If being killed by a bear is one of your greatest concerns while planning a visit to Yellowstone, there are a few things I’d like you to consider. While bear attacks do occur, there are other dangers that are far more likely to take your life.
With out a doubt, it is people that are the biggest danger. Automobile accidents claim lives in the park every year. Simple things like exiting cars on the curb-side of the vehicle could save a loved ones life. Slow down. You can’t see all of Yellowstone in a life time, much less a day. Speed limits are set, not only for your safety, but also for the safety of park wildlife. While in the park, please do not exceed speed limits. Remember this is the bison’s neighborhood, not ours.
After humans, water claims more lives than anything. While Yellowstone is famous for hot water features, it is cold water that has proven to be the bigger danger. Yellowstone’s lakes are some of the coldest in the country. Since 1872, when Yellowstone became a park, over 100 people have died by drowning. By comparison only five people died from bear attacks in the same period.
Yellowstone’s hot springs and geysers have claimed 19 people. Talk with your kids before you get to the thermal areas. The water in these areas can be at or above boiling and boardwalks can be slippery. Never run in thermal areas and always stay on the boardwalks and trails.
We want visitors to get out and hike Yellowstone’s trails. Always, even on the hottest of days, hike with rain gear and drinking water. Exposure and dehydration are significant threats. We all enjoy good views, but stand back from cliffs and overhangs. After cars and water, accidental falls cause the most deaths.
Can you believe that we are almost done with the General Safety video and we haven’t warned you about bears yet? That’s because, if you follow the rules for hiking in bear country, bears are not all that big a concern. Nearly everyone who has been injured by a bear in the last decade was breaking one of the primary rules. View our bear safety video and stop in a visitor center and ask about wildlife safety rules before you begin your hike.
The most basic wildlife safety rule is simple, stay alert when hiking trails. All of the animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable. Stay at least 100 yards from bears and 25 yards from other wildlife.
If you follow some simple rules like these, Yellowstone can leave you with a renewed sense of purpose. Let Yellowstone change your life. Just make sure that change is a positive one.
Fire is not only one of the most powerful processes in play on the Yellowstone Plateau, but one of the most important. Everywhere you look, you see evidence of past wildfires.
In 1972, after 100 years of suppressing fire, Yellowstone adopted a natural burn policy. Fires that start naturally, through lightning, can be allowed to burn. All non prescribed human caused fire would continue to be fought.
Today, wildfire experts monitor every fire. They take into account where the fire started, what the weather has been like, and what the forecast is for the near future. Is the fire close to a historical structure, or a gateway community? Then and only then do they make a decision regarding an individual fire.
In 1988, 793,880 acres or 1/3 of Yellowstone was involved in fire. The park experienced over fifty wildfires. Researchers believe these large wildfires occur every 200 years or so. Yellowstone averages 22 wildfires a year.
In most years, fires that are allowed to burn put themselves out after burning less than an acre.
One of the most important aspects of fire in Yellowstone is the relationship fire has with the lodgepole pine tree. Eight out of every ten trees in the park are lodgepoles. Yellowstone’s recent volcanic past, geologically speaking, left the plateau with a thin layer of silica rich topsoil. Since lodgepole pines have relatively shallow root systems they dominate here.
This special pine tree has developed two different cones; one that opens normally and one, a serotinous or heat loving cone that opens only after exposure to heat. A fire comes along and pop, the lodgepole reseeds itself.
There was not one tree planted by humans after the 1988 fires. In 1989, some areas had over 1 million logdepole seedlings per acre.
On your next visit to Yellowstone, walk into a young lodgepole pine stand and experience a natural forest that was born with fire.
Many people see the beautiful colors of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and think they know how the park got its name. But the park was not named for the yellow canyon walls. The park took its name from the river that runs through it.
The Yellowstone River neither begins nor ends in Yellowstone National Park but flows through park valleys and canyons for over a hundred miles. The river moves north from its headwaters south of the park boundary through meadows and into Yellowstone Lake. Unlike the many other streams that flow into the lake however, the Yellowstone River is the lake’s only outlet.
It traverses the grass and sagebrush-covered Hayden Valley and flows through the 20-mile long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which it carved, creating the magnificent Upper and Lower Falls along the way. The river also cut the Black Canyon before exiting the park at the north boundary.
