Below please find a piece that I wrote in April of 2005 about our first trip to Yellowstone National Park. I decided to share it in honor of Yellowstone’s birthday coming up on Friday. (Please excuse any of the outdated cost information found in here as the piece is about 14 years old.) Enjoy!
Unemployment equals time minus money. In 2002, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I faced a summer calendar randomly decorated with a handful of interviews, but mostly the dark black numerals stared back at us yelling out our available time.
One night at dinner early in the summer, Steve said, “Let’s do it. Let’s drive out to Yellowstone and go camping. What else do we have to do?”
A smirk of surprise hopped on my face and I replied, “Can we afford it? There’s gas, food, camping fees, and park fees.”
“When else in our lives will we be able to take off for a couple of weeks? Besides that, we have to pay for food and gas even if we stay in town.”
A few weeks later, we loaded up our Nissan Maxima with the essential camping gear, cooler of food, and maps in hand.
After several days of driving and making a few fun stops, we rolled into Yellowstone National Park. I had always heard about this park – the buffalo roaming all over; the bears surprising visitors randomly; the old times when rich people took the train and stayed in lodges; Old Faithful going off every 90 minutes; kids pointing at herds of elk; and the ability to gaze at millions of stars that ignite the nights.
From a distance, you could see the grand stone building standing high above all else in the area. The Roosevelt Arch seemed to wave us towards the park as we continued to drive closer. The Roosevelt Arch debuted as the first major entrance for Yellowstone at the north side. Before 1903, trains would bring visitors to Cinnabar, Montana, located a few miles northwest of Gardiner, Montana (just outside the northwest entrance of Yellowstone. People would climb onto horse-drawn coaches in Cinnabar and then ride to enter the park. In 1903, the railway finally came to Gardiner, and people entered through an enormous stone archway. Robert Reamer, a famous architect in Yellowstone, designed the immense stone arch for coaches to travel through on the way into the park. At the time of arch’s construction, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the park. He consequently placed the cornerstone for the arch, which then took his name. “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people” inscribed at the top of the Roosevelt Arch, which comes from the Organic Act of 1872, the enabling legislation for Yellowstone National Park.
After driving under the famous Arch, we pulled the Nissan up to the tollbooth-like station. A ranger donned in their usual Stetson hat and uniform greeted us hello and gave us our maps. Steve pressed lightly on the gas pedal and we crept further into Yellowstone National Park.
Around the next bend, a herd of about 50 elk strolled across the two-lane road. We paused in delight to witness such wildlife. The male antlers towered several feet in the air. The female elk guarded their young elk closely.
America created Yellowstone National Park, our first national park, in 1872. In 1873, 500 people visited America’s first national park. By 1888, Yellowstone hit a record number of 6,000 visitors. In 2004, 2,900,971 people journeyed to Wyoming to visit this park.
As we traveled through this park, I visualized who traveled here over 100 years ago and who traveled to this amazing this amazing area over the last century. Were these people all rich and loved to travel? Did any of them camp like us? How did they get around the park before the invention of automobiles? Questions swarmed my heard of the past while balancing my eyesight on the breathtaking views.
I tried to picture myself here if I visited the park in the late 1800’s. Would I be a hunter, trapper, or poacher as those who comprised the visitation demographics during that era? When Yellowstone first opened its doors, people could hunt within the national park. Today, rangers will arrest people for hunting in efforts to help preserve animal life. The other types of visitors back then included the wealthy train visitors. Few people could afford the $116.75 train ticket from Omaha, Nebraska to Corinna, Montana in 1873.
Local residents of nearby towns also made random visits to the area using their own wagons, horses, carriages, or pack animals. Other visitors included military officers from not only the United States military, but also from European countries’ military forces. I imagined riding a wagon or escorting my military husband back then. I do know that Yellowstone really struggled with a target audience and sustaining visitation rates over the early years. Visitation numbers fluctuated throughout this time.
As Steve and I continued to drive through Yellowstone, I noticed the other cars originated from all states. We must have seen at least 30 states. Their automobile license plates looked as diverse as this landscape around us.
I had always envisioned the early visitors only stayed at the lodges. However, in 1905, visitors split down the middle between camping and lodging. Nearly half of the visitors at this time camped during their Yellowstone visit.
Over 80 years ago, Yellowstone allowed automobiles (like our little Nissan) to enter the park in 1915. With the usage of cars, an increase of visitation occurred that created another need in the park – lodging for all these new visitors. Democracy came to Yellowstone in 1926 with the creation of the Lake Lodge. Prior to this time, visitors only had the options of the luxurious Lake Hotel or rustic tent camps. Lake Lodge offered guests intermediate style of lodging.
