UPDATE: Please see updated information about Yellowstone on my new blog, Everyday Wanderer.
As the National Park Service prepares to turn 100 on August 25th, America’s first national park has been a fixture in the news. Unfortunately, Yellowstone‘s coverage hasn’t been about the hundreds of animal species that roam the naturally wild 3,500 square foot park, nor has it been about the park’s largest collection of geysers in the world. It’s been about humans behaving badly. From the father and son who put a newborn bison calf into their car (ultimately leading to its death) to the Canadian filmmakers who trampled on the Grand Prismatic Spring, the negative impact of their disrespect is profound.
If you’re one of the four million visitors planning to take in the raw, natural beauty of Yellowstone this year, follow these three, simple tips to prevent your name from appearing in the next negative headline from Yellowstone.
1. Respect the wild animals. Yellowstone is not a petting zoo. It is a national park that allows wild animals to roam freely in a natural habitat. Keep your distance — 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other animals. Close the distance between you and the animals using binoculars and long camera lenses.
A bison may look harmless enough, but he can jump up from a lush meadow and sprint after you at 40 mph in the blink of an eye. Usain Bolt clocks in at 28 mph, so don’t get cocky about your ability to outrun a 2,000 pound bison, the largest land animal in North America! Both male and female bison have sharp horns that they use to fight, and they will use them to attack tourists that invade their space or get too close to their calves. Every year, tourists are gored by bison at Yellowstone, and some have even been killed.
Bears are dangerous and also faster than Usain Bolt. Before visiting the Park, read up on bear safety so you know what to do if you are lucky enough to see a bear. If you encounter a bear while driving through Yellowstone stay in your car!
Because you are keeping your distance and respecting the animals, this should go without saying, but do not feed the animals, try to pet the animals, back up to an animal for a selfie, or imitate other animals (like a wolf howl). Instead, quietly enjoy the opportunity to see a variety of amazing, wild animals in their natural habitat. Ultimately, this will result in greater interaction with the animals as they peacefully go about their day.
Yellowstone receives most visitors between May and August when the animals born in the spring are still quite young. If you are lucky enough to see a baby bison, elk, bear, or other creature, expect that a very protective mother is nearby.
2. Stay on the boardwalks. With more than 10,000 geysers, mudpots, steam vents, and hot springs, Yellowstone is home to the world’s largest collection of geysers and geothermal water. The boardwalks in the geothermal areas aren’t simply a suggestion or for your convenience, they are for your safety and to protect the delicate area. While some of the pools look cool and inviting, they are the exact opposite, boiling hot.
Despite signs in multiple languages and illustrated warnings, I’ve watched tourists at nearly every geothermal area step off the boardwalk and into dangerous territory to take selfies. This is both destructive and dumb, and more than 20 people have died from injuries related to the scalding water at the Park.
If you are visiting Yellowstone with young children, pay extra attention to them on the boardwalk. In a few cases, children have slipped or otherwise fallen off of the boardwalks to injury and even one death.
Last summer we faced an interesting dilemma while touring the geysers in the Lower Geyser Basin. As we walked along the boardwalk from the Celestine Pool to Red Spouter, a full-grown male bison trotted up the boardwalk among the crowd of visitors. We couldn’t step off the eight foot wide boardwalk, and we couldn’t exactly give him his mandatory 25 yards of space. He stepped off the boardwalk by the Red Spouter and wallowed in the dirt, something that bison do to leave their scent and help remove their winter coat. He then posed for many photos and watched all of us for quite some time. (The four-foot-high fencing you see in the background of this photo actually encircles the Red Spouter.)
3. Leave no trace. The National Park Service’s Leave No Trace program includes seven points that helps protect our vast, amazing wilderness. While I recommend understanding and taking all seven principles to heart before embarking on your adventure to a national park, these two points are the ones I want to reinforce here: dispose of your waste and leave what you find.
Be sure to put your trash, recycling, and food scraps in designated receptacles. If the appropriate bin isn’t available, keep the items in your car until one is available. It might seem harmless to leave a banana peel or apple core behind since they decompose, but they can attract bears (often resulting in the animal ultimately being killed) and are not part of any of the wild animals’ indigenous diet.
The wild beauty of Yellowstone means you’re likely to encounter wildflowers, antlers, bones, rocks, pine cones, arrowheads, and other artifacts. Not only is it illegal to remove any natural or cultural artifacts from any national park, but if each of the four million annual park visitors picked just one wildflower, that’s four million fewer flowers for the animals and insects that depend upon them. That’s also a lot fewer flowers for the other visitors to the park. Let those who come after you enjoy the same amazing experience by leaving everything as you found it, and capture the moment by taking pictures, writing down your experience, or sketching a picture instead.
While a few humans have recently made headlines for behaving badly at Yellowstone, I believe that the vast majority of the Park’s visitors want to experience and preserve its wild beauty. I hope these three, easy-to-remember tips will help you enjoy your experience to the fullest, and stay out of the news.