When I think about Yellowstone (or as I call it, “the park” pronounced with my finest Boston accent), a rush of anxiety is usually what comes first to mind. I get so overwhelmed when I think about visiting that, if I have a say, the only time I will visit the park is early May or late October. Rare exceptions are made for the fall colors in late September or deep, sparkling snow in February.
It’s not that I hate the park. I really love Yellowstone and I’m proud of what it represents as a tenant of American culture. Whenever people come to visit, I usually take them for a tour. I give enthusiastic remarks and point out every little tidbit of information that I know. I stop and force my guests to get out and walk around. I make so many stops that it’s hard for me to complete the traditional “loops” with them.
When I think about visiting the park on my own, I can’t bring myself to do it. This fall I was tasked with taking a field trip to the park with the intention of writing this paper. I was mortified, to say the least. There was no way in hell I would ever find the motivation to drive myself, alone, down to Yellowstone to battle rental cars swerving to get the perfect shot of the gigantic horned creature a few feet away; heroically swat away selfie sticks in the way of my walking path; or tell another clueless, enthusiastic father that I simply pulled over to look at the mountains, trees, or just to stretch. Nonetheless, deadlines are a pervasive monster and procrastination can only take you so far, so I made my way to the park (pronounced pʰaːk1) on one of the last weekends most roads are open with my friend Kit on October 27th to camp above the shores of Hebgen Lake and pick our way through the parts of Yellowstone I wanted to write about on October 28th.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), sagebrush makes up what the National Parks Service calls The Sagebrush-Steppe. This is an area with less rain and snowfall than other areas and it takes up far less space than the majority of the park vast forests. Sagebrush is not a stark plant that inspires entire romantic ballads – at least the ones that everyone reads – it’s underappreciated. Its colors are muted, its flowers short-lived and its branches appear lifeless and fragile.
Sagebrush is an important plant in the park even though it makes up such a small portion of it. Its importance comes mostly from the shelter and forages it provides for park wildlife and its place in the traditions of native tribes. Its predisposition to dry, cold, high desserts make Sagebrush an important foliage plant for wintering wildlife such as pronghorn, mule deer, sage grouse and small mammals2. They often provide forage for livestock, although they are not preferred because of their bitter taste3 and this activity only occurs at the edges of the park boundary. Sagebrush also provides the primary habitat for sage grouse and other small mammals. Many Native American tribes such as the Blackfoot, Shoshone, Crow and others that visited the GYE used the leaves of the plant as a tea or burned them for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The bone-dry branches were also used for fuel. The bark could be used in the production of everyday items and was used medicinally and ceremoniously.
At the edge of our camp spot were the beginnings of the lodgepole forests that dominate most of Yellowstone. Lodgepole pines make up 80% of the forest canopy in the park4. Their prevalence is largely due to the occurrence of volcanic, rhyolitic soil that is the result of the immense volcanic activity that happened in the formation of many of the dominant park features over thousands of years. This rhyolitic soil is low in nutrients that would otherwise support the life of larger spruce and fir trees. Unlike the spruce and fir trees that make up the forests that are often romantically written about and often more desirable for resource extraction, lodgepoles are skinny and often fragile. They make terrible lumber. Their name comes from their use by Native American tribes in the construction of their lodges.
Lodgepoles are almost unnaturally straight, they’re relatively small and they can grow in tight groves and otherwise make up expansive forests. The trees that I am most used to are Ponderosa Pines. Ponderosas are like lodgepoles but they grow much wider and taller. They dominate the forests of Central Idaho where I spent most of the formative moments of my childhood. They’re also great for timber so when I think of vast forest I think of selective logging, big trucks and endless little roads to get lost or camp on. When you get into Yellowstone it’s totally different. The forests are untouched, they’re shorter and denser. I honestly didn’t notice the difference of pine trees until I got to college and learned more about the different climate, soils and characteristics of different pine species. I had only previously known the difference between a fir forest and a pine forest, just based on the size of the trees.
Visually, the starkest difference of the lodgepole forests in Yellowstone are the shadows they cast. The canopies of lodgepoles are much less dense other species of pine. The branches of the lodgepole reach out far and they don’t have many needles on them until their ends. When the sun is low, the trees cast a perfectly straight shadow, especially on the modest, pale grey roads throughout the park. The shadow is like rumble strips, utilitarian and geometric. They politely ask you to slow down and appreciate what’s surrounding you on all sides. In the fall, which is when we found ourselves driving around, the path of the sun begins to shallow and these shadows are visible for longer periods of the day.
