From Horseback Camping Trips to Cars and Modern Lodgings, Visiting the Park Has Changed Over Time
As the National Park Service turns 100 this year, all eyes on our national parks, often referred to as America’s Best Idea. When, in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant set aside two million acres of wilderness in the Wyoming Territory to create the world’s first national park, he set into motion an ideal that would capture the hearts and minds of the American people and the world.
The concept was further cemented in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service (NPS).
Today there are 409 units within the park system. Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas holds the title as the oldest. It was first protected when Congress declared the area a reservation in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first national park. Hot Springs was designated a national park in 1921.
Early Days in Yellowstone
Today, more than three million travelers visit Yellowstone each year. That’s a far cry from the first year, when around 1,000 people visited the park, traveling on horseback. Yellowstone was hard to get to and was totally lacking in amenities. But word spread about the amazing sights in Yellowstone, and the people came.
Bob Richard, who lives in Cody, just outside the park, grew up on the North Fork of the Shoshone River, living and breathing Yellowstone. “I was born in this area, and I’ve been guiding in Yellowstone since I was 12 years old,” says Bob. He is now 79.
Bob’s grandfather, Fred Richard, was one of the first outfitters for Yellowstone. Fred got his first license in 1906 from the U.S. Army, which managed Yellowstone from 1886 until the NPS took over in 1918.
His granddad’s early trips were by horseback and horse-drawn wagon. When the road over the Sylvan Pass opened after the snow melted, Fred led three horse-drawn wagon trips per summer, July 1, August 1 and September 1. Each camping trip lasted 16 days, and the cost was $10 per person per day. (Today’s visitor can see in two days what took 16 days back then, says Bob.)
By 1915, cars were entering Yellowstone, and by 1925, wagons were being eliminated. His grandfather then used trucks to haul the camping gear, while the guests rode horses or in touring cars. Paving the park roads began in the 1930s, but wasn’t finished until after WWII.
Bob was 10 when he began accompanying his grandfather on trips and learning the names of every peak, bluff, river and valley, and the stories behind them. At age 12, he “led” a pack trip for his granddad, but he realized later that the cook and wrangler were really the ones in charge.
Bob further explored Yellowstone during his years as a park ranger, 1956-1960. He was the last designated horse patrol ranger in Yellowstone, and his mount, Red, was the last Morgan stallion the park owned.
After a stint in the Marine Corps, Bob returned to his beloved Wyoming. He often took people on tours of Yellowstone for free, just because he enjoyed it. His father told him to start charging. In 1987, Bob established Grub Steak Expeditions, and was licensed by the park to lead tours. He sold the company in 2012, but still guides for them.
For someone so familiar with Yellowstone National Park, what is Bob’s favorite spot? He pauses to consider, then says, “Lamar Valley, because of the wildlife. I usually can find bears, antelope, bison, elk and wolves.”
So Much To See
The problem with Yellowstone, as with many other national parks, is that there is more to see than time allows. To really experience the park, visitors need time to hike, to look for wildlife, to pause and reflect, to savor the sunrises and sunsets; yet for many people, a quick drive through with stops at key points is all their schedules allow. Even the quickie version of Yellowstone can be eye popping and awe inspiring, so don’t let time constraints deter you. Being stuck in a “bison traffic jam” might be one of the most vivid memories of the trip.
Although Americans love their cars, and most people want to drive through the park on their own, a good way to see the most park in the least amount of time is with a guided tour. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the park’s main concessionaire, offers many guided tour options, as do companies in each of the gateway towns to the park — West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, and Cody and Jackson, Wyoming.
In the winter, the only park road that is open to cars is between the North and Northeast entrances. But snow coaches and other snow vehicles transport guests into the park.
Sights to see depend on the season, as much of the park is inaccessible in winter. Old Faithful is probably the number one attraction year round. Although it is neither the largest nor the most spectacular of the park’s more than 200 geysers, it is the most dependable, with eruptions approximately every 92 minutes. Old Faithful Inn is itself an attraction; don’t miss the guided tour of the magnificent fir and lodge pole pine structure.
Yellowstone is a hotbed of geothermal activity. The hot springs and travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs and the geysers, springs and pools of Norris Geyser Basin and the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins give visitors a close-up look at many of the park’s most outstanding geothermal features. Yellowstone Lake is North America’s largest mountain lake at such a high elevation (7,733 feet or 2,357 meters). In the summer, kayakers on the lake paddle past steaming, bubbling geothermal pools and mud pots along the lake edge.
Other must-see sights include the spectacular Upper and Lower Falls in the 20-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and wildlife viewing in Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley.
Depending on your fitness and activity level, choose from hiking, fishing, boating, sightseeing tours, ranger-led programs, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, horseback riding and wildlife watching.
Those early visitors to Yellowstone wouldn’t know what to make of today’s park road system and the network of lodging and dining facilities within the park.
Roads from the five park entrances feed into a sort of figure eight, designed to provide unobtrusive access to the park’s many wonders.
One of the key ways to make the most of a park visit is to stay within the park, either camping, in cabins or in lodges or inns. Being in the park puts you closer to the action, saves on driving time, and enables you to pack 24 hours a day with park experiences.
Lodging and activity reservations well in advance are strongly recommended, but it’s worth checking at the last minute in case of cancellations. Xanterra, the principal concessioner for lodging, dining and activities, operates a wide variety of services in both summer and winter.
For an immersive Yellowstone experience, consider one of the Yellowstone Association Institute programs. These in-depth courses are led by experts and often offered in collaboration with in-park lodges. Classes on wolves, geysers, photography, birding and other topics are designed for several age groups, from middle school to boomers.
Before You Go
For park information, call the NPS visitor information line at 307-344-7381 or visit www.nps. gov/yell.
For lodging, camping, activity and dining information, contact Xanterra Parks and Resorts at 307-344-7901 (general information) or 866-439-7375 (reservations) or visit www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com.
For Yellowstone Association Institute, call 406-848-2400 or visit www.yellowstoneassociation.org.
And remember: Always be prepared by dressing in layers. Don’t forget a jacket or sweater, rain gear, sunglasses and sunscreen. Always carry extra clothing and food when hiking. And practice Leave No Trace, taking only memories, leaving only footprints.
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann, a contributor from Gerald, Mo., is a big fan of national parks. This article first appeared in AAA Midwest Traveler, May/June 2016.