Right of Way

Before my wife, younger son, and I made our trip to Yellowstone this summer, we did like so many other families do before major trips and spent some time reading about the park, its unique features and characteristics, places of particular interest, and potential hazards to avoid.  I even watched a few videos about Yellowstone, both professionally-produced and amateur.  Of course, one of the major elements that brings millions to this park every year is the wildlife, and for most visitors, the principle of “the bigger the better” holds true.  Most of us want to see a bear, at least from a safe distance, but they tend to stay away from the roadways — we were lucky enough to see a mother and her cub the last day we were there.  The elk and moose are quite impressive in the size category too.  We saw several elk but not a moose.

The largest creature in the park, at least by weight, is one that is not very shy at all.  According to the National Park Service website about Yellowstone, this park “is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana. They also exhibit wild behavior like their ancient ancestors, congregating during the breeding season to compete for mates, as well as migration and exploration that result in the use of new habitat areas. These behaviors have enabled the successful restoration of a population that was on the brink of extinction just over a century ago.”

We knew that bison often made their way to the major roadways in the park and that traffic could be stopped for significant periods of time for herds of the animals to pass.  What we didn’t expect was that sometimes the bison actually use the roads as a path, slowly ambling their way along the pavement, almost as if they are curious about the visitors and have arrived for an inspection.  There are close to 5,000 bison in the park, so sightings of large herds are frequent.  Professional and amateur photographers come out before daybreak to claim their favorite spots on small hills in the bison hotspots, such as Hayden Valley, to get the best shots of the beasts in their natural environment.  However, as we discovered on our first day at Yellowstone, you can get a pretty good close-up photograph of a bison from the window of your car, as so many visitors have been doing for years.  I took this one from my window as we waited for a group of the animals to clear the road.

Yellowstone bison

Notice that these hooved creatures are following the center yellow line, almost as if it were a trail marker.  They were walking along slowly, seemingly with no fear or even regard for the nearby vehicles and their occupants.  The dangerous assumption by some park visitors is that these are harmless animals, but as calm as they seem to be, they can become extremely aggressive and dangerous if approached or if they feel threatened.  Park literature and signs are abundant warning people to stay a very safe distance from all wild animals in the park , especially bears and bison.  Several visitors are seriously injured each year from foolish encounters with bison.

As these massive animals passed our car, I was taken with how they brought everything to a standstill, commanding the right of way.  They marched through like royalty participating in a parade — the trooping of the colors as it were.  In many ways, the park is theirs, along with the other multitude of species that call Yellowstone home, as it should be.  I wish people would always keep in mind that we are only visitors, and as such, we should be on our best behavior to ensure that places like Yellowstone are preserved and treasured.

A Deliberate Disconnection

On our family trip this summer to Yellowstone National Park, my wife found great accommodations for us at Headwaters Lodge at Flag Ranch.  It is conveniently located just a few miles from the southern entrance to the  park, providing easy access to Yellowstone and to Grand Tetons National Park.  The cabins we stayed in were comfortable enough, but not luxurious in the least.  They were not equipped with AC, which in the evening was no problem. We could open the windows, and the temperatures dropped significantly overnight.  There were no televisions or radios, and there was absolutely no cell service or wifi access.  The park literature made it clear that this kind of “disconnection” was somewhat deliberate, making it possible for visitors to appreciate the natural resources without electronic distractions.

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Our campground was in quite a remote area between the two national parks, so we really weren’t surprised that we would have no cell service or wifi.  The lodge claimed to have wifi access, but we were never able to connect.  What was a bit surprising was the lack of cell service throughout the parks.  The only time we had a decent signal was at two or three of the major attractions, such as Old Faithful Lodge, or at a few of the stores and restaurants.   It took a day or so to get used to the idea of this kind of isolation, but the adjustment finally came, for me at least.  The other functions of our devices worked, of course, and I was grateful to have the capability of taking photos with my phone, mainly as a backup for my small Cannon point-and-shoot.  Not being able to get calls from my other son back home or other family members was a little unsettling, I must admit.  I wouldn’t want to be that out of reach for weeks at a time, but for a few days, it was okay to be really away from so many of the elements of civilization.

I suspect the parks will eventually find it necessary to expand their cell service and even the wifi access, not only for park personnel, but also for vendors and visitors.  Doing so will no doubt change the experience of being in these wilderness sanctuaries for most visitors, and that is a bit unfortunate.  Being immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors is certainly hindered by our gadgets, and having an opportunity to explore the wonders of nature without them definitely enhanced the encounter for me.

Wide Open Spaces

Recently, I took another one of those “trips of a lifetime” with my wife and one of my sons — this time to Yellowstone National Park.  Although my wife had briefly visited some years back, my son and I had never been.  We stayed for three full days in a cabin just a few miles from the south entrance of the park, which afforded us great access not only to Yellowstone but also to the Grand Tetons National Park as well as Jackson, Wyoming.  Like my other experiences traveling to the west, I was most taken by the enormity of space in this portion of the country.  The sky goes on forever.  The landscape melts into the distance in a blue haze.  The vistas are simply overwhelming.

Yellowstone National Park

Of course, like many visitors to this National Park, my son and I were hoping to see plenty of wildlife, which is practically unavoidable.  In fact, there have been several recent incidents of people/wildlife encounters that have ended up not too pleasant for the humans involved, especially with bison.  At a safe distance, and in the protection of an automobile, it is so rewarding to see animals in their own habitat, protected as they are from most human threats.  We were fortunate enough to see bison, elk, prong horns, and an otter.  We desperately wanted to see a grizzly bear but were not willing to hike in the back country where one would typically find them.  However, on the last day, we were lucky enough to see a mother brown bear and her playful cub resting in the shade of some trees, just a hundred or so yards from the roadway.

I will write more posts about this trip in the weeks ahead, so we will consider this short piece an introduction.  For those who haven’t been but have contemplated a trip to Yellowstone, I would strongly encourage placing it near the top of your bucket list, especially if you have an appreciation for the great outdoors.