imgAt Mammoth, the backcountry and front country mingle in a bizarre ballet. Cars and recreational vehicles maneuver around Big Bob as he chases his potential mates and spars with rival bulls on the boulevard medians. Park rangers scramble to keep the crowds clear of the massive animals locking antlers in their dance of dominance. Traffic swiftly backs up in three directions and hotel guests gingerly tiptoe past cows and yearling calves resting unconcernedly on manicured lawns made wildly green by liberal application of elk patties. In the Mammoth Grill, burger-and-hotdog-toting patrons, craning their necks for a better view, jockey for tables next to the front windows.

Unaware of their gawking, pointing human audience, the two bulls use their spreading, twelve-point antlers to shove and jostle for ownership of the placid cows. Finally, with a single snorting heave, Big Bob throws his contender back onto the macadam street. The contender loses his footing on the pavement and slams into a hastily parked minivan. The fight is over. The crowd quickly disperses and Big Bob, panting and with one damaged ear hanging askew, goes back to bugling and corralling his fickle harem until the next contender comes along.

Confirming the Yellowstone paradox, just fifteen minutes' walk from Big Bob's field of honor brings you to a different world with a radically different ambiance. Beyond the road and boardwalks ringing Mammoth's heavily visited, white-rimmed thermal terraces, the five-mile long Snow Pass trail diverges into a forest of widely spaced conifers. Almost immediately, the hordes disappear and the wilderness closes in. The well-graded but steady rise up the side of Terrace Mountain further thins the crowd. Occasional, spectral elk dodge between the spruces and a trailside pile of disjointed vertebrae serves as a reminder of the slim difference between a living, wild creature and a meat-eater's meal.

Approaching the top of the pass, the trail steepens into a series of switchbacks, ultimately climbing out onto an open saddle. Snow Pass itself acts as a wind tunnel, constricting and channeling the east-west breezes. Even in calm weather, crossing the pass requires shouldering into a stiff head wind. Once through, the looming woods roll back and the trail descends past a series of relict cirques, small ponds sculpted by glaciers long since passed. The final cirque is half-ringed by an abrupt gravel ridge, a terminal moraine bulldozed by the last glacier's final surge.

imgBeyond the moraine, the trail swings south, entering a vast valley complex that rolls away for miles across the Gardners Hole plateau. Paralleling the trail, a small trickle of water seeps from the lowest cirque, turning the head of the valley into a marshy slough. Descending the trail, Glen Creek's trickle swells into a brook meandering the plateau's open plains and hills. Similar to the Lamar Valley, Gardners Hole offers a sweeping panorama but low rounded hills provide more foreground relief. The trail returns to the Grand Loop Road at Silver Gate, a few miles south of the Hoodoos and Mammoth.

But, to truly experience Yellowstone's paradox, first join the multitudes ringing Old Faithful, then visit the Lone Star Geyser. If geysers are the Park's emblems, then Old Faithful aptly represents the Grand Loop front country and Lone Star epitomizes the Yellowstone-beyond-the-windshield. A few miles south of Old Faithful, Lone Star spouts its 40-ft plume in near seclusion. An old black-topped road--restricted now to hikers and bikers--follows the bank of the Firehole River 2.5 miles to Lone Star's basin. Don't look for crowded bleachers, interpretive rangers, or concessionaires ringing the geyser's cone. But every three hours or so, Lone Star rips off a steaming, roaring Venturi eruption, all the more impressive because geyser-gazers can approach as close as prudence allows.

Lone Star's paved path makes it a superb destination for people with restricted mobility who want to get beyond the typical parking lot and scenic viewpoint tour. On the surrounding hills, steam rising above the trees pinpoints several other geothermal vents. Elk, deer, and buffalo frequent Lone Star's natural arena, and the nearby Firehole River holds classic fly-fishing for smallish rainbow trout.

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