In fifth grade my mother, brother and I took a road trip from Kentucky to Seattle to visit some friends. One of the places we stopped along the way was Yellowstone National Park.
And while I’ve lived in Montana for the last eight years, it was only last week that I finally returned to America’s first national park.
Having planned this trip a year in advance, I had booked a cabin in the small town of Emigrant just a short drive from the north entrance at Gardner. The goal was to explore the park, and capture images of the fall colors and wildlife.
I arrived in Emigrant a little after 2 p.m. on Sunday. Even though I had been driving all day, I couldn’t wait for my first glimpse of Yellowstone. I vaguely remember that road trip from 30 years ago, but the specifics have faded away. Driving into Yellowstone, U.S. 89 twists south along the Gardner River. I’m wondering now how I could have missed it, shouldn’t there have been a sign marking the state line between Montana and Wyoming? I never saw one. If it was there, I was probably too busy trying to drive safely and take in the incredible vistas around me.
National Parks are such a gift. Before moving out West I had never visited Glacier, and now it is one of my favorite places on Earth. No matter how often I visit, I feel like I could never explore it enough to really know it.
Yellowstone has the same quality. I imagine that I could visit every weekend and still not know it hardly at all.
The road past Yellowstone’s north entrance begins to rise and go around some tight curves as it leads up to the Albright Visitor Center and Museum. As I approached the area, a herd of elk were grazing on the lawns near the parking area. I felt like a kid again, awestruck and fascinated by the miracles of nature.
It has been a while since I have been that close to elk, and I had forgotten how large they are. Seeing them in that proximity give you a moment of pause. And of course, with that many elk, and all the tourists with their cameras, the park rangers were on site keeping a respectful distance between those hungry for souvenir photos of their own and the wildlife.
I didn’t stop. I wasn’t quite ready.
For a late Sunday afternoon in October, I expected fewer people. Over the years I’ve gotten spoiled by the solitude Montana gives so freely. I was a little taken aback by all the people in Yellowstone. And this was late in the season.
The number of visitors to Yellowstone in the summer is staggering. More than 4.5 million visitors toured the park in 2016. For comparison, Glacier Park had 2.9 million visitors in 2016.
Yellowstone was established in 1872. It was “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Between March 1, 1872, and December 2016, Yellowstone has had an amazing 175 million visitors.
My first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs. I remember reading something that compared Yellowstone to a scientist’s lab. That description seemed to fit perfectly as I watched white steam billow into the cold air and tried to adjust to the noxious smell of sulfur from the geysers.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that first evening in Yellowstone would be one of my longest. I followed U.S. 89, which becomes the Grand Loop Road down to Norris Canyon Road cut across, then continued north back on the Grand Loop over the mountains toward Tower Junction and the Beartooth Pass. I ended up being one of the last people to take that road this year. A snow storm set in while I was up there and I am thankful for a four-wheel-drive Jeep and all-weather tires. The next day, the rangers told me that road was closed for the season.
As I made my way down out of the snow I unfortunately did not see the sign for the pullout where I stopped for sunset. The winds were raging and it was bitingly cold, but the colors of the sky made stopping for a few photos a priority. I hiked just a little ways and found a stunning overlook of the Yellowstone River. I thought my first day couldn’t get anymore perfect until I heard the sound of a pack of wolves baying at the coming night. Not knowing how near or far away they were, that became the definitive “time to go home” moment.
But as the night set in and I followed the winding roads back north I couldn’t help but feel that this was the perfect reintroduction to Yellowstone. I have no memories from that childhood trip, just the names of the places we stopped. So this trip feels like my first, my real introduction. I have a lot of catching up to do.
I would spend two more days in Yellowstone. My goal was to be there until Thursday, but a bull elk and I had a misunderstanding about who has the right-of-way on the highway between Emigrant and Gardner. At 4:48 a.m. as I was heading into the park to photograph Old Faithful at sunrise, an elk came out of the dark and ran into my Jeep.
All things considered, I’m incredibly lucky because neither of us were seriously hurt, and I was able to drive my rig all the way home to Whitefish with the addition of a few zip ties. And the elk has not put off my desire to return to Yellowstone.
No, it isn’t as close or convenient as Glacier, but it really isn’t that far away. In the meantime, I have wonderful memories and photos to remind me that this is a road trip that is well worth the effort.