Lost in Yellowstone: Bison, elk, and crowds, oh my.

Why We Wrote This

It’s hard to put a price on introducing a child to the wonders of the wilderness. Still, one Monitor writer was nervous about joining the crowds at Yellowstone this summer. Turns out, he shouldn't have been.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Tourists flock to Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park on June 16, 2016, in Wyoming. When Monitor writer Mark Trumbull traveled to Yellowstone this summer, his family made a conscious decision to see other visitors as companions rather than obstacles.

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America’s national parks are being “loved to death,” and now I’m about to be part of the problem. That was my lurking worry as my family and I planned a parks-oriented vacation in peak travel season.

It’s true, the parks have their challenges with hordes of people. But we went, and what I saw was a park system rich in both beauty and largely responsible visitors.

Much as we looked forward to the trip, nothing really prepared us for the thrill that came when we found ourselves gazing across a valley in Yellowstone at bison and elk in the wild.

“Will we see a bear?” asked our wide-eyed 10-year-old (not for the first time on this day). The hope was disappointed. But during the trip, we found it was possible to find places of seclusion not far off the parks’ beaten paths. And we chose to view our fellow human visitors as companions, not spoilers.

Ken Eaton, a frequent park visitor, told me he thinks in a similar way. “This kind of renews my faith in humanity,” he says.

On Day One we took a wrong turn. OK, we took several wrong turns. But on this particular turn, we were seeking the iconic lower falls in the Yellowstone River’s grand canyon. With no canyon in sight, we hustled along in a park that’s bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Soon, there it was.

Not the falls, but a herd of bison, munching on meadow grass and cavorting with their young. 

My wife rolled down the rental-car window to listen. I marveled at my first-ever sight of these creatures – who once ranged through inland America by the millions – prospering again in the 21st-century wild.

“Will we see a bear?” asked our wide-eyed 10-year-old (not for the first time on this day).

Overlooking a portion of Yellowstone’s expansive Hayden Valley, he used binoculars to scan. Could that one dark shape, half hidden by a hillside, possibly be a grizzly? The hope was disappointed.

When my turn came, I turned the binoculars toward another part of the valley and watched two elk walking and then running through a meadow until their hoofs splashed in the Yellowstone River.

America’s national parks are being “loved to death,” and now I’m about to be part of the problem. That was my lurking worry as my family and I planned a vacation visiting some of the best-known during the summer peak-travel season. And it’s a fair worry to have. Some of America’s most cherished wildlands are also among the most congested. A maintenance backlog has been estimated at $12 billion. Fewer rangers are on patrol, even as national park visits regularly top 300 million people per year.

Is “America’s best idea” running amok? Or, to put it in personal terms, would our experience with the bison have been better if there hadn’t been other people standing a few feet away from us?

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Bison create a traffic jam on a main road in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, May 13, 2011.

Maybe. But here’s the thing. The parks are meant to be for people as well as for animals and the lands they live on. Roads and parking lots intrude, but they also make major portions of the parks accessible to baby-toting parents, to users of wheelchairs, and to travelers like us whose schedules didn’t allow multiple-day visits.

“If we don’t have people coming to our parks, then they lose interest,” says Ken Eaton, a frequent park visitor whom we met during our trip. As he puts it, if the parks don’t have people coming, “then they lose funding and they go away.”

Given all this, and given that our schedule required making the trip at a time of peak visitation, my family made a pact before the trip. We determined to view other visitors as companions, not spoilers on the journey. We would look for ways to connect or to be helpful along the way.

Mr. Eaton told me he thinks in a similar way.

“I just encounter people. This kind of renews my faith in humanity,” says the Atlanta resident who describes growing up in the shadow of a smokestack in Akron, Ohio.

We met as he packed his gear for photography along a trail in Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

We had come to see ancient bristlecone pines, which at 3,000-plus years are considered the oldest living things on Earth.

So had Alex Steinhoff, another hiker climbing the rocky trail as the sun dipped low. When he and Mr. Eaton met, their shared interest in night-sky photography prompted Mr. Steinhoff to hustle back to his car for gear – knowing that he’d have Mr. Eaton as a companion on unlit trails.

“Here we are, two people who have never met before, sharing an experience,” Mr. Eaton says.

As they were taking long-exposure pictures and then hiking down together by flashlight, my family was also gazing up into some of the darkest skies in America – from an outdoor program the park had arranged, led by an avid stargazer and former NASA worker.

Courtesy of Ken Eaton
Ken Eaton is a frequent visitor to national parks, because nature photos are part of his business, but also because of what being out in wildlands does for him as a person. It “renews my faith in humanity,” he says, even as he also sees in nature “something much bigger than me.” He took this photo of himself at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah this summer.

Even as human connections enriched our travels, the flip side is also vital. The parks offer plenty of seclusion. Yes, the most popular hikes are crowded. But in many cases, stepping half a mile down a less-traveled trail is enough to feel a world away.

And the parks’ less-traveled areas provide lots of animal habitat. We were heartened to learn that Zion National Park in Utah is now home to a baby California condor, a rarity for that endangered species struggling to recover in the wild. Meanwhile, by allowing only park-managed buses to drive into Zion Canyon, the park has smoothed a path for human throngs to visit without clogging the road. 

On our day in Zion, we didn’t see any condors, but we drew inspiration from seeing the terrain they call home.

Mr. Eaton, who’s now prepping for a fall trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, speaks for himself but also for lots of others, including me.

“I always come back different” after being out in nature, he says. “Every time I go it moves me.”

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