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The Spark That Ignited a Love Affair With National Parks

Being the International Ambassador for Hello Ranger has been such a positive experience. There is really nothing that brings me more joy than to share my stories, experiences, and enthusiasm for the outdoors, and we all remember that one place that started it all for us. Although not an international park for most readers, Yellowstone National Park was the spark for me.

It was the spark that ignited my love affair for U.S. National Parks, and subsequently, all national parks. For years, Yellowstone seemed so far away. It was like a distant dream until I finally set my goal to see it in the summer of 2017. What a messy journey it was, but finally travelling to the U.S. on my own that summer really changed the trajectory of my outdoors journey, and ultimately brought me to Hello Ranger. As an international and first time visitor to the parks, it became very apparent that I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled upon beautiful landscapes and unbelievable geothermal activity, and all because I had read about Yellowstone in some of my university textbooks. A little bit different than my usual itineraries, this is a recap of my humble beginnings traveling to NPS sites, falling in love with Yellowstone, and some of the B-sides of being a first-time solo traveler.

The trip to Yellowstone was one I knew I needed to make. As a science teacher, a huge fan of Earth sciences and geology, it was a place that always popped out of the textbooks. One of the most visited and the oldest national parks in the U.S. National Parks System, it seemed only fitting that as a Canadian embarking on a journey to see all of the parks in her lifetime, I started with this one. Everything I knew about Yellowstone was like science fiction to me. I learned about the supervolcano, the caldera, the geothermal activity, and all this information just intrigued me more. Could one place in the world really be so volatile and unwelcoming, but attract millions of visitors every year? Could one place be so naturally dangerous, foreign, and toxic, yet still have unmatched natural beauty in its landscape and be a sanctuary for wildlife? I did not believe it until I saw it for myself. If you haven’t been, take my word for it. Believe the hype, it’s real! Since my first visit, I have made a point to visit Yellowstone every summer because every single time I see it, it becomes more and more engrained in my heart as a place to cherish and revere.

In 2017, I roughly planned out one of the most unorganized road trips ever. I started driving straight from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to the north entrance of Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT. This 11 hour and 21 minute drive was absolutely insane, and I highly recommend not doing the drive in one attempt…although I did not take my own advice any other time I visited Yellowstone, since I pulled off the drive twice more in 2018 and 2019.

Starting my drive late, I reached the Alberta-Montana border at Sweetgrass at about noon. I really had no precedence crossing the border in a car, considering I had never done so before! My passport was completely filled with entry and exit stamps from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand, since I was living in Asia for the previous two years. This explanation, however, did not bode well to the border agent. The border agent pulled my car aside and started asking questions specifically about my Chinese entry/exit stamps, and the two pages in my passport specifically that had two separate Chinese work visas. Eventually, after explaining my situation, my travel plans, and why I was travelling alone to the U.S., the agents (reluctantly) let my car pass. In all honesty, I do think being of Asian ethnicity, traveling alone, AND having a passport like that did seem awfully suspicious. They also seemed bemused that one of my reasons for crossing the border was to drive to Yellowstone and see the geothermal activity. Regardless, saying my travel plan aloud really made me nervous, because that was just it, it was happening. My plan was happening and I had done no research.

After passing the border, it really started to hit me that my unorganized way of traveling left me in a tough position. I had no idea what the speed limit in Montana was, I had no place in mind to stay once getting to the north entrance of the park. I was winging it. While stopped in Great Falls, I was able to do some research into accommodations, routes, and speed limits. Of course, I should have been aware that the conversion made the speed limit mph instead of km/h, but it still shocked me that the highway speeds were almost 130km/h (80 mph)! Besides that, I secured accommodation at the North Yellowstone Lodge and Hostel in Gardiner, and they were gracious enough to leave the key outside as I would be arriving around midnight. This drive, my first as an international visitor to the U.S., forced me to face the facts: I may not really know what I’m doing.