It continues north into Montana and eventually flows into the Missouri River and the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico to join the Atlantic Ocean. At 671 miles, it remains the longest undammed river left in the contiguous United States.
The Yellowstone River is the oldest place name in the park and it was named by the Minnetaree Indians hundreds of miles northeast of what is now YNP. It was named for the color of the sandstone bluffs near present-day Billings, Montana rather than the altered rhyolite of the park’s canyon walls. They called it “Mi tse a-da-zi” which was translated into French by fur trappers and traders and eventually to English as “Yellowstone” by 1797.
The Yellowstone River not only gives the park its name but as an untamed and major waterway, breathes life into the park, nourishing the landscape’s plants and wildlife. And the word Yellowstone has become almost synonymous with preservation of wildness and America’s idea of national parks.
Yellowstone is a land of extremes; from water that is boiling at the surface to one of the coldest climates in the country. Climate helps determine all we see across this high-mountain landscape. Most winters in the park, the thermometers dip well below 0 degrees F for extended periods.
On one such cold spell in 1933, the temperature at Riverside Station, near the park’s west gate, dropped to -66 degrees F; nearly 100 degrees below the freezing point. While that is a record for Yellowstone, it is not a national record; the record for the contiguous United States came on January 20, 1954. On that day, at Rogers Pass, Montana, the temperature dropped to -70 degrees F.
Even short periods at those low temperatures can have an effect on native species. For instance, the pine-bark beetle and the spruce-bud worm can both kill a forest, but extreme cold spells can keep these insects in check.
Cold spells also help determine where we find species like fish. During longer periods of cold, ice can begin to form on river and streambeds. Called anchor-ice for the way it attaches to rocks near the bottom, it is one of the first steps toward a completely frozen streambed, which eliminates fish.
Other habitats are also a direct result of Yellowstone’s winter. When the park gets covered by a deep blanket of snow, many rodents and insects use the layer between the ground and the snow as a place to survive the winter. If snow is deep enough, the temperature at ground level is at or near 32 degrees F.
Yellowstone’s cold climate helps to keep the wilderness pristine; cold air is heavier than warmer air and creates an area of high pressure. Winds flow from high pressure to low pressure; this means most local winds are flowing off of the Yellowstone plateau, which helps to keep airborne pollutants like fertilizers out of the park.
Only a few tree species inhabit Yellowstone and the most common tree is the Lodgepole Pine or Pinus contorta. The common name “lodgepole” comes from their tall, thin, straight trunks which were used to make Indian lodges and teepees. They have two needles per fascicle or bundle and grow up to 75 feet tall here.
Eighty percent of the trees in the park are lodgepole pines. They grow so well here because the rhyolite (lava) soils are shallow, acidic and not very nutrient- rich. Lodgepoles have a shallow root system and don’t require very good soil to grow. They also like full sun and so are good pioneer species, easily moving into an area after a disturbance like fire.
The ones in a thick forest look like lollipops, with tall thin trunks and foliage or needles only at the top where they can get sunlight. The trees on the edge of a forest or out alone in a meadow, however, can have branches and needles all the way down to the ground because they’re not shaded out by other trees. Since they are self pruning, the lower branches will eventually lose their needles, die and fall off if other trees grow nearby and block the sun.
Most interestingly, Lodgepole pines are a fire-adapted species. They have two types of pine cones. One is like most other pine trees—it opens up as it matures and releases its seeds. With lodgepoles, this takes about 2 years. But Lodgepole also have a serotinous cone which can remain on the tree for many years. It is glued shut with a waxy coating.
It takes the heat of a fire to melt off the resin so that the cone can open and release its seeds. This means that after a fire, the lodgepoles’ serotinous cones open, naturally reseeding the area. So all the young lodgepoles you see growing in burned areas of the park were not planted by rangers, but by fire itself.
As you travel through Yellowstone, you can’t help but notice the vast forests of young and mature lodgepoles. Hike in and hear the trees squeak and crack as they sway in the wind. You may hear red squirrels chattering or glimpse a pine marten or great gray owl. Lodgepole forests often shelter wild strawberries and grouse whortleberry, a ground cover the bears also enjoy eating.
Beware falling limbs and even trunks on windy days. There are still many standing dead trees since the fires of 1988 and subsequent annual summer fires. Those tree skeletons fall easily. Strong winds can even topple live trees since the roots are shallow.
