Heading back to Yellowstone after more than thirty years was exhilarating and sad. I took my family on a journey to my past, only to find that very little had remained the same. The Park had been repeatedly stricken over the years by forest fires, leaving the grandeur of the evergreens that lined the winding roads a fraction of their former glory.
Our trip began during the early morning hours on an unusually warm August morning. Driving across the endless crop fields of mid-Washington would have normally lulled me into a dreamy wanderlust state, but the onslaught of forest fires that engulfed the regions of British Columbia, Washington and the neighboring states of Idaho and Montana left this terrain dulled. There was no beauty here, just a dreary and bland beige canvas from foot to sky. My dreams of a beautiful countryside road trip were dashed the instant we emerge from the Cascade Mountain Range.
Racing against the flames just miles off the highway, we found ourselves in the small town of Missoula, a lovely town of friendly locals and wonderful food. We settled down for the night in a little known, but the highly treasured Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast, located off the beaten path along the Clark Fork River on the Northeast end of town. It was the perfect end to a long day of driving.
The following morning after a delicious artichoke frittata breakfast, we were off through the falling soot in hopes of breaking through to clear skies by the time we reached Wyoming.
We opted to enter Yellowstone National Park through the western entrance. I had visited most of the park during my childhood, except this region, and was excited to finally get a glimpse of the final missing piece. The Madison Range in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest borders the Montana side of the Park. It stands like a majestic castle wall blocking the entrance. Only a couple of roads lead directly into western Yellowstone. I highly recommend taking highway 287 down through the farm country and into the mountainous entrance before heading south to highway 191. The road was flanked by steep jagged mountains rendering us small and insignificant as we entered this forbidding and foreign world that belongs not to us, but to the creatures within. In my opinion, that’s a good thing.
We never completely escaped the smokey skies. Although Wyoming and parts of Montana were far clearer than any area on our trip, the haze was still present and at times, almost hid the picturesque Grand Tetons.
Our stay was short, only spending a few days filled with family and wedding festivities. After a final trip across Jenny Lake to the Hidden Falls, we headed to the North end of Yellowstone on our way to Glacier National Park. Ambitious in our quest, we tried to make it to the border of the Park by early evening. It never came to pass. A massive storm that rendered our visibility to no more than ten feet in front of our car, dashed all hopes of reaching our destination. We would have to save Glacier National Park for another road trip as we spent most of the evening trying to avoid the deer, skunks and raccoons that crossed the road every 100 feet. As the late night hours ticked away, we soon regretted taking the scenic roads of this beautiful and treacherous countryside.
Each town we entered had curled up and gone to sleep long before we arrived. With gas and spirits low, we finally came upon the small town of Choteau, and here is where we stayed, exhausted. Neither the stained floors nor the crisp scratchy sheets could turn us away. Although, this was luxurious compared to blood stained sheets we would encounter at our hotel in Coeur d’Alene. (Thankfully, the lady at the front desk was just as disgusted as we were by the horrendous house keeping and brought us an entire set of new linen and covers.) It was all mildly comforting, as home was the only cure for us.
We made great time sprinting through the center of Washington, still brown and smoked filled, before arriving home. By this time, Washington had its own set of fires filling the skies. With no rain, the air was thick and unhealthy. It would take another week before the winds shifted and brought us our first batch of summer rainfall.
Which brought me to this realization; if this was the new norm, then it could be a rough planet for all. Increasing park entrance fees won’t put a dent in the problem, nor will selling off the land for mining or extracting gas and oil. These public lands need protection, our protection.
Yellowstone National Park is a great example of a well managed system. The introduction of wolves in the 90’s and the careful management of other predatory animals like the grizzly bear, has enabled the Park and its species to rebound, reaching healthy population levels. Unfortunately, global warming has created its own new challenge which is causing great concern among wildlife biologists.
I have spent most of my life visiting National and State Parks, and I have never seen this level of destruction. It was heartbreaking , but educational, and has fueled my desire to continue our efforts to live a sustainable lifestyle and contribute to the conservation of our public lands, our endangered and threatened species, and all the wild spaces of our planet. I hope it inspires others to do the same.
For a great look at the amazingly harsh and beautiful landscape of Yellowstone National Park, watch The Great Yellowstone Thaw.
Cover photo by Elaine Anthonise