Yellowstone, land of ‘charismatic megafauna’ and tourists behaving badly
Established in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park.
It teems with wolves and bears (grizzly and black), moose and elk, deer, bison and coyotes — creatures that biologists call “charismatic megafauna.” The park also features a diverse and otherworldly landscape defined by geysers and mud baths, canyons and lakes, and raging rivers. The park’s architecture is iconic, from the rustic-yet-magnificent Old Faithful Inn to the picturesque cabins for rent at Mammoth and other Yellowstone waypoints.
This explains why 4.1 million people traveled to Yellowstone in 2018, most of them visiting in the window between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The aggravating crowds thin out once you get more than a mile from a road, but realistically, most Yellowstone visitors stick to the front country. And there, many indulge in their worst impulses — like placing toddlers on the backs of wild bison for photo ops or slathering their extremities with honey to get closer to bears.
It’s not that Yellowstone isn’t great; it is. But it’s better outside of the high summer tourist season. May is typically still snowy in Yellowstone, but fall in the park is sublime.
Location: The majority of Yellowstone is located in Northwest Wyoming, about an hour and 15 minutes north of Jackson.
At Glacier, the same animals, fewer people and last-chance ice sheets
About 400 miles northwest of Yellowstone, Glacier National Park promises equally breathtaking views, the chance to see the same species of charismatic megafauna found in Yellowstone and the highest concentration of glaciers in the Lower 48.
To be clear, Glacier — the 10th national park, established in 1910 — is not undiscovered. But by virtue of its remote location, it has about 1.1 million fewer annual visitors than Yellowstone. And if you bring your passports, you can cross the border to Canada’s adjacent Waterton National Park — combined, Glacier and Waterton create the world’s first International Peace Park — for an even more remote experience.
The free in-park shuttle makes getting around Glacier relatively easy. There’s a regular two-way shuttle along its main thoroughfare — the mountain-hugging, heart-thumping, 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road — as well as an additional hiker shuttle between popular trailheads. The park offers more than 700 miles of hiking trails ranging in length and skill level.
Lakes and rivers abound, from the huge St. Mary Lake, which is popular among boaters and a lovely spot from which to view glaciers, to unnamed crystalline mountain ponds. And, of course, the park has its eponymous glaciers. Scientists estimate there were more than 150 glaciers covering the park’s jagged peaks in the mid-1800s; today, there are 25. While that statistic may be dispiriting, the park has extensive opportunities to view the remaining glaciers and to learn about them — as well as the impacts of a warming climate and receding ice sheets — at visitors centers or on hiking and boat tours.
In addition to being a stunning, expansive refuge defined by bold landscapes and wild inhabitants, Glacier is also a crucible of western history: It was home to Native American tribes, fur traders, miners and settlers before rail travel — which was instrumental in the establishment of the park — started bringing scores of tourists. Summer visitors can still take Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” line from Chicago to the park.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.