The ability to withstand poor soils and short growing seasons and reseed themselves, like a phoenix rising from ash, make Lodgepole pines a special forest specimen. The most common tree in Yellowstone is anything but common—it has evolved exceptionally to thrive in just this sort of place.
As you tour Lamar Valley and the northern section of Yellowstone you will notice Douglas fir trees scattered out in the open plateau. Look closely and it’s hard not to notice a rock at the base of each of these trees. The granitic rocks are strewn about the valley floor which leads one to wonder where they came from.
The boulders scattered around the meadows, tell you that glaciers passed this way recently. Geologically recently, at least. With all the focus on Yellowstone’s volcanic geology many visitor don’t realize this area at one time was covered with glacial ice up to 4000 feet thick. The last glaciers retreated about 13,000 years ago, and they left behind the rocks or glacial erratics.
The boulders look out of place because they are. They were carried along with soil and other debris by glacial ice from the Beartooth Mountains miles away to the north. When the ice receded or melted, boulders dropped out and were deposited where you see them today. They are possibly 3-4 billion years old, and yet they are recent immigrants. They’ve only been in their new locales less than 20,000 years, having migrated here during the last ice age.
Though they are foreign here, many of the boulders are large and thus serve as nursery rocks for young native seedling trees. Out in the open meadows it is hard for Douglas fir seedlings to germinate because they prefer to grow up initially in shade. The glacial boulders provide that and more.
Douglas fir seeds can be carried by wind and if they are fortunate to fall beside a large protective rock, they have a better chance of germinating and surviving those first and most vulnerable years. The glacial boulders provide shade, moisture, shelter from wind, and even absorb and radiate heat so ice and snow melt off quicker around their bases. The seedlings get a shot at becoming trees and in this way, the rocks from afar help support native life in their new homes. Now many of the trees overshadow their glacially deposited nursery rocks.
Look for rock-tree partners on the Northern Range of the park and also check out the huge Glacial Boulder near Inspiration Point at Canyon and the exhibit on glaciers in the Canyon Visitor Education Center.
For many of Yellowstone’s visitors, the best way to experience the park is by camping in the backcountry. A Backcountry Use Permit is required for all overnight trips. Permits must be obtained in person and no more than 48 hours in advance. It is possible to reserve a site by contacting the park’s backcountry office. (Yell_Backcountry_Office@nps.gov).
If possible, it is best to pick-up your permit at the backcountry office closest to where your trip begins. Rangers at that location should have the best information on trail conditions. Be sure to ask about any restrictions and stream crossings that may affect your trip.
Once you have received a permit and are on the trail, the adventure begins. Yellowstone is home to black bears and grizzly bears, and special rules apply when camping in bear country.
Food storage poles are provided at most sites, so that food and other attractants can be suspended out of a bears reach. Hikers need to carry at least 35 feet of rope. Food, garbage, and all odorous items, including toothpaste and other toiletries must be suspended at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from tree trunks.
While campfires are allowed in some sites, it is best to cook using a camp stove. Strain food particles from dishwater and pack it out with your garbage. Dishwater should be scattered at least 100 yards from your tent site. Clothes worn while cooking should also be hung on the food storage pole.
If possible, choose a spot for your tent that is at least 100 yards from the food storage pole and 100 yards from a water supply. I like to picture a triangle with 100 yards from pole to tent to water.
For your safety and the safety of the next campers, always keep a clean camp. Never leave food items unattended, even for a short period. Camping in Yellowstone’s backcountry can be a wonderful experience if you stay alert and follow a few simple rules.
Yellowstone National Park was shaped by many natural processes. The park is often called, the land of fire and ice and there is truth to that nickname. While the underlying geology of Yellowstone is rooted in volcanism, much of what we see today was shaped by glaciers.
Glaciers develop when more snow falls in winter than melts in summer. Over time, the bottom layers of snow become compressed into ice and begin to move due to the forces of gravity. While there is debate on their dates, this region has been covered by at least three major glaciations.
That most recent period, called the Pinedale Glaciation, was responsible for carving Yellowstone Lake into the shape we see today. Ice as thick as 4,000 feet once covered the area. It is believed that the Pinedale ended nearly 14,000 years ago. Volcanic explosions, earthquakes, wind and erosion also played a role in the lakes formation.
