WY: Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park, Bison
WY: Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park, Bison

by Lee Foster

Yellowstone was our first National Park and in many ways has advanced the concept of national parks more than any other unit in our system.

Spectacular wildlife viewing in this most successful wildlife reserve in the country makes Yellowstone a perennially favorite destination. Where else in the lower 48 states can the average American wander 2.2 million acres of wilderness and hope to see wild, un-fenced bison, moose, elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep on a typical day of driving and hiking?

Other favorite pleasures of Yellowstone include the dependable geyser eruptions of Old Faithful, abundant hydro-thermal activity at several sites, huge forests of lodgepole pine with a thousand miles of hiking trails, and the deeply cut valley of the Yellowstone River, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Getting to Yellowstone in Summer

The summer fly-in traveler can access the park from Jackson Hole to the south, West Yellowstone to the west, Bozeman to the northwest, and Cody to the east.

Cody is a particularly congenial entry point because of its Buffalo Bill history connection and its museums. You can dine at the historic Hotel Irma, built by city founder Buffalo Bill Cody and named after his daughter. A day could be spent perusing the five-museum complex at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Among them, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art will acquaint a visitor with the major painters and sculptors of the American West, ranging from George Catlin’s portraits to Frederic Remington’s bronze sculptures. The Plains Indian Museum tells the story of the everyday lives of the Native Americans who were the original inhabitants of the Northern Plains, including Yellowstone, going back as far as 8,500 years. The Draper Museum of Natural History is a fitting introduction to the Yellowstone ecosystem. Each night in summer there is a Cody Night Rodeo celebrating the cowboy arts. In June a major Indian powwow presents outdoor dancing.

Roads into the park are open to passenger vehicles roughly May-October.

History of Yellowstone

Five generations of Americans have enjoyed Yellowstone since the park was created in 1872. A far-sighted Montanan, Nathaniel P. Langford, and his fellow conservationists launched in 1870 a national campaign to hold this land in trust as a “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of all the people.” Each year about three million people visit the park, with 70% arriving in July and August.


Alhough Congress authorized the park in 1872, no money was funded for its management. A succession of superintendents tried in vain to cope with poaching of game and other intrusions. Finally the U.S. Army was brought in 1886-1917 to police the territory and build roads. The National Park Service of professional rangers and naturalists was authorized in 1916, and in 1918 they assumed management of Yellowstone. Originally, the road pattern for the park was set out as a grand figure-eight stagecoach and wagon route.

Main Attractions of Yellowstone

Yellowstone is truly the place of song “where the buffalo roam.”

Every traveler will remember their first and then ongoing encounters with wildlife. It may be a moose, possibly a large bull, across a stream calmly munching sedge, perhaps 30 yards from your car. Sights will linger fondly in memory, possibly a bull elk standing up to his neck in the Yellowstone River, his antlered head mirrored in the water. You may even encounter trumpeter swans, the largest and one of the rarest birds in the park, gliding ethereally over the river as the mist rises off the water at dawn.

Paradoxically, Yellowstone’s wild animals show as little fear of man today as they did when the first explorer, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, entered the Yellowstone region in 1807.

In driving the figure-eight loop road you may find big game in scattered locations. Some of the largest concentrations of easily-seen big game are in Hayden Valley and in Lamar Valley. By getting up to drive these roads for the two hours after dawn and the two hours before sunset, there is a good chance you will see large herbs of bison, plus some moose, elk, bear, and mule deer, as well as flocks of Canadian geese.

Most of the grizzly and black bears of Yellowstone have now retreated into the back country, where they should be, no longer enticed by garbage dumps, now closed. However, bears are still sometimes seen and careful precautions must be taken to avoid thoughtless human encounters with them. Some Yellowstone campgrounds prohibit tents and soft-sided pop top vehicles because bears marauding at night could endanger campers sleeping next to their bacon or chocolate bars. While bears have poor eyesight, their sense of smell is acute. In autumn, bears can smell huckleberries ripening miles away. Past park management supported feeding the bears, which was a mistake, because a panhandling, junk-fed bear will develop health problems of its own and will sooner or later take a swipe at a guileless human. The park service’s official estimate of the grizzly population has recently been somewhere between 593 and 610.

