“I never go to national parks,” a young woman dressed in tight capris and climbing shoes said to her bearded friend. It was one of those overheard conversations at an airport. “They aren’t wild enough for me,” she explained and went on to associate our 58 national parks with bumper-to-bumper traffic, long lines for the bathroom, and goggle-eyed tourists with cameras.
Truth is, I shared some of her fears in 2017, when my family and I numbered among the 4.12 million people who visited Yellowstone National Park in 2017. Yellowstone ranks as the oldest (1872) and one of the most heavily traveled national parks, and I worried about crowds ruining our trip. However, my son, an enthusiastic young scientist, wanted to see those geysers.
To get off the beaten track, I’ve learned, requires research. Through my sister Ann I located Janelle Brown, a journalist, who lives in Idaho and visits Yellowstone as often as once a year. “It is like nowhere else on earth, the geysers, hot pots, wildlife, mountains and scenery continue to amaze, and the great thing is if you get away from the road at all you are in pristine wilderness,” she said. “Of course, you’ll want to have bear spray.” One of the most important pieces of advice Janelle offered for our trip was to stay inside the park boundary. The Grand Loop road in Yellowstone is 142 miles long, so don’t spend an additional hour in the car getting there, she advised. Staying inside the park, Janelle said, will help you capture early morning and evening hour views of wildlife while minimizing crowds.
I started planning in January for the following summer, and this was too late for many of the hotels. However, I found a good selection of campsites in Madison Campground and so decided on car camping. Most elk prefer daybreak, so my son and I rose early on the first day and counted seven by the Firehole River. Although the national park campsites typically offer flat tent sites and clean bathrooms, be careful about tent placement: Yellowstone has a lot of late afternoon rain storms, and because of the rocky ground water has no place to go except in the bottom of a tent. People from all over the world stay in national park campgrounds, though, so visits with the “neighbors” can be a lot of fun. Our favorite sign from the Madison Campground bathrooms:
Bathrooms in Yellowstone all post this delightful sign about tourists getting too close to buffalo.
As a frequent national park visitor, I have learned that if you are willing to walk at least a mile, you can often escape the crowds. Naturally, I asked Janelle about favorite day hikes, and she recommended Mount Washburn, a 6.4 mile hike with a 1,400 foot elevation gain up to the 10,243 foot summit. (“Don’t forget the bear spray!”) The morning in July that my family and started on this hike, it was awash in wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush in a magenta color as well as purple lupine and tall yellow thistles. We met a couple of young women from Clemson University who were studying the habitat of pikas. An indicator species for global warming, Ochotona princeps (a tiny member of the rabbit family) favors high elevations and these cooler habitats are sadly in decline.
We met only a few parties on that lovely morning hike, (the trail became more crowded in the afternoon), and at the top we saw 14 big horn sheep. These “charismatic megafauna,” as one of my park service friends calls them, were a thrill to see so close. They posed for photographs but snorted loudly if a hiker invaded their personal space. With steep cliff drop-offs in every direction, I respected their boundaries. On a clear day, a map in the fire tower at the top oriented visitors to the entire park in a panoramic view.
Young big horned sheep near the top of Mount Washburn.
In general, I do not enjoy the “most visited site” at any national park. I advise friends to skip Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Tunnel View in Yosemite. However, my son wanted to see the famous Lamar Valley, and the Visitor Center at Mammoth Springs (on our way there) has a bookstore not to be missed. The knowledgeable rangers verified that we had seen a sandhill crane on our drive. They also offered suggestions for the best viewing times of Lamar Valley and where to see an osprey nest on the way. The bookstore included Native American history, which was woefully inadequate in park interpretation. The most important thing we got, however, turned out to be a small book published by Montana State University, called Living Colors: Microbes of Yellowstone National Park (Montana State University, 2013). I bought it as a guidebook for my science buff, but it ended up changing all of our experiences.
One reason I was reluctant to travel the Lamar Valley was because I read the 1986 book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which argues that the scenes of buffalo and elk in the park are the result of mismanagement. To supply visitors with a safe view of nature, the National Park Service in the early twentieth century engaged in predator control, including wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. The NPS did not allow hunting, which then limited Native American culling of the herds. The overpopulation of elk in particular led to a loss of vegetation, which drastically limited beaver populations and changed the nature of the land. Chase even blasts the 1963 Leopold Report, pushed by environmentalists, which moved the entire agency toward ecosystem management. Chase, the ultimate curmudgeon, argued this was another way of “playing God.”
