As told to Emily Stifler
I first visited Yellowstone on family vacation. We came from Michigan. My folks had an International Scout with a canvas and wood pop-up camper. We’d have it hooked up and ready to go when Dad would come home from work on Friday afternoon. Mom would pack a picnic lunch and the two kids in the rig, and we’d head west. That was our vacation every summer, and Yellowstone was the destination several years. Some of my earliest memories are our trips to Yellowstone. It was overwhelming. There were bears. It was kind of smelly. Those were some of my impressions at age six.
I started my park service career as a seasonal worker here. I began doing interpretation at Fishing Bridge. How is the park different than when I visited as a young child? Well, now I don’t think the park smells! It’s not that the park has changed, but as an adult I’m better able to process and understand all the information my senses take in.
When I first moved out this way in 1986 (to Billings), I lived in one of the many communities around this area that just refers to it as “going to the park.” It’s comfortable and familiar to people who live and work in this region.
Many visitors come here and spend a limited amount of time. They’re attracted to Old Faithful, and have heard of bears, bison or wolves, and maybe the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Most first-time visitors don’t have any idea about the expanse of the place and the variety of things you can see and do here.
Repeat trips provides opportunity for greater exploration and a greater appreciation of this place. Even with the luxury of living and working here, I’ll never get to see everything in this park. It is not possible.
There are more people now, but there are still opportunities to enjoy Yellowstone and avoid the crowds.
Our road system has dramatically improved. We had a deserved reputation for poor roads. With a couple of exceptions that we’re working on, our road system is visitor friendly.
Our two new visitor education centers allow the Park Service to do a better job of engaging visitors and helping them understand the place they come to visit.
There are some things that haven’t changed, which is a good thing. In my family, it’s the fourth generation visiting Yellowstone. I can take that 1950 photo of my grandparents at Artist’s Point, and I can go there myself and it looks like that, more or less. To some degree, that ranger-led campfire program or hike continues to embody what people 30, 40, 70 years ago might have experienced.
Visitation is strong again. My best estimate is our new baseline for annual visitation is somewhere in the order of three million. We were well over that last year, but visitation has peaks and valleys. And most of those folks are here June 15 – Aug. 15. This place continues to reflect the quintessential American family vacation.
We see a lot of foreign visitors. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, if you stand around to see Old Faithful erupt, you’ll hear more dialects than you can identify. This place is loved not just by its neighbors, and not just by people from the U.S. – but people the world around. It holds a place in people’s hearts as a physical destination and as an ideal. Yellowstone really does represent something great about our country.