By JIM ROBBINS
June 15, 2016
IN 1870, A BAND OF officials from the newly formed territory of Montana set out to explore the headwaters of Yellowstone River. They camped, hiked and were gobsmacked by swarms of wildlife and erupting geysers. One night, over cigars, they mused about securing the rights and selling this fantastic piece of real estate. But one team member, Cornelius Hedges, a Montana attorney, had another idea. He felt “the whole ought to be set apart as a great national park.” Mr. Hedges later co-led the campaign to create, in 1872, Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first.
The national park system, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has turned out to be one of the best ideas in American history. It is, arguably, too successful; these days, crowds are practically overrunning the secluded park those first explorers experienced. Last year visitors thronged Yellowstone in record numbers—more than 4 million, 15% more than 2014. “We’ve been surprised by the size of the increase,” said Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk. The surge is likely due, in part, to promotions of the centennial. More people in the park leads to something called greenlock—gridlock in nature. Hotels and campgrounds are often full, and traffic can be nightmarish. I once saw a line of idling cars close to a mile long because tourists were stopping to ooh and aah over a knot of bison along the road.
Related Reading: Yosemite Slammed: Record Crowds Make America’s National Parks Hard to Bear This year could set another record. Still, it’s possible to experience Yellowstone without getting caught in the crush. After decades spent wandering all over this 3,500-squaremile park, I’ve gleaned a few key lessons on how to make the most of a Yellowstone visit.
The first word of advice is: September. The second is: October. After Labor Day, the families have mostly departed and, as the fall days cool and shorten, the crowds grow even thinner. You’ll see Yellowstone in a new light, figuratively and literally.
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