Anything that is volcanic in nature always seems to be so geometric and utilitarian. This is evident throughout Yellowstone. Volcanic soil is porous, it always has a monochrome color and it supports just the bare minimum of nutrients for life to grow. Basalt cliffs produce perfect stacks and layers of dihedrals and other geometric shapes. Granite stones are often found in smooth circular shapes with perfectly flat surfaces. The rhyolitic soil in which the lodgepole thrives allows it to take on these qualities with its straight trunks and geometric shadows.
All these elements of nature I have discussed thus far are not necessarily the reason anyone comes to the park. In fact, it’s almost as though these magnificent trees and bushes are simply a bonus when you visit Yellowstone. They’re expected to be there and they’re certainly underappreciated for the foundation that they provide for everything else in the park. People come to Yellowstone for the last of the great American Bison, the geothermal features found nowhere else in the United States and a glimpse at the false sense of what was the wild west. How does such a majestic place house upwards of 4.2 million visitors every year5? They build gigantic lodges, visitors centers, parking lots and roadways that most visitors never leave. These places have gone through significant changes in mindset throughout the years but the goal has always been the same, accommodate as many people as comfortably and safely as possible.
Before the Parks Service, roads, lavish hotel rooms and the endless focus on “loops” there was the military. The military, specifically the US army, oversaw operations in the park from 1886 to 19186 and their presence is still widely apparent today. They were temporary managers because they were simply the only government organization that was equipped to handle the day-to-day activities in the park before the establishment of the National Parks Service within the Department of the Interior. One of the biggest legacies that the Army left on Yellowstone was the area that is now Mammoth Hot Springs. We visited Mammoth at the end of our journey on October 28th. If there is anywhere that I have spent the most time in the park, it’s Mammoth. The climate is milder than elsewhere in the park. There is less snow in the winter and it’s a little warmer in the summer. Mammoth and the area that surrounds it has a lower elevation than much of Yellowstone, sitting at about 6,700 feet above sea level.
This milder climate surely had an impact on the location of the Mammoth Hot Springs area, previously dubbed Fort Yellowstone. The outpost sits with a vantage point of the surrounding valleys below. The area is frequented by the park wildlife both as summer foraging grounds and wintering grounds. Location and food availability made it a logical choice for the US Army. Since the area was so well suited for its activities, there are no apparent changes that were made to the surrounding landscape to suit the Army’s needs.
The buildings at Mammoth are some of the most beautiful in the park. I am particularly fond of the Albright visitor’s center. I think it’s some of the finest architecture that I have seen, thus far in Montana (I guess technically Wyoming). Of course, I’m biased because the historical buildings in my hometown were all made of locally quarried sandstone. The building is simply timeless and it looks as good today as I’m sure it did in the first decade of the 20th century. Albright was even the subject of an architectural photography assignment that I did a few years ago. The building looks great throughout the day which I think also contributes to why it is such a great work of architecture. Warm morning sunlight adds another layer of color to the already brilliant sandstone, the long shadows add texture to the hand chiselled stone and the entire front of the building is illuminated. In the high midday sun, all sides of the building are illuminated, the bright sky contrasts to the cool stone and the flat light of the shadows allows you to take in every chisel and every seam of mortar with extreme detail. The windows of the building are made from a beautiful, old, single pane glass that has a quality of depth to it that no modern window can. Don’t even get me started on the red roof, even if it’s not original.
Overall, however, the architecture in the park is an eclectic mess of styles and time periods. Aesthetically, the worst of these time periods was the time that Mission 66 got to work on massive park improvements. Between 1956 and 1966 those bastards made millions of dollars of improvements on Yellowstone. The program was credited for the creation of the visitor’s center concept7 and partially responsible for equipping Yellowstone with the capability of handling the millions of visitors it does today. During that period, the name of the game was mid-century modern. The basic premise was big windows to showcase the surrounding area, show a little bit of the structure behind the buildings and above all just simply be different. Being different is where I think these awful buildings went so far off the rails.
