Even people with outdoor horizons stretching no farther than their backyards know that Yellowstone is the American wilderness. Started as an elitist game reserve, Yellowstone has become a national icon and a paradoxical blend of maximum accessibility and majestic isolation.
Yellowstone is America's--and the World's--first national park. Established in 1872 to preserve unique geothermal features and rapidly dwindling wildlife, Yellowstone was initially accessible only to "swells" with the money to hire guides and resources to outfit extended horseback or hiking expeditions. Road building began in 1878 to accommodate horse-drawn stages filled with a growing number of well-heeled tourists. The first automobile clattered its way through the spruce forests in 1915, opening Yellowstone's grandest spectacles to the less wealthy but nonetheless eagerly waiting American--and international--public.
The automobile remains a dominating influence in Yellowstone's development. Generations of sightseers have delighted in touring the park roads, laid out to connect so many of the splendors that define our national image of this "wilderness wonderland." Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin, Fountain Paint Pot, Fishing Bridge, and the ubiquitous Old Faithful--all essential to understanding Yellowstone's nature--have become drive-in attractions. As one old saw puts it: "For most folks, Yellowstone is 200 miles long and 30 feet wide."
Today, more than 2 million people visit the park annually, the vast majority succumbing to the Great Yellowstone Paradox: In the midst of so many millions of acres of Nature's most remarkable handiwork, most folks never explore more than a quarter-mile beyond the road. Tourists jostle in the bleachers around Old Faithful, queue up to shop for souvenirs in the concessionaires' stores, jam the boardwalks spanning the thermal pools, and poke video cameras out of minivans stalled in miles-long "buffalo jams." The 1 percent willing to extend their horizons just a bit beyond the front country can savor, often entirely by themselves, the most remote and pristine landscape in the continental United States.
IDayhike out across the Lamar River Valley, in the park's isolated northeast corner. Take the Specimen Ridge Trail, keeping solitary Soda Butte behind your left shoulder. The road, and the civilization that spawned it, quickly fades. Walking the nearly level open prairie is an incredible experience for people used to crowded urban confines or shadowed forests. The open aspect and expansive vistas sweeping to the far-off, snow-frosted mountains give a feeling of absolute freedom. Dusty-green sagebrush and tall, yellowed grasses carpet the earth, interspersed with ground squirrel holes. A bone pile marks the spot where a grass-eater paid dues to Yellowstone's predators.
The Lamar is America's Serengeti--a vast plain running into the hazy distance, dotted with free-roaming herds of buffalo, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Wolves and grizzly bears haunt the hills flanking the valley and descend to cull the weakest. Out in the Lamar, the few human visitors are simply one more species caught up in the play of life and death. Enjoying this exhilarating adventure requires observing common sense rules of behavior.