March 1 was Yellowstone National Park’s 147th birthday. Or maybe I should say it was “Wonderland’s” birthday because that’s what a Northern Pacific Railroad advertisement called the world’s first national park in an advertisement promoting the newly accessible destination.
The moniker played on the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and it effectively awakened the imagination and wanderlust of a generation.
Inspired, and with travel made easier – or at least doable — wealthy Easterners loaded families, servants and steamer trunks and boarded the train for an adventure of the lifetime. And so did the next generation and the generation after that.
Year by year, more visitors came, eventually trading train and stagecoach transportation for private cars, buses, motorcycles and in the winter, snowcoaches. In 1904, nearly 14,000 visitors entered the park. Last year, the number of annual visitors reached 4.1 million.
With that kind of increase, it’s no wonder park-lovers concerned that visitors are overwhelming the park’s fragile eco-system and infrastructure have said that we are loving our beloved Wonderland to death.
I can see their point, but we seem to be loving Yellowstone lopsidedly.
Rangers will tell you that 97 percent of the visitors to Yellowstone experience only three percent of the park. Three percent is miniscule when we’re talking about a 2.2 million-acre, 3,472-square-mile park that is roughly as large as Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It would be like saying let’s send 4.1 million people to one small town in Delaware and leave the rest of the state and all of Rhode Island untouched.
That makes about as much sense to me as most Yellowstone visitors staying in just the developed areas of the park – amounting to about 3 percent of the land – and leaving the rest of the park unexplored. It’s a lopsided experience, and not only is it bad for the park, it limits a visitor’s experience.
Here are a few ways I try to spread the love around when I’m in Yellowstone. Maybe these tips will work for you too.
- Visit Old Faithful geyser and other popular places like the Firehole River, Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake during the early morning hours or in the evening, when the mid-day crowds have left. There’s nothing quite like watching Old Faithful erupt on a quiet, starry night. Or watching the sunrise, slowly revealing the steamy landscape of the Upper Geyser Basin. Or strolling the boardwalk along the Firehole River at sunset.
- Take a hike. There are plenty of trails in the park, and many trailheads are somewhat isolated, and allow hikers to experience the park in relative solitude.
- Camp in the backcountry. There are more than 300 designated backcountry campsites throughout the park, and hundreds of miles of trails. One of my Wonderland bucket-list experiences was to hike all the way to the Bechler River Soldier Station in the southwest corner of the park. The cabin was built by soldiers in 1911 as a home base for ranger patrols.
- Visit during the off-season. Understandably, most visitors by far travel during the months of June, July and August. Wonderland is still wonderful in the winter, spring and fall.
Until next time, I’m loving life and wishing a very happy birthday to Wonderland.