We've been home for a whole day, now. Thank Jove I took today off, too. Just to recover from that long jet ride back to Charlotte! Going out wasn't so bad, but then I wasn't run ragged from hiking every single day.
What I'll try to do right now is get down my basic impressions before I get into too much detail.
First of all, I can see why so many western hikers/rock climbers/backpackers/kayakers that I meet are so smug about the South and the East. In a nutshell, what constitutes a state or even National Park here in the East is what's in most people's freaking back yards in the western states. I can understand their attitudes about our natural areas here. I always understood that it was different in the west, but now that I've experienced it I can see where that air of superiority comes from.
The western wild lands are vast!!!
That's the feeling you get almost everywhere you go. It's Big Sky country, for damned sure. It really hit home to me when I got up above tree line on my hike to the summit of Avalanche Peak (10,568 feet above sea level). I've hiked tougher peaks here in the South, for sure. I've hiked many such peaks that have far more elevation between base and summit here in the east, too. What was different was that once you're on the top of this 10K-foot peak, you are surrounded by miles and miles and miles and more miles of other such peaks. Above timberline terrain in almost every direction you look. And far away you can see peaks that loom to 11,000 feet and higher, on up to 13K+ feet!
And the other thing about Yellowstone is its size. It's enormous. And the variation from one section of the park to another was also surprising. Each quadrant was so much more diverse from the one before. I didn't know what to expect as I drove from one corner of the park to the next--every bend in the road and every walk into a valley or onto a summit brought a new kind of ecosystem to view. It was breathtaking.
I have to mention, of course, the wildlife. It was everywhere. And it's the only place I've ever been where large mammals are commonplace. With no fences or manmade barriers (other than roads) to hinder their movements. Of the large animals in the park I saw many. A brief count:
2 grizzly bears
1 black bear
8 black tail deer
8 bighorn sheep
dozens of pronghorn antelope
scores of elk
thousands of bison (yes, thousands!)
We saw many birds, including Sandhill cranes, osprey, a bald eagle, huge ravens, trumpeter swans, and others.
Only the grizzly bears seemed disturbed by the presence of human beings. Of the two grizzlies that I saw, one left as soon as it became aware of me, and the other was fast asleep and at a great distance. Everything else we saw were creatures who appear to be only mildly suspicious of humans. It was nice to be able to photograph these animals at relatively close range. But we obeyed all Park regulations and did our best to keep our distance from everything we saw.
I can understand why the geyser basins and the thermal features are so fascinating to most park visitors. There's nothing like this in the Eastern side of our continent. Almost everywhere you drive or hike there are all kinds of active volcanic formations. Geysers are around, as are hot springs and mudpots and fumaroles. It was both exciting and frightening to stand before gaping caverns that literally roared, belching sulfurous hot fumes and expelling boiling water. You have to see this. The nation is lucky to have such a place. I am glad and happy and satisfied to have finally seen so much of this magical park.
Later, I'll write some details of our trip. We hiked every day. I doubt a single day passed where I failed to hike at least three or four miles, although I don't think I covered more than eleven at the most in a single day. We took a long raft trip on the Yellowstone River that was a great experience, too.
The only negative thing I have to say about the Park is that some of the lodging centers and geyser basins are just too goddamned crowded! We stayed two nights at Old Faithful Lodge Cabins and I sincerely wish that I'd booked rooms elsewhere. The huge numbers of human beings in that place are just too much to tolerate. I'd been told that I could have avoided these crowds by booking our trip for the early to middle part of September, but I was getting stir crazy from the lack of hiking time this year and I couldn't bear to wait any longer. Plus, I wanted to be sure that the weather was still going to be warm enough for rafting trips and dips in the rivers and lakes.
If you make it to Yellowstone and want to stay in the park, my recommendations are these:
Canyon Village Cabins. Great little cabins with good facilities.
Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge. (Don't use their cabins unless you enjoy staying in places where you can hear everything your neighbors say through paper-thin walls.)
No lodging in the Park was really bad...but some places were less than desirable for various reasons. All of the lodging at Old Faithful was tainted by the almost endless, horrid crowds and heavy traffic of everything from bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, RVs, and tour buses and freight trucks. Go see the geysers early in the day and otherwise avoid this area during peak tourist season.