It was 150 years ago on March 1, 1872 that President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Protection Act. It spawned national parks in the U.S. and inspired land conservation around the world.
“What an audacious idea it was,” said Ryan Hauck, executive director of Cody Yellowstone, the marketing arm for Park County, Wyoming. “The very thought of setting aside 2.2 million acres of natural resource-rich land must have seemed outrageous. But a few visionaries convinced Congress and President Grant that it was the right thing to do. And the entire world is fortunate they did.”
Gather your resources
The mammoth park covers 2.2 million acres, mostly in Wyoming, but also spreading into parts of Idaho and Montana. It includes wildlife, geothermal features, cultural heritage and distinctive National Park Service “parkitecture.” There are nine lodges, loads of hiking trails, restaurants and scenic viewpoints galore. It can be a bit overwhelming. And since it’s an anniversary year, lodging will fill up fast. If you visit in 2022, it’s wise to do some advance planning.
Get an overview of the region by downloading or requesting a free paper copy of the 2022 Cody Yellowstone Vacation Guide. There’s also a handy and free Yellowstone National Park app with interactive maps, itinerary suggestions, history and wildlife watching safety recommendations.
Seeing wildlife in the park
Since wildlife loves remote areas, many call Yellowstone home. Driving through the park, you may have to stop as a herd of bison lumber down the road. Stay in the car, please. These creatures are huge, and they’re not stopping for a puny little human like you. During a springtime visit, you might see babies, such as wolf pups, elk calves or bear cubs.
If you’re exploring on your own, familiarize yourself with safety guidelines. Some include: Never feed animals. Stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from other animals. Obey posted speed limits and be especially careful in the early morning and late evening, when wildlife activity ramps up.
City slickers have a harder time spotting wily wildlife. It can be disappointing to travel to Yellowstone and not see much. Consider joining a group like Experience Yellowstone’s wildlife and nature tour. You’ll ride along with a professional wildlife photographer and expert naturalist who will take you to the best spots to see bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and other iconic Yellowstone creatures. Experience Yellowstone also offers a 12-hour photography tour for hardcore shutterbugs.
Even more than wildlife, Yellowstone is known for its thermal features. The whole park sits atop a super-volcano. When you’re looking down into a steaming pot of mud boils on Geyser Hill, it’s best not to think about what will happen if the whole thing blows. It’s been 640,000 years since the last major eruption, but scientists continue to carefully track geyser activity.
The pools and geysers stink of sulfur, but dazzle the eye with turquoise water surrounded with crusty, rust-colored rings. When explorer John Colter described Yellowstone back in 1807, people said he was making up the place and dubbed it “Colter’s Hell.”
Yellowstone settlement may be 150 years old, but its buildings have changed with the times. A historic landmark built in 1891 to lure East Coast residents to the Wild West called Lake Yellowstone Hotel was renovated in 2014. Now the 158-room hotel is certified green. Sustainable measures include eco-friendly cleaning supplies, bear-proof compost containers, efficient lighting and food sourced within 500 miles of the park as much as possible. You can make an even lighter footprint by staying at one of more than two thousand campsites in 12 campgrounds.
Yellowstone’s food is also good and surprisingly vegan-friendly. The menu includes healthy choices like quinoa and kale soup, and toasted flatbread points with white bean dip and sundried tomato relish.
Read a book
Whether you’re preparing to visit Yellowstone or you’re an armchair traveler dreaming of wilderness from home, the new book “Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America” takes a new look at a much written about park. Author Megan Kate Nelson takes readers back to 1871, when Geologist Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists to explore and map the land, which would soon become the park. She examines developments through the lens of Hayden, Lakota Leader Sitting Bull and Railroad Financier Jay Cooke set in the tumultuous time just after the Civil War.
Readers get a feel for what it would be like to be on an early geologic mission — the excitement, fear of the unknown, exhausting days of travel and manual work. Also, the consequences to the indigenous people who already lived there.
Yellowstone for every season
Most Yellowstone visitors come in summer, when the weather is warm. Of course, this means crowds. If you’re a hardy soul with a burly winter wardrobe, consider visiting Yellowstone in the off-season. You’ll find back country solitude and many miles of groomed cross country ski trails. The frozen mist from the thermal features cloaks branches, leading to a phenomenon called “ghost trees.” Regardless, Yellowstone is phenomenal in any season.
Images by Teresa Bergen
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