Our National Parks: Yellowstone National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Yellowstone National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Established 1872
2,219,823 Acres

The Big Picture: Yellowstone is both flagship and fishbowl of the National Park Service; probably no other place in the system inspires so much awe and worry at the same time. America's first national park even has its own creation myth: A group of nineteenth-century explorers, swept away by the area's inestimable natural wonders, nobly decided around the campfire one night that the government ought to set the region aside for the use of the masses. The government, so the legend goes, thought it a fine idea, and voilà: Yellowstone National Park.

Nice story, but in truth it was probably at the suggestion of the Northern Pacific Railroad--which figured it could easily and profitably transport East Coast visitors to the wilds of Wyoming--that the Yellowstone Act was passed, declaring that the park would be a "pleasureing ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

That it certainly has been, with its more than 10,000 thermal springs and geysers, a stately Grand Canyon, North America's only continuous colony of white pelicans, and the greatest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48, with a good showing in the icon department: bison, grizzlies, elk, moose, and maybe soon, wolves. The question is, how can such diverse wilderness be sustained within manmade boundaries? Even in this, the largest national park in the continental United States, they're still looking for the answer.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,728,433 total visitors, 180,560 backcountry visitors

"The average park visitor might as well be attached to his car with 100 yards of chain," says a local merchant. True enough, every year hundreds of thousands herd themselves to Old Faithful and the limestone terraces near Mammoth Hot Springs, well within view of parking lots. Or they just stay in their cars altogether (except for moose jams) and coast the 142-mile Grand Loop Road, which links Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, and the Norris Geyser Basin.

Where You Should Go: Start along the Lamar River, in the northeastern region of the park. There's an easy three-day, 18-mile hike from Soda Butte to Hoodoo Basin on the Miller Creek Trail on which you'll climb to over 10,000 feet and get views of the Absaroka Range, the Beartooth Plateau, the Tetons, and plenty of summering elk and bighorn sheep.

For a trip through some less-visited thermal areas, try the Bechler Region, in the southwestern corner. Fall is a good time to travel here, when river crossings are less chancy. The flies and mosquitoes have given up for the year, and it's cool enough to enjoy a good soak in the Ferris Fork of the Bechler River, one of the few hot rivers that's legal for swimming. This part of the park is also called Cascade Corner for its many waterfalls; to see them, pick up the Bechler River Trail a mile east of Old Faithful Inn and hike 24 miles (three or four days) to Cave Falls Campground.

Don't Forget: To buy issue 17 of the Hot Springs Gazette, devoted to Yellowstone's thermal-heavy southwestern section. Send $5 to 12 S. Benton Ave., Helena, MT 59601.

Where to Bunk: Suites 76 and 77 (ground floor) and 176 and 177 (second floor) in Old Faithful Inn have full-on views of the venerable spout ($182 per suite; 406-344-7311).

Food Is: Industrial, with the exception of the chocolate pecan pie at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

Park Lore: The first tourist to be turned away from the park during the 1988 fires was...George Bush. The then vice-president and his fishing buddy, James Baker, had to go elsewhere to hide out from the Democratic Convention.

Your Park Service at Work: There are too many bison in the park--2,400 at last count--and in winter they're wandering out of the park in search of food. Cattle ranchers, fearful that their herds will be infected by the brucellosis carried by some bison, want rangers to shoot out-of-bounds buffalo; rangers have refused. Yellowstone officials are also wrangling with ranchers over the issue of wolf reintroduction, 60 years after the park eliminated its last gray wolf. Park officials want the wolves back; again, ranchers fear for their cattle. Yet without a natural predator, elk are overrunning the place, destroying willows and aspens and eliminating bighorn sheep, beaver, and grizzly habitat. A grazing study is due out soon, but the park consistently underestimates the number of elk and bison and overestimates its grizzly population (up to 650, according to the park; 100, according to independent researchers).

What few people dispute about the grizzlies is that they are getting skinnier: They're competing with the park's other mammals for food, and their territory keeps getting smaller. For example, the historic Lake Hotel near Yellowstone Lake sits in the middle of prime grizzly habitat. The park wants to further develop the area, but officials say they'll mitigate effects of the construction by restoring two other previously "disturbed" grizzly areas. "If the park wanted to be truly responsive to the grizzly, it would close the Lake Hotel," says one Yellowstone resource manager. "But politically, they can't do it."

Where the money goes:
Budget: $16,074,900
Science: 5.7%
Visitor services: 13.8%
Maintenance: 53.9%
Other: 26.6%

Flashlight Reading: The Yellowstone Story, by Aubrey Haines (Yellowstone Association and Colorado Museum Association, $23.90); Hamilton's Guide to Yellowstone, by Alan Cundall and Herbert Lystrup (Hamilton Stores, $3.95).

Fun Index: C'mon, this is Yellowstone. 5

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