The National Parks are wild and extraordinary places to experience. In ever popular Yellowstone Park, the beauty and wonder can also be dangerous if you and loved ones aren’t careful.
Heart-breakingly, a young man died horribly after falling into a hot spring in Yellowstone recently. It takes some doing to fall into those lethal Yellowstone Park pools. Raised trails cross caldera grounds. Tourists get close enough to feel the heat and peer into the pools safely from raised boardwalks. Sulfurous fumes wash through the air. There’s no mistaking that you’re in a foreign and challenging landscape. The beauty is hypnotic but can be deadly if you don’t pay attention.
Deceptively calm thermal pool beauty in Yellowstone Park.
Many have walked off marked paths, decided to strike out alone and unprepared, felt the boondoggle was worthwhile. Why Colin Scott and his sister decided to walk off the path into an isolated area is an open question. The paths are marked. Signs clearly state ‘Danger. No Trespassing.’ Only a sheer crust of earth sits above the acidic bubbling waters below but it looks deceptively solid. Colin fell in and disappeared in a boiling, acidic pond. His sister will live to replay those shocking moments for the rest of her life.
I visited eight National Parks over three weeks and watched incredulously while several visitors left safe barriers in an effort to get pictures. Along the Crater Lake rim trail I witnessed a Japanese family climb over a fence and onto crumbling gravel above a steep ravine. Loose rock was their only footing, the only thing between them and sure death if they had slid into the crevices below. I couldn’t look until they returned safely to the trail. There was a sign posted about the danger a few feet from where they posed.
Uncle Tom’s trail stair down to viewing Lower Yellowstone Park Falls
Since 2013 there have been more than thirty-six deaths from falling in Yellowstone Park! Most have been falls into canyons. At Uncle Tom’s Trail it would be relatively easy to plunge from the 328 step stairway. The metal stairs twist down almost vertically for several hundred feet. Admittedly the view of the Lower Yellowstone Falls through rainbow mists and up into the rushing waters is worth the challenge but the ascent has its risks as well. Everyone climbs up from the scaffold with their hearts pounding from heat and exhaustion.
Accidents and foolhardiness in the first National Park
On the drive to Yellowstone from California I got acquainted with Lee H. Whittlesey’s hefty book, Death In Yellowstone. The subhead speaks volumes: Accidents and foolhardiness in the first National Park. It’s painstakingly researched. Twenty five chapters are crammed with injuries, deaths and rescue attempts. The grizzliest jobs are recovering the fallen, the parts, and piecing together what happened instance by instance. I read enough to get the message.
Friend or foe? Our National Mammal sizes visitors up.
The park has been a killer from its creation. Several craftsmen fell from scaffolding while building roads and lodges. In the 1920’s a superintendent loaded his monthly report with cases of people being burned in the face as they looked down into the cone of Old Faithful. Today there’s a wide perimeter around the geyser with benches and explosion times posted near. Still distracted parents have lost children in nearby pools.
Too close for comfort
Drawing close to wild animals is constant temptation in Yellowstone Park. Staying the recommended minimum of 100 yards from bears and wolves sounds excessive but they can charge without warning and you may need room to take evasive actions. As recently as 2015 bear attacks have led to disappearances and deaths. Again warnings and precautions are posted, illustrated in brochures and shown in movies inside the various visitor centers inside the park.
Make noise while hiking. A surprised bear can be a dangerous animal.
Bear Spray works. Carry it where it can be accessed easily and quickly.
Here’s a short video of my close encounter with wildlife in Yellowstone Park.
For all the warnings, people still draw close to Bison and Elk in an effort to get a good picture. Most of the beasts seem nonplussed by crowds or posers drawing near, but again there’s no knowing if or when they might charge. Keeping something between you and a thousand pound wild animal is always a good thing!
Close encounter of the wild kind
In Yellowstone Park I had a close roadside encounter because I wasn’t paying attention. On our drive through the park we discovered that if you see a group of cars pulled over with no man-made attractions nearby, it’s a safe bet there are wild animals near the road. In one instance we stopped near a half dozen cars parked close to a lush hillside. About 50 feet away, a massive bull Elk was posing in the grass, his rack full and broad above a proud forehead. Camera out, I stepped next to a stand of trees lining the road. While I was there focusing, several other males sauntered over the hill just out of my peripheral vision. It wasn’t until I put down the camera that I noticed how close one massive male had come to me. I side-stepped to a narrow tree as the moose lowered his head to nuzzle tufted greens. There were less than eight feet between us! A few snaps later I slowly, steadily, backed away towards the waiting car, no worse for my clueless encounter.
Ambivalence or Ignorance?
In his book, Forever Wild, Phillip Terrie writes about our responses to wilderness. He calls it ambivalence, a state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about a place or someone. The author states:
We react to wilderness as “an endlessly interesting mixture of sympathy and fear, of love and hostility, of the impulse to embrace and the equally powerful urge to flee.”
An entire chapter of the Death in Yellowstone book explores this fatal attraction.
Life, urban or wild, is full of risk. With luck we learn from our close encounters with danger. Stay safe and enjoy Yellowstone Park. You’ll live to tell the stories and share pictures for years to come.
Brace for crowds during peak months and the Park Centennial (2016.)
Start reserving your lodging months in advance.
Pack for hot days and chilly nights during spring and summer.
Stay alert. Take signage seriously. Have fun!
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Elaine J. Masters
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