In order for the park to promote accommodations and also reach out to all classes, they created three-tiered system of accommodation including: 1. hotel or chalet system for sleeping and dining; 2. a system of permanent camps where the traveler slept in tents, but ate in dining rooms; and 3. facilities for individual campers who rented a tent and cooked their own food. Also, the park suggested a “village” prototype to congregate the needs for travelers into local areas called villages. In addition to the lodging changes, the automobile brought new demographics to the park – the middle class. Essentially, these three options targeted the three classes of visitors of the time – upper, middle, and lower.
In 1916, the government created the National Park Service (NPS) and offered a concerted, business-like approach to the operation of the national park system. At this time, NPS took Yellowstone to a new level and the visitors responded in person each year.
In the mid-1920’s, the park looked into creating a four-tier level of accommodations targeting hotel-type rooms, lodge rooms (formerly called the permanent camps), cabins, and campgrounds. The addition of the cabins helped bring another type of visitor to the park and gave all visitors more options as the total visitation numbers grew throughout the years.
As you look at the other visitors, you notice the diversity immediately. Some people come with very little and camp very cheap. Other people spend the big bucks and stay at a suite in one of the lodges.
While lodging affected visitors’ purse strings back in the 20’s, today, visitors need much more money to make this visit. When we visited the park, it cost a family $20 entry fee (for a 7 day pass). Campgrounds averaged $17 per night for tent site or $31 for an RV site. Lodging rates varied based on the types. Cabins run from basic at $45 to $164 with a hot tub per night. Rooms in the lodges run from $75 (without a bath) to $161 per night. Suites cost between $301-385 per night. We could only afford the tent site on our minimal budget at this time.
According to the Grewell Report, a family of four will spend $500 – $982 per person on just gasoline, lodging, and food to visit Yellowstone coming from Washington DC. A family of four from Denver, Colorado will spend between $191 – $341 per person just covering the gasoline, lodging, and food. Both of these estimates allow for only two days of recreation in the park.
According to the American Automobile Association, the average family spends $167 per day on a vacation. Yet, 2.9 million people (like me) visit Yellowstone a year. A recent Family Fun magazine survey rated Yellowstone as the third most popular family vacation destination after Walt Disney World and Yosemite National Park. Gaming and cruise industries have increased in popularity over recent times. As we drove through the park, Yellowstone did not seem to suffer from lack of visitors.
With little money in our pockets and no thoughts of a casino or cruise ship, we pulled into our campsite surrounded by tons of skyscraper tall lodge poll pine trees. I glanced at our fellow campers at the Canyon Campground as we set up our not-so-cheap tent. The other camp spots all had tents (most cost in the several hundred dollar range). You could see the camping stoves, sleeping bags, hiking boots, hiking poles, fly-fishing rods, and camping attires (many with brand names) and realize that it’s not cheap stuff, but yet still cheaper to camp than stay at a lodge or hotel room somewhere else.
A man in the campsite north of came over and asked “where are you from?” We replied Chicago. He smiled and told us that his family (and points to his wife and daughter lounging by a campfire) lives in Michigan. We bonded and chatted for the next several minutes about the beauty of this area. We briefly talked about the irony of two Midwest campers camping side-by-side, but then talked further about whether it even is ironic.
For the next two weeks, we hiked and explored as much of Yellowstone as we could on this trip. We tiptoed around a huge bison on a walking path over active geysers. We listened to ranger campfire talks. We hiked to see waterfalls. We fly-fished in the rivers. We cooked smores over our campfire. We pretended that life in Chicago did not exist. I pretended to be a 1920 visitor leaving the big city and entering the wilderness. I hope that I saw the Yellowstone that they saw back then.
Yellowstone once was and continues to represent an American dream for its visitors. The park represents more than wildlife, hikes, or beauty. It represents a place where people (of all backgrounds and incomes) respect nature and admire it. A place where crime feels rare compared to the big cities. A place where people do not mind traffic jams because traffic means a large animal to witness and photograph. It is a place where people say hello to each other (yes, to strangers). A place where canned beer, hot dogs, smores, and campfires serve as nightly entertainment. A place where rangers encourage learning and even adults do it too. This trip reminded me of values and interests.
About a year after this trip, Steve proposed to me at another national park, Shenandoah National Park. After discussing and exploring where to get married, we tied the knot in Yellowstone’s neighbor to the south, the Grand Teton National Park. We even named our first dog after the park rangers calling her Ranger.
All of America’s national parks create beauty and magic. Yet, America created something pretty special in 1872 when it designated Yellowstone as our first national park.
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