Touring Yellowstone: Early Adventures / Modern Patterns


In the beginning was the park and the park was with Grant and it was good. It was so good that escorted travel quickly became a desirable necessity for the visitors streaming to the wilderness on the grand tour of America. The journey became then, and now remains, the destination.

Simply walking, or riding a horse just didn’t cut it. Tours by stagecoach, surrey, buckboard, Tally Ho, and auto-stage became attractions in themselves. The guides were local cowboys, roust-a-bouts, trappers, poachers, panhandlers, and other locals that were without gainful employment at the moment.

From the “approved” to the “discouraged” it was possible to get a tour into Yellowstone. Just ask in Billings, Bozeman, Virginia City, or at any ranch in the area, accommodating guides could be found for a price.

Initially the explorations and touring were done on foot and horseback. Wagon trails and crude roads soon followed, (and that’s a story in itself.) Starting with the Hayden Expedition in 1871 the early exploration pattern was set. Large groups, and their attendant supplies, were carried around from base camp to base camp in order to explore local curiosities.

Soon rudimentary trails were followed to allow access, and then the roads. Visitors expected to be entertained between “the sights” and the rest is history.

The early wagons and stagecoaches provided little in the way of comfort, and the horses needed rest and recuperation. ‘Stops’ were established primarily at places that allowed for the preservation of the livestock. If you look at a contemporary map of Yellowstone you will note that the major place names or junctions are about a “day’s ride” apart. Makes good sense.

Of course camps, lodges, hotels, trinket shops, and other developments sprang up at these stage stops. By 1916, when the first automobiles were allowed into Yellowstone the roads and travel patterns had been set, and we’ve been adapting them to the motorized transport ever since.

A good case can be made for the depersonalization of Yellowstone by the early transportation patterns and guided tours. A better case can be made that road travel eliminates the splendor of the park and reduces it to a drive-through-postcard experience.

Early visitation practices persisted for great lengths of time, (many are still with us.) For instance, the “intimacy” with “nature” that was implied by feeding wildlife was an early practice that is still seen as an “innocent” activity.

Early on, the park officially fed bears; later everyone fed bears. In 1970 the park promulgated regulations forbidding the feeding of bears.

Well, girlfriend, it still happens. Currently it’s wolves. The Hayden pack’s alpha female is boorishly habituated and there is open ‘official speculation’ that visitors have fed her and other members of the pack. Coyotes, ground squirrels, marmots, birds, fish, otters, all are fair game for feeding. A persistent pattern in Yellowstone visitation.

How many visitors can a cowboy, gear jammer, poacher, trapper, guide, etc., entertain – and still make a buck? From the beginning it seems that the optimum number is between about 6 or 7 and 15 to 18.

The early stage coaches usually had this number, the White Motors Touring Limos hit this mark, and the contemporary vans do the same. Larger tour buses still lumber through the park but are not preferred by the visitors that can afford the smaller tours, (nor were the large numbers desired in yesteryear.)

Of course the fare is commensurate with the attention given the visitor. The fewer the costlier. The same is true today as it was in the days of yore. Even the picnic basket is hung off the rear.

Thankfully some patterns have disappeared. The robbery of stagecoach passengers is now conducted only by authorized park concessionaires, and not “Little” Gus Smitzer & George “Morphine Charlie” Reeb. The Nez Perce Haven’t killed any tourists since 1877, (brief story, timeline.) “Bushwhacking” is a practice that is discouraged by the trail system and the park personnel, yet it’s necessary to get to some of the remote features such as Plateau Falls, Union Falls, and the justly famous Fairyland Basin.

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