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Visitors can count on predictability of Old Faithful, beauty of Yellowstone

Steam rises off the surface of the Grand Prismatic Pool, one of Yellowstone's best-known sights.

ALEX PULASKI/THE WASHINGTON POST

By ALEX PULASKI | Special to The Washington Post | Published: July 8, 2020

We arrived at the Old Faithful Lodge 10 minutes too early. As the front desk scrambled June 8 to open for Yellowstone National Park’s 2020 summer season, the list of predictable geyser eruptions wasn’t quite ready.

In this summer of COVID-19, not much is running as usual. Yellowstone closed in response to the pandemic March 24 and began reopening May 18. All entrances opened June 1, and visitor numbers stood at just over half of normal over the next week.

How many visitors will hit the road to the United States’ sixth-most-visited national park is anyone’s guess, a National Park Service spokesman said.

Perched over a hot spot in the Earth’s crust (mostly in Wyoming), Yellowstone is the product of three mammoth volcanic eruptions. It was established as the first U.S. national park in 1872 because of its unique geothermal activity, and still contains the world’s highest concentration of geysers and hot springs — more than 10,000 in all.

The park’s natural beauty is complemented by an abundance of wildlife — free-ranging bison, trumpeter swans, elk, bears and (since their reintroduction to the park 25 years ago) even wolves.

Some of the West’s early frontiersmen, among them John Colter and Jim Bridger, first passed through here in the early 1800s. Colter’s descriptions of “hidden fires, smoking pits” and a pervasive sulfur smell along the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyo., were later broadly applied to Yellowstone, leading early historians to mistakenly label it “Colter’s Hell.”

Closer to heaven, it turns out. We stopped in Cody this June and the summer before to experience the Old West’s flavor before joining Yellowstone’s annual stream of 4 million visitors.

It’s wild, unpredictable country. Turn a corner, and a new surprise reveals itself: bison stopping traffic, plumes of steam, the inescapable smell of sulfur.

The Crow, long before the fur trappers came along, simply referred to the Shoshone River as “Stinking Water.”

Rounding a turn last June at Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the park’s myriad bubbling wonders, I found myself wondering how to corral the words to describe it.

Luckily, two youngsters bailed me out, distilling the mild sulfur smell and a gleaming staircase of pinks, oranges and browns into a two-word debate.

“Stinky,” said the boy, Nate Rauenhorst, 9, of Incline Village, Nev.

“Purty,” countered his sister, Sophia, 12. This continued for some time until the boy yielded.

“It is stinky, but it sure is purty,” Nate conceded.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody died more than a century ago, but his influence looms large in the city that bears his name. For starters, there’s chuck wagon cook Ron Reed tending to biscuits in front of the city’s biggest tourist attraction.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is actually five museums wrapped into one. Get there about noon, as we did, and you can munch on a golden-brown biscuit and listen to Reed recite cowboy poetry around his fire.

“This is a taste of the past,” he told us.

Inside the museum, exhibits trace the story of Buffalo Bill himself, from chief of scouts for the Army’s Fifth Cavalry to a legendary Western showman, from making millions to bankruptcy. The Plains Indian Museum holds artifacts of breathtaking beauty, as well as telling the recent Native American history of betrayal and renewal. Other center museums feature Western art, a renovated firearms collection that reopened in 2019 and a kid-friendly look at natural history. On our most recent visit we saw masked staff members and plentiful sanitizing stations; it was a weekday afternoon, and sparse crowds made distancing easy.

Cody (population 10,000) was designed as a way station for tourists to and from Yellowstone, just over 50 miles east. Its compact downtown of Western storefronts can be explored in a leisurely afternoon.

We found only slight changes this June from our visit the summer before. Few people were using face coverings. Social distancing measures were in place at restaurants and attractions. Two major attractions — a mock street gunfight and the Cody Nite Rodeo — delayed their seasonal openings to June 15 and June 20, respectively.

Business owners are anxious to see what the next few months will bring.

“Cody relies on summer tourism to Yellowstone to get us through the winter,” said Rodney Miears, co-owner of the Station by Cody Coffee Roaster. “What will happen this summer? That’s a big question mark.”

Cody’s townspeople are friendly. They ask how you are doing and wait for a reply. Sidewalk rows of U.S. flags snap in the breeze, and the smell of leather drifts from Wayne’s Boot Shop. You can grab a cup of coffee and curl up with a book at Legends Bookstore.

Window displays at the Custom Cowboy Shop whispered to me of distant days when I had my own horse and saddle. I listened, walking out with a bagful of goodies and a new Stetson on my head.

