Over the course of four days, with a guide to help us find the best hikes, my wife, our guide and I covered sixty miles in Yellowstone National Park, seeing countless wide-open meadows, miles of meandering streams, and some of the best scenery one can hope to find anywhere in the world. I counted as we passed mile after mile, and we encountered ten people over the course of these four days in the backcountry. This number was admittedly very surprising to me because it completely contradicted our experiences on the road driving to the trailheads.


I glanced through a high-powered scope watching as the larger of two wolves nipped the hind quarters of the smaller of two grizzlies.  The four animals were engaged in some type of standoff, with the canines shooting in to harass the slower bears and then retreating as the larger, more powerful grizzlies reversed course and charged back at the nimble wolves.  This dance went back and forth for thirty minutes or so as members of our group debated why these four were going at each other.  Some suggested a kill was being guarded, others thought the wolves might be guarding a den.  A consensus was never reached on the topic, but such is the nature of observation from a mile and half away.  A consensus was reached, however, on how lucky we are to have not chosen the trail passing immediately by the scene for that day’s hike.


Only twelve hours earlier, on the way to the trail that morning, I had listened to my guide tell the story of a fatal grizzly attack that occurred in 2011 in the park. In the early summer months Brian Matayoshi and his wife Marylyn surprised a mother grizzly while on a hike. The sow, acting in defense of her cubs, charged the two hikers. Brian attempted to distract the bear from his wife. Marylyn ran, but the bear tracked her down shortly after brutalizing her husband. Marylyn’s backpack absorbed most of the bear’s fury and she escaped with minor injuries, but Brian died from his injuries.

Our guide wrapped up this story up as our minivan slowed to a stop. Looking uproad, we saw that we had come across what is commonly referred to as a “bear jam”, a cluster of cars and people in the road most probably looking at something brown and fuzzy in the distance. Eventually we moved close enough to find a parking spot and jump out of the car to find the subject of everyone’s interest. With a little direction we were able to find, using only our 10X zoom binoculars this time, a mother grizzly and three playful cubs tromping through high grass that separated a meadow from a wooded area. We loitered and enjoyed the scene for a while, then hopped back in the car and continued on our way. We probably would have stayed longer if that hadn’t been the second grizzly with three cubs that we had seen in the last hour.

These types of scenes, and the frequency at which they occur, make Yellowstone a destination for over 3 million visitors a year (3.4 million in 2012). Combine this with the fact that at over 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone only maintains 466 miles of road and you begin to understand the term “bottleneck.”  It’s an especially infuriating type of bottleneck, where the liquid can suddenly freeze and remain stuck for hours at a time. The bottlenecks are a necessary evil, but can be mostly avoided through a few simple maneuvers. First, get up early and pack a thermos of coffee. Second, when you pass a trailhead that looks appealing, stop your vehicle and turn off the engine. Third and most importantly, grab your bear spray, throw on a backpack loaded with the ten essentials and walk away from the road.


After much trail time to consider, I formed some ideas on why there might be such a problem with traffic but few hikers on the trails. There are over 1,000 miles of trail in the Yellowstone backcountry. Every mile of these trails is wild and unfiltered (with perhaps the exception of a few boardwalks). At last count there were over 700 grizzly bears roaming the parks through which these trails cut. We had witnessed eight sightings of this beast in a single day, and had listened to one extremely disconcerting tale of an encounter gone wrong. Is there any stronger deterrent out there?


Let’s take it one step further (I work with numbers so I like to quantify my ideas). Let’s say only two percent of the park’s annual visitors are willing to set off into the wild with Ursus arctos horribilis (yes,the Latin name for the North American Grizzly contains the word horribilis); that’s roughly 168,000 brave hikers per year. Spread most of those hikers out across the four summer months (eighty percent or so), and you have 13,500 hikers visiting the park a month during the summer. Assume that the average hiker decides to spend a week in the park, and that drops the number to 3,400 hikers walking the trails per week. Split these hikers across 92 trail heads in the park and you have 36 hikers per trailhead. Assuming that there are about 6 or so good hours to start your hike and you end up with 6 departures per hour, or one every 10 minutes. Now take this inconsequently small number and divide it by 1,000 miles of trail and you get a lot of solitude. Enjoy them, but only in groups of three or more…and don’t forget your bear spray.



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