Over four million people ticked Yellowstone off their bucket list last year, making it one of America’s most popular National Parks. They’re drawn by its ‘fire and brimstone’ landscape and ridiculous wealth of wildlife. Sitting in the caldera of an ancient volcano, this is a place where geysers, hot springs and mud pots bubble, spurt and steam; where herds of shaggy-coated bison call the shots on the highways and grizzly bears and white wolves roam free. It’s a vast place where 90 per cent of the land is virtually untouched by man.
With their eyes on the main prize, many visitors fly into Salt Lake City and zip straight up to Yellowstone, which was established as the world’s first National Park in 1872. And yes, there’s more than enough to explore in the tri-state park – which covers around 3500 square miles, mainly through Wyoming and overlapping into Idaho and Montana – to make one or even two weeks speed by in a whirl of driving, motels and instagram-perfect views.
But they’re missing a trick: the Scenic Yellowstone Loop. With Yellowstone Park as the midway point, the route can be driven in around 10 days and offers a fascinating insight into the West’s pioneering history, a showreel of natural beauty through the RV window and a little flavour of the folks who call this vast corner of the United States of America home. Here are our top 10 highlights.
1. Flaming Gorge, Vernal
Pictured above. Back in the day, the steep, dramatic russet-red canyons of Flaming Gorge would ring out with the sound of the hooves of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s horses when the outlaws were on the run after their latest bank job. Cowboys still roam today, but many people come for the solitude – you can walk for days along the high trails, with just big-horned sheep, wild horses and circling condors for company. Head to the visitor centre for a superlative view of the rocky formations, the reservoir and the striking Green River that carves through the landscape, seemingly to infinity. A boat trip down river is also worthwhile: look skywards to the tops of the natural red pillars to see prehistoric-looking condor nests.
2. Salt Lake City
This pristine city, founded by Mormon pioneer Brigham Young in 1847, is cradled in a valley between the snow-capped Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains. Head to the downtown area on a free tram to Temple Square, where you’ll find the impressive tabernacle. Nearby, a clutch of skyscrapers in the financial district seem to stretch to the heavens in an act of worship to the god of wealth, and there’s a ginormous mall, City Creek, if you fancy some retail therapy in shops including Macey’s. The city also has a flourishing foodie scene and we can highly recommend the delicious fish and chicken tacos, washed down with a margarita at Taqueria 27 on East 200 South. The place is popular with the after-work crowd and is always buzzy.
3. Old Faithful & Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone
Old Faithful is one of the most spectacular geysers in Yellowstone (yellowstonenationalpark.com), earning her name from the regularity of her eruptions. She blows between every 35-130 minutes, with a timetable posted every day at Yellowstone Lodge. We joined other excited tourists on the benches encircling the natural wonder, ‘oohing’ and ‘aaahing’ as Old Faithful teased her eager audience with burbling and increasing steam clouds before spurting high into the sky. She was on good form; we estimated the volcanic fountain reached around 30 metres (though heights of 56m have been recorded) and the spectacle lasted for around five minutes. Grand Prismatic Spring is a must-see, too. This huge pool of bright blue water, ringed in technicolour gold and red, looks like it has been spirited away from another planet.
4. American West Heritage Centre, Logan
We learnt how to throw tomahawks (badly) at this engaging heritage centre (awhc.org) that aims to show what life was really like in the Wild West of the 1800s. Our guide, a ‘mountain man’ called Wolf Bite (named after an incident with his own dog who gave him a playful ‘bite’) showed us around an original cabin with fur pelts dangling from the ceiling and we got a modern-day tractor ride to meet the resident herd of bison. These magnificent beasts were nearly hunted into extinction back then for their fur, meat and skin. Today, their numbers are up to around half a million and the native north American animal’s remarkable comeback has been cemented with its recent crowning as the USA’s national mammal.
5. Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Centre, Yellowstone
When we arrived in early May, the park was abuzz with rumours of a sighting of a mother bear and three cubs ‘somewhere near’ Gibbon falls. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t hanging around for human benefit. But we got our bear fix at this lovely centre (grizzlydiscoveryctr.org), just outside the town of West Yellowstone, which makes a good base if you’re planning to spend time here. At the moment, it's home to eight grizzly bears and food is hidden for the creatures to feel like they’re still hunting. We loved Kobuk the destroyer, one of the stars of the sanctuary, and saw the mangled remains of the cooler boxes he had been given as a challenge.
6. Angie’s Diner, Logan
For an authentic ‘down-home’ diner experience, pop into Angie’s for breakfast (angiesrest.com). The joint was jumping when we arrived at 8am on a weekday morning and some locals come in three times a day. The owner, Saboor, will even check up on regulars if they don’t show – though the stupendous portion sizes could keep anyone going for a while. We tried the homemade giant cinnamon rolls (delicious) and scones – a type of fried pancake – with honey and butter (also delicious). Wear an elasticated waistband if you’re going to even contemplate tackling Angie’s Sink, a smorgasbord including ice-cream, oreos, cream and bananas. And a cherry. Polish it all off and you get it for free (or pay just 12.99 dollars if you’re defeated).
7. Bear Lake & Conestoga Ranch, Garden City, Utah
Cowboy wagons get the glamping treatment at this five-star park on the shores of Bear Lake (bearlake.org). The huge body of water, often dubbed the Carribbean of the Rockies because of its deep-blue colour, is a favourite playground for summer fun and recreation. The beauty of it is, of course, that if you want to escape the neighbours, a wagon can simply be wheeled elsewhere!
8. The Wall of Bones, Vernal
Did someone say dinosaurs? At the Dinosaur National Monument, you can see and touch over 1500 dinosaur bones. The 80-ft wall of fossils is truly jaw-dropping. It’s thought that the wall (also known as the Carnegie Quarry) was a river bed where the dinosaurs’ skeletons were washed around 149 million years ago. We spotted one of the highlights – a rare baby Stegosaurus fossil – and touching the bones in the giants’ graveyard was an unforgettable moment. Insider tip: try not to go as three bus loads of beyond-excited school kids arrive for a field trip! (carnegiequarry.com)
9 Jackson Hole, Wyoming
This cute town is teeming in winter with skiers and snowboarders, there for the world-renowned resorts, which partially cover the Rendezvous and Apres Vous mountains (a reminder of the area’s French fur-trapping past). Jackson Hole’s Mountain Resort boasts advanced terrain with 116 runs and is a magnet for ‘free’ skiers, attracted to North America’s most challenging territory. We passed through in late spring on the way to Grand Teton National Park (Jackson Hole is the south entrance) and grabbed a cold one at one of Wyoming’s most famous watering holes. The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (milliondollarcowboybar.com) is as fabulous as it sounds: from its super-kitsch sign, ablaze with hundreds of gold and red lights to the saddle barstools and silver-dollar covered bar. Head there to soak up the wild west vibe.
10. The Museum of Clean, PocatelloA bit of a wild card, but this place has to be seen to be believed. It represents the life work of Don Aslett, whose passion for cleanliness spawned a lucrative TV and book-publishing career. The huge warehouse-sized space features the world’s biggest vacuum cleaner collection (around 1000 and climbing), a journey through the history of toilets plus a recreated 1900s store full of intriguing cleaning products. It’s delightfully bonkers. (museumofclean.com)
Bon Voyage (0800 316 0194 / bon-voyage.co.uk) has a nine-night fly-drive to Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho from £1,525 per person, valid for travel in late September - October 2016. The price includes nonstop Delta Air Lines flights from London Heathrow to Salt Lake City, eight nights’ accommodation (as below with one additional overnight on the return flight) and car hire for the duration. The price is based on two adults travelling, sharing room only accommodation.