As a park ranger, I often get asked “how much of the park was destroyed by the 1988 fires?” One of the best places to answer that question is between Canyon Village and Norris Junction. It is an area commonly referred to as the “Blowdown.” But here, the response to fire started well before 1988.
On July 8, 1984 a mysterious storm moved across the Yellowstone plateau. A 22 mile swath of forest was flattened; a possible wind shear had laid the trees down like they were blades of grass
As the trees started to decay, small lodgepole pines began to sprout between the downed trees. Just over 4 years later, in September 1988, the powerful North Fork Fire burned through the area and reduced the decaying forest to ashes.
This area looked so devastated, one news outlet shot footage of the blackened ground here and informed the country that, “this is all that is left of Yellowstone Park.”
Within a year, a boardwalk was built to explain why this area looked so different. An interpretive sign that was placed here read, “After two successive deforestations this site can still reseed with grasses and shrubs, but it may remain a meadow for decades.” Soon, we would all realize how resilient nature is.
In many of the burnt areas, naturally reseeded lodgepole pines began to appear within the first year or two; they often blanketed the forest with millions of seedlings. Here at the Blowdown, only a few seedlings were growing.
In most lodgepole forests, the young trees are so close together that there is competition for sun and space; the typical tree in those situations grows tall, thin and straight. Here, since the trees are spaced farther apart they are thicker and have retained their lower branches.
During the fires of 1988, I worked at the Wolf Lake Fire Camp, which was just down the road. I remember stopping here and wondering what the future held for Yellowstone. Over the last couple of decades, this magnificent wilderness has continued to show us that Yellowstone was changed, but was not destroyed.
Virginia Cascade Drive is one of the least used sections of road in Yellowstone. But, that does not mean you should skip this little gem on your next trip to the park. Located just a little over a mile from Norris Junction, this 2 ½ mile one-way road weaves through both a young and a mature forest.
This stretch of road is what remains of the original Norris to Canyon road which was called the, “Norris Cutoff.” That road was first built during the summers of 1885 and 1886 as a way for stagecoaches to access the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the west side of the park.
Automobiles were first allowed in Yellowstone on August 1, 1915. It was believed that the “Norris Cutoff,” would only be used as a freight road after cars were allowed. In 1956, the National Park Service began a ten year project, called Mission 66, to update roads and facilities in our National Parks.
During those upgrades, the main road between Norris and Canyon was redesigned and it bypassed Virginia Cascades. This 60 foot waterfall had become popular with visitors, so park managers decided to leave this short section of road as a way to access the falls. There are few pullouts; if you can, take advantage of those and pull off the road; if they are full you can still get a partial view as you drive by.
Just beyond Virginia Cascades, there is a small picnic area with 6 tables and a restroom. The picnic area sits above Virginia Meadows and the Gibbon River, which is the water source for the falls. This is a great place for families to spend time fishing with young anglers. Be aware that moose and bears frequent this area and at times mosquitoes can be thick.
Standing here, it’s hard to believe that this was once a two-way road. Stay alert as you round these curves and please for your safety don’t stop in the road. Virginia Cascade drive not only can get you away from the masses, but it can also give you a taste of the roads used by our ancestors.
Some groups of Shoshone Indians, who adapted to a mountain existence, chose not to acquire the horse. These included the Sheep Eaters, or Tukudika, who used dogs to transport food, hides, and other provisions. The Sheep Eaters lived in many locations in Yellowstone.