Why We’re Happy a Park Ranger Pulled us Over

There’s probably nothing more embarrassing than getting pulled over by a ranger when you’re joyfully exploring a national park. Especially when you’re on a quest to visit all 59 parks, and you should be the model visitor, right? But that’s exactly what happened to us a few weeks ago in Rocky Mountain National Park. I won’t say who was driving, but I will say we were happy to get away with just a warning for speeding.

So while we learned our lesson, I wish other drivers could learn that lesson. Our last two weeks in Yellowstone National Park have been a whirlwind of diverse landscapes, bubbling thermal features, myriad of wildlife, and encounters with other park visitors who seem to like our rear bumper. Are we the only ones going the speed limit in this park?

But if we weren’t going the limit, we might just have hit a bison two nights ago. You see, photographing geysers right after sunset is quite simply perfect, but that also means driving back to our campsite near dark. Which is not the best time to drive in a park with thousands of bison who have no clue what roads are. As we turned a curve going by Gibbon Falls, there appeared out of thin air a giant bull. Not just any bull, but one with pine tree branches entangled in his horns.

The sight was eerie, comical and unforgettable. We flashed to another car in the opposite direction, and it was obvious how quickly they had to stop.

Meet "Pete" the big bison we named and enjoy seeing around our campsite at Norris Campground.
“Pete” the big bison we named and enjoy seeing around our campsite at Norris Campground. Here he is taking a nap near an RV. This guy has  blocked our entrance to the bathrooms on a few occasions, he seems to like the grass there.
There's something magical about this time of the day.
There’s something magical about this time of the day, but it’s also harder to see wildlife on the roads.
Dawn is another magical time, yet dangerous on the roads. Capturing a moment near the Artists’ Paintpots.
The June full moon rises at Norris Geyser basin, Yellowstone NP.
The June full moon rises at Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP.

While we are thankful for the ability to drive through Yellowstone, we also see the hazard of this privilege. Just last Sunday the beloved cub of a famous grizzly bear was killed by a driver in neighboring Grand Teton National Park. In fact, we posted our last story before learning about this incident. The two bears we illustrated are inspired by photos we took of 399 and Snowy while staying in the park. They often frequented an area near our campground at Colter Bay, so we saw them on a few occasions. We befriended a photographer during our time there, a man who frantically gestured for a car to slow down as we stood observing 399 from a distance. It chills me to think his action was a premonition for the sad event to come.

399, about a week before her cub Snowy was killed by a driver.
399 in Grand Teton NP, about a week before her cub Snowy was killed by a driver.
We've seen a number of critters like chipmunk and squirrels darting between wheels.
We’ve seen a number of other wildlife like chipmunk and squirrels darting between wheels.
Why make wildlife nervous and risk getting knocked down or gorged?
Why make wildlife nervous and risk getting knocked down or gored?

Everyone seems to love national parks, but following rules within them is another topic. It’s obvious rangers are doing their best to make visitors aware with signs everywhere and brochures outlining regulations upon entering the park. Still, just last evening we witnessed from a distance as a father encouraged his children to stand in front of a male elk with pretty big antlers. They must have been only five yards away, and we’re grateful for the man who warned them about their distance.

The amount of visitors to greater Yellowstone is a looming dilemma challenging the idea that parks are for everyone. The park and its surrounding areas create one of the largest nearly complete ecosystems in the northern temperate zone, which is quite a gift in a world where every parcel of land is disappearing to development. Beyond this, the park is home to thousands of unique thermal features that are easily destroyed. It’s amazing to think that this super-volcano with its violent activity beneath the surface can simultaneously appear so fragile. The balance of the entire system is challenged by our actions.

There seem to be hundreds of miles of boardwalk in the park, with clear signs to stay on them. Still, some folks venture off as a few young fellows did not so long ago here at Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest Hot Spring in Yellowstone.

Yet I think the true dilemma is not the number of visitors, but how we visit this park. Maybe the idea of a shuttle system isn’t so bad. Or a network of eco-friendly rail lines replacing roads, allowing visitors to get on and off at the many favorite spots within the park. That would certainly reduce noise, pollution, and reckless driving. It might also just reduce the jaw-dropping amount of waste brought into this park.

For now we are happy that our own encounter with a stern but friendly ranger inspired us to think twice about those speed limit signs. They exist for a good reason. Plus, beyond the safety measure is this simple point:

Why would you want to speed through such a beautiful park anyway?

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