“National Parks” is a large concept, and my exposure is limited. For instance, when in
Kawaii Kauai a few years back, we walked out on a peninsula to see some birds and a light house. Much to my disappointment, I had to pay to enter, as I had left my Golden Age passport at home. The tiny enclave is a national park.
When I think of NPs I think big, sweeping, massive complexes like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone/Grand Teton, Yosemite/Sequoia, and Glacier/Waterton Lakes, places I have experienced, the Smokies only for a day. Since that is my experience, that is how I will write this.
The mission of National Parks is twofold, one to preserve unique areas, but also to allow as much human interface as possible. The two goals seem incompatible. If you have been to Yellowstone in July, down in the caldera that houses the canyon, falls, and Old Faithful, it is madness. Cars, campers, motor homes and tour buses are everywhere, and even just parking is usually a challenge. All these people have to eat and sleep, mostly in beds, though there are large campgrounds in the area.
This year, as part of the coronavirus hoax, facilities were shut down, and only gas stations, a few eating and grocery places were left open. “Concessionaire” campgrounds were left open, but those run by the park service were closed (without notice). As a result, while it was still a madhouse, it was less insane than in a normal year. The drive between West Yellowstone, Montana and the famous destinations inside the park was like the Long Island Expressway, a very long parking lot. Hotels were open in West Yellowstone.
That is, for most, the National Park experience. I read once that in Yosemite Valley (in the early 90s) there were 19 liquor stores. So I want to share two of my own experiences.
First, 1990, Yosemite/Sequoia. I was in San Jose to work with a client, and so used the opportunity for a side trip. I had just quit smoking, and wanted reasons to not think about that. I was up to my eyeballs in sunflower seeds and carrots. I did two long hikes, one through redwoods near Wawona Lodge, where I stayed. There, in the lobby area, was a piano player and drinks and people who seemed very wealthy. I did not feel comfortable there, no one’s fault but my own. I kept to myself. It was a luxurious stay. These were fancy people, and the hotel featured all the amenities including valet parking.
While there I hiked several miles to a waterfall, and once there made my way to the brink, and sat. I enjoyed that solitude, to a degree. In one of the busiest park complexes in the country, I saw few other people on that hike. If you want to be alone, truly alone, try hiking the back country of a national park.
Back in Yosemite Valley I did another hike, this to Vernal and Nevada Falls, called the Mist Trail. The scenery was stunning. I had it in mind that I would go as far as the backside of Half Dome that day, but that was naive. Such a long hike was far too strenuous for my newly-freed lungs. I stopped at Nevada Falls. There were many people there, mostly young, mostly well dressed, mostly coupled. It seemed to be a mating ritual, as these young and attractive couples were all on their way to evening coitus. Or maybe behind a rock on the spot. It was not at all like my Montana wilderness experiences. In my home state, the back country was usually occupied by backpackers of strong odor and advanced beard growth.
On the way back down the trail I came across a backpacker, smelly and unshaven, tattered and worn clothing and boots. More like it!, I thought. This was the experience I wanted but did not have time for, back country.
But that is the National Park experience. You can have scenery and solitude, or hotel lobbies and drinks and pianos, as the dual mission of the Park Service is to meet these conflicting goals. In Yellowstone, there is a grand loop, a highway that gets visitors to all the major attractions, and many minor ones too. The speed limit is 45 mph, and slow-moving motor homes and “bear jams” are frequent, so don’t ever be in a hurry. There are many more attractions and scenery off the roads, never seen by most.
Glacier National Park is unique in that it is an “international peace park,” sharing the northern border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes Park. The actual glaciers are few (and small by world standards), but the silt that results adds a milky color to rivers and deep hues of green and blue to some of the lakes. It is beautiful. I remember being told in grade school that the Park’s glaciers were disappearing, as if something was wrong. They’ve been shrinking since the bottom of the Little Ice Age.
I’ve only backpacked in Glacier once, and in my later years, so the distance was limited. Montana is a huge state, and the distance from Bozeman to Glacier was equivalent of that from LA to San Francisco. While hiking I go into fat-burning mode, and so after a trip like that I am famished, ready for real food as opposed to freeze-dried mountain meals. On this trip I learned a very important thing from our hiking companion Paul: Moose Drool beer, a dark brew made in Missoula by Big Sky Brewing Company, goes really well with a cinnamon roll. I had no idea. The other was a small bakery just down the road from the trailhead, the Polebridge Mercantile, truly in the middle of nowhere. There I had a ham and pineapple sandwich. I’ve never tasted anything that good. That is what fat burning does. It contains the appetite until it is set free after the trip. While hiking I don’t experience much hunger, but after, everything tastes good. The body is demanding to get its fat stores back.
