YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - As we walked along the trail, partly shaded by towering and ubiquitous lodgepole pines, I turned and looked around. We were alone, had been for a couple of miles.
Backpack loaded with raincoats, sunscreen and cameras, and bear spray on my belt buckle, I was on a tour of our country's first national park, Yellowstone, with my family and a guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute.
When I made the observation, guide Carolyn Harwood gave us this fascinating tidbit: Of the park's 33 million annual visitors, only about 1 percent ever leave the developed areas (visitors centers, pullouts, boardwalks).
Our hike, a 4.5-mile loop that started on the Clear Lake trail, took us through open pastures where we saw elk, to wooded areas where we were on the lookout for bears, to a spot that looked like the moon with boiling pots of mud and steamy hot springs. Our hike was like walking through a "Star Wars" movie, from Naboo to Endor to Tatooine.
After a couple of miles, we emerged at Artist Point. It's not hard to see how the lookout got its name: A gorgeous view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a deep canyon, its walls painted with a palette of yellow, red, orange and black, the result of hydrothermal alterations to the rocks.
It also affords a spectacular view of the Lower Falls, a gushing waterfall that plunges 308 feet, nearly triple the height of the Upper Falls, just up the river, and twice as high as Niagara Falls. With several steep climbs and multiple educational breaks where we learned to identify trees by needles and animals by scat, the hike took about 4 hours.
The Yellowstone Association works with the National Park Service to connect people to the park through education.
"The best way to really see Yellowstone is to explore it, and that's what we help you do," said Harwood.
The heart of Yellowstone is a caldera surrounded by the spires of the Rocky Mountains. It's actually a giant sleeping volcano. When my 6-year-old heard this, he looked alarmed and asked, "Is it going to erupt?" Harwood paused and sat us down to explain. Yes, it could go off. In the past, it has created massive explosions. It is in fact, due to go off again. However, scientists will have plenty of warning, and we're not there yet.
The hot springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles (steam vents) are everyday reminders of the dangers that lurk beneath the earth's surface. But they make magnificent sites for tourists.
Yellowstone is big, as in 3,500 square miles big. A windy, two-lane road takes you through the high points of Yellowstone National Park. It actually makes a figure eight out of about 154 miles of roadway. If you only had one day, you could drive it and see the high points. But I recommend at least three. One day for the upper loop; one day for the lower loop and a third day to get off those roads and really explore the park on foot.
While nothing beats coming upon a majestic waterfall or a lily-pad-covered pond on a hike, there is plenty to see from your car or a short walk on the boardwalk.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, rather things we did and loved.
•Old Faithful: Perhaps the most famous site in all of Yellowstone is the erupting geyser of Old Faithful. In the Moon "Montana & Wyoming" guidebook, author Carter G. Walker says as many as 70 percent of American adults have seen the famous geyser. Old Faithful isn't the tallest geyser, but it is more predictable than most, going off every 30 minutes to two hours. Television screens in the area give you an estimated time of the next eruption. Each eruption shoots nearly 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water about 130 feet into the air.
•Mammoth Hot Springs area: Visit Mammoth Hot Springs to walk the self-guided trail around Fort Yellowstone, which chronicles the U.S. Army's role in protecting the park. Then drive or walk over to the hot springs area. The terraces are quite different from the other thermal areas in the park. These step-like travertine formations grow much more rapidly (as much as 2 feet per year) and are constantly changing shapes and color. The book "Yellowstone: Expedition Guide" calls the area "geology in hyperdrive."
•Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: This 20-mile-long canyon, including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, can be seen from several overlooks throughout the park. Or take one of the other hikes, such as ours, around it. You also can take Uncle Tom's trail 328 steps down to the bottom (Warning: It's dangerous and strenuous).
•Yellowstone Lake: North America's largest high-altitude lake is simply breathtaking. Take a sunset tour ($35) on a 1936-restored "Yellowstone Bus." Lake Butte, at an elevation of 8,348 feet, shows a gorgeous sunset over the mountains that frame the lake. The area is also prime habitat for birds and mammals. We saw bears, a beaver (or maybe it was a muskrat), pronghorn deer and waterfowl. In warmer months, catch a cruise or rent a boat.
The geyser basins: Yellowstone is home to the majority of the world's geysers. Several basins, notably the Thumb Geyser Basin in the Yellowstone Lake area, the Norris Geyser Basin and the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins to the west, are great for exploring. Don't miss Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Basin, the tallest - though unpredictable - geyser in the park, and the aptly named Grand Prismatic in the Midway Geyser Basin. And don't miss the Mud Volcano and Dragon's Mouth Spring near Fishing Village; they are just as amazing as their names sound.
•Hayden Valley: Aside from the geothermic activity, most people come to Yellowstone for the wildlife. Hayden Valley provided bison and pronghorn as well as a good look at a coyote who had just caught a bird of prey for dinner and a possible wolf sighting (it was awfully far away). Staring out over Hayden Valley was like watching an episode on the National Geographic Channel. But we came way too close to a grizzly who had wandered near the Visitor Center at nearby Fishing Village.
•LeHardys Rapids: One of our first stops was at a short trail leading down to the LeHardys Rapids, a gushing portion of the Yellowstone River. In June and July, visitors can watch the native cutthroat trout leap over the rocks on their way to spawning grounds upstream.