Another recent environmental-restoration success was the re-introduction of gray wolves into this environment where they had formerly been eliminated. Thirty-one Canadian gray wolves were introduced in 1995 and 1996. Gradually, the packs have increased their viability, providing an appropriate predatory check on the elk population. The interaction of predators has many nuances. For example, the elk taken by wolves in winter provide food also for the grizzly bears emerging from hibernation in early spring. An early morning observer at the Rendezvous Hill panorama in the Lamar Valley has a good chance of seeing members of the Druid Peak wolf pack with binoculars or a spotting scope. The park service estimated (as of March 2004) that there were 83 wolves in the park.

The number of large animals in the park is stable and secure, with the male bison at 2,000 pounds as the massive lord of this particularly hospitable preserve. Bison is the preferred word to describe these American mammals because the word buffalo is used for other members of the ungulate, or hoofed, family in other regions, such as the water buffalo of Southeast Asia. Each spring, park service biologists at Yellowstone release their official count of the large animals in a book known as Yellowstone Resources and Issues, arguably the best information source on the park. In one recent estimate of the large mammals of Yellowstone, beyond the figures already mentioned for grizzlies and wolves, are: 500-650 black bear, 20-35 mountain lion, 2,000-2,300 mule deer, 4,000 bison, 165-225 bighorn sheep, 225-250 pronghorn antelope, and 15,000-20,000 elk. Yellowstone boasts the largest summer elk population of any park.

The thermal and geyser basins so prominent in Yellowstone provoked wondrous accounts from the early mountain men who encountered them, such as Jim Bridger. Because the veracity of these men suffered from their reputation as tellers of tall tales, the public remained skeptical and waited for more scientific confirmation of the presence of geysers, hot springs, boiling mudpots, and steaming fumaroles. Pioneering photography by William Henry Jackson in 1870 helped the public understand, using the documentary power of the new art form of photography. With photos, as opposed to paintings, the public and Congress were assured that the thermal wonders of Yellowstone were not mere figments of the imagination.

For today’s traveler, going to see Old Faithful can be a crowded moment, as thousands of people gather for the eruptions, which occur roughly 92 minutes apart. Old Faithful remains relatively faithful and shows no signs of diminished powers with age, though age from our human viewpoint always pales before the cerebral notion of geologic time. Old Faithful spews out 5000-7000 gallons of superheated water during its performances. Based on the duration of the previous eruption, skilled park naturalists can predict to within a few minutes when the next eruption will occur.

WY: Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park, Bison
WY: Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park, Bison

Old Faithful is only the beginning of hydro-thermal activity to observe in the park. More private experiences are possible at many other sites, such as Morning Glory Pool, where several colors of algae grow in water at different temperature levels, displaying a rainbow effect of volcanism. Animals as well as people appreciate the thermal manifestations. Some waterfowl winter over in the park, living in water that never freezes. When winter snow covers the ground, browsing animals cluster in the geyser basins to eat grass stimulated by the heat to grow. Food in the geyser basins is also easily seen when all other food is hidden by a blanket of snow.

Thermal geologic forces have produced some unusual effects in Yellowstone, such as the black obsidian cliffs near Mammoth Hot Springs. From the obsidian, formed when rhyolite lava cools quickly, Indians produced arrowheads and scraping tools. Tribes from the Yellowstone region traded the obsidian with Indians as far east as Ohio.

