Douglas Scott | Oct 21st, 2021

This Week in Yellowstone: October 21st to October 28th, 2021

Here we are, looking at the second to last weekend in October. Visitation has dramatically decreased and colder air is back, baby! If you are visiting the park this week, this is what you need to know: This week, we dive into what the park was really like during the record setting summer visitation, take a look at the impact of winter snowcoaches and snowmobiles on the park’s wildlife, catch up on the fate of the grizzlies just north of the park and find a lesser-known view of a popular waterfall. Readers of this week’s post will also learn about recent bear den sightings in the park, where to catch a late season grizzly sighting, and find out where you can still camp. 

Give this a read, a share and get ready to visit America’s first National Park. If you want to support this weekly park series, please consider picking up or gifting a Yellowstone National Park Wildlife Watching guidebook!

BIGGEST NEWS OF THE WEEK

THE BUSIEST SUMMER IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK HISTORY

If you pay attention to the National Parks, you probably saw the news about Yellowstone breaking its annual visitation record at the end of September. For the first time in park history, over four million people entered the gates in the first nine months, taking in the sights, smelling the smells and witnessing the glory all around Yellowstone National Park. They saw incredible wildlife, watched the mind-boggling thermal features, and gazed at breathtaking waterfalls. In nine months, 4.4 million people visited and more often than not, fell in love with the park. 

They also got caught in traffic at the Madison Junction, waited over an hour to enter from West Yellowstone, struggled to find parking near Grand Prismatic and the other gems of the geyser basins. They paid high prices for hotel rooms, nearly skipped meals because restaurants were busy and understaffed, and dealt with life during the pandemic. Some people who visited the park definitely did not enjoy themselves. 

Both these things are true about the summer of 2021 in Yellowstone National Park. One of these narratives has been written about so often, the headlights might as well read: “ad nauseam.” 

As someone who visited the park at least once a week this summer, I felt this would be a good time to let you know what the park was really, truly like this summer. I have been coming to the park for 30+ years, in all seasons. I easily spend more days inside the park in a year than most do in their lives. I say this not to brag or boast, but to let readers who may not know me see that I spend a lot of time here and have for the majority of my life. I know what I am talking about. That being said, this is just my experience from 20+ trips into the park between June and the end of September. 

The long and short of it is, despite the record numbers, it mostly felt like a normal summer in the park. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was crowded, but not any more crowded than previous years. Grand Prismatic was a brutal place to find a parking space near the features, between the hours of 10am and 4pm. Long walks were often needed from the car to Old Faithful. 

The trails were used, with the well-known ones buzzing with excited people. The lesser known ones were empty, with remote mountain peaks and isolated canyons giving hikers a serious dose of solitude in this massive wilderness. Even animal/human incidents were few and far between, with the overwhelming majority not occurring to the busiest summer months. 

The main difference between this summer and previous summer was found at West Yellowstone and the Madison Junction. You’ll always find traffic at intersections, but this year the Madison Junction was truly ridiculous. There were daily waits of over an hour, just to get through a three way stop. Occasionally, park staff or volunteers would be out there directing traffic, but it was often too little, too late. The entrance at West Yellowstone was also a serious problem. Traffic was backed up into and through the entire town, filled with RVs, cars and trucks, idling and polluting the air as they sat in place, waiting to enter the pristine wilderness a mile away. 

Over 40% of all summer traffic enters the West Yellowstone gate, the other 60% is spread through the other four. Boosted by the advertising and draw of tourists to the towns of Bozeman and Big Sky, most people used Gallatin County as their basecamp. This is not to cast blame on them. Just the facts. The popularity of Bozeman has led to an increase in park visitation through West Yellowstone. It is the fastest way to get to Old Faithful and the lake from major highways.

West has always been a popular entry point during the summer. There is an IMAX, a wildlife encounter, museums, shopping, a McDonalds, as well as a bunch of hotels and restaurants. It is a tourist town made specifically by tourism for tourism to Yellowstone National Park. Nearly everyone who visits West Yellowstone enters the park. Most enter in the morning, each day. Over 40% of each day’s vehicles all descend on one spot within the same time frame. Then, in the evening, everyone starts to head back to town, turning left or right to drive back down the Madison River to town. This caused serious backups and a ton of frustration. This traffic, I feel, is what left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths when visiting the park.

