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: It offers 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.
"The best way to really see Yellowstone is to explore it, and that's what we help you do," Harwood said.
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 advanced warning, and we're not there yet.
That sleeping volcano isn't really so sleepy either. 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'd 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.