Despite a moonlit moment with a mosquito who munched around my hand, to inflate it to resemble a bloated, naked mole, waking up early on the Missouri again in western Montana was most pleasant. Around 4am the freight trains started to slide slowly and loudly along the track on the opposite river bank, (it wasn’t visible in the evening), and proceeded to periodically honk their massive horns. As much as I enjoy an early wake up call, my fond memories of camping along the Missouri will never leave me.
Driving south east to the Northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, KP and I drove the ten miles within the park to the visitor centre and had a mooch around the wooden walkways that hovered precariously over Mammoth (Hot) Springs.
The original site in Yellowstone, where the army was based was a busy one. With large stone buildings, cafés, a visitor centre being renovated and a hotel, it was the beginning of what continued to be the busiest and most heavily built in park I have encountered. The wooden walkways look like they required constant maintenance, not only because of excessive foot traffic, but because they are embedded into steaming, corrosive, volcanic liquid – I couldn’t help but wonder who’s tremendous brainchild it was.
Following a short inspection of an informative pooh-chart, we drove twenty miles to the first campsite, only to find that it was full. They don’t tell you at the entrance if there is no room at the inn. After taking an entrance fee, they let you drive thirty miles inside the park to find out – a possible lightbulb moment from the same think-tank that conjured up wooden walkways over a steaming, corrosive volcanic flow.
A further twenty miles before we reached an available camp spot in Canyon Campgroung, the fifty mile trip from the entrance of the park is why I do not attempt to enter national parks on foot. I would possibly be ejected, or worse, arrested, if I was found attempting to sleep for free, somewhere other than in a designated campground. Despite my leathered feet, walking even thirty miles after reaching a remote park entrance, at any time of day is a little bit of a stretch. As much as I agree with a camping charge in protected areas, poor access for environmental travellers with small eco-footprints (and smaller wallets), around America as a whole, is another notch against the USA; which falls short compared to other countries, or even continents, which are backpacker friendly. A vehicle loaded with gas is an expected necessity.
To reach our commercial camping spot, there was a nerve racking drive for KP (and I) as we drove over the frozen, snow covered, 8000ft pass on the eastern side of the Yellowstone. Stunning views of the hills and mountains, as well as sheer, rocky drops, once again added to our adventure. For me, an adventure filled with excitement and moments to photograph thrilling scenery, but for KP it was another chance to experience his turbulent anxiety, of possibly falling to his certain death from a great height. I navigated my pilot through some petrified notions, but I didn’t fail to assure him that some awesome scenery was just out of his window, if he had only bothered to look left while driving…out over a death defying drop. I think we both enjoyed ourselves equally.
In 1872, President Grant made yellowstone the very first National Park. It is the largest of all, the most visited, with possibly the most varied and diverse natural structures and ecosystems in North America. Yellowstone is the most famous park in the states, possibly due to the shenanigans of Yogi (not to be confused with John Lennon’s, widowed wife), one mischievous and loveable, Yellowstone-dwelling bear.
Yellowstone is also well known for its controversial, yet successful reintroduction of American wolves, allowing them again to naturally roam as wild and respected predators on the north section of the continent, something which I am hugely in favour of where it can be supported by enough wild territory. Using their own navigational technology, the wolves have successfully trekked thousands of miles across North America from Yellowstone, some even sneaking in a few enjoyable hiking holidays over the Canadian border.
As relaxed as my expectations were whilst planning my journey, Yellowstone National Park was the one place, through reputation alone, that I held in the highest regard above all others. It was personally, the most geographically unique and significant, “must-see” checkpoint on my trail and I sincerely looked forward to visiting with a passionate urge. It therefore saddened me greatly, and dented my strange pride over somewhere that I had never visited, when my expectations were far from reached.
My long founded opinion of Yellowstone was that it would be the epitome of what a national park should be, that it set the example for all other prestigious parks to follow and that it would be the most impressive park experience of them all. However, even though I know the impressive work here is ongoing, that the rangers, geologists, naturalists and all other nature of specialist continue to work scientific (but maybe not practical) magic; it appeared that on arrival, instead of entering a natural haven or wilderness, any common sense and respectful examples which I had seen being set in other parks, were not being set by Yellowstone.
“Leave nothing behind, take only photos” is the common national park tag line. Only in Yellowstone, taking more than photos away from the numerous, oversized gift shops was an advertised encouragement.
All other parks that I had visited had tried hard, and succeeded to keep their grocery stores, outdoor apparel shops, art galleries, restaurants and fast food chains outside the park. Yellowstone has welcomed the commercialisation of the wild, into the park. In other parks, as unattractive and as close to the park as businesses could be, they remained outside, away from the “maintained wild”. Yellowstone has huge hotels, restaurants, a marina, parking lots that might dwarf Walmart’s and even an RV repair shop INSIDE the park. This didn’t exactly confirm that Yellowstone strives to set the pragmatic, environmentally-focused example for all other parks to follow, in fact unfortunately, it was the Park Service’s way of saying “Welcome to Disneyland”.
I will speculate and say there seems to be one significant influence Yellowstone has had over other parks. It would appear that recently (in the past decade) every park I have visited has had an upgrade or facelift to their visitor centre – normally just on the fringe of the park.
Whether or not it was needed, I feel like the massive, multiple monstrosities within Yellowstone have allowed for other parks to follow suit. Had it not been for Yellowstone’s accepting nature of commercialisation, many other parks may not have upgraded with such extravagance or spent large budgets on ill-fitting, modern and anti-wild buildings to accommodate the “non-wild” seeking public.
