Steaming mad in Yellowstone ... and no, that's not the geysers

Death comes often at Yellowstone National Park but not in the forms it took here this week.

Precipitous cliffs, treacherous lakes, boiling thermal pools, bears, even bison: all the usual culprits were out of the frame. It was the US Congress that killed the tourist season, the jobs that support it, the faith of citizens in its processes and the hopes of thousands of tourists including my family.

US Congress killed our hike. US Congress made it illegal for us to take photographs of Old Faithful, the famous gushing geyser just steps away from our room.

With everyday worries via wi-fi left behind on entering the world's first and best known national park, our first inkling that powerful political forces had put paid to our plans came on Tuesday morning, US time, when a road barrier at Midway Geyser Basin warned that the area was closed and entry was punishable by law.

Earlier in the trip we'd been threatened with jail and removal of our children by a zealous New York state cop in the Catskills for stopping in a no parking zone to take photos. So we drove on.

All day the story was the same. Firehole Canyon, closed. Artists Paintpots, closed. Norris Geyser Basin, including Steamboat, the world's tallest active geyser gushing unpredictably to 120 metres, closed.

It was 80 kilometres north at Mammoth Hot Springs before we could get off the main road. But where the previous day we had peered through the crush of bodies to glimpse comparable attractions, here we had the boardwalk to ourselves. Only a few college students with clipboards, discussing the geological processes that had splashed tier upon tier of cascading rock with mineralised water in shades of pink and orange, broke the silence.

Back at the Old Faithful Inn that evening, a desk attendant explained the US government shutdown of non-essential services meant we had to leave the park by 4pm on Thursday when "hard closure" came into force and yes, her job was being "furloughed". Stories of dismay and disgust echoed around the seven-storey timber lobby, built over a hundred years ago and all the more cavernous for being suddenly deserted.

Over a glass of wine Amy Wolfe of Pennsylvania mulled the impact of having to cancel an international trout symposium on the 150 delegates from across the US and around the world who had registered. They were being turned away at the gates, she said. Many had struggled to get funding approval to attend and had worked hard on their research presentations; now they may not be reimbursed for their expenses. "I can't even imagine, even for people within the US. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.

That afternoon a ranger had pointed her straight back to the Inn when she ventured on foot to a nearby meadow to take photos, she said. He told her "absolutely no recreation" was allowed. Her colleague Glenn Erikson of the Federation of Fly Fishers from New York state was forbidden from fishing in a nearby stream even with a permit. But the ranger told him having to shoo visitors away had made it the "saddest day" of her years working in the park, he said.

The next morning Tom Carmel of Philadelphia fumed at the disruption to his weeklong coach tour, pulling on a cigarette while Old Faithful geyser hissed away behind him. "A park ranger harangued our driver and told us we weren't allowed to 'recreate', whatever that means," he said.

"I'm steaming mad at the intransigence of our Congress. It is a disgrace and the politicians do not have a clue as to the feelings of the general public."

As if on cue, jets of boiling water from Old Faithful shot into the sky. "If they could, they would shut that off too," said Ralph Thornton of Connecticut. "In my book both parties are to blame. You could go so far as to say they are idiots in Congress."

At the entrance where we exited a ranger ruefully confirmed all our sightseeing the day before had been technically illegal, though enforcement was at the discretion of individual officers until the "hard closure" took effect. We could write to the secretary of the Department of the Interior to complain but refunds were impossible, he said, because all moneys previously collected had already been appropriated for the budget. Anyway, the credit card machines weren't working because "the Treasury is closed".

More than 21,000 out of 24,000 parks employees are without work or pay until the crisis is sorted.

A spokesman for Xanterra, the company which operates the Old Faithful Inn for the National Parks Service, said by phone the company was losing $US1 million a day as a result of the shutdown. Outside the gate, while their thwarted coach turned around, Chinese tourists scurried to the big "Welcome to Yellowstone" sign for their only picture opportunity.

For us it was a bit disappointing but there were compensations. Because so few people were around, we finally scored a coveted couch on the lobby balcony, were able to dine before 9.30pm, and got to park right out front of the Inn. And fortunately, all the elk, deer, bear and bison were blisfully unaware that facilitating our recreation might be unlawful or that the photos we took of them from the road were technically illegal. But the wolves may have got wind of it, because they were nowhere to be seen.