At the top of Avalanche Peak, a shale-scattered hill overlooking Lake Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park, it feels like the place where the Earth began. From 9,000-plus feet, you can see to the horizon, the lake stretching to the Absarokas, and the valley twisting below you.
"You almost feel like you watched the glaciers carve this place," one fellow hiker said.
Five of us--all Xanterra housekeeping employees who worked in the park for the summer season--climbed more than 1,000 feet over three miles, through a forest and up a rocky cliff. In the most visited National Park in the world--with more than 3 million visitors per year--we saw fewer than 10 people in five hours. The logbook at the trailhead, with 1998 as the earliest date, had fewer than four pages filled.
"It's always been said that 95 percent of the people use 5 percent of the park, and that 5 percent of people use 95 percent of the park," said Milo Williams, a backcountry ranger in Grant Village who issues fishing licenses and passes for camping.
Williams is a wealth of knowledge, with all the best fishing spots memorized, ready to tell a fisherman where to drop a line any time of the year. On a recent trip to isolated Grizzly Lake, per Williams' suggestion, we saw exactly one family on a simple hike. Williams admitted that it's usually groups of friends who venture into the backcountry. As for families: "A lot park in parking lots, and a lot do the boardwalks and the trails," said Williams.
Many of them stick to Yellowstone's Grand Loop, which allows easy access to the entire park. In fact, many of them will never leave the paved road that makes up the loop. As one ranger put it, "Every year I get asked, 'How quickly can we get through the park?'"
Some visitors drive their rental car into the park, stop when they get to their hotel and spend the rest of their visit venturing out in the daylight, rubbernecking wildly from their minivans for elk and bison sightings. These are the people who will see the park from behind glass, and there are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that books are available in visitors' centers titled Photography from Your Car.
Granted, it's hard to haul kids through the backcountry, and some visitors are short on time, but according to Ranger Brian Sikes, the fly-by Yellowstone experience means missing out on some of the best parts of the park.
Sikes--who like Williams has a background in the military and law enforcement--is adamant about people getting out and experiencing the park.
"There are a lot of trails that go to backcountry sites that are underutilized. This is definitely more of a wild experience. But it's always easier to drive than it is to walk. Sometimes families are hitting three parks in one trip. There's not much you can do here in a day. This is the kind of place where you've gotta take your time," Sikes said.
And some people don't go into the backcountry because they're afraid, Sikes added.
"The beauty of this place is obviously the backcountry and how much of it there is. A lot of people fear the wildness, too. With more and more people living in highly developed areas, they feel afraid, maybe, of areas that are not developed," he said.
On a trip to Osprey Falls, a 12-mile hike up and down canyon walls, we met up with a family of four with two young children. The parents weren't daredevils, they simply wanted their children to better appreciate the park.
"We just love the outdoors, and we want our children to as well," the mother told us. We saw one other person on that hike. Like the family, our group learned from the rangers that groups of four or more are safe from bears (they avoid large groups) and as long as you're well stocked with water and prepared for the elements, the backcountry is safe. So why do so few people get out of their cars?
Old Faithful is mobbed by hundreds of people who come to watch it erupt every 90 minutes. On the other hand, the hike to Osprey Falls is almost completely devoid of people, but offers cooler temperatures on a hot day and incredible photo opportunities. Even most children could walk the three miles to Sheepeater Cliff for a spectacular view. Typically you pass an intrepid fisherman, an outdoorsy couple, or fit foreigners--usually French or German, both nationalities being big fans of hiking. There you lose the minivans and Hawaiian shirts. You are completely cut off from the masses.
The National Park Service has instituted programs to draw people away from the touristy watering holes. For families with children, the park offers a Junior Ranger program. A multi-page booklet challenges children--and their parents--to study geothermal features, take a backcountry trail and attend a ranger-led discussion. When children completes their booklet, they are given a patch, modeled after the NPS' symbol. At $3, it's cheap and can be completed in one to two days. A Young Scientist program has also been started, which focuses on geology and is offered only at Old Faithful.
Most of the roads in Yellowstone follow ancient wildlife tracts, which were then worn by the feet of Native Americans, who then led the first white explorers, who later paved them to bring this landscape to everyone. Following rivers, the shores of Lake Yellowstone and the verdant bluffs, some of them smoldering with thermal activity, the Grand Loop provides the access to volcanic terrain. In fact, the lower loop follows the lip of the super volcano that is Yellowstone.
These sorts of facts are only available from interacting with park rangers. It takes getting out of your car, walking the boardwalks, reading the signs and learning from the visitors' centers at every location.
Ranger Sikes summed it up best: "If the very unique experience of Old Faithful is what you're looking for, you can drive up and do that. But if you're looking for a very remote experience, cut off from civilization, you can do that here. I think everyone who comes here brings something out of their trip--it depends on what you enjoy."
After all, the park is entirely yours.
Andrew Crisp spent two semesters as an intern at BW before taking a summer job at Xanterra, the company that runs Yellowstone's concessions.