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All Points West: Having our Park cake, and eating it too
September 09, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
The National Parks celebrated 100 years last week. In contrast to a gathering at the Scotts Bluff National Monument, there was no birthday cake at Yellowstone National Park, the home of probably the most famous geyser in the world, Old Faithful. The whole affair seemed to be a little understated at the north entrance to the park in Gardiner, Montana, where my wife Lisa and I embarked on our two-day exploration. There were only a few banners announcing the 100-year milestone.

Our trip was a delayed sort-of honeymoon. It had been eight months since getting hitched on January 9. Yellowstone National Park, for anyone forgetting their school geography lessons, sits at the northwest corner of Wyoming, with small slivers overlapping the state’s borders into Montana and Idaho.

Unbelievably, this was my first visit to Yellowstone. Growing up roughly 10 hours away in Nebraska, you’d think I would have made the trip already. As an elderly ranger said, at 51, I am now better prepared to appreciate the grandeur that Mother Nature has to offer. She’s probably right.

The park was established in 1872, making it 15 years older than Gering, and almost 50 years older than the Scotts Bluff National Monument, which was established in 1919. The establishment of Yellowstone (or the Yellowstone Act, 1872, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant) began a world-wide trend to provide “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit of the people,” placing it under the control of the Department of the Interior.

Now, there are more than 59 national parks across the United States, not to mention the vast number of state parks and preserves. Don’t get confused. Here’s the general breakdown on the national side of things: Added to the 59 parks, there are 84 monuments, 19 preserves, 50 historical parks and 78 historic sites, not to mention several other protected land features, amounting to 413 official units.

Giving the park system a proper framework, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service, a federal bureau within the Department of the Interior. Without getting too much into the weeds of the act, suffice it to say that it serves to manage and preserve some of the most stunning scenery known to humankind and, more importantly, a vital ecosystem, which we seem to take for granted.

Observing the park’s infrastructure, I wondered if we can truly appreciate such a gem. Yellowstone spans 3,500 square miles or 2,219,789 acres; it is larger than the states of Delaware or Rhode Island. Not only home to Old Faithful, a geyser which erupts every 35 to 120 minutes and from 90 to 184 feet, there are approximately 50 percent of the world’s hydrothermal features within Yellowstone’s boundaries, with just as many warning signs to visitors to stay on established footpaths and paved roads. Otherwise, risk injury or death.

In 2015, the park recorded about 4.1 million visitors. About a quarter of those happy vacationers showed up during the month of July of that year. Lisa and I had surmised as much, learning about the typical pattern, though there were still a heap of visitors in late August, unhindered by this season’s fires.

Thankfully, we didn’t notice a lot of traffic on the roads, a system shaped like a jagged figure eight, which makes it nearly impossible to get lost. On the first day, just into the park, we ran into visitors from all over the world; we encountered a couple from Germany during our horseback trail ride on the second day, and others from Asia and South America at other stops throughout the park.

During a traffic stop for road repair between the Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris visitor centers, Vickie, a road flagger guiding drivers, gave us several tips about the must-see sites. She was there for a three-year project, and has been part of contract crews fixing the well-traveled roads of other national parks.

One of our first stops, the artists paint pots, featured boiling gurgling holes in the ground emitting a strong odor of Sulphur, much like that of rotten eggs. The pungent smell let us know the earth is alive and well below a layer of mostly inert crust. There was also plenty of life above ground – some of it showing up as if on cue. We saw herds of bison, coyotes, deer, elk, birds of prey, a black bear mama and her two cubs, two big horn sheep, scores of chipmunks and squirrels, and a partridge in a pear tree. Scratch that last item, but you get the picture. It’s still a big world.

It was our mission to explore as much of the park as possible. Thankfully, there were enough pullouts alongside the roads to stop, gaze and wonder. One particular diversion, the Firehole Canyon Drive, revealed a somewhat secret hideaway.

Though it wasn’t on any of the maps handed out by park rangers, we discovered several parked cars along the one-way route, enough to tell us there was something worth the view. There was. A swimming hole. Marking it on our incomplete map, we made it a point to dip into it on the second day. We did, much to our delight.

But before that culminating, heavenly experience, we kept to the loose schedule of seeing the main attraction, keeping in mind what Vickie said about a lesser geyser just up the path from Old Faithful. Following Vickie’s advice, we followed a path kept behind the scenes of the main attraction, which took us well above the altitude of Old Faithful at 7,349 feet. Once we were past a bison hidden in the brush, heaving and plodding our way uphill, we passed several tourists feeling the same way. Encouraging us, they said, “Keep going, it’s worth it.”

We counted the costs and paid the price, being out of breath and sore for a few days after our trip. We realized whatever mundane issues we deal with in our workaday world, there’s always a place nearby to get our heads straight – to live in the moment.

In fact, we see the Monument every day out our windows. Our own piece of paradise.

Now, I can say this with even more vigor: Hap
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