I explored many parks outside of the holiday season, and now in the first week of summer, crowds, in a wild place, easily dampen the mood. However, I was living the American dream – so much so that 400 other tourists celebrated with me every time I paused to admire something past 10am. The commercial experiences could not have been more prominent as when waiting like lemmings to watch Old Faithful spill a few gallons of scolding water into the air. As impressive as it is, the edge is taken off somewhat by dozens of tourists amongst the hundreds, not having to whine about there being no phone signal (as Yellowstone has installed signal masts) as they all call their friends or talkative sisters from Wisconsin to tell them what they are doing (being the loud, obnoxious, annoying idiot in the national park on their cell phone) while we have to listen. They also don’t need to moan about waiting for nature, knowing when the next spectacle is, is fairly obvious, as there is a clock counting down the event in the massive visitor centre and in the impressive Yellowstone lodge, both a stones throw this from the geyser.
Just a few feet from one of Mother Earth’s awesome scheduled events, is Yellowstone’s own man-made spectacle. Stretching further than a few soccer fields to accommodate everyone’s cars, trucks, RV’s and ever popular tour buses is the tarmac parking lot, which rolls all the way up to the viewing area, just spitting distance from the watery blow hole.
Nobody can complain of a long or arduous journey either, a journey that might be deserving of seeing the awesomeness of the earth. Yellowstone has built its own highway-style road and freeway junction for all the titanic vehicles to navigate around and park just a few hundred feet from the famous park’s Old Faithful. It’s the kind of car park you can get lost in, but sadly, losing cellphone addicted tourists in Yellowstone is something they try to avoid.
It may not be such a surprise to read that it sadly was not such an awe inspiring or natural moment to witness Mother Nature please so many people around the park, like she was an X-factor contestant, and one that didn’t seem to make it to the finals.
Let’s not be disheartened; Simon Cowell was not at hand with a large buzzer next to Yellowstone Lodge, although I feel Yellowstone might consider the “attraction”.
The experience I had in Yellowstone was a beautiful one; albeit far from an experience with the wilderness which much of the park is.
Precious moments are best shared, although not with 400 strangers that aren’t really appreciating anything other than an air conditioned bus ride or an over compensated mansion away from home experience. Such is a wilderness experience where you take everything but the kitchen…oh wait, you seem to have multiple sinks.
Another troubling Yellowstone character was to build roads and walkways, literally on top of the attractions, simply to accommodate every able or unable person possible, no matter how detrimental it is for the park. This baffles me – I can’t comprehend true conservation incorporating commercialisation, practically on top of the spectacles they’re trying to conserve.
Compared to other parks, Yellowstone has some different burdens to shoulder. However the difference is simply scale. The park is larger than any other and the numbers of people that visit are grossly higher. One might argue that bussing them in on tour buses and dropping them off for photos and at the gift shops is the most environmentally friendly way to handle the numbers, concentrating them into small areas. It avoids overwhelming parts of the wilderness and relieves fragile areas of the park from damaging foot traffic. However I fail to understand how this experience of the park is a preferred one. They dump money at the shops and drive to a few viewing areas for an impressive vista – for the same photo every person on their tour bus has. It was like watching a very slow conveyor belt of snap-happy, emotionless commuters, and I felt upset that non of the bussed crowds actually experience the park for what it should be – the wild.
Let’s not forget that the wild is exactly what Yellowstone is.
Just weeks following my visit, areas in the park were closed due to bubbling pools and volcanic waters spilling out over the roads (it wasn’t rocket science). Two people have also died in the park since my visit; one man on a river trip and a nine year old girl who fell from the exact walkway which I light-heartedly commented on in my video.
Everyone should have the right to experience national parks and more importantly, the wilderness, but if it is detrimental to the park itself, I think we should rethink how we approach the arranged amenities and access routes into and around the wild. We need to stop thinking that we’re above nature, stop attempting to overcome and overwhelm her, and we need to understand that we must be in a respectful relationship with her in order to have any natural wonders left for even our grand children’s generation. Rebuilding an overused road just a few feet away from a newly-routed, bubbling volcanic flow would be another brainchild from the think-tank that builds wooden walkways into corrosive, flowing, volcanic liquid.
Although difficult to avoid being a hypocrite, I too travelled around Yellowstone in a vehicle (because accessing the park any other way is practically illegal). I took many of the same photos as hundreds of others (however, without any people in my shots because at 6.30am they’re all tucked up in their mobile mansions) and I too utilised the warm showers (but I hadn’t washed for over a week). If access roads were not available to tour busses, or if the dozens of amenities did not exist – as they don’t in many other national parks – at the same time as the wild benefitting, nothing would stop many appreciating the wonders of Yellowstone.
If you desire a wilderness that is a busy, commercial Disneyland, where you can have your RV repaired, shop in massive grocery stores, buy everyone a Christmas present, have a meal cooked for you in one of many gigantic restaurants, and experience it all with thousands of other gift shop huggers in one of earth’s most stunning places; indulge your vices in Yellowstone. If you crave to experience the great outdoors, I hate to say this because it’s beautiful Yellowstone, but visit somewhere else.
As much as I have lambasted Yellowstone for being the unfortunate, cartoon experience of the wild (at least for the majority of its visitors), it is still one of the most important environmental areas in the USA (notice I didn’t say “The world”, like all American marketeers do). It is arguably the largest area of land, with the highest number of impressive natural spectacles in the incongruent United States, away from any salt water shoreline.
It is impossible not to admire her beauty, her concentrated variable landscapes and her titanic influence on the ecosystems in and around her. Yellowstone is a magnificent kingdom, she is a spellbinding wildlife preserve, and I hope that despite the Disneyfied experience that she offers, that she is not damaged by it in years to come. The wild itself holds its own destiny, and we should merely remain attentive, and forever humbled by it.