The buildings and structures that were produced by Mission 66 were so different that they stood out on their own, apart from the landscape. This is perhaps the biggest downfall of the program. The Canyon Dining Hall and old Visitor’s Center is the first place that comes to mind when I think of Mission 66 architectural failures. It’s hallmark features are the giant wooden beams that unnecessarily anchor the buildings to the ground at a 45-degree angle. They create an immense waste of space that needs to be heated and cooled with sharp pointed ceilings. Although there are many windows, the ones that let the largest amount of the surrounding scenery in are at either ends of the buildings. On the sides of the buildings, under the unnecessary beams, are the other windows which are much shorter and let in very little light given the massive overhanging roof that practically covers them entirely.
These buildings have recently been renovated and revamped to bring back that oh-so-classic mid-century modern style of the 50s and early 60s. When you imagine the inside of these buildings today think of the Sterling Cooper office set in Mad Men. Shag carpet orange, coca cola red, avocado green, canary yellow, shiny pleather, exotically patterned wall paper, weird stools, uncomfortable plastic swivel chairs and linoleum flooring are all features of the interior. Of course, when we visited these buildings were all closed but I had the ‘pleasure’ of hanging around the interior in July. The windows were boarded up ready for the heavy, deep snow pack that was sure to come. The chipping brown painted wood beams looked out on a massive, lifeless parking lot.
The rustic architecture of many kiosks and lodges; the army buildings of Mammoth and elsewhere; and the modern buildings like the Old Faithful visitor’s center and the new Canyon Interpretive Center are all so much better than Mission 66. They pay homage to the landscape they’re a part of. The exposed log banisters, the wooden rocking chairs and the humbling stone fireplace of the Old Faithful Inn make you feel as if you’re walking through an extension of the landscape outside. The stone buildings of Mammoth and Madison match the surrounding rock. They don’t try and take away from the landscape that draws people in from all over the world, they complement it. The massive windows that let light and beauty in; the colors that match the trees, grasses and bushes; and the subtle shapes of the newer buildings do their best to blend right in to the surrounding scenery.
Mission 66 was all about utility. It was increasing the numbers of people who could drive through, park at and learn about the landscape feature that inspired so many to protect this area for future generations to enjoy. It might as well be the perfect principle for why I get so anxious when I think about going to Yellowstone. I want to see the park for what it is, a beautiful place that holds important ecosystems for a variety of unique plants and wildlife. I want to get out and explore and, in many ways, I can’t. The hordes of crowds have made it so I must stick to paved walkways and short gravel trails. The idea of going into Yellowstone and seeing just one other person while walking down a trail is totally hopeless. That’s what I love most about the wild, public places that we have in this country, they’re ours. We might share them with 300 million other people but we can find our nook or special spot with just a little bit of walking. It’s virtually impossible to do this in Yellowstone. Sure, there are backcountry trails in the park but often you can’t just park at the trailhead and walk down them without first obtaining a permit or waiting in line behind 30 cars at a stop sign that turns off to a popular attraction.
Yellowstone is a place with a little something for everyone, and I mean everyone. That’s great and I am proud that every American has that opportunity. However, I don’t always want to share a moment of transcendent beauty with 60 other people. I want to share that moment with a close friend or my thoughts. I want to have to work for it, not simply drive to it.
On October 28th, I ventured into Yellowstone to collect images and thoughts for this report. In many ways, I got what I wanted. There were few people and I had many moments to myself but I quickly realized that those moments were short lived. In just a few months, there would be another 4 million people making their way to see what I had seen from every corner of the world. Maybe that’s something that makes those moments extra special, but it still made me anxious about what’s to come.
1. Adam Gaffin, “The Wicked Good Guide to Boston English,” Boston University, https://www.bu.edu/mfeldman/Boston/wicked.html
2. “Big Sagebrush,” DesertUSA, https://www.desertusa.com/flowers/sagebrush.html
3. “Plants,” National Parks Service, August 17, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/plants.htm
4. Forest Jay Guana, “Plant of the Week: Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.),” United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/artemisia_tridentata.shtml
5. “Yellowstone National Park Visitor Statistics Page,” Yellowstone Up Close and Personal, http://www.yellowstone.co/stats.htm
6. “Timeline of Human History in Yellowstone,” National Parks Service, October 10, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/timeline.htm
7. “What is Mission 66?” Mission 66, http://www.mission66.com/mission.html