I'm not an outdoorsy person. For me, "roughing it" is a hotel without room service. Simply put, I'm your modern-day city slicker.
But here I am, flanked by spectacular 11,000-foot peaks, watching three bull bison stroll by our car. The buffalo pause, shoot a glance our way, then amble along. There is just one word to describe this experience: Inspiring.
I'm in Yellowstone National Park, the first stop on my journey through eight of America's most spectacular wildlife treasures. Today's national park system is made up of nearly 400 parks and 84 million acres of stunning landscapes. It's also home to thousands of species of wildlife who find a safe haven in these protected lands.
The concept of conserving pristine regions was first introduced in the 1800s by artist George Catlin, whose paintings depicted scenes of Native American life and captured the stunning beauty of these lands. Catlin's passionate mission resulted in an 1872 congressional act identifying Yellowstone as America's first national park.
But it would be a young politician named Theodore Roosevelt who truly championed these efforts, resulting in the establishment and protection of five parks, 18 monuments and 100 million acres of forest.
Following in Catlin's original footsteps, I now find myself in unfamiliar territory. My experience traveling through the world's most exotic regions didn't quite prepare me for this. I realized I knew more about India than Utah. So donning new hiking boots and still-crisp flannel, I set off in search of new frontiers and a true grit adventure.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
My guide is Shawn Horman, a Utah native who is a specialist in national park adventures. Over steaming mugs of roasted Montana coffee, I learn that Shawn once acted as a Japanese-speaking guide for the region. I would later wonder if he had to brush up on his already fluent Japanese so he could learn dozens of new adjectives just to describe this stunning landscape.
After our evening in the rustic town of West Yellowstone, MT, we are sitting at the gateway to the fabled Yellowstone National Park. I breathe a sigh of relief as the bison finally clear the way for our journey to continue.
Before traveling here, my knowledge of Yellowstone was limited to Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, and their unrelenting quest to steal picnic baskets from unsuspecting campers. (Wait a minuteâ€¦that's Jellystone.) As the expansive beauty and wonder of the park is revealed, I begin to realize how little I truly know about the wonders only America offers.
The nearly 3,500-square-mile park–it's larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined–extends through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Within its massive borders is some of the most concentrated geothermal activity in the world. Over 300 geysers can be
found in Yellowstone, but I'm most interested in seeing the park's iconic trademark–Old Faithful.
And I'm not disappointed. Every 90 minutes or so, Old Faithful puts on a dramatic show, with steaming vents that surround a 135-foot spout of boiling water shooting dramatically into the air. I'm surprised to learn that Old Faithful is just one small example of what the park has to explore. Yellowstone is also home to one of the world's largest collections of petrified forests and countless waterfalls. I learn that the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states can be found here. Roaming across the ancient volcanic plateaus and watery respites are bighorn sheep, moose, grizzlies, elk, coyotes and over 70 species of birds. Sadly, night falls, and I know that my quest will continue on a different path in the morning.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
After a hearty breakfast, we head south to Grand Teton National Park. I soon discover why this snow-capped mountain landscape is a favorite among climbers, hikers and photographers. Towering skyscrapers of crystalline rock provide dramatic images of Mother Nature's finest handiwork.
Trekking through the rough terrain, we breathe in crisp mountain air as a serene silence enwraps us. We watch from afar as a moose and her tentative calf make their way to a grassy meadow and the tender willow buds they favor.
The forests that carpet these mountainsides provide an idyllic home to a wide variety of wildlife. Golden eagles soar above as stately elks and stalwart bison roam across the horizon. Within these vast borders are black bear, coyotes, mule deer and the more elusive mountain lion. Everywhere we go, we're greeted by the familiar and ever-present marmots, ground squirrels and chipmunks.
At the top of one mountain crest, I notice that the smooth glacial lakes below have created a dramatic mirror image of the 14,000-foot windswept summit. It's in this moment that I realize that this city slicker has a lot to learn.