Environment, Outdoor Recreation

A Summer in Yellowstone

From May to September, 2023, I worked as a guide in Yellowstone National Park. Working 5-6 days a week and roughing it by sleeping in my car, I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, drive the company van to West Yellowstone, Montana, pick up my customers, then spend the day driving them around the park. Spending almost every day in Yellowstone for four and a half months, as well as talking to people who had come from around the world to see the park, led me to make some realizations, and I will talk about them below.

My living situation for the summer.


Yellowstone became a national park in 1872 by an act of congress, making it the world’s first national park. It is one of the largest protected areas in the country, with the park covering about 2.2 million acres. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area that includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and nearby national forests, is about ten times larger, covering 22 million acres. The park is also the second-most visited National Park in the country, just behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yellowstone is on track to set a new visitation record in 2023, with just under 5 million visitors.

The park is most famous for two things: its hydrothermal features and its abundance of large mammals. Yellowstone is home to over half the world’s geysers including the famous Old Faithful, as well as thousands of hot springs, steam vents, and mud pots. These thermal features owe their existence to the volcanic nature of Yellowstone, and were a major contributor to the park’s creation.

The park is home to many large mammals, like bison, elk, moose, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions, for two big reasons. The first is that the park covers a massive area and contains wide grasslands, thick pine forests, meandering rivers, rocky mountain peaks, and a variety of other habitats that support different species of animals. The park has also historically provided protection from hunting, which has allowed animals like bison and grizzly bears to survive in the park while being hunted to near-extinction across the rest of North America. 

A herd of bison crossing the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park with steam vents in the background.

Since my background is in biology and I led wildlife-watching tours, I will talk mostly about why Yellowstone’s large mammals and, in a broader sense, its ecosystems, are so important.


About a year and a half ago, I had a conversation with a friend from Texas that has really stuck in my mind. He had backpacked across Europe, been to Japan, and spent a lot of time talking about his love for traveling. For some reason I don’t remember, he was trying to convince me that traveling cities is far more exhausting than natural areas. He said:

“Each city has its own vibe and its own organization. When you arrive, you have to learn where everything is and how to get around and which areas are unsafe, whereas everywhere you go, trees are just trees.”

At that moment, I was furious about how dismissive he was of my interests, as well as how stupid one has to be to not see any difference between Yellowstone or the Amazon Rainforest or a redwood forest or any of the thousands of other ecosystems that exist in the world. But after a while, I realized that it was not his fault.

He was from Arlington, Texas, part of a metro area that has over 6.5 million people, in a state where over 95% of land is privately-owned. Where he is from, getting a day pass for a state park near an urban area often requires making a reservation days in advance, and as a result people spend very little time out in nature. Since many people have no contact with nature, they know very little about it, giving us awful takes such as “everywhere you go, trees are just trees.” 

I also feel that this plays a part in the overwhelming disinterest in environmental causes that I witnessed when I lived in Texas. How could you possibly expect someone to support the protection of a prairie or a wetland when they themselves have never seen either of these things?

With most of the world’s population living in the urban jungle, and most of those who do not living in areas that are intensively farmed, this lack of contact with nature is by no means confined to urban Texas. For many of my customers, getting to see a bear in the wild is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and  this sentiment is so common that Yellowstone is infamous for the massive traffic jams that form from people stopping their cars to look at an animal near the road.

A line of cars stopped to watch a mother grizzly and her cubs cross a road in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Notice the haze in the air from wildfire smoke.

The grizzly bears, bison herds, and wolf packs that live within Yellowstone inspire within its visitors a sense of awe for the other living things here on Earth. This sense of awe is often missing from people like me who are from places that are nearly devoid of nonhuman life, yet is essential to motivate people for environmental causes..

In other words, Yellowstone shows us that the nonhuman world is fascinating and worthy of our respect, and far too complex to be summed up by the phrase “trees are just trees.” 

Hiking through a 100+ year-old lodgepole pine forest in the Bechler region of Yellowstone.

Biological Refuge

In addition to showing us what is missing from much of the world, Yellowstone can also be used to restore ecosystems in other parts of North America. Given its large area and rigorous environmental protections, Yellowstone has long been a safe haven for many endangered species.

Perhaps the most famous example is the bison. Prior to the year 1800, it is believed that 60 million bison roamed the great plains of North America, ranging from Alaska down through Canada and the United States and into Northern Mexico. The bison were essential to life for many Native Americans on the plains, as the bison were used for food, fuel, clothing, and building materials.

The bison population started to decline around the year 1800, as the United States army began a bison extermination campaign in an attempt to force the Native Americans of the plains to surrender and move to reservations. Over the course of the 19th century, the bison population fell from around 60 million individuals in 1800 to around 300 in 1900, a population decline of over 99.999%.

Of the 300 surviving bison, 24 lived in Yellowstone National park. Most of the other bison lived on private ranches, where they were often hybridized with domestic cattle. Yellowstone’s bison experienced no such hybridization, making them one of the last genetically pure bison populations in the world.

The size of the Yellowstone bison herd further increased through natural reproduction and the introduction of 21 new bison in the early 1900’s. Today, the herd numbers between four and six thousand, a number which is considered the maximum that Yellowstone National Park can support. Yellowstone has the largest population of wild bison in the world, and the government, Native American tribes, and conservation groups frequently capture and transport Yellowstone bison to start herds elsewhere. If Yellowstone did not exist, it would be much, much harder to find enough bison to start a new herd.

A bull bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone served as a refuge for bison when they were nearly hunted to extinction, and now that the government policy toward bison has changed, Yellowstone is an important source of bison for allowing them to repopulate North America. And bison are far from the only species that has followed a similar trajectory.

Grizzly bears and trumpeter swans were both nearly extinct in the lower 48 states outside of Yellowstone, and have followed a similar trajectory of using the individuals in Yellowstone to help repopulate areas outside of the park. With Yellowstone covering such a large area containing healthy forests, grasslands, rivers, and wetlands, it can provide a place for many species to survive even if they face heavy persecution everywhere else.


Yellowstone is significant because it is one of the United States’ last intact ecosystems. It can inspire us by showing us just what is missing from so much of the world, as well as provide a refuge for many species that can be used to help them repopulate their former habitats outside of the park.

That being said, Yellowstone is far from perfect and actually has a pretty dark history. I am also not advocating for the creation of more places like Yellowstone, nor am I advocating for bison and grizzly bears to be returned to your backyard. To learn more about Yellowstone’s dark history and what habitat restoration can look like in the 21st Century, check out Why Wilderness Doesn’t Exist and Dipping my Toes in Amazonia (coming soon).

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