A couple weeks ago, my son and I were checking in at the front desk of a hotel in West Yellowstone. A young man was standing next to us doing the same. The hotel clerk started to hand him some printed information on restaurants and things to see while in the area.
He informed the clerk that he was a resident of Montana and knew all about West Yellowstone and how he tried to avoid the town at all costs. He went on for several minutes about how he was from northwest Montana and he was only here because some friends from the east were visiting Yellowstone National park. His take on the town of West Yellowstone and the Park was not flattering and as far as he was concerned the whole place had been ruined years ago.
Flash back to 1995 at a remote campground on the Snake River near Flagg Ranch. Back in those days, you could camp for free at the end of the season in the national forest.
It was October and our party of four were quite alone when another camper pulled in. He was an older fellow and he stopped by our campsite to ask us we minded him camping near us. We had no objections.
We talked for a while and he spoke of camping at this spot back in the 1950s with his dad and fishing the river. He said back then he had met a fellow who told him how he should have been there in the “old days” before the place started to go to hell. Our friend said that there were so many tourists in the place today they were “wearing out the rocks.”
I am guessing that old fellow has long since gone to the great park in the sky, but you can bet he would be even more disgusted with Yellowstone Park today. Those of us who live in the Mount Washington Valley can relate to these stories and remember what the Valley once was; I have lived here for only 36 years, and I think that way. I know lots of folks from Ossipee who won’t drive to North Conway on a dare.
My family and I have visited Yellowstone National Park twice in the past three years and the park has changed greatly since I visited in the 1990s. Yellowstone Park has always been one of my favorite destinations to fly fish and I have many fond memories of past visits to the park.
Traveling the park with a family can be difficult for the dedicated fly fisher, as not everyone in the party shares their passion. Our party of four consists of one 7-year-old, his mom, dad and one grandpop (yours truly).
This year, we made a couple of detours exploring some areas outside the park. After arriving in Bozeman, Mont., we drove to Virginia City. Virginia City and nearby neighbor Nevada City were the site of a gold strike in the 1860s. When the gold ran out so did the inhabitants, leaving the cities as ghost towns.
The towns sat around for a while until some folks took an interest in preserving them for posterity and creating a tourist destination. Just about every western movie ever made takes its storyline from the area.
Virginia City, during its heyday, was a hot bed of crime led by the local sheriff. Vigilantes put an end to the crime wave by hanging several of the citizens, including the sheriff.
Today, the little towns look much as they did in 1864, although the shops are more likely to sell T-shirts then mining supplies and dry goods. The highlight of our visit was panning for gold. None of us managed to strike the mother lode, but we all came home with a small glass vile of garnets. It is a fun place to visit.
Our next stop was West Yellowstone, where we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Center. This is as good a place as any to get a real close up look at a grizzly bear without getting mauled. My grandson, Brennen, found it interesting and enjoyed his visit, so it was all worthwhile.
I had not been in West Yellowstone in 30 years. When I was last there in the late 1990s, West Yellowstone was home to three of the most well-known fly shops in the country: Blue Ribbon Flies, Bud Lilly’s and Jacklin’s. Bud Lilly’s is gone now, however, there is still a fly shop at the old location. Today, there must be at least a half dozen or more true fly shops and a dozen more places you can buy fly gear.
The other notable change is the number of Chinese restaurants. I can’t remember if there was a Chinese restaurant back when I first visited, but there are at least a half dozen today. West Yellowstone is probably a quarter the size of North Conway, although it probably hosts 10 times the number of tourists as we do and a great number of them come from China.
From West Yellowstone, we headed to Jackson Hole, Wyo. We arrived just before 6 p.m. in time to catch the gun fight in the town square. Brennen found this to be entertaining as well. Brennen’s mom likes to shop in Jackson.
My son, Andy, and I were up the next morning before sunrise and on our way to Moose to catch the sunrise at Mormon Row. It has always been one of my bucket list things to do was to photograph the famous Mormon barns as the sun rises on the Teton Mountains that form the backdrop to the barns. Mission accomplished, thanks to Andy I got a few good images.
On to our home base in Gardiner; the north gate to the park. On the way, we all saw our first wild Grizzly bear and in doing so witnessed our first “bear jam.” Another item crossed off the bucket list.
Next morning, we were off to fish. A quick stop at Park’s Fly Shop for fishing licenses and to rent wading boots. Yellowstone now requires rubber soled wading boots and all felt soled boots are banned.
As always, the folks at Park’s Fly Shop have up-to-date information as to where to fish in the park. That afternoon, Andy and I were standing in The Firehole River casting flies to Brown trout.
After some scouting, we came across rising trout, close by one of the turn outs. The “shop guy” at Park’s had recommended Elk Hair Caddis and he was spot on. Both Andy and I landed several nice trout. The weather was not all that favorable and after some rain and hail it snowed for bit; not uncommon for Yellowstone, despite the fact that it was the summer solstice.
The weather cleared and we continued to catch trout. I was merrily casting away when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. My first thought was bear, of course, and where were the kids. Not a bear, thankfully.
A young couple had walked behind me to take a picture. Somehow, they had managed to avoid my back cast and getting hooked. After muttering a few unpleasant words under my breath, I paused to look at them. The young lady was dressed as if she was going out for a night on the town, complete with high-heeled shoes and wearing a mini-skirt. Not the most practical attire for Yellowstone.
The roads in the park were fine, but when you consider that they were designed for horse drawn carriages you can see where there might be a problem. God forbid you get behind a “land yacht: or someone who drags along well below the meager speed limit of thirty-five. Many locals use the roads to commute and have little time for tourists. Sometimes these folks and people from Massachusetts will take great risks to pass you.
Last year 4,114,999 people visited Yellowstone, down from 4,116,524 in 2017. Our first visit in 2017 was at the end of August and every campsite was filled the entire week we were there.
At many of the popular destinations cars were parked far outside the parking areas. A friend who visited the week after reported that the road into Old Faithful had to be closed due to overflow parking.
During the busy months you can expect crowds at every attraction. As an amateur photographer it is disconcerting to be set up for a shot when several dozen people jump into your frame.
The fellow who invented the selfie stick should be hanged, drawn and quartered and forced to spend the rest of his life in prison. I get it, a great many of these people are on bus tours and have a very short time to see the site and get their picture before the bus heads to the next spot. Why they have to be in the shot astonishes me, but who am I?
The same goes for fishing; you will not be alone. To be sure the real way to fish the Park is to get away from the roads. However, on a family trip this may not always be possible.
My son and I are very fortunate to have an understanding family and go out of their way to accommodate us. In the spring, most of the rivers in the park are still blown out from snow melt. This time around, the Firehole was just about the only fishable river. No pun intended, the “Firehole was hot.”
We did have some great fishing and we never got further away than a roadside pullout. There were quite a few other fishermen, however the only one closest to us asked our permission to fish near to us. My other encounter with humankind was a young couple who blatantly walked through my back cast to take a selfie.
It has been said for years that something must be done to cut down on the numbers of people who enter the park. Everyone knows the problem, but no one has the will to take action.
Perhaps, someday Yellowstone Park will put limits on the number of private vehicles and only on tour buses will be allowed in. In the future, RVs may be banned as well and the campgrounds given over to backpackers only.
There is little or no political will to take action, and it is doubtful if I will ever live long enough to see this kind of change, but the future of the park is at stake.
See you on the river.