Even a political reporter needs a break now and then. So here is a report on a recent Yellowstone trip:
A woman walked past a clump of trees in Yellowstone National Park and stopped in her tracks, gasping at what she saw.
Her exclamation upon first seeing the 308-foot Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was similar to those heard many a times during my June trip to the world’s first national park. The gasps came in response to awe-inspiring falls, surprising bears and impressive geysers.
Like stars of the stage and screen, these Yellowstone National Park stars demand attention. But visitors to Yellowstone and other spectacular venues miss many of the best sights because they violate one rule: Open your eyes and look around.
The woman and many other tourists at that Artist Point lookout downstream from the Lower Falls did not turn around, gazing only at the falls. If they had looked the other way, too, they would have seen a colorful canyon that some who did pivot compared to the “other” Grand Canyon (smaller, but still spectacular).
On the north rim, Lookout Point offers a closer view of the falls. But most visitors did not look downstream, so they missed a giant osprey nest poised atop a rock pillar, with the male and female birds taking turns sitting on a pair of eggs and soaring in the canyon.
At Old Faithful, boardwalks are packed with people waiting to see the world’s most famous geyser. Once it finishes its 134-foot (on average) eruption, visitors head out, often going to their cars to stalk elusive bears or for an Old Faithful Lodge buffet meal.
But if they took an easy paved and boardwalk path downhill a bit, they could have seen two even more striking sights: Grand Geyser, which shoots water 200 feet in the air, and Castle Geyser’s impressive 20-minute eruption, followed by equally striking steam venting for up to twice that long.
Sure, I had the advantage of time when I spent a nine-day “photocation” in Yellowstone, one of the world’s most popular destinations and most photographed sites.
And yes, I did my patriotic duty and photographed Old Faithful, once after waiting half an hour for its less-than-impressive show and once when I walked up to it just at it began its eruption after hiking around much more interesting geothermal phenomena.
The realization that Yellowstone tourists only want to see the stars hit me when I pulled over to photograph a pretty field of bright yellow flowers. Car after car abruptly stopped, their occupants hoping I was focused on a bear, only to speed away when the drivers realized I was “only” photographing flowers.
After that, I began to watch my fellow tourists and came to understand they were star struck. And I knew they were missing the depth Yellowstone offers.
For instance, while others walked by without pausing at a boiling mud pot, I pulled out a telephoto lens and zoomed in on the mud, freezing balls of the rust-colored stuff, making what to my eyes looks like an artistic photo.
Far above the Yellowstone River, I watched regal ospreys soaring in front of colorful canyon walls. While my equipment pales in comparison to a true wildlife photographer, I shot away.
Upon putting my work on the computer, the birds were so far away that they were not visible in the photos at first. The photos needed dramatic enlarging, creating less-than-perfect results from the modest telephoto lens I used.
The photos certainly are nothing National Geographic would buy, but I am happy whenever I see those photos that remind me my time spent watching the osprey fly in the gorgeous canyon.
Most Yellowstone visitors are after a photo of the biggest animal star of them all, a grizzly bear. On my last night at the park, I was thinking that I would be perfectly happy without that since I had so many other grand sights recorded (elk, lots of bison, a coyote, plenty of water and steam and dramatic landscapes).
Then, suddenly, a grizzly walked out of a stand of trees across the road from where I was parked.
So I snapped up a camera with a telephoto lens, always within easy reach, and fired off a dozen photos before a pickup truck screeched to a stop and two teen-age girls jumped out near the bear, their mobile phone cameras clicking. They chased the bear, already unhappy with cars blocking his path across the road, and he sauntered back into the woods.
Not only had the girls upset the bear and ruined the experience for other photographers, they violated federal law by coming closer than 100 yards to a bear.
They were so obsessed with getting bear photos that they did not even notice that it was in a burned-out area that has regrown with new trees and other plants, restoring a once blackened part of the park to full color and life in one of the most interesting natural events of our time.
All the girls needed to do was look around to see the beauty of the new growth, which is what attracted the bear in the first place, but grizzly stars in their eyes blinded them to other photo possibilities.