The truth about tourism in Yellowstone National Park

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Georgia Stephens
9/3/2018

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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.”

Explore more of the USA and start planning your own adventure with The Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Georgia stayed at Bridge Bay Campsite and Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park, Gray Wolf Inn & Suites in West Yellowstone and Best Western Grantree Inn in Bozeman. AmeriCan & Worldwide Travel offer a similar trip with hotel stays, flights and car hire. For more information on the Real America, visit www.realamerica.co.uk.

Header image and images 1-6 Georgia Stephens. Images 7–11: Peter M Graham/Flickr; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0/Georgia Stephens.

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