long enough to see it erupt not once
also had to make peace with crowds and crowd behavior.
Most visitors, of course, were great, and it makes an
American proud to hear the honest enthusiasm and varied
accents around Old Faithful at just about any hour. But in
those four days I saw an entire family step off the
boardwalk to pose for pictures in a dangerous geothermal
area; one father helping his son stick his fingers into
the water of an off-limits hot spring; and several men and
women advancing perilously close to bear and bison.
there was the encounter I learned about from rangers: On
our second day in the park, a 43-year-old woman from
Mississippi approached a bison near the Fairy Falls
trailhead, then turned her back on it to take a selfie.
The animal stepped forward, lifted the woman with its head
and threw her to the ground. Her injuries were minor,
rangers said. Hers was the fifth bison-related injury of
weeks after my visit, authorities found the body of a
63-year-old Montana man who had been killed by a grizzly
while hiking alone off-trail. He was the park’s third
grizzly fatality since 2010.)
best way to steer clear of animal attacks, rangers say, is
to follow the park’s rules: Stay at least 100 yards away
from a bear (especially a mother with cubs) and at least
25 yards from bison or elk.
steer clear of crowds? Hike more. Drive less. Rise early.
Rest at midday. Roam widely in late afternoon and early
evening, when many families retreat to dinner.
keep in mind that it’s possible to have a sublime park
experience in the middle of a crowd.
know this because one morning I braved the busy Midway
Geyser Basin parking lot, crossed a little bridge over the
Firehole River and joined the procession of global
tourists on the boardwalk.
we passed Excelsior Geyser Crater. Then we strode straight
into a great white cloud with a sulfurous stink.
before me, I knew, was Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest
in the park, about 300 feet across. But where?
the wind shifted. Steam and stink vanished. Suddenly I was
20 degrees cooler, with a wraparound view.
spring began at the boardwalk’s edge with a flat, brown
earthen crust, then a soggy orange fringe, a yellow edge
and then the spring itself, whose greenish shallows gave
way to blue. The deep blue of prisms, of cake frosting, of
too much Photoshop. Implausible blue.
the hot, stinky cloud swallowed me again, and my only
sensory input was the sound of a thousand tourists,
murmuring in a dozen languages at the strangeness of it
time the wind changed, the setting shifted again. One
moment, misty, lunar desolation. The next, a boiling blue
pool with a forested slope beyond.
couldn’t get enough. I walked the loop twice. I climbed
ridges to the north and south to get different
perspectives. And I imagined William Henry Jackson and
Thomas Moran at wits’ end, desperate to capture some
sliver of this sensory spectacle.
I tracked down their photos and paintings and wondered: If
color photography and reproduction had been common in the
1870s, would Grand Prismatic Spring have become
Yellowstone’s marquee attraction instead of Old
hardly matters. Whether our photo-op tools come from the
19th century or the 21st, we’re all overmatched at Grand
Prismatic Spring and at Yellowstone.
you want the gleaming, belching, splashing, seething,
stinking, roaring, growling, menacing essence of the
place, you’d better just come and put yourself in the
middle of it.