We stayed at the comfortable Western-themed Cody Hotel, where employees were masked and behind plexiglass, and we ran into no other guests on the elevators or in common areas. It’s near the weathered boardwalks of Old Trail Town, a collection of historical cabins and artifacts, from arrowheads to barbed wire to furnishings.

We rode bikes along the green, frothy Shoshone River to near the base of the Buffalo Bill Dam one afternoon. Last year we rafted the river through red-rock canyons with Wyoming River Trips; this year they are using new hygiene protocols, including limiting rafts to six participants.

One evening in Cody found us listening to fiddles and guitars at Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, a tribute to a time when, as Miller sang, “a hoss and a rope and a gun ... tamed the West.”

Yellowstone is gigantic, more than 3,400 square miles of mountains, rivers and meadows, and just a half-hour north of another majestic national park, Grand Teton.

Yet Yellowstone is not so big that you can’t enjoy the range of its beauty, and not so busy that you can’t experience nature in peace — provided you’re willing and able to hike away from the crowds.

This summer, social distancing signs have joined the standard warnings against wandering into dangerous geothermal areas. Rangers and concessions staff donned face coverings, but most visitors we saw did not.

Everyone huddles around Old Faithful — the fairly predictable, world-renowned geyser near the west entrance.

Last summer we joined that thousands-strong throng, which stood at a mere 200 or so during our most recent visit in early June. Truth be told, we prefer the leisurely drives past meadows and streams and the plentiful hiking opportunities.

The drives took us past Mount Washburn, where snowbanks held stubborn reminders of winter, but wildflowers valiantly pushed their purples and yellows toward the June sun. We saw a black bear cub rolling in a meadow, a bald eagle angrily chasing an osprey in flight, elk in bunches, bighorn sheep clinging to a slope and too many shaggy bison to count.

Last year in Hayden Valley, one of the park’s best wildlife-viewing spots, we stopped near twilight and joined a knot of visitors excitedly whispering, hunched over their spotting scopes.

“There he is.”

“There’s two — no, three.”

And so on, but despite my best efforts and a huge telephoto lens, I saw only shadows, not the elusive wolves flitting in the distance.

We also fished for cutthroat trout last summer on Yellowstone Lake and this year took a five-mile round-trip hike to ethereal Fairy Falls. That hike also offers the best views of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the otherworldly hot spring that is among the park’s biggest draws.

Such a hike is the perfect way to escape the park’s more-crowded areas.

We took the guidebooks’ warnings on grizzlies seriously, toting a canister of bear spray on a six-mile round-trip hike from Artist Point, with its sublime view of the 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to secluded Ribbon Lake. There, we shared the lovely view of pond lilies and meadows with only some curious gray jays.

Park accommodations run the gamut from tent camping to historic hotels such as the Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. At this time it is unclear when those landmarks will reopen.

“We’re hoping for sometime in July,” said Mike Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, operated by the Xanterra Travel Collection, the park’s concessionaire. “We’re answering to seven different health agencies, and obviously safety is our foremost consideration.”

A phased campground reopening began June 15, but already two-thirds of summer campground reservations are taken.

Yellowstone’s potential is constantly waiting below the surface, revealing itself in colorful pools, bubbling mud pots and angry torrents of heated water.

Last summer we saw dozens of people waiting for unpredictable Steamboat Geyser to erupt, and I listened as one man asked seasonal park ranger Laura Bueter when it might blow.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “If I knew for sure, I would probably be God.”

For predictable, you park the car at the Old Faithful visitor center, bike the Upper Geyser Basin’s paved trail and take in the majestic beauty of Castle Geyser, colorful Morning Glory Pool and more. Then join the crowds at Old Faithful, which spouts every hour or two within time windows predicted by naturalists.

Among the Old Faithful morning crowd this June were Orion Strimenos and Natalee Green of Boulder, Colo., and their sons Wyatt, 6, and Grant, 3. All were wearing face coverings, and Green said avoiding COVID-19 risks had played into the family’s decision to visit Yellowstone.

“With a national park, you don’t have to interact with a lot of people — you are in your car a lot,” she said.

As they waited for the geyser, Wyatt rapid-fired questions about the nature of steam and how high the fountain was likely to reach. The answers arrived on schedule.

Old Faithful starts with a fitful series of hiccups, then shoots water up to 180 feet high. At this unpredictable time and in this wildly unpredictable place, it’s comforting to have something to count on.

Natalee Green of Boulder, Colo., photographs sons Wyatt Strimenos, 6, and Grant Strimenos, 3, in front of Old Faithful as dad Orion Strimenos looks on.
ALEX PULASKI/THE WASHINGTON POST