Yellowstone National Park roads will soon close for the year. In Wyoming the changing seasons are marked in part by the status of the park. In the spring and fall we can get through Yellowstone to reach Jackson Hole or western Montana, but in the summer and winter the park can be impassable.
In winter the roads are closed. That will happen Nov. 2 this year. In the summer roads are open, but that doesn’t mean you can actually drive through the park. A website recently published a photo taken by a friend that showed a typical summer park scene: A line of autos snaking off in the distance, maybe 100, all stopped on the road. A couple buffalo ambled down the open lane of traffic, and from many of the immobile autos, cameras poked out open windows filming the brutes. The photo ran with a story reporting visitation at Yellowstone had already reached an all-time annual high in 2015.
At times like these, travel through the park is barely faster than in winter when the gates are locked and the plateau is blanketed in snow.
Throngs of tourists crowd the park at the height of the tourist season, including dopes who stop in the middle of the road to snap photos of buffalo. The beasts are everywhere so it’s not as though a sighting is a rare occurrence. If you want to see another buffalo in Yellowstone usually all you need to do is drive another quarter mile. There will be another.
Elk are another matter. They are a little more rare — despite the herd that always hangs out near the Gardiner entrance — and more worthy of an impromptu photo session.
Bears are in a class all their own. We saw a mess of black bears one afternoon when we cut through the park on the way back from Missoula. At one point we nearly plowed into the back of a car that stopped right at the apex of a sharp curve when the driver spotted a young bear just feet from the road. If we hadn’t been driving with Yellowstone caution I probably wouldn’t have been able to stop. I gave them a few moments for photos, then realized we were in danger of being rear ended ourselves by the next vehicle coming around the curve. So I did something I’ve almost never done since I left Southern California years ago and moved to the Northern Rockies: I leaned on the horn.
They were likely urban folk unable to resist the charm of a bear so close they could have almost touched it. But right in the middle of that curve, putting everyone behind them at risk, was a little too much.
The Elk Hunter and I took a drive up to the park last weekend with designs on a last visit before Yellowstone closed for the season. We were full on tourists, even making a stop at Old Faithful where we witnessed one of the greatest gatherings of selfie sticks in recorded natural history.
We even spied a bear on that trip, though in a safe manner. As we were driving in from the east entrance and neared Yellowstone Lake we saw a gathering of telephoto lenses and rangers at a parking area.
We guessed it was a bear and since there was a safe place to pull off the road, stopped to have a look. It was a mama grizzly and her cub. They were barely visible in the thick deadfall from the Big Burn, but that blond fur dancing in the breeze was unmistakable.
We didn’t stay long as we had an appointment to act like a couple tourists at Old Faithful. But the cameras and the rangers were still there when we drove past five hours later on our way home.
There’s something about a bear that almost makes you forget the crowds.
Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.
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