A visit to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park was one of the places that kept coming up through my career, as the first U.S. national park; as one of the key examples in the rewilding literature because of the re-introduction of wolves; and as the site of devastating fires in 1988 (or were they just what the park needed). So, I finally decided I should see the place for myself. The reality exceeded expectations.

Displays celebrating the first nations occupation of Yellowstone and the signing of the national park order.

The visitor centres have good displays on the history of the park: including reference to the Native American presence pre-European “discovery”; the early “mountain men” reports, leading to more formal expeditions that led to Yellowstone becoming a national park with a superintendent. However (familiar story) it did not have the staff/resources to actually protect what it was designated for initially – a gamekeeper (single) was appointed but soon resigned because of the impossibility of the task. The army was brought in to stop poaching and other illegal activities. They set up some basic infrastructure and eventually a ranger service was developed.

I am not surprised some of the early reports were treated with scepticism. Driving up the valley of the Firehole River for the first time I noticed steam plumes coming up from the forest but put these down to just morning mist rising. Old Faithful is well-known but I had not appreciated the vast number of other geysers, hot springs and general thermal geology that are a key attraction for thousands of people every year.

Waiting for Old Faithful and Castle Geyser

The features are well-accessed by board walks and the guided tours by Park Rangers were informative. There must have been several hundred people just sitting waiting for Old Faithful to do its stuff at lunchtime. However as always if you walk to some of the more distant ones from the car parks the numbers rapidly drop off. There was also a wealth of other geological features to explore from spectacular waterfalls, to canyons and petrified trees.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, petrified trees in the Lamar Valley, Travertine terraces at Mammoth Springs, a fissure that appeared in a lay-by in Hayden Valley.

Walking in the forest, the effects of the 1988 fires were very obvious. It is nearly all young growth, with scattered dead trees standing and large amounts of fallen dead wood. My impression is that most of the regeneration is pine with only small amounts of other species. As in conifer plantations open patches are floral hotspots, often associated with small ponds and lakes. The amount of work that must have been necessary to re-instate paths and other infra-structure after the fires was also very apparent.

Fallen wood and regrowth after the 1988 fires; path re-instated through burnt area – note the number of logs cut; grassy glade growth after the fire; permanent opening around a lake.

The landscape mosaic of wooded and unwooded land is presumably maintained by grazing and fire where the openness is not obviously linked to thermal activity. In some areas of the park the balance was reversed with a dominance of grassland and sage-brush over forest. The grassland seemed not particularly close-grazed, probably about 25-30 cm high with lots of flowerheads, a high herb content and sometimes rather thin cover.

Forest-meadow mosaics and one of the ways they are maintained.

Bison cause the most injuries in the park each year, but these can be avoided by keeping a safe distance. They are unlikely to react unless provoked.  Grizzly bears represent a different level of threat in that they may be encountered unexpectedly and they may charge you. This is apparently often a false charge with them veering off at the last minute – but they might not! Hence the emphasis on bear awareness – try to be in a group of 3 or more (difficult for me) as they rarely charge groups; make a noise so they move away before you encounter them; carry bear-spray and know how to use it; don’t run (it triggers a chase response); if all else fails play dead. It is interesting to be in the position where as a human you are not ‘top dog’ and as the posters emphasise: “your safety cannot be guaranteed”. In September, when I went, however the bears tend to be more at high altitude and one of the walks I had considered, up Washburn Mountain, was closed because of the risk.

Bear awareness notices and bear-spray canister.

A more common form of human-wildlife interaction occurs where elk and bison are close to/on the road leading to traffic jams as people stop to avoid them or to take photographs. Cars do not always stop, however, for smaller animals. A coyote was caught in my headlights on one early morning visit. Two days later there was a carcass on the road at about that point- it had chanced its luck once too often.


In the Lamar Valley look for the wolf enthusiasts and with their big telescopes lined-up by the road, scanning the opposite side of the valley – it worked for me, with good views of black wolf moving along the riverside and up into the forest. Were wolves creating the trophic cascade effects claimed in papers and on posters at one of the museums? I cannot say from this visit but there were locally extensive willow beds and aspen regeneration.

I came away with a sense of awe at the size of the park and the variety of features within it – a totally different  scale to the sorts of conservation that we practise in Britain. I was also impressed by the work of the ranger service; their management of facilities and tourists, from sorting out the restrooms (aka toilets), traffic flows, idiots who lock themselves out of cars (personal experience), is fantastic – a far cry from the initial superintendent and his one game keeper.


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