Yellowstone 2 of 3: The American Serengeti, Mammoth to Tower Falls
National Park: Yellowstone
The next theme of Yellowstone is that of vast, intractable wilderness that hosts the most intact ecosystem in the continental United States. Bison, which used to number in the hundreds, now graze by the thousands alongside elk, pronghorn, deer and moose while eagles and osprey circle over miles of lush grassland. Coyotes, black bears and grizzlies scour mountainsides in search of a variety of vegetation, ground squirrels or a distracted marmot. And Yellowstone’s returned kings, the wolves, have now reclaimed the entire Park and some of the West but are most commonly seen in their original reintroduction site, the remarkable Lamar Valley.
In these grand mountain valleys, the visitor is treated to the most extraordinary wildlife viewing our country has to offer. In 2 days, one could quite easily see a majority of the animals listed above. This environment functions like it should and you feel it; spending time in the northern reaches of Yellowstone is a spiritual experience where you are forced to acknowledge the beauty of wild, untamed nature.
North of Mammoth, you can quickly access the town of Gardiner and the small sliver of Yellowstone that resides in southern Montana. If you’re heading from Mammoth towards Gardiner, the alternate route (a one-way, easily missed dirt road) is certainly the way to go. Immediately, you are removed from any crowds and are treated to magnificent views of the wild expanse of Yellowstone’s rolling mountainsides. In general, any time there is a one-way, off-the-beaten-path road in the national parks, take it. During the leisurely drive, I saw pronghorn and a nursery of mother elk and their calves; locals say they see wolves hunting along the hillsides frequently.
The large stone arch that marks Yellowstone’s north entrance is of significant historical note. The first heavily used entrance to the Park, Gardiner also served as the gateway to Yellowstone for President Roosevelt during his multi national park tour in 1903. The arch was under construction during his visit to Yellowstone and Roosevelt was asked to place the structure’s cornerstone, which covered a time capsule containing a bible, picture of Roosevelt and local newspapers. Roosevelt gave an impassioned speech in defense of the parks, re-iterating Congress’ pledge to protect these places “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” That iconic phrase, which exemplifies the democratic qualities of the National Park Service, now adorns this portal to our Nation’s first park.
I overheard a Yellowstone ranger calling the Lamar Valley the absolute best place to view wildlife in the lower 48 states. If you are interested in seeing the West’s large (and small) creatures, you need to spend time here. A single road stretches from Tower Junction to Yellowstone’s northeast entrance; expect to stop for bison crossings, bear jams or the sight of the Park’s dedicated cohort of wolf trackers. With almost no development, this is one of Yellowstone’s most wild and accessible regions. The rich and immense grassland supports large numbers of the Park’s bison, pronghorn, deer and elk. Consequently, coyotes, bears, wolves and scavengers are also found in abundance.
Wolves rejoined the ecosystem in 1995 after 7 decades of absence as a result of one of the world’s most successful reintroductions. Ushered into the park underneath the Roosevelt Arch, the wolves first (re)touched Yellowstone ground in the Lamar Valley. It is still the most likely place to see wolves in Yellowstone and being on the lookout at dawn and dusk increase your chances. If you see a clump of spotting scopes, pull over; wolf watchers either have a wolf in their sights or are eagerly awaiting one to re-emerge from the brush. Following these wolf enthusiasts is your best chance to see a wolf as anything more than a speck moving across a distant mountainside.
Even if you do not see a wolf during your time in the Lamar Valley, you will still be amazed by its diversity and concentration of wildlife. You will surely leave thankful that the National Park Service and previous generations were able to have the foresight to save these magnificent creatures who were so close to the brink of eternal destruction. Traveling to Yellowstone gives people the chance to see what the American West once was and what it could return to if we amp up conservation efforts in our country.