Despite all the issues that constantly swirl around the National Park System -- funding constraints, staffing woes, rising fees -- there's still more to be proud about than disappointed.
For instance, after 136 years you can still find more than enough room in Yellowstone National Park that feels raw, wild, and untrampled by humans. True, the front country can feel over-run, particularly if you're there in July or August. But during my week-long trip earlier this month the crowds were not suffocating, the bison jams not too plentiful -- although, we did wonder about the folks parking partway on and off the road to view a single mule deer -- and the insects wonderfully vanquished by the frosty overnights.
While the bulk of my trip was spent paddling Yellowstone Lake with two buddies, we did spend a little time in Yellowstone's front country. And here are some of the things we saw (and occasionally wondered about):
* Despite all the talk about encouraging diversity in the national parks, Yellowstone's latest backcountry safety video is distressingly white -- a Caucasian female ranger explaining backcountry dos and don'ts with two Caucasian females and one Caucasian male serving as backcountry travelers. Even when the video takes you inside a backcountry office all the actors are white. And all the rangers we saw during our stay were Caucasian.
* The restoration of Artist Point was worth the year-long wait. Funded via contributions to the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the restoration was handsomely done and offers great views of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River as well as down-river views of the sharply eroded and highly colorful canyon.
* Yellowstone's lodging options, which are managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, are, for the most part, nicely done. True, there are some rooms -- such as the antiquated Roughrider Cabins at Roosevelt and some of the Frontier Cabins at Old Faithful -- that either should be torn down or drastically renovated. But, for the most part, the accommodations are more than reasonable. We stayed at Grant Village, Canyon, and the Old Faithful Inn. The "hotel room with bath" ($143) at Grant Village was decidedly motelish in both building layout and room style, but it was more than comfortable, the log furnishings nicely done, and the hot water in the shower readily available. The Western Cabin ($149) at Canyon had an interior that might have been finished just last week. Character-rich beetle-killed pine was in heavy use throughout, from the bed frame to the desk, dresser, wainscoting and even the trim. The front-side room ($159-$228) at the Old Faithful Inn offered nice views of the geyser basin (though Old Faithful itself wasn't visible from this particular room), the furniture older but well-kept, beds comfortable, and bathroom facilities more than adequate and actually handsome, with a colorful tile pattern that carried a wildlife motif.
* Xanterra seems to be one of the more progressive concessionaires in its sustainability and "green" efforts, but sometimes those seem to work at odds. For instance, the company offers shampoos and moisturizers in tiny, 30-milliliter bottles made from "Plastarch Material," a corn-based, biodegradable material. That's good. However, the bottles are not easily squeezed, and so you have a devil of a time getting the shampoo or moisturizer out. I can't imagine these bottles ever being completely emptied, which makes me wonder how much shampoo/moisturizer goes to waste.
* Xanterra also has gotten creative with its bath soaps, offering -- in the name of minimizing waste -- soap bars in the form of oval donuts, with the middle missing. They're definitely novel and easy to hold, but you gotta wonder if, instead of a steadily shrinking bar of soap, you wind up with several smaller fragments as time goes on.
* Dining options abound in Yellowstone, and they differ quite a bit. Meals eaten at Grant Village, Canyon, and the Old Faithful Inn were fairly divergent in substance, presentation, and cost. That's not to say they didn't accomplish the task. But it's no small secret that the pork carnitas at Canyon, while tasty and filling, paled horribly to the tenderloin of boar at the inn. Of course, you also noticed the difference in price -- the carnitas were around $15 while the boar was $32.
* Americans seemingly are a minority in Yellowstone, at least in early fall. Not only were there a high number of eastern Europeans and Asians waiting and busing the tables in the restaurants, but the Germans, French, and Japanese were highly visible -- and audible -- in the front country. Two Japanese ladies we encountered at Old Faithful our last day in the park were particularly taken with our canoe and kayak and full of questions about where we went and how cold it got at night (cold enough to produce ice and cold enough to make me glad I brought a 15-degree sleeping bag if you're wondering).
* Old Faithful Ale, a wonderful pale ale courtesy of the Grand Teton Brewing Co., is hard to beat after a long day in the park. It's crisp, palette cleansing, and decidedly refreshing. The Bozone Amber Ale from the Bozeman Brewing Co., conversely, was heavier, chewier, and not as clean-finishing.
* Never underestimate a raven. In the parking lot at Norris some travelers in a Toyota Tacoma had left their soft-shell cooler in the bed of their truck. It didn't take long for a pair of ravens to find it, open it, and settle down to lunch. Even after someone placed a case of water bottles atop the cooler the birds found a way in. Note: Ravens don't like cold cuts; they pulled out and dropped to the side both ham and turkey.
* Some Americans can be truly baffling. One drove up to us in the Norris parking lot and asked whether there was anything interesting to see.
* "Where do we store this stuff?" For a crew at Norris wondering where to stash a pile of 4-by-4 timbers for use in boardwalk construction, the sad answer was just about a dozen feet off the boardwalk atop the crust that signs warn you to stay off of.
* Perhaps after finding a more suitable place to store the timbers, the aforementioned crew could spend just a little time walking the boardwalks in all areas of Yellowstone to pound down nails that are easing their way back out and posing a tripping hazard, and replacing broken boards.
* While much has been made -- on the Traveler and elsewhere -- about the killing of Yellowstone bison that exhibit the ingrained migratory nerve to try to leave the park in winter, there remain a highly visible number of bison in the park. We encountered them along the road to Artist Point, at Old Faithful, in the Hayden Valley, and south of Norris.
* Rangers are visible in Yellowstone. Not overly visible, mind you, but it was nice to see a ranger offering interpretive programs for all-comers at Artist Point, as well as the two rangers who were leading a youthful group of students on a science-related trek through the Norris geyser basin. While we did see backcountry rangers zipping here and there on Yellowstone Lake in their powerful little motor boat, they never found the time to check on us, which was OK, but it's always nice to chat with rangers.