I traveled to Waterton in my earlier life, and visited the Prince of Wales hotel, a very British place as my young eyes viewed it. It was plush, and had in it shops that sold china and jewelry. I was surprised to find that a national park was really a destination for very wealthy people. Who else would buy china while on the road? (The same people who buy luggage at airports?) Perhaps this guy to the right does that. He is a noted visitor, along with his mother, to this luxurious hotel.
This again is the conflicting nature of our national parks, to offer a true (even dangerous) natural experience, and fine cuisine served on exquisite china for people who travel for other purposes.
The real Yellowstone: In the late 90s a friend and my son and his friend did a backpacking trip that took us down the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake and over to Heart Lake before returning to civilization. It takes but five minutes of walking, anywhere in the chaos of Yellowstone, to be alone. This trip was through grizzly country, and we were duly cautious. We started at the red arrow above, crossed the Yellowstone River at the blue, stayed at Heart Lake (green) and came out near Grant Village (yellow).
Walking a lake shore is generally flat, offering little visual excitement. The Park Service only allows camping in designated sites, each one containing a latrine and a bear bar, that is, a place to hoist our food at night, out of reach. That’s really useful. On a map the camp sites seemed close to one another, but on the ground they are isolated and far apart. I do not recall seeing other backpackers on that trip, which must have been sixty miles or more, much of it walking within sight of the lake. Most people used guides and were on horseback. They can bring creature comforts that we could not afford. I think of that as the “fill my hand” experience, where in the evening after the day’s journey is done I merely extend my open hand to see it magically filled by a beer. I do not denigrate that. In Yellowstone’s southwest is the Bechler area, and fill-my-hand llama trips are available. We are considering it, since international travel is apparently no longer allowed in our rebooting world.
The south end of Yellowstone lake hosts the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. I imagined that so far back in wilderness it would be a small stream. But no, it is major, perhaps a hundred feet of current to get through. We had to cross it, and we had two young boys to look out for. My friend Steve, an amazing athlete (a college baseball player, East Carolina), tied a rope to his belly and swam the river, connecting the rope to a tree on the other side. We were then able to make three trips across, carrying the packs for the two boys. They could have carried their own, but I wanted to take no chances, at least with someone else’s kid. They crossed without packs.
Had it been June instead of August the river would be been too high and ice cold. That would have been the end of the journey. If you are interested in making this trip, I would advise to do so in late summer.
In a couple of days were at Heart Lake, which to me appears to be shaped nothing like a heart. The boy were starving (I had not provided enough food for them for the trip). While out on their own they caught a huge cutthroat trout, and built a fire right on the spot, cooked and ate it. That was all illegal, I might add. Cutthroats are catch and release only. My son told me it was the first time he understood the urge to hunt. It is the survival instinct, and it is in all of us.
While camped at Heart Lake, during the night we heard tiny bells* in the distance. As I was told, rangers would ride the trails in that area at night, keeping the grizzlies at a distance, for our protection. That offered comfort. I don’t know if it was a temporary response to a human/bear interface, or a permanent service.
(*One of my own more uncomfortable experiences, Steve and I in the mid-80s were heading into bear country, and came across a man on a horse at the trailhead. He was impressive in size and bearing, and I had to look up to see his face high off the ground. I had bear bells on my pack, he had a rifle on his saddle. As we parted company he said “I see ya gotcher bear bells.” Yes, I had them, and felt six inches tall.)
This is, in my own limited experience, the National Park way … crazy tourism, and solitude, even danger, off the highway. I don’t often fawn over government agencies, as they are just bureaucracies, and the National Park Service is surely that. But down the line you will find part-time people who lead day hikes and take people to close-in destinations like geysers and waterfalls. Up the line from that are full-time rangers, often naturalists, who study the landscape, wildlife and fauna, and strive to preserve it against the tourist element. These people are there due to love of nature.
These men and women often live all year in the parks, and do good work. I wonder what Yellowstone would be like had it not been preserved as a park in 1872. What I envision is this: Gated communities, fences, NO TRESPASSING signs, natural wonders and lake shores closed off to the public, helicopters and landing pads, a virtual Hyannis Port west. To a degree this has happened in Grand Teton National Park, where Jackson Lake Lodge is a meeting place for the world’s wealthiest, a place where Al Gore can go to contemplate saving the environment from the people occupying the luxury suites adjacent to his. To get from Yellowstone to Grand Teton Park, you take the John D. Rockefeller memorial highway. He owned the land on either side, perhaps his family still does.
That we have National Parks is a good thing. Without that protection, so much of the scenic and wild natural landscape would have long ago been privatized and kept off-limits to people like me. That the mission of the National Park Service is conflicted, to allow millions of tourists while attempting to preserve the natural features is just modern life. They do a good job, in my view.
Anyone can do what we did, strap on a pack and leave civilization. It takes but five minutes in Yellowstone, a bit longer in Yosemite, but each step away from the highway offers a little more solitude and danger. National Parks are wild animals, amazing scenery, raging rivers, liquor stores and ice cream stands, and in Canada a place to buy your fine china.