I don’t think Yellowstone has changed much since my childhood visit in 1972. Oh, there are more cars, more tour buses, more parking spaces, lots more people – and the resulting trash and general chaos. Still, the Park endures with a patient grace and dignity.
Mountains, after all, are fairly oblivious to our intrusions. Even the terrible wildfires of 1988 didn’t leave lasting ruin on the landscape. Changed it, yes, but Yellowstone has recovered nicely.
One thing the introverted me feared was that the sheer mass of humanity would ruin the present day experience for me. According to park statistics (link below), the average number of monthly visitors in June is in excess of 780,600 people. That’s roughly 26,000 visitors a day! And some areas did feel crowded. The worst, I thought, was at Mammoth Hot Springs. Even Old Faithful didn’t seem half as crowded.
In general, though, I rarely felt overwhelmed by the crowds. The exception was when we were waiting patiently for our lunches at the Grill in the Old Faithful area, and again at Mammoth. Hungry people are unhappy people and don’t always recognize that the staff is doing an amazing job of getting a crowd fed. (I recommend having lunch at one of the General Stores. It’s pretty much the same food for the same price, but you sit at the counter and cheerful people bring your food to you.)
FYI, the bison bratwurst is tasty, and on our last meal in the park, I splurged on an elk and bison burger and a huckleberry soda at the General Store. It was well worth the cost. There were limited vegetarian options on all menus, and I understand the black bean burger was quite good, too.
Something that surprised me was that we saw more wildlife than I did in 1972. Herds of buffalo cows and calves were lounging on the steaming hillsides near Old Faithful. I think they were taking advantage of the warmth! The buffalo bulls were spread out over a much larger area, often in groups. We saw our first one just inside the West Yellowstone gate. He had traffic backed up pretty badly – but not as bad as the two bulls that insisted on running straight down the highway for miles as we tried to exit the park on our last day!
Yes, people were being stupid, some of them approaching the animals to take close ups. No matter how many signs, brochures, and verbal warnings, some people just have no respect for nature. However, we were lucky that we did not witness any injuries.
We also saw elk, a few mule deer, and golden mantled ground squirrel. The list of birds we noted includes sandhill crane, Canada Geese, a mountain blue bird, crows and ravens – one raven walking down the center line of the highway and begging for food during a stop for road construction.
Oh, and bears! We did finally see a couple of young black bears grazing peacefully at the edges of meadows, and just off the highway. Apparently, no one else saw either of them because there were no crowds of people around. Of course, neither of them were in particularly good places to attract a crowd, and there was no way to safely pull off the highway. Here’s a pretty awful picture of one of them. It’s out of focus, and poorly composed. I love it!
We were not lucky enough to see a grizzle bear or the wolves, although we did see some groups of people using spotting scopes and big professional cameras with long lenses. They were focused on something or somethings far across the Yellowstone River.
In 1972, there were few grizzlies and no wolves in the park. The wolves were reintroduced in 1995, and have made a remarkable comeback. We hoped to see them, but were not lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
As one who has often felt this need, and who has found refreshment in wild places, I attest to the recreational value of wilderness.
~ George Aiken
Then and Now
The best part of revisiting Yellowstone was that I had just as much fun as I’d had the first time! I hope I never lose the appreciation for wild places. And make no mistake – Yellowstone, for all the amenities, the mass of people, and the highways and trails that transect it remains a wild place. Pay attention to the park rules, use your common sense, drive safely, stay on the trails and boardwalks, avoid annoying the wildlife and it’s lots of fun. Ignore any of those things, and Yellowstone can kill you dead in a heartbeat. That’s not changed since 1972!
I’ve linked to some great vintage Yellowstone youtube videos below. They were a lot of fun to watch, and sure did bring back memories.
One of the most obvious differences is that cell phones had not yet been invented, so everyone was present and in the moment. I fear some of today’s visitors are more interested in getting the selfie with Old Faithful in the background rather than enjoying it in real time. And that’s a shame. Because Yellowstone deserves our full attention.