Why Yellowstone's True Beauty Is Something You Can't See
(c) Tom Montgomery
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Why Yellowstone's True Beauty Is Something You Can't See

Fifty years ago, my family migrated from the Midwest to California, two parents and four children in a 1963 Ford Galaxie. Along the way we took in Yellowstone National Park. We walked the boardwalks over the cauldrons and hot springs, watched Old Faithful erupt, and marveled at the black bears that, in those days, wandered up to stopped cars for handouts. I remember easing down to the edge of a bog and approaching a moose, thereby committing an act of stupidity for which I still feel a sense of shame. And then I didn’t go back for nearly 20 years.

So thank God for fly-fishing. It took me to Yellowstone in 1985, and it has taken me back again and again since. And because trout live in cold water, not in hot springs and geysers, I have gone where summer visitors seldom go, tracking into the deadfalls along the Gibbon River or fishing in a snowstorm on the Firehole or wading in a stretch of Slough Creek, where I found wolf tracks along the bank. You close the car door, walk into the timber or out onto the antelope flats, keeping well away from the bison still shedding their winter-tattered coats. Steam rises somewhere beyond the meadows. You follow your fly line around a bend in the river and forget when and where (and sometimes who) you are.

Yellowstone wasn’t the first scenic landscape to be set aside by the federal government. That was Yosemite, in 1864, which was preserved by an act of Congress and, in part, turned over to California for a time. Yellowstone was, however, the first place officially designated by Congress, in 1872, as a national park. It is older, as an entity, than most national governments.

Slough Creek
Slough Creek, in the northern part of Yellowstone near the Wyoming-Montana border. Simon Sun

For all its natural beauty, Yellowstone—like every other national park—is the embodiment of a political philosophy that we tend to take for granted. It’s expressed most clearly in the Organic Act of 1916, which established the National Park Service as a government agency. One crucial sentence elaborates, perhaps more succinctly than anyone else has ever done, the point of the national parks. Their purpose, it reads, is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

There’s room for a world of wrangling in those words. The second Bush administration enacted policies that focused more on the enjoyment of the present generation than on that of future generations. More conservation-minded politicians have read in those words a requirement to think of the future first and to protect nature in the national parks against the more troubling inroads of human enjoyment. But however you read the Organic Act, it fails to address a recurring issue that flares up again and again around Yellowstone and other, mainly Western parks: the conflict between local and national. Many people who live around Yellowstone act as though the park really belongs to them and should be managed accordingly. In fact, Yellowstone belongs to all of us.

Almost no one goes to Yellowstone to contemplate the philosophy behind the parks. But it represents one of the best ideas this country has ever had: setting aside an enormous natural area to be kept wild and free from commercial exploitation in perpetuity—or for as long as the collective political will allows. Yellowstone—and, indeed, the entire park system—is still held open by our abiding political will despite ongoing threats, financial and ideological. Because of its long history, Yellowstone somehow seems self-evident to us, the inevitable nucleus of a major ecosystem that extends far beyond its borders. But its existence is no more or less self-evident than the workings of democracy itself, another good idea that requires abiding political will.

United States, Wyoming, Rocky Mountains, bisons on the Gibbon River banks
Bison on the banks of Yellowstone's Gibbon River. Getty Images

Yellowstone is all the more impressive because of its inclusiveness. The congressional founders might have chosen to protect only the geothermal areas. Instead, they preserved nearly 3,500 square miles of what were then the territories of Wyoming and Montana. The result is peculiar. To first-time visitors bound for Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone’s vast expanses look surprisingly featureless compared with Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. If you arrive by way of the Tetons—those sharp granite incisors—you may get the feeling that Yellowstone is somehow deeply indiscernible. But in that indiscernibility lies beauty.

What I mean is this: there are roads to guide you through the park—but only a few. There are pullouts and parking areas and clearly marked attractions—trails, rapids, falls, lakes, geysers, springs, cauldrons, canyons, and modest peaks. A lot of effort has gone into making Yellowstone as safe as possible for people who, if left to themselves, would feed bears or approach moose or break through the fragile crust of a thermal feature to be boiled alive. But wherever you go in the park, you will feel, if you pay attention, a vast, natural silence just beyond sight. Yellowstone is, in fact, almost entirely hidden from humans. If you were somehow to map the steps taken by a summer’s worth of visitors, you would find that they had trod an astonishingly thin ribbon of footprints, nearly always within sight of asphalt. In a way, this is as it should be. It leaves the rest of the park for all the other species.

In the 50 years since I first came to Yellowstone, a number of important things have changed. Visitors now arrive more completely self-enclosed, electronically, than was even conceivable in 1966. I thought some peak of self-enclosure had been reached in the late 1980s, when nearly everyone I saw one day at a crowded vista overlooking the park’s magnificent gorge, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, was peering at it through the lens of a video camera. I was wrong, of course.

Inspiration Point
Inspiration Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Getty Images

As if to counter the weird, spectral solipsism of humans, there came, in the mid 1990s, the return of the gray wolf, reintroduced to the park by wildlife biologists after being hunted out in the early 20th century. Nothing has done more to help us reimagine the ecology and the surface spaces of Yellowstone than wolves, which have prospered in this natural sanctuary despite the ferocious objections of hunters and ranchers in the neighboring states. Almost anyone who has known the park before and after wolves will tell you how powerful and beautiful the change has been. Nearly every species—from grizzly bears to riverside alders—has been affected by the presence of these animals. The return of the wolves made it suddenly clear that in their absence we had been looking at a profoundly incomplete landscape.

And then there is the magma. The entire park—and most of the surrounding region—was shaped by the last large explosion of the Yellowstone supervolcano, some 640,000 years ago. I remember wandering as a child among the thermal features without ever really thinking about the volcanic history of Yellowstone. Once you understand that history, you can suddenly see it in the very contours of the park. You may have read a lot of recent nonsense about when the supervolcano is going to blow next. But what is not nonsense is a brand-new understanding of the scale of the volcanism—the magma chamber—below the surface of Yellowstone, a chamber vastly bigger than anyone ever guessed. It is, in a sense, the wolf underground, a thing that reminds you, like the night sky overhead, how narrow and small and seeking of comfort it is to be human.

For more stories celebrating the centennial of the national parks, head here. »

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