Glaciers, as significant as volcanism in shaping Yellowstone, caused lakes to form behind dams. Rivers and streams feeding into the lakes deposited a heavy layer of fine-grained clay sediment in what are now the valleys of Yellowstone. This glacial sediment prevents water from percolating down, which keeps the surface soil moist, an ideal environment for grasses. However, such damp soil rots the larger roots of trees. At these marshlands and meadows the long chain of life begins, starting with algae, grasses, and willows that feed the cutthroat trout, mice, and elk. These creatures are in turn eaten by the ospreys, coyotes, and wolves. All of this texture of life depends on the underlying geologic fact of fine-grained glacial sediment.

The great forests of Yellowstone above the meadows cover 80% of the park. Surprisingly, 80% of that forest area is one species of tree, lodgepole pine. There are a total of only 11 species of trees growing in Yellowstone. The lodgepole pines here yield unusually straight, long logs, popular for log houses when harvested in the forest areas outside the park. Indians once used these straight trees for the lodge poles of their tepees. The same lodgepole pine, on the west coast, attains a twisted, gnarled appearance due to wind and storms, which explains why its scientific name is Pinus contorta.

In an effort to approximate the pristine state of the Yellowstone forests, lightning-sparked fires are now allowed to burn. An awareness of fire ecology, including the beneficial effects of the great fire of 1988, now guides the management of Yellowstone. The fire of 1988 burned 35 percent of the park. Yellowstone’s ecology evolved to burn every 200-400 years. Vast “firescapes” of recent burns in various stages of recovery can be seen. Some cones of lodgepole pine require heat from fire to perpetuate themselves. Seeds in these cones are sealed by secretions of pitch and remain sealed until heated sufficiently by fire to melt the pitch.

Summers are brief here, but the summer visitor will almost certainly see wildflowers in the meadows. Commonly seen varieties include blue lupine, blue larkspur, and white phlox.

Outside the small village of Canyon, at Inspiration Point and Artist Point, you can linger over the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including two impressive waterfalls, Upper Falls and Lower Falls. This canyon was formed by the most erosive power in nature, swiftly moving water. The rushing Yellowstone River has cut through the soft rock here in dramatic ways, exposing a 700-foot gorge with walls of yellow-colored stone. The Minetaree Sioux Indians used a word in their language to describe the yellow bluffs east of the park as a land of “Rock Yellow River.” French trappers adopted the word and called the region Pierre Jaune, Yellow Stone.

Lodgings to consider for a visit include the Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins, which rests on the edge of a large alpine lake within the park. The most historic lodging is the Old Faithful Inn, which architect Robert Reamer and 40 craftsmen put together quickly in 1903-1904. Subsequently, the building, now on the National Register, inspired a style of park architecture sometimes called “Parkitecture.” The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, in the northwest part of the park, places you close to magnificent thermal basins.

Concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park service, and the nature education organization known as the Yellowstone Association Institute organize a full menu of tours and hikes for a visitor to Yellowstone. Intense multi-day immersions in the park, guided by a naturalist, are organized by Xanterra and the Yellowstone Association Institute. Typical of the hikes would be a day-long six-mile hike with lunch to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser, with wildlife viewing, nature appreciation, and ecology the themes.

The lure of Yellowstone is that of contrast and time. It’s not merely that Yellowstone is so rich in wildlife and scenery, but that much of the rest of our country is now so impoverished in these qualities because of our other uses of land. If you feel a certain citified malaise and long for a cleansing encounter with wildlife and wilderness, head for Yellowstone, where yesterday still exists today.


Yellowstone National Park: If You Go

For lodging and guest services, contact the concessionaire Xanterra Parks and Resorts at http://www.travelyellowstone.com and http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

Naturalist-led hikes and various environmental programs are available through the Yellowstone Association Institute at http://www.yellowstoneassociation.org.

The official park service site is http://www.nps.gov/yell.

When approaching Yellowstone from Cody, two useful travel planning resources are the Park County Travel Council at http://www.yellowstonecountry.org and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center at http://www.bbhc.org.



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