Yellowstone: understaffed, underfunded, overwhelmed—still magical.
If you intend to write about wild places, you must be willing to occasionally get out into the wild. Tough duty. Dimmie and I have an annual May tradition of a trek to Yellowstone National Park. Why May when the chances of being snowed on are close to one-hundred-percent? (As were we on our last day.) Two reasons, really. The newborn animals such as the cinnamon bison babes are adorable. And smaller crowds of people.
Baby bison in Yellowstone.
This May we had to agree one out of two ain’t bad. The baby animals are still adorable.
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. We entered Yellowstone with our Airstream trailer on the first day (5/14/21) that the South Entrance was open. We waited 30 minutes in a slowly moving line at the gate. Whereas it was apparent that staff members at Madison Campground—situated in a pine forest on a plateau above the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers forming the Madison River—were struggling to get up to speed and offer accurate information and helpful support, the campground was full on day one. In fact, it has been reported that every campsite and every room in Yellowstone has been reserved for every day this coming summer and fall.
A bison or two lumbering down the road often caused mile long back-ups of traffic in mere minutes. Popular attractions such as the Norris Geyser Basin had full parking lots by 10 a.m.
It was obvious in thermal areas that boardwalks required for safety were badly in need of repair. Many bookstores, cafes, education centers, etc., were not even open yet. But the people had come. And remember, this is without the busloads of Asian tourists that, pre-Covid had become as predictable as the return of robins in the spring. This relatively recent phenomenon, now on hiatus, made most obvious by signs in pit toilets urging people to not try squatting on the narrow toilet rims circling a long drop.
The solution Dimmie and I discussed is to limit (reservation only) the number of vehicles allowed into the park and add shuttle busses. It is our hope that under the current administration our national parks will receive the attention they deserve. Especially Yellowstone National Park known the world over.
But let’s focus on the magic. Because of it, Yellowstone was established by President Grant on March 1, 1872 as the world’s first national park. So early in our nation’s history in fact, that some of the first “tourists” had run-ins with migrating Indian tribes.
We observed a healthy young grizzly rooting around on a roadside hill, a wolf lounging under a cottonwood tree, a sandhill crane stalking a riverside meadow. We enjoyed the colorful sight of harlequin ducks diving and surfing the Le Hardy rapids of the Yellowstone River.
We observed loons and horned grebes drifting on the currents of the many rivers. At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone just below the lower falls we looked down from the rim on osprey nests. We passed a cluster of bighorn ewes grazing by the road in Lamar Valley. We saw Old Faithful erupt and visited Steamboat Geyser, said to be the tallest plume in the world during its sporadic major eruptions. So what if we only witnessed a minor eruption splashing boiling water out on the surrounding rocks. As I said to Dimmie, “a minor eruption is better than no eruption at all.”
It was a week of no cell reception. Of the relaxing of places on my body I hadn’t realized were tense. Perhaps best of all, we were joined by some very good friends and did a car tour to the Yellowstone Lake and Sylvan Pass area—together in the car without wearing masks.
We were wrapped in extreme serene green for the entire week. The wind rocked the slender lodgepole pines around our trailer. After each day of exploration, we returned to a campground filled with the pleasant smell of woodsmoke, slanting evening sunlight, and hushed, almost respectful, conversations. A herd of bison kept wandering through camp without incident.
Yellowstone helped us recover from a year that was difficult for all. Thank God Yellowstone has retained most of her magic and can count on the winter to recover from us.