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A primer on Yellowstone, our first national park

Travels with Lonely Planet

Here at the intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, you can discover the greatest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in the contiguous United States in your own vehicle, at your own pace — or at theirs. It's no wonder that Yellowstone National Park, home to 61 kinds of mammals and hundreds of bird species, plays host to about 3 million visitors annually, mostly between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

They're baaack Thanks to the controversial gray wolf reintroduction effort that began in 1995, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem again harbors its full historic complement of native mammals. Visitors are most likely to encounter mammals such as elk, bison, grizzlies and wolves, but the park also has rare species such as lynx and wolverine. The region is much more ecologically dynamic now than when the last wolves were killed in the '20s.

Your own private wilderness Avoid the crowds by applying for a backcountry camping permit. Obtain permits in person, within 48 hours of your hike, at park visitor centers and ranger stations.

Do I have to get out of the car? Yes. Leave your car at one of 70 roadside trailheads and explore the 1,000-plus miles of trails. You may hear wolves howling in the woods, feel the ground tremble as hundreds of bison thunder through Hayden Valley or see a massive male grizzly feast on a 10-point elk in Lamar Valley. If a backcountry jaunt seems too adventurous, try a half-day wilderness walk with a park ranger.

That's a little too wild for me For the casual visitor, more benign wildlife encounters await not far from the park's principal thoroughfare, the Grand Loop Road. Moose wallow in fast-flowing streams, fleet-footed pronghorn antelope dash in packs, bison and elk graze in grassy valleys and, in fall, the strident bugling of mating elk echoes across the broad valleys.

Where to stay Camping is the cheapest way to bunk down, but there are other options. Unfortunately, they fill up quickly. Xanterra Parks & Resorts, (307) 344-7311, http://www.travelyellowstone.com handles park lodging, camping and dining reservations. Reserve a year in advance for a rare premium room with a geyser view at the storied Old Faithful Inn (open July 1 to mid-September, doubles $81 to $385), worth a visit regardless of where you're sleeping.

Getting there From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Jackson Hole, Wyo., is offered on Delta, Northwest and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $332. It's about 105 miles from Jackson Hole to the entrance at West Yellowstone. Alaska, United, Delta and Northwest offer connecting service into Bozeman, Mont. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $322. It's about 120 miles from Bozeman to West Yellowstone.

To learn more Call the National Park Service: visitor information (307) 344-7381; recorded camping and lodging report (307) 344-2114; or go to http://www.nps.gov/yell .

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