All five park entrances were busy this summer, but not like West. I often entered through the gate in Gardiner and the only real reason I had to wait at all is because there was a construction project going on at the park entrance. They were building newer, larger entrance gates. Even with construction and the record crowds, the longest wait time I had all summer at Gardiner was 20 minutes. 

What is the takeaway from this? Be aware that West Yellowstone will continue to be a serious source of traffic in the coming years. Also know that without planning ahead, Gardiner, Montana will suffer the same fate, becoming ensured in traffic by people who want to fall in love with the place we all live near. It is easy to say we should limit people to these places, but they deserve to see it, smell it and wander the paths just like us. 


OTHER NEWS

An End to Winter Wildlife Surveillance? What it Means For the Return of Snow Travel

Most park visitors probably weren’t aware of this, but over the last six years, the park has been studying the impact of slowcoaches and snowmobiles on the wildlife of Yellowstone. During the study, over a thousand groups of wildlife and over 6,000 animals were observed. What they found was that bison and elk are fairly accustomed to snowmobile and snowcoach use, prompting managers to recommend ending the surveillance.

For some, this news leads to wishful thinking of the days when winter snow excursions into the Park were more accessible and frequent. The reports do look favorable. Similar monitoring, before the restrictions were put in place had found that roughly 91% of wildlife were observed to demonstrate no response or a “look and resume” response.

Ray McPadden, chief of Environmental Equality at Yellowstone says not so fast. “The fact that animals are showing little response to winter use won’t be a green light for the park to allow more snowmobile and snowcoach visitation.”

That probably won’t be happening any time soon. With the increase in visitation during peak season, the majority of park’s attention is being shifting to summer. For the animals in the park, winter is a stressful time, amplified by a lack of nutritious food and brutally cold weather. Reducing the stress any way we can is the way to go. Winters should continue to be the slow period, giving humans and animals, inside and outside the park, a needed time to focus on staying warm and alive.  

Update on the Paradise Valley Garbage Grizzlies

Last week, I shared a video showing a few grizzly bears frequenting a garbage area for the remote clusters of people in Montana’s Paradise Valley. In response to the bear issue, officials set up traps near the problem area. Thankfully, the bears did not return and appear to have moved on, deeper into wilderness. Hopefully, the bears survive the winter and forget all about the deliciousness and easy calories they found around this and other trash areas. If they do remember and make a habit of this, they will be either relocated or shot. More than likely they will be shot. I also am hopeful that this incident will spring the residents of the remote areas to come up with a solution that benefits all parties. 


WEATHER FOR THE COMING WEEK

This is the weather.com forecast for the three closest towns to the park- Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City, as well as the forecast for the lake region of the National Park. While the forecast does not specifically cover the entire region, these screenshots should give you a great idea of what to expect all around the region As always, weather can and does change fast in the park, so always be prepared for anything.


WILDLIFE WATCH

Grizzlies have been hanging out around in the areas near the Lake Butte Overlook. This spot on the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake is an underrated wildlife watching area and one you should check out. It tends to be overlooked, as the road heads out the east entrance, but you’ll be glad you ventured out this way. Combine this with a drive through Hayden Valley and you will see bison and elk, as well a potential for bears and even wolves. 

Up on the northern side of the park, the bison are on the move. Kind of. With the rut over, the bison and moving to areas where grass is more commonly found during the snowy months. This means you’ll be seeing bison near the Blacktail Ponds, around Slough Creek and Lamar Valley. Moose will be spotted out near Pebble Creek any day now, so head out that way.

One of the wildlife highlights this week is the creation and frequenting of a bear den near the Petrified Tree pullout. The den, used by a black bear sow and cubs, is pretty close to the road and while it is cool to see, please be as quiet as you can while stopping here. The bears have been moving in and out throughout the day, but if this spot gets too crazy, they will have to scramble and find a new spot at the last minute. Please do your best to make this as peaceful and as calm as possible for the safety and survival of the bears. 

