My first encounter with Yellowstone was at age 10. My parents loaded my three siblings and me into an un-air-conditioned station wagon and we hit the road, bound for the American West.

In August I returned to the national park for the first time in 30 years, this time with my husband, Bruce, a first-timer to the park. I was determined to show him the Yellowstone I remembered. And I was determined to avoid the crowds.

The plan: to lace up our hiking boots and see Yellowstone via its trails.

Our first trek was a 4-mile ascent up Elephant Back Mountain. Set on Yellowstone Lake's northern shore, it seemed a good way to dodge the crowds of nearby Fishing Bridge.

Our feet tramped heavily on the hard-packed earth, more accustomed to summer sandals than Gore-Tex boots. The thin air burned in our lungs as we headed up to 8,500 feet, through a tunnel of lodgepole pines, over ancient rocks and tortured roots.

Finally, the trail crested the Elephant's Back and revealed sweeping views of placid Yellowstone Lake, the Absaroka Range, and in the foreground the small, yellow rectangle of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

"Wow," I said.

"Wow," Bruce said.

This was a view worth every step. We were hooked.

Over the course of our week, we began each day lacing up our boots while we finished our coffee. We were in search of the best hikes, the best views, the most interesting wildlife. We were in search of good trails. What we found was the essence of Yellowstone.

The next day began with a trek to Lone Star Geyser, a flat, 5-mile, out-and-back trail unimpressive despite the colorfully named Firehole River gurgling nearby.

Once we reached the pale-gray, 12-foot cone we waited, first alone, then accompanied by a mountain biker and before long a few others. When Lone Star finally blew, she sprayed steam and water 30 feet high for 30 minutes. There were only 15 of us there to see it.

After Lone Star it was hard to get excited about Old Faithful. The most famous of Yellowstone's 500 geysers is famous for a reason — a 180-foot fountain of water explodes roughly every 45 minutes — but we had grown fond of seeing natural wonders sans the crowds.

"Let's head to Observation Hill," Bruce suggested, pulling out our rumpled map. "We can watch Old Faithful from there."

Up we headed, ascending 200 feet to watch the show from a pile of boulders. A dozen others had joined us by the time Old Faithful blew. We watched her in reverential silence.

At the end of each day — and each hike — we assessed the trails. The Clear Lake Loop on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ranked high for its backcountry mud pots and hissing fumaroles. Mount Washburn might've been fun on a clear day. The Beaver Ponds were unforgettable for the two eight-point mule deer we saw. Trout Lake was rather dull, but the image of the Beartooths mirrored in the lake was spectacular.

Our last big hike was an unofficial trail our guidebook promised would end at a petrified forest. It was a blazingly hot slog across the Lamar Valley and up 1,200 unforgiving feet, rising finally to the slopes of Specimen Ridge. The final climb was brutally steep with no rocky footholds, loose soil slipping under our boots. A small herd of pronghorns watched intently.

"This seems like a very bad idea," I complained to Bruce, pointing out that not a single other soul had ventured up here, save the pronghorns.

"What we need are hiking sticks," he replied. A long dead and downed pine provided us the essentials: two hiking sticks each and the gumption to see a petrified forest.

We found our first petrified stump just minutes later, wooden by all appearances but rock-hard to the touch. Farther on, another stump lay nearly hidden in tall grass. At the top of the ridge, a rocky outcropping revealed itself as downed trees, shattered limbs, all of them petrified.

"How long ago did the lava bury these trees?" I asked Bruce, who had read more about Specimen Ridge than I.

"50 million years ago."

"50 million?!?"

"50 million."


We lingered over the trees, unwilling to leave our hard-won quarry. But the golden rays of evening cast shadows on the landscape and we had miles yet to go. We took a few more photos and headed downhill.

We're making plans to go back. There are 1,000 miles of trails in Yellowstone. We have 900 more to see.

Amy S. Eckert, of Holland, Mich., writes about travel for numerous publications and is president of the Midwest Travel Writers Association.