We reached Yellowstone National Park through the East Entrance and got our park passes and a map. Our hotel would be another hour’s drive through the Absaroka mountain range and Yellowstone forest, much of which was still charred from the great 1988 fire. Because the park has a policy of minimal intervention with nature, fires that are not human-originated are generally allowed to burn under controlled conditions, especially if they are relatively small. The fire of 1988 was a different story. It was widespread and chaotic, and, despite large firefighting efforts, ended up consuming nearly a third of Yellowstone’s old-growth flora.
Yet, the ashen, hauntingly lovely ghost-forest that I was driving through held its own undeniable allure.
In the decades that passed between the fire and my visit, nature had been busy behind the scene, doing her long project of patient, incremental restoration work. Among the towering corpses in that arboreal graveyard were telltale signs of rebirth: small shrubs, brand new underbrush (including the colorful “Indian Paintbrush”), a few inches of fresh, leafy trunk at the base of giant, white deadwood (tall conifers like spruce and lodgepole), small thickets of young green sapling among the gray specter of past vegetation.
Today, I wonder how much greener it must have grown in the years since I was there.
As we drove on, out of the Sylvan Pass, past Avalanche Peak and Grizzly Peak, past where the forest began to thin out, we noticed that the road we were traveling on (US Highway 14 or “Route 14”) was gradually turning along the coast of a vast, sparkling, steel-blue expanse of water. It was Yellowstone Lake, with its rippling waves gently crashing on a 140-mile shoreline of sand and rock. The largest high-altitude lake in North America, it can make its own rain clouds and weather, like a little ocean. Watching it from the car window, I thought it looked almost like an ocean, stretching all the way to the horizon, where distant purple mountains formed a delicate watercolor skyline.
Yellowstone Lake, Many Views. Photos by Koli Mitra
(click on any image to see it in full size)
While famous for many land animals –wolves, buffalo, moose, several types of bears–Yellowstone is equally teeming with aquatic and avian life. And one of the diverse ecosystems in the park is Yellowstone Lake, which is home, seasonally or perennially, to many species of native and migrant fish and waterfowl and a regular hangout for eagles, osprey, and other birds. The three islands on the lake, each of which is a habitat for a variety of plants and animals, are rich feeding grounds for ducks, geese, swan, and pelicans.
Birds of Yellowstone Lake. Photos by Koli Mitra.
Around noon, we reached Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a sprawling 19th Century structure (listed in the National Register of Historic Places), which stood on the northwest bank of the lake, oozing old-style elegance. It boasted an opulent dining room and a “sunroom” with panoramic windows overlooking the lake, where you could read, chat, enjoy the hotel’s cocktail service, even get a little writing done. A grand piano graced the room, and on some evenings, chamber ensembles and soloists gave live performances. The gift shop featured CDs of Native American music and paintings by local artists.
This would be our home in “Lake Country.”
While writing this piece, I’ve been thinking about how the park must have changed in the last several years. As it happens, there are some very recent, physical changes that I would NOT have expected. Record floods earlier this month caused the park to close for more than two weeks. As of this posting, it has only partially reopened and repairs are underway. Aside from damage to roads and other human-made structures, the shape of some of the waterways, marshes and other land features have reportedly morphed, though it’s unclear how lasting these effects will be. Change, as we all know, is part of nature’s way. Still, I can’t help feeling a pang of nostalgia. In that silly, human way, I long for my Yellowstone to stay the way I experienced it.
Operationally, nothing seems too drastically different, other than typical post-pandemic logistical issues that all organizations are facing and some predictable new tech (interactive park maps that used to live only on the park’s website are now available as phone apps, and they’re more interactive and up-to-date). But, in many ways, things are much the same as I remember. And that makes sense, given the preservation and continuity focused mission of the national parks.
Which brings me to the following observation: despite its policy of minimal human intervention, the park is clearly set up for maximal human enjoyment. The nearly 3500 square mile nature preserve (and World Heritage Site) is divided into several regions or “countries” for visitor service and management purposes. There are many lodging options and eateries in varying price ranges, museums, RV parks, horse stables, stores, ATMs, gas stations, medical facilities, even a post office. But these are sparsely distributed and conservation friendly. So, even with all these amenities, the world’s first and most iconic wild park is still genuinely a wild place and a biosphere reserve. Everyone who works in the park follows very strict rules of conduct in relation to the wild. Visitors are expected to do the same. No one is permitted to feed or interact with the animals, take geological artifacts, or leave behind food scraps, trash, or other tangible evidence of their presence. There are deep backcountry areas where only travel by foot or horseback is allowed and waters where only paddle boats are allowed. The idea is to observe the wild (and even do it comfortably, for those of us unable to go full-on rugged) while keeping our imprint light.
The park offers an array of programs led by its highly knowledgeable rangers. There are hikes, campfire activities, solar and stellar observing, informative tours of geological, ecological, and historical interest. Ranger stations and visitor centers are also excellent sources of advice on how best to explore Yellowstone on your own, according to your interests, physical condition, and time constraints. We only had a few days. So, to optimize that time and to keep things logistically manageable, we stayed in the more comfortable and conveniently located lodges (though I had initially considered at least one night on the campgrounds). We also skipped the backcountry (where the grizzly bears roam) and focused on exploring what was accessible by car or by short-to-moderate hikes from vehicle parking areas. Fortunately, these included many of Yellowstone’s iconic features… and then some. For the first half of our time in the park, the plan was to stay at Lake Yellowstone Hotel and make forays into the Canyon, Mammoth and Roosevelt regions.
On the first day, after we arrived and checked in, my friend decided to browse the artwork and books in the giftshop. But I headed straight for the lake. Miles from the park’s geothermal areas, this part of Lake Country had a high-altitude chill, even on that sunny July day. The lake itself was frigid to the touch as I sat on its shore and ran my hand over the edge of its lapping waves. I knew it would be. The ancient glacier-carved lake is known to always be frigid (swimming and wading in it are strongly discouraged). But I had to touch it, even if for a moment.
Two hours quickly passed watching aquatic birds, faraway mountains in the skyline, the island in the lake’s center, and a delightful boulder that looked like a partially submerged hippopotamus. And taking pictures. And breathing in, deeply.
It was time for me to meet up with my friend again. We would soon be headed out for an afternoon–spilling into evening–of photo safari in Lamar Valley, known as the North American Serengeti…
(to be continued…)