Want the best tips and locations for wildlife sightings on your Yellowstone trip? Pick up a digital ebook or paperback copy of my wildlife watching guide now!


ROADS AND CAMPGROUNDS

Road wise, this weekend should be decent. It won’t be great, but it also shouldn’t be bad enough to close down the roads. It will be cold, cloudy and maybe even some rain or snow, but doesn’t look like it will be a big storm. Obviously, the severity of the small storm can change with each mile in the park, so keep a heads up that places like Craig Pass, south of Old Faithful, could potentially be closed for a few hours. Sylvan Pass out toward the east entrance may also experience very temporary closures if the weather is worse than forecasted. 

For up-to-date information consult the map above, call (307) 344-2117 for recorded information, or sign up to receive Yellowstone road alerts on your mobile phone by texting “82190” to 888-777 (an automatic text reply will confirm receipt and provide instructions). Anticipate possible road closures due to inclement weather and dangerous driving conditions.

Planning on camping in the park this week? 

If you are heading to the park to camp, you’ll only have two options of locations to choose from. From now until November 7th, visitors hoping to pitch a tent or park their van or RV can choose between Lewis Lake and the campground at Mammoth. Lewis Lake is scheduled to close on November 7th, but could close earlier if the weather starts getting bad enough. It probably won’t close early, though. Lewis Lake is also on the southern end of the park, which typically gets a lot less visitors this time of year. The 84 site campground has not been filling up, even on weekends, so this is your best bet for a more secluded campground. Mammoth has been filling up by the early afternoon hours, but with each passing day, the chances of encountering a full sign greatly decrease. You can also check the status of campgrounds in the park online here. 


HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

Gibbon Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Gibbon Falls is a nice roadside spot between Norris and Madison and one that I always recommend. The waterfall is super pretty, the walkway is nice and gives great views, and and any stop here is usually enjoyable. While this is a gorgeous place, there is another way to see this scenic spot that few people do. Just south of the pullout for Gibbon Falls, there is the Gibbon Falls picnic area. The road down may be closed, but there is a large pullout to use if this is the case. Once parked, make your way down one of the many footpaths to the river. From here, walk the path as far as you can. When the water is low, like it is right now, you can get within sight of the waterfalls, gaining a new appreciation for both Gibbon Falls and the Gibbon River. Keep in mind that this adventure is not on a real park trail. It is not maintained or frequent too often. Please keep more pristine than when you arrived, picking up any trash you see. Also, do your best to stay on the easy to follow path to limit the human impact on this pretty and overlooked area.  


TIP OF THE WEEK

Pop quiz: You round a corner in Yellowstone and see a bison herd next to the road. What do you do? What do you do? 

For many park visitors, seeing a bison, especially for the first time, is an amazing experience. Hell, after 30+ years of coming to the park, I still get very happy when I see one of these massive ungulates roaming the wild prairie. 

There are two schools of thought here. One is to stop and let them have their way. After all, it is their home. This route could mean sitting for hours, as bison will occasionally just lay down and rest on the pavement. This is not the preferred way. 

The best way, which has been recommended to me by Yellowstone Rangers, is to slowly approach the animal, stopping your vehicle only to let them move directly out of your way. Bison are very smart, and will eventually take the hint that the giant thing next to them wants them to move. Doing this carefully and slowly, without honking your horn or coming in contact with the animal, will encourage the bison to move off the road for you. This will also help the bison jam diminish for other stuck cars. If you are uncomfortable with this and are the first in line, pull off at the next pullout and let someone else take the lead. If you are in a bison jam and the car ahead of you is splitting the herd of bison, do not allow a lot of space between your cars. If you drop too far back, the herd will congregate on the road once more. Finally, if you see a bison jam on the other side of the road, do not stop. Even slowing down to take a quick picture for a second can lead to a long bison jam in both directions.


WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT YELLOWSTONE?

Curious about something not mentioned in the post? Send me an email or message on social media and let me know how I can help.