During the last glacial period, an ice dam blocked the flow of the Yellowstone River and as the water rose, Hayden Valley flooded and became part of Yellowstone Lake. When the valley drained, the force of the water helped form the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Lake sediments that make up much of the soil in Hayden Valley are partly responsible for the open geography we see today.
When a glacier moves, the weight of the ice sculpts the landscape, often wiping away evidence of past glaciations. V-shaped valleys formed by water become U-shaped as the ice scours away the rock.
On your next trip to Yellowstone watch for small lakes, or kettles that formed when chunks of ice were left behind by receding glaciers. Large boulders, called glacial erratics were also deposited throughout the park. One of the largest erratics can be seen along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
There are no glaciers in Yellowstone today, but a few remain just south of the park in Grand Teton National Park. Those formed during the Little Ice Age between 1400 and 1800 A.D.
As our climate changes, natural processes will continue to shape the Yellowstone of tomorrow. This truly is the land of fire and ice.
The annual visitation to Yellowstone National Park has hovered around 3 million. The facilities and infrastructure it takes to welcome that many visitors is enormous. Hotels, visitor centers, campgrounds, restaurants, and medical services are all designed to greet the summer masses.
That’s where maintenance in Yellowstone gets interesting. The park has over 1,500 buildings maintained by either the National Park Service or the concessions company using the facility. Preparing the park’s buildings for winter is a huge job.
In winter, there are about 50 employees working for the maintenance division of the National Park Service. Small crews live at the locations in the park’s interior and maintain the facilities that are mostly closed for the season.
Those same crews keep a close watch on the depth of snow on the roofs of buildings, removing snow when needed. Crews shovel and plow miles of walkways and boardwalks daily.
Plows keep the roads from the North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs and on to Cooke City, Montana clear for private vehicles. In Mammoth, the maintenance division operates a garage that keeps Yellowstone’s winter and summer fleet of vehicles in good working order.
On an average winter night in Yellowstone, 4 or 5 groomers work through the dark as they prepare the roads for winter visitors. Groomers smooth out and pack the snow that covers Yellowstone’s road system. They are a lot like the groomers used at downhill ski resorts.
In mid-March, the interior roads in Yellowstone close and maintenance pulls out the big equipment. Two different crews made-up of plows, bull-dozers and fuel trucks work their way around the park clearing the roads of ice and snow that has been packed down all winter.
A massive amount of work goes into operating a park like Yellowstone; much of that work is done behind the scenes or in the cover of dark. The Maintenance Division of the National Park Service and all the dedicated people that work there make it possible for all of us to visit and enjoy this special place.
Visiting Yellowstone in winter can be one of the greatest experiences of your life. The park is blanketed with snow and in the thermal areas, steam rises against a deep blue sky. The ability to watch wildlife and how they interact with the environment is amazing. But before you embark on this adventure, you will need to take some precautions.
While planning a trip, try to think safety first. Choose how you will get to the park. Some of the biggest dangers you will face will be traveling from one of the local communities to Yellowstone.
If you are renting a car, make sure you reserve a vehicle that is suited for winter travel. A four-wheel drive automobile is best. Do some safety checks before you leave the rental agency. Be sure the tires and wipers are in good shape. Decide if you will need chains. Ultimately, you are the one that is responsible for your safety.
The roads to Yellowstone will most likely be snow covered and possibly wind blown. If you are traveling from the north, either on U.S. 191 or U.S. 89, watch for wildlife on the road. On U.S. 89, from Livingston, Montana to Yellowstone’s North Gate, there may be hundreds if not thousands of elk and deer crossing the highway. Drive slow.
Those same precautions apply once you have entered the park. While the roads are plowed from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City, Montana, they will be snow covered.
After you have made decisions about transportation, be sure you pack for cold weather. Dress in layers and always have extra dry socks, gloves, hat, long underwear, food and water. Some people like to have these items packed in a special bag just for emergencies. Drink plenty of water while you are here and always carry sunglasses.
Once you have planned a safe trip, explore this extraordinary place. A winter trip to Yellowstone can be a lot of fun, but only if you come prepared. Stop in at one of our visitor centers and say hi. We look forward to helping you make your trip a special one.