I’m writing this blog as I’m sitting on the tiniest airplane, heading back from the tiniest town of West Yellowstone. I write knowing that these are the hardest days of the trip to write about. I knew that they would be because no one wants to write about the times that were less than pleasant. There’s also no blame to share, no evil villain to hate. Simply, it was a matter of plans that went awry — unforeseeable circumstances that shifted all expectations. Mother Nature is certainly not to fault for the unseasonable cold and deep snow, nor is it Yellowstone’s fault that all National Parks have been extremely underfunded for years, now facing new budgets that have been stripped by an administration that sees no value. Those are the hardest things to write about. As I considered what I wanted to write about today, the blog itself became no longer about my personal experiences, but simply how we can best protect these parks.
Our trip into Yellowstone started with the long drive from our campground in Grand Teton. We had planned to stay at the Canyon Village, centrally located to all things Yellowstone. I was most excited about the chance to scale Mt. Washburn, see the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and take some pictures at the alien landscape that looked to be Mammoth Hot Springs.
We had left the Grand Teton campsite at a time that allowed us to take the western route through Yellowstone, stopping in perfect time to see Old Faithful erupt. Years of earthquakes and seismic changes had altered the faithfulness of the geyser, but it was still reliable enough to plan a trip to see it. We arrived about twenty minutes early to see the geyser erupt (spectacular!) and grab some lunch at the local cafeteria.
Looking at the map, the western route continued north and went past more geysers, but, most specifically, the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the things that I was most excited about on the trip.
Yellowstone is interesting in the fact that everything is so easily accessible and located close to major roadways. While I’ve been told numerous times the “real” Yellowstone is away from the roads, it was amazing to see just how much nature and park overlap. The wildlife walked freely around the roadways and cars stopped to let the animals pass. I snapped a shot of a bison outside the car window, close enough to touch (No, I didn't touch him. 16 people are impale yearly by bison!)
The Spring was located no more than a quarter mile off the roadway and we were able to stop and snap some amazing pictures. The colors were incredible, and from my reading, we hit it on a perfectly sunny day, so the full vibrancy of the springs was on display. I couldn’t have been happier!
As we continued on our northern journey, we passed through Gibbon Falls (also spectacular), before heading east into Canyon Village. The Village reminded me a lot of Zion - it was a small city nestled into the trees, with a grocery store, restaurants and gift shops.
We quickly headed over to our campground, which is where the real story starts. Walking into the campground offices of Canyon Village is just like walking back into time. I’ve always liked the font that is on all National Park signs - it feels like a throwback to the yellow and browns of the 60s and 70s and I love that it still persists today. Don’t do away with what’s great, I say!
But this campground office was old. Not old in the sad, dilapidated sense, but old in the way that your grandma’s house has a certain familiar smell that reminds you of days gone by. The brown carpet was dirty and happily worn down by the feet of a thousand children, eager to pitch a tent and roast a marshmallow by the fire. The wood paneling on the walls could likely whisper you the story of Richard Nixon’s resignation. The lighting was low and dark, and it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary to see a cloud of cigarette smoke ring up to the ceiling, as travelers happily puffed.
This was the campground office of Yellowstone. There’s nothing particularly remarkable or fancy about the grounds, but instead, simply a bare-bones place to write the information of the travelers it sees each season. The computers were so antiquated - running a software that the lady assured me was created in the early 80s before I was born - most of the staff was hand writing camping designations. Yellowstone had been hit with a large quantity of snow this year and the unseasonable cold had left that snow piled deep in the campgrounds. They’d been digging for weeks, the lady told us, but they still weren’t out yet. The list of camp sites covered in snow were written down on a homemade cheat sheet.
Our campground for the next three nights was two sites, located across the road from one another, buried deep in snow. The second campground, down a short hill from the first, had been politely dug out, but was covered in inches of muddy water, the picnic table covered in pine debris.
Frustrated at our unusable campsite, we headed back to the office to see if it was possible to change. After a manager was called, we were switched to another park of the campground. The scene was the same, if not worse, at these two sites. Completely covered in snow, we forlornly looked from the car window at the sites and decided what to do next.
It feels as though what I’m describing is a scene from years ago. It seems unfathomable in 2017 that there are areas of the United States that have no cell service, no fancy Apple computers, no computerized systems. It seems unfathomable that there wouldn’t be an accurate, real-time list of the campground conditions available to any Ranger or camper immediately at their fingertips. It seems unfathomable that the attendants at Yellowstone were so understaffed that they couldn't maintain the grounds and prevent tourism dollars from being spent elsewhere.
But this was Yellowstone. As much as we wanted to stay and camp, not a single member of our party was equipped to sleep in snow. No one wanted to leave; no one wanted to abandon our campground that we were so excited to stay and cook in. It pains me to say that we had no choice but to leave. The campground offered us a full refund and a sincere apology and I wish it would have been within my budget to donate the entirety of the campground fees to the park. It wasn’t their fault; it wasn’t ours. Nature can be fickle.
The Ranger informed us that the rest of the park was full. There were no lodges or campsites available to us. We chose to leave the park that night, staying in an overpriced Days Inn-esque lodge in West Yellowstone. We had the option to stay or go but with options waning and my meager traveller’s budget blown, I had no choice but to leave.
For those of you who have clicked on this blog - whether because you know me or because you saw a pretty picture - what I want to say is this: Yellowstone is OUR National Park. This is land that has been federally protected by Congress and Ulysses S. Grant since 1872 as the first National Park and it needs to stay protected. The pictures that I’ve taken are beautiful you say. But what would you do to save them? Have you been there? Have you seen the sights? Do you want your children to see them?
This is an administration that threatens to chop the 2018 funding to the Department of the Interior by 12% and a whopping 31% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as a sweeping Executive Order that places as many as 40 national monuments at risk of having their protection rescinded. Our national monuments are the fledglings to the national parks. The Grand Canyon started as a National Monument in 1908 after Theodore Roosevelt, before being converted to National Park status in 1919. It is now the most visited National Park in the entire world. Think about that for a second. With all the Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is the most visited!
What I saw at Yellowstone was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The men and women at Yellowstone were so passionate about their National Park that they did an extraordinary job with so little. But the campground being understaffed or technologically impaired is not the issue, but merely a glaring realization of the underfunding of the entire system. Why would anyone spend money on new computers or updated, useful technology when there isn’t enough money to fund conservation projects or wildlife rehabilitation? Without the money that goes towards these efforts, what happens then? The clear, cool water in the rivers is replaced with wastewater runoff. The crisp, clean mountain air that you breathe is suddenly filled with automobile pollution. That clear night sky with the amazing view of all the stars? Hidden behind smoke and smog from local mining and coal production.
If I learned anything from my (albeit brief) trip to Yellowstone, it’s how important the continued conservation of these lands are. The Congressional review of 26 National Moments is still going on and will be decided upon on July 9. Patagonia is leading the charge to have our voices heard and it’s not too late. To see more about what Patagonia is doing to fight this review, go here.
If you are interested in donating to our National Parks, the National Park Service (NPS) has set up a donation website that can accessed below.