Yellowstone – over hyped or worth visiting?

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It’s difficult to imagine that a place as hyped and over photographed as Yellowstone could ever live up to the superlatives used to describe it. It’s just crying out to be a disappointment.

But as I watch a large brown and white osprey shoot down, feet first into the icy chaos of water below me, disappearing completely, swallowed by the foam, I have to admit I’m impressed. There’s a moment’s pause before the bird reappears; wings labouring to pull it from the water out into the air. As it rises higher I see a large fish held tightly in its talons. The fish squirms, the osprey holds its grip keeping the fish parallel to the direction of flight. With a few more flaps of its wings it clears the tops of the trees and heads west to its nest and a family supper.

Yellowstone was created in 1872 – the USA’s very first National Park. It covers over 3,000 square miles, most of which are in Wyoming. It’s as famous for its bears as it is for its geysers.

And if you’ve come to see bears you’re unlikely to go home disappointed. Within hours I have spotted my first black bear and not long after a traffic jam (or “bear jam”) of cars and long lenses signals that another celebrity mammal is in the vicinity.

I pull over and am rewarded with the sight of a Grizzly and two young cubs. These are last year’s brood, the survivors from a litter of four. The family are about 400 metres away on the horizon. With binoculars it’s a great view. I feel pleased to have caught one so close.

The roadside is crowded as more cars join the jam and all eyes follow the Grizzly. We stare in fascinated silence as the huge animals meander our way. Mother Grizzly leads the group, nose down sniffing at the sage bushes; first this way then that, but always moving steadily closer. It’s not clear if she even knows we’re there. She certainly shows no sign of having clocked us.

The days of Yogi Bear and feeding jelly sandwiches to the wildlife are nothing more than a distant cartoon memory. Since the mid 1970s the Park has had a strict “do not fed the wildlife” rule and signs regularly remind us that we must stay at least 100 metres away from bears and wolves and 20 metres from all other animals.

But Mother Grizzly has decided to ignore this. She breaks the 100 metre barrier and continues to amble in our direction.

The more sensible spectators head for the safety of their cars; bears are unpredictable, fast and very strong. And a mother with cubs is the most dangerous of all.

She keeps coming. All I can hear is her snuffling and a 100 cameras clicking. The view is spectacular – we all hold our breath. The cubs follow on behind, stopping for a while to sit on their bottoms like giant teddy bears on a toddler’s bed.

Eventually the mother changes course and starts to snuffle her way back in the direction she has come, nose to the ground, cubs in tow. I watch her go and decide that Yellowstone has certainly delivered.

But not everyone comes for the wildlife – many people make the trip here to see the geysers, mud holes and sulphur lakes.

Yellowstone sits on a restlessly sleeping volcano, the molten magma just a few miles below the surface heats underground water sending it shooting up in violent spurts. Old Faithfull, is of course, a must. But it’s certainly not the only geological show worth seeing.

Be sure to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring – and be even more sure to stay on the walkways. These are not luxury hot tubs, but boiling water that will kill you if you’re daft enough to dive in for a swim. The Prismatic Lake is a stunning mix of vibrant colours – the result of pigmented bacteria in the microbial mats that grow on the edges of this mineral rich water. Stand still for a moment and let the tinted steam blow over you – it’s an unusual outdoor experience.

You’ll need at least three days to get any sense of what Yellowstone has to offer – and you’ll want to stay longer. There are plenty of lodges and cabins within the park that will accommodate you – but it’s essential to book early. The busy summer period is usually full months in advance.

I can recommend Canyon Cabins. These are well designed cabins with a rustic feel. Once inside you can’t actually see the other cabins – so you do feel as though you are alone in the wilderness (almost!)The operators have also made an effort to be environmentally friendly with natural bath products, recycling facilities and a commitment to reduce their energy consumption.

If you don’t fancy a cabin and would prefer the Lodge experience then try Old Faithful Lodge. This large wooden lodge has an elegant exterior but it’s the interior that really takes your breath away. The lobby area with its high ceiling is like something out of The Lord of the Rings – at any moment I expected elves to come swinging down from the galleries above me, their laughter echoing off the walls.

And if elves aren’t your thing – then you can always grab a drink (or some ice cream) and watch Old Faithful from the roof terrace.

So did Yellowstone live up to my expectations? In a word – yes. And I’d go back tomorrow – if I wasn’t worried about the carbon impact of flying so far!



Photography credits to Bill Singleton:

For more information about accommodation in Yellowstone:


For information about Yellowstone:


It’s generally recommended to fly to New York and then take an internal flight to one of the local airports close to Yellowstone, including Billings, Cody, Bozeman and Jackson. British Airways fly direct to the USA.

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