Ideal timing, or antisocial behavior?
Yellowstone Park is an enigma to the everyday citizen of Bozeman. The natural wonders it contains are unsurpassed. The wildlife, the scenery, and all the steam and bubbling mud combine to put an exclamation point on this corner of the globe. But while everyone appreciates the fat wallets that the zillions of tourists open to the local economy, those same tourists can be awfully annoying when they've blocked both lanes with their Winnebagos in order to pose for photos in the middle of a buffalo herd.
After about a half-day in Yellowstone, one begins to wonder whether the hissing fumaroles at the end of this particular boardwalk are worth running the gauntlet of crying children in strollers, leather-jacketed New Yorkers shouting into cell phones, and amateur Ansel Adamses with their tripods and snooty attitudes. Not every visit approaches this worst-case scenario, but to the local, it is better to have seen "the Park" a dozen times than to have to go back for the thirteenth.
Some might suggest that hiking into the Yellowstone backcountry is a perfect solution to avoiding the irritations of tourist culture. True, the backcountry will take you to a variety of spectacular places, but there is plenty of spectacular backcountry much closer to Bozeman that is still less crowded. And around here, you can walk right into the woods without having to provide Big Brother an abstract of your hiking plans or having to choose pepper spray over a sidearm as your ineffective bear deterrent.
The better solution is to go to Yellowstone during the off season. This does not mean the wintertime. Whatever the issues in the snowmobile debate (bad for the environment vs. far too fun to ban), Yellowstone is still clogged with people in winter. The numbers are smaller and definitely more manageable, but all the snowmobiles are shepherded into the same places, leading to the same half-dozen crowded parking lots that you fought the previous summer. And the same jackass who blocked the road in his Winnebago manages to get his buddies to help him block the road with their snowmobiles in order to get that perfect shot of the buffalo charging them.
Wintertime in Yellowstone can be troublesome for locals as well. Montanans apparently have a snowmobiling gene and know better than to mix with the proletariat and their rented machines. Lacking the gene myself, recently I sloppily zoomed a rented snowbuggy (brand-new of course, with however many "strokes" are in fashion these days) up to the gate at West Yellowstone and showed my driver's license to verify my season pass. The ranger lady actually said, "Oooh...all the way from Bozeman, Montana," with a sarcastic lilt that I took to mean, "What the hell are you doing here?"
With wintertime out, this leaves either spring or fall. Springtime is superior to the fall for two reasons. For one thing, there seems to be still fewer people in the spring. Maybe it's more difficult to get motivated for a trip to Yellowstone right after the roads have opened, than to go after Labor Day, when there are just a few more weekends left. But the better reason is spring itself. The earth is reborn and the water is running high everywhere you go. So it's the best combination: the earth is green and full of hope, and most of the gift shops aren't open yet.
During the springtime, it might actually be possible to stop and watch wildlife by the side of the road without attracting a crowd of folks who will insist on trying to ride the buffalo. It's generally not safe to march straight up to enormous animals, but more importantly, it's disrespectful to the wildlife. There's simply no reason to get within kicking distance of a bull elk. Unless it's hunting season and you plan on surprising him with your Bowie knife.
I haven't been much interested in Yellowstone wildlife since about the fifth grade. After I finally saw a grizzly bear, my checklist was more or less done (although they've added some very glamorous wolves since then). Springtime is a great time to try and catch sight of newborns, pups, calves, and so on, but the real excitement is being able to drive past an elk herd without having to stop for an unending line of idling cars.
One of Yellowstone's main attractions is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Lower Falls. The canyon and the waterfall are among God's greatest creations, but the grandeur at the Artist's Point, the most popular viewpoint of the canyon and falls, unfortunately makes it particularly susceptible to the crush of visitors. Most of them are well-meaning, but the mass of humanity inevitably detracts from the canyon's sublime nature, and any hope of contemplating life's mysteries.
On a chilly April morning--just after the road to the canyon had officially opened and the park was still largely blanketed with snow--my friends and I pulled into the Artist's Point parking lot and found it completely deserted. My car was the only one in sight. This was a proud moment, both for me and my car, and an accomplishment that will likely never be repeated. So here was finally that chance to sit and become one with the waterfall and run through those deep questions regarding life's mystery and what have you. But it was freezing. So we posed for a picture in front of the falls and bailed out, just like we do when there are Japanese children climbing all over all the rocks. At least we'd had the opportunity.
None of this is to say that Yellowstone is devoid of visitors in the springtime. It is simply your best shot at having any of its marvels to yourself for the briefest of moments. So keep watching for the opening dates on those roads, and maybe I'll see you down there. I'll be the one shooting dirty looks at the guy with the tripod.