I spent three weeks in* Yellowstone National Park and this is what I learned
By Madeline Hartley – January 30, 2023
*I stayed in Gardiner, Montana, a village of about 800 permanent residents, nestled at the Roosevelt Gate entrance to the Park. A piece of my heart will stay in this National Park long after I leave, protected by the spirit of the Park and its wilderness.
In June 2022 the Yellowstone River experienced historic flooding. Flash floods have immediate impacts to housing, local businesses and ecology, and often also human and animal life. Perhaps the only saving grace of the June floods was that there were no human casualties.
The flood caused such severe erosion that it undercut and destroyed the road between Gardiner and Mammoth WY, the even smaller hamlet that sits within “the Park”, as the locals affectionately call it. The twin communities were cut off from each other for 4.5 months. Families were separated, people isolated from essential services based in one community but servicing both, and the north entrance closed.
Both communities lost road access and power initially. Mammoth WY remained without power for days, food spoiled, and the nearest accessible grocery store was over two hours’ drive. Gardiner’s drinking water was contaminated for weeks due to Mammoth’s sewer pipes rupturing.
The flood occurred at the start of the busy summer season, causing an abrupt and immediate end to the season that was just beginning, which in turn resulted in refunds and lost revenue. Although still physically intact, the flood financially decimated the communities of Gardiner and Cook City, both 100% economically reliant on tourism. Cook City is an even smaller hamlet, situated 50 miles north of Mammoth and past North-East Entrance to the Park.
For the third consecutive season – the first two being due to the covid-19 lockdowns – tourism to Gardiner and Cook City is significantly lower than usual.
These communities are hurting through this winter season, the slowest in several years for many businesses. Shops are shut; tour dates are wide open. They need your tourism dollar. These are smart, hard-working people who invite you to experience the wolves, bears, otters, coyotes, foxes, owls, and elk of the Park in the most genuine and educational way.
So when you visit – and you should – think, act and buy local. Ask for local guides (not always the case). Stay in local accommodation (investment vacation rentals are on the rise, impacting the viability of local accommodation options). Buy your produce locally: in Cook City, Wooka’s Wild Eats and Cooke City Coffee both offer delicious blizzard-worthy food options, including for the gluten free crowd.
Support the business community, from the authentic Montana-made chai tea at Bear Brews, to the elk chilli at Wonderland Cafe, the cinnamon scrolls at Montana Goods and Grindz and the snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals at Park’s Fly Shop. Gardiner has cafes, galleries, boutiques and even a hairdresser and nail salon by appointment and they all need your support.
You’ll be rewarded by history, science, conservation, community and biologists waiting to share their knowledge to ensure you have a life-changing experience.
Summer, autumn, winter and spring, Yellowstone National Park befits its place in history as the birthplace of National Parks and nature conservation. It’s In our Nature* to want to explore the outdoors, which is also, literally, our nature as public lands. The nature and its protectors are here and waiting for you, and this winter is the perfect opportunity.
Points to note: Wildlife watching and tours
- Be quiet and respectful of other visitors when wildlife watching. Your best chance of seeing wolves is by listening for the howl, watching for the ravens waiting to scavenge, or patiently scanning the landscape.
- Book tours ahead (usually more than 24 hours) to ensure availability and the best experience. Without a tour, you’re more likely to mistake a coyote for a wolf and miss the truly incredible experience of seeing a wolf – or an entire pack – in the wild.
- Note that a more expensive tour might not offer the same quality as a smaller, intimate (and often less-expensive and less-crowded) experience.
- Come willing to pay for local knowledge. The well-educated ecologists, biologists and guides rely on your business to survive and are understandably reluctant to give free tips about the best watching spots or an in-depth history of the Park. Respect their business and the communities’ economy.
Points to note: Driving
- Drive safely and to the conditions, which can change rapidly.
- Use the pull-outs to let cars overtake (there’s usually a pull out every mile designed to stop and wildlife watch or let cars pass).
- Don’t stop in the middle of the road to look at wildlife.
- Move slowly through bison jams.
*While at Yellowstone National Park, I had the privilege of doing a multi-day tour with In Our Nature Guiding Services. While skiing, snow-shoeing and wildlife watching, we saw wolves (including herding and chasing a bull elk and (separately) being tagged as part of the Wolf Study), coyotes, foxes, bison, elk, deer, birds, mountain goats, pronghorns, big-horn sheep and a hibernating bear. The guide’s knowledge of the animals, their habitat, the finely balanced Yellowstone ecosystem and the history of the National Park made for an unforgettable, educational and emotional experience. This summer, they’re offering multi-day guided wildlife watching tours and hikes through the Park, and partnering with local accommodation and catering services to ensure visitors have an easy, memorable and curated stay.
**This is not a paid advertisement, however, the author is an international friend of the owner of In Our Nature Guiding Services.