After spending 12 days in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month and reading what explorers, park superintendents and authors throughout history have had to say in roadside signs and interpretive exhibits, I’m fresh out of superlatives for the place.
If you’ve never visited Yellowstone, you simply must put it on your bucket list. There’s no place like it on earth.
So instead of trying to describe it or show it to you in pictures which simply cannot do justice to real life, I’ll tell you about our visit through a series of buffalo pictures. Though hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, North America’s biggest mammal made a rebound and is literally everywhere in and around Yellowstone.
One: When we arrived in the late afternoon of Memorial Day at one of the KOA Kampgrounds west of West Yellowstone, Montana, we were greeted by this colorful statue, part of a public art installation by the Buffalo Roam Art Project.
The late Joe Halko, a Montana artist and sculptor, created the buffalo model from which a mold was developed and rendered copies in fiberglass by none other than Fiberstock Inc. of, wait for it, Buffalo, Minnesota (interesting trivia: I was born 50 years ago in Buffalo, Minnesota). Artists from four neighboring states painted 26 buffalo and 10 calves, and a dozen painted buffalo still exist in various locations around West Yellowstone.
This particular buffalo, painted by Jan Johansen, is titled “Now and Then” and features images of camping through history. “My buffalo celebrates America’s love of nature and the outdoors,” writes the aritst. “With the invention of the automobile, camping boomed. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.”
Two: In order to get to Yellowstone National Park, we drove through West Yellowstone every morning, and this imposing life-size bronze statue by Mike Flanagan greeted us at the city entrance.
Three: More than once, we observed buffalo munching on grass just feet from the roadway. This majestic beast was eating breakfast in Hayden Valley, a fairly common sight if you’re driving around inside the park early in the morning or late in the day.
Four: One rainy day, we decided to skip the park and pay a visit to the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone. It’s a nice little museum, if a little dingy, about Yellowstone’s history. Another painted buffalo from the Buffalo Roam Art Project stands outside the museum, and there’s a second one inside.
Five: Another drive through the park, another herd of buffalo (can you spy the calf? Most buffalo calves are born in April and May, and their reddish fur makes them stick out). In this shot, you can see the ground steaming—that’s not that buffalo’s breath. Of course, if you know anything about Yellowstone besides its large mammals, you know it is home to the largest concentration of thermal features on earth. The ground steams. The water steams. Geysers of steaming water shoot out of random holes. Steaming water pours over muddy steps of limestone. It’s a wild and beautiful place.
Six: Painters and bronze sculptors aren’t the only artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the bison. A skilled wood carver exhibits works at Send It Home yarn & quilt shop, 30 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone. You can also find all kinds of Western-themed and Montana-inspired quilt fabric and craft projects to take home and remind you of all things Yellowstone.
Seven: One day, we drove from West Yellowstone through Yellowstone park to Grand Teton National Park. If you have the time, I highly recommend this diversion. We headed back northish when we reached Jackson, Wyoming and chose to take the Teton Pass back through Idaho and Montana. The Teton mountain range is impressive, even from the back side in cities like Driggs, Idaho, where we saw this buffalo guarding main street.
Eight: We woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day in order to drive the suggested route for Wildlife Day in the Yellowstone Association’s Yellowstone In A Day book. That route took us through the “Serengeti of North America” in Yellowstone’s northern range from Mammoth Hot Springs nearly to Cooke City, Montana. The book recommended leaving from Mammoth by dawn, but the early alarm was worth it. This was our view while we enjoyed yogurt and granola in the cab of the truck. We saw nearly 1,000 head of buffalo before 9 a.m. (I’m not exaggerating), and almost none on the way home. We also saw a number of elk, mule deer and pronghorn. We hoped to see an elusive bear or wolf, but no. On other days, we spied moose, a coyote and eagles. We avoided a lot of traffic by getting into the park so early and did so another day, too.
Nine: Didn’t expect this shot, did you? We enjoyed bison tacos, mine in the form of a taco salad on one evening. Bison meat is readily available in the small supermarkets in West Yellowstone and elsewhere. Try it! You’ll like it!
Ten: One of the perks of joining Yellowstone Forever is a tchotchke in the form of a hat or a “plush toy” (I called it a “stuffed buffalo,” and I was quickly corrected—see Image 12 for that).
Yellowstone Forever is the club for supporters committed to visitor education and park preservation. For a $35 charitable contribution, I got a 15 percent discount on two books I found at one of the park stores, both of which I highly recommend: Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foodlhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey and Yellowstone in a Day, the field guide for tourists on a tight schedule I mentioned in Image 8).
My miniature schnauzer enjoyed playing with her miniature buffalo. The dog won.
Eleven: The buffalo has a high profile advertisers have seized upon. More than one motel and restaurant in West Yellowstone have buffalo or an allusion to buffalo in their names. After a day of observing wild life and taking in the thermal features in Yellowstone park, we enjoyed spicy bloody Marys and juicy burgers at the Buffalo Bar in West Yellowstone (which is also a casino and sells Ross Taylor Original items). Ross Taylor makes things like golf putters and canes from buffalo pizzles—not sure that that is? Look it up). My Beloved invested in one of Ross Taylor’s unique shoe horns.
Twelve: This stuffed buffalo is on display at the Buffalo Bar, and it’s probably the safest way to see one up close. Live bison are wild animals and can be dangerous, if you don’t know. Three people have been killed in Yellowstone when they got too close to angry and/or unpredictable bulls.
A Baker’s Dozen: Why stop at 12 when I have 13 memorable buffalo images of our trip? I almost missed this lonesome figure when we were driving by the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. He was wallowing in a dust bowl one morning, so perfectly still and centered between the hotel and the lake when we drove by that he could have been a statue. Truly a majestic sight.
Tomorrow: Top 5 tips for seeing Yellowstone National Park