The park drew criticism after the advent of ecosystem management, for no longer feeding bears (1970); for cooperating with elk hunters on the borderlands (1986); for allowing some areas of the park to burn in a fire (1988); and for reintroducing wolves (1994). Some of these experiments worked better than others, but it’s important to remember that few scientists do their work in as public an area, and the Yellowstone rangers must keep 4.12 million people safe who want to see the charismatic megafauna and not get killed.
All this controversy acknowledged, the Lamar Valley with its ranging bison was breathtaking on a July afternoon. On the way into the scene, a buffalo dodged behind our car. When the traffic slowed to a crawl because of a “buffalo jam,” we simply parked by the side of the road and watched the herd. An adult bison weighs 1,000 pounds (cow) to 2,000 pounds (bull) and stands at the hump about six feet. They run as fast as 40 miles an hour. What you cannot get from a postcard photograph of American bison, however, includes their sound. While we watched from a safe distance, two male bison had what appeared to be a disagreement over a female. She munched grass, unconcerned, as the two bulls grunted, stamped their feet and made noises with those giant chest cavities that I can only describe as roars. We half feared and half expected them to lock horns, but after about 30 minutes they went their separate ways. It was thrilling in the way of megafauna.
Be sure to call these charismatic stars of the Lamar Valley bison NOT buffalo.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of our encounters with elk, big horn sheep, sandhill cranes, bison, and other wildlife. Yet one can become a little competitive within such abundance, boasting with strangers about the number of animals “captured” in photographs or the best places to snag a view of one. Maybe that’s why the highlight of the trip, for me, did not take place on remote hikes or in the presence of large animals or even in a place without people. It happened because of the research we did through the little guidebook, Living Colors. We had already enjoyed a fabulous sunset over Norris Geyser Basin; the effervescent glub-glub of Paint Pots; and the beautiful travertine formations made by carbolic acid called Mammoth Springs, both the Upper and Lower terrace. My family and I had marveled at these beauties, but Living Colors opened our eyes to something we hadn’t seen.
Living Colors explains that the beauty of the famous hot springs is not caused by chemical dyes or geologic interactions but by billions of living microbes inside the geyser basins. The microbes in Yellowstone are called extremophiles, because they exist under such harsh conditions. The odd green-blue colors in Mammoth Hot Springs, for instance, are called Chloroflexus, and scientists are studying them because they think they might help us understand the evolution of photosynthesis. One type of extremophile, Sulfurihydrogenibium, has been found in deep sea thermal vents. Living Colors explains that extremophiles may hold the key to alternative energy fuels; hazardous waste control; and even disease treatments. The landscape, which appeared at first glance barren (if fantastic in formation), became filled with mystery for us.
The color of Grand Prismatic Spring is supplied by microbes.
The largest hot spring in America, Grand Prismatic Spring, became the climax of our adventure with microbes. Surprisingly, it no longer mattered that we were sharing this experience with dozens of people who shuffled behind us on a boardwalk. We were, perhaps, annoying to other tourists, because we stayed at the center position for a long time, cataloging Calathrix, a bacterium that lives in water above 86 degrees and has a chemical in it that provides its own sunscreen. Another bacterium, Pharmidium, exists in 95-135 degree water temperatures and produces the bright orange color in the photograph above.
My family had taken all the photographs they wanted, and my son and I had identified the three major extremophiles in the spring. Everyone started back down the boardwalk, but I lingered. I myself could not survive in the hot water this environment, should I fall into it, but extremophiles organisms thrive. The microbes in the rainbow-colored pool suddenly pulsated with a beauty that was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
It’s all alive, I thought, wonderstruck, every color present is filled with life. And, perhaps most surprisingly, I didn’t get off the beaten track to encounter these creatures, and they consist of the opposite of megafauna. Alone for a moment with the Grand Prismatic Spring I felt connected not only to the 2,200 acres of this magical place but also to “the eternity in an hour.”