Yellowstone has experienced record-breaking visitor numbers over the past few years, but at what cost? Georgia Stephens journeyed deep into Wyoming to face the crowds and investigate their impact on some of America’s greatest wilderness.
There’s a wild, quiet beauty at Trout Lake; taking it in feels somehow nourishing, like sunlight hitting a tree. I’ve travelled to Yellowstone National Park to find true wilderness, a place devoid of people, and three days ago I found it, less than a mile from the road.
In the afternoon sun, a bald eagle gripped the sunburnt bough of a dead tree, eyeing the ducks bobbing in loose formation on the lake. Nearby a herd of bison encircled a copse, heads bowed. Their contented grunts sounded every now and then, as if they were clearing their throats.
I paused in the long grass, watching the surface of the water and the rippling reflection of the mountains beyond, turning to radio waves with each passing breeze. The scent of pine needles, fresh sap and mud hung in the air.
This kind of tranquillity is becoming harder to find elsewhere in the park. Visitor numbers have surged after years of growth, climbing 21 percent to 4.25 million between 2014 and 2016 alone.
Just one percent of visitors make it more than a mile off the tarmac, so even a short stroll can land you a quieter Yellowstone
When I drove through the north entrance, I passed beneath a quote from the Act of March 1, the act that founded Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Engraved into Roosevelt Arch it read: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.
But the park was never designed for such numbers. Records indicate there were only 13,727 people here in 1904. The very wildness that appeals to the people is now at risk of being diluted.
I’d already spent a week exploring the park before I discovered Trout Lake, and I quickly realised why Yellowstone has become so popular.
It starts with the mountains, which hiss and roar like slumbering dragons, spewing heavy clouds of sulphurous steam. The hot springs, thousands of them, stain the landscape with metallic rainbows of seemingly unnatural hues: battery-acid orange; the glittering blue of mineral shower gel. And everywhere, the mud pots are bubbling, frothing, churning.
I’d pulled over at dusk to watch a big male grizzly ambling across Swan Lake Flat towards the road – others noticed too, their brake lights illuminating like fireflies
The land here feels alive, a moonscape of flatulent earth. No wonder Yellowstone inspired a whole new breed of conservation as the world’s first national park.
But it’s clear this place has finally reached its tipping point. Park rangers issued more than 52,000 resource violations in 2015.
Thermal features were broken, protected wildlife was disturbed and car accidents increased by 167 percent, the result of careless behaviour and bear jams.
Yes, bear jams. The traffic so often snarls and halts with the sighting of a roadside grizzly that the phenomenon now has its own name.
Not all visitors are careful, and their impact can have broad repercussions. Starting in 2010, Yellowstone’s trumpeter swans failed to fledge any young. It turns out that people were disturbing the birds when the trails opened in the summer, driving them into open water where it’s much easier for eagles to catch cygnets.
The park extended the closure of the trails until September, but this prompted complaints from frustrated hikers. Today, there are only 29 resident swans left.
Sometimes the animals aren’t the only ones in danger. As visitor numbers increase, the number of accidents do too.
Peak season is now a magnet for newspaper headlines: “Woman gored by bison”, reads one. “Man dissolved by hot spring”, reads another.
The park is so vast that anyone can find their own piece of wilderness
Only days ago, before I hiked up to Trout Lake, I pulled over at dusk to watch a big male grizzly ambling across Swan Lake Flat towards the road. Others noticed too, their brake lights illuminating like fireflies.
Then, a woman exited her truck and shuffled towards the bear. She took out her phone, just a few short strides from the enormous carnivore, turned her back on it and took a selfie. Anything like this would be unimaginable in an African safari park.
Days after my first foray to Trout Lake, I'm about to head back there with Tyrene Riedl, a wildlife guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Yellowstone.
Her blonde hair is twisted into a side plait, protruding from a woolly hat damp with melting snowflakes.
The park’s weather is notoriously fickle, and we are caught in a blizzard.
I recount my experience at the bear jam.
“I think some folks come here expecting to see the amazing things they've watched on a Nat Geo documentary,” Tyrene responds, “and when that doesn't happen as planned, they feel that their experience was lessened.
“Yellowstone is so special, but we're part of a truly wild and naturally operating ecosystem so these sightings are never guaranteed.”
The hills are now cloaked in white, and ours are the only footprints
I’ve had countless conversations with “bucket-list” travellers who've been to Yellowstone and only allocated a couple of days to see the park’s highlights – everything they’d seen on TV, including a close-up of a grizzly – before racing south to visit Grand Teton.
And while the park certainly has enough to satisfy even the briefest of attention spans – bugling elk in Mammoth, boardwalks around geothermal areas and geysers you can set your watch by – it strikes me just how much these people miss out on.
Before I embarked on my own journey to Yellowstone, I spoke with David Quammen, author of Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart.
“What you have to understand is that the resources of Yellowstone, and the quality of the visitor experience there amid nature, are finite. They’re fixed. As the demand increases, the supply can’t be increased,” he told me.
The only solution is proper management – but how this will work remains to be seen.
“A restriction of personal automobiles in the park? Shuttle buses for everyone?” David pondered. “Possibly a point each day, at the height of the season, when gates are simply closed to further visitors? Or a reservation system for entrance to the park?”
For now, we won’t know, but Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk has confirmed that “all options are on the table”.
In the meantime, park management is working on a range of short-term solutions, from hiring Mandarin speakers to training rangers to deal with bear jams. But we, the visitors, can also do our part. And in light of recent cuts to the National Park Service, it's more paramount than ever.
You can decrease your impact by travelling outside of the peak summer season – more than half go in June, July and August.
Make sure that you take out what you bring in, or dispose of rubbish properly. And above all, get off the roads. Just one percent of visitors make it more than a mile off the tarmac, so even a short stroll can land you a quieter Yellowstone. The park is so vast that anyone can find their own piece of wilderness.
No wonder Yellowstone inspired a whole new breed of conservation as the world’s first national park
Back at Trout Lake, Tyrene and I arrive to find snow dusting the surrounding firs like icing sugar. I tug my hood down over my ears as we trudge towards the water, amid this now unfamiliar scene. Snow cakes the soles of our boots, muffling our steps like a thick layer of insulating foam. The hills are cloaked in white, and ours are the only footprints.
We pause as we reach the lake and watch the ducks darting between the reeds. I hear geese somewhere amid the mist and snowflakes; the eagle sits above us, head tucked low, on the gnarled branch of the tree.
Tyrene turns to me and gestures across the water: “This is what happens when people aren’t around. The geese honk, the goldeneyes float, the trout swim and the snow falls, uninterrupted.”
Georgia stayed at Bridge Bay Campsite and Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park, Gray Wolf Inn & Suites in West Yellowstone and Best Western Plus Grantree Inn in Bozeman.
Header image and images 1-6 Georgia Stephens. Images 7–11: Peter M Graham/Flickr; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0/Georgia Stephens.