Yellowstone is a land of opposing forces. On the one hand it is wildlife sanctuary. The first land set aside to isolate it from the quickly developing west. The caretakers in Yellowstone go to great extents to minimize the impact of its human visitors. On the other hand it is a tourist destination. Yellowstone is not only visitor friendly; it is designed to maximize its market. Every notable landmark is no more than a one and one-half mile walk from the figure eight roadway that runs throughout the park. Every once in a while those two worlds collide, whether it be the mother we saw wearing a tank top and flip flops over a mile from the parking lot in an impending hail storm, or the man and his wife who stumbled upon a grizzly mom protecting her cubs. Jill and I had originally envisioned our Yellowstone visit focusing on the former but eventually found it impossible to avoid jumping in line with the rest of the crowds.
Our first stop in the park was the ranger station at Bridge Bay. One of our methods for avoiding the crowds was spending a good amount of our time in the park in the backcountry. To do so you must obtain a permit from the ranger station. Already a bit nervous about the presence of grizzly bears in the park, it was here that Liz, our friendly Yellowstone ranger, informed us that the day before our arrival there had been a bear attack. We quickly inquired, “well, was everyone alright?”
“Unfortunately, we lost one.” Liz calmly replied, as I’m sure it had been the umpteenth time she had to inform a visitor of the tragedy. As we pressed through the waves of fear that were beginning to bubble we bombarded her with grizzly related questions. Most of the questions were answered in a 20 minute video you’re required to watch before obtaining your backcountry permit. One thing Liz suggested to us was that we buy bear spray. Flashback two months ago, Jill had bear spray on our list of items needed before our trip. Without any knowledge of bear spray whatsoever I quickly concluded that it was a bunch of crap. I had assumed that it was similar to bug spray, nothing more than a deterrent. What we now know is that it is the biggest can of pepper spray you have ever seen. I believe the bear spray industry would benefit from changing its marketing name to bear mace. This might reduce some of the confusion. Armed with a can of bear mace and a wealth of bear awareness we had another two days until our backcountry trip to allow our fears to simmer.
In the mean time we had a few days to explore the park from our Norris campsite. Our first hike was to the peak of Mount Washburn, our fist five digit peak of the trip. Mount Washburn is one of the few remaining peaks which has a forest service employee occupying its fire tower all season. This dedicated employee receives no days off, and is resupplied only once every two weeks. A little too Shiningesque if you ask me. The summit of Mt. Washburn is at the north side of the caldera, allowing you to view the entire depression caused by the most recent eruption. Right as we were approaching the peak we walked by a group of people with their binoculars unsheathed. Assuming we had an opportunity to see some wildlife we stopped and asked what they had spotted. “You can see a grizzly a bit off in the distance over there,” said one of the members of the group. Just as the thoughts of grizzlies had worked their way to the back of our minds they were brought right back to the surface. You can start to sense a theme to our Yellowstone trip.
On day two we had a 12.5 mile loop planned which incorporated the Grand Prismatic Pool and Old Faithful. Going right into the lion’s den we thought by incorporating a long loop we would be able to at least avoid the crowds in the parking lots. The hike itself was not one we’ll list on our top five, however it did get us to Old Faithful no more than 7 minutes before eruption. Something we were both extremely grateful for since you could potentially wait for up to 90 minutes. As we started our walk back to the car, a still hefty 5 miles plus remaining, the clouds had grown dark and the barometric pressure drop was a clear message. We broke out our rain gear and proceeded to walk in the opposite direction of the crowds who were rushing back to the shelter of their cars. We appreciated the now empty pathway and enjoyed the many springs, hot pots, and geysers to ourselves. This appreciation was short lived as the marble sized hail started to fall from the sky. Luckily we were able to seek shelter in a nearby restroom, a cherished oasis despite the smell. With all the fresh moisture in the air as we walked past the remaining springs on our sojourn we were bathed in a mist for a brief but appreciated sense of warmth.
Day three was the much anticipated and on some level dreaded back country trip. The original plan to hike to Shoshone lake, one of the most populated back country areas, and considered low on the grizzly activity scale. This plan was cancelled due to the late snow melt. The trail was wet and the bugs were supposedly very bad. Against Jill’s better judgment we took Ranger Liz’s suggestion to do an overnight trip in the northeast corner of the park. Jill during her research had read that the NE corner of the park was considered one of the more grizzly active regions. We later found out why Ranger Liz was so quick to send two people she knew to be bear novices into grizzly country. The majority of the 8 mile out and back hike was exposed, allowing ourselves to relax a bit.
After four straight days on our feet the next and last full day in Yellowstone was spent working our way from the north entrance of the park to the west entrance. At this stage we were more than happy to go along with the crowds and play tourist as most of the muscles in our body were begging for a break. As we made our way south we were happy to be able to get our pictures of Yellowstone’s geothermal features without having to exert ourselves too much. As we stopped for lunch alongside a creek on the way to the west entrance a threesome of female elk came to the shore for a drink. As we appreciated the serenity of the moment a car driving by took notice of the elk and slowed to take pictures. Within minutes tourists began to flock like mosquitos to Jill’s blue jacket. The two of us realized we had our fill and that it was time to move on.
In a time when libertarianism is flourishing, let us make a point to recognize that Yellowstone is preserved and not exploited because of our government. Yellowstone marks the first time in the world any nation set aside land to be collectively owned by all its citizens. This is a concept I try to remind myself of when I haughtily criticize the ease of access to Yellowstone’s features. When I saw the group of wheel chair bound individuals touring Artists’ Paint Pot, I realized that to maximize their market is in part their responsibility. To allow each citizen the right to view the park no matter their ability, as everyone has an equal share.