The next morning I woke up to amazing nature, something that I could not see in the dark during my approach. I was here. In Yellowstone. Again, no idea where I was actually going or what I needed to see, but the lovely staff at the hostel were kind enough to give me pointers and suggestions. The person helping me told me that Grand Prismatic and Fairy Falls are extremely busy, but worth it. His favorite hike was Hellroaring Creek Trail between Indian Creek Campground and Grand Prismatic, and he also told me to check out Old Faithful if I had time. So that’s where I started my day.

I stopped for coffee and breakfast and to take a picture with the sign at the north entrance, then set up camp at Indian Creek Campground just south of Mammoth. Making my way towards Grand Prismatic, I saw the first few glimpses of what Yellowstone had to offer. My blissful ignorance to the amount of visitors in the park caught me off guard. I was so used to being able to “escape” the crowds in the Canadian National Parks, but the roads in Yellowstone were jam packed, and there was no parking anywhere at Grand Prismatic. Eventually after making a few U-turns, I was able to snag a spot on the side of the highway and walked from there.

Grand Prismatic is such a beautiful spot, with a boardwalk passing a few different hot pools, the stunning, vibrant, and boiling water was so unexpected. The first view was of the yellow sulfur creek flowing down the left hand side, then the Excelsior Geyser, then around to Grand Prismatic. The orange sand reflecting the yellow shores eventually meeting the bright blue water was so perfectly symmetrical. Everyone needs to see it at least once in their lifetime. It was really awe-inspiring. I took some photos and then finished the boardwalk and decided to do the hike to Fairy Falls.

Blame my blissful ignorance, but once again, I made a blunder that self-reflection only made me realize after the fact. Even though I had and have great hiking shoes, I have this strange propensity for hiking in flip flops, and it definitely garners some strange looks from other visitors in the parks I’ve visited. This time was no different. I hiked up to the viewpoint right before Fairy Falls and got an amazing photo of Grand Prismatic from above before realizing I probably shouldn’t go too much further without proper footwear. After making it back to my car, I made the drive down to Old Faithful and I found a parking spot close to the lodge. I walked over the staging area for the geyser and within two minutes, it went off. I had no idea how coincidental and lucky I was until afterwards. I learned that Old Faithful only goes off about 20 times a day with a 10 +/- minute accuracy. The next eruption was about an hour and fifteen minutes away and I still wanted to visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and make my way back to Mammoth Hot Springs.

I continued my loop and my next stop was the raging waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Again, hiking in flip flops, I made my way down the trail. Nature hits you differently when you are standing next to a huge waterfall. On a scorching summer day, the mist from the falls was so refreshing. From the top of the canyon you could actually see the caldera rim—a big reminder of the veracity and unpredictability of nature. Still today, the thought of Yellowstone erupting brings shivers down my spine. Driving northwest from the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, I made my way to Tower Falls, but I spotted this insane rock wall that I still have yet to find the name of! The geology nerd in me snapped some photos of the jagged rocks that overhang as you look higher up. It is still probably one of the weirdest geological features I have seen in Yellowstone, and that’s saying something!

Ending off a busy day in Yellowstone meant roasting hot dogs and marshmallows at my campsite, chatting with the site stewards about what brought a Canadian down to Wyoming, and journaling about the whole experience. My next two trips to Yellowstone are barely comparable to this one because they were rushed. When the Canada-USA border reopens and I get the chance to visit again, I would love to revisit some of the sites I saw and explore deeper into the eastern parts of the park. Until then, I can share photos, stories of my first visit to a U.S. National Park, and laugh at my ignorance against the steep learning curve of being a first time international solo traveler.

As the first international ambassador for Hello Ranger, Alyse Huynh looks forward to sharing her experiences as an out-of-country visitor to U.S. national parks, preserves, and monuments. Her trips are never planned or organized, so along with her experiences hiking, she hosts a podcast that is essentially a “what not to do” guide to travel.

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