There's a fine line between keeping America's National Parks in their natural state, and watering down the wilderness to make it enjoyable for everyone. Maybe it's not such a fine line. The goal of the National Park Service is to preserve our parks for the enjoyment of the people of future generations. However, enjoyment has a different meaning for different people.
When I visit a national park, I prefer to be alone. I want to experience nature by myself, in awe, and in complete silence. Bringing a friend or significant other along every once in a while never hurt. As much as I love it myself, I also want to see new people love it for themselves.
When some people visit, they want to be with everyone. They bring all their friends and make a social gathering out of it. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's just not my thing.
Each year, more and more people want to visit for the first time, or return to relive memories of family vacations. It seems more of society is loving the outdoors, which is not a bad thing at all. However, the problem with this is more people in the "wilderness" makes it less "wild."
This is where the fine line comes in. Too many people enjoying the parks at the same time naturally leads to crowding, trash, traffic, and other annoyances that you would typically go to a park to avoid.
Yellowstone is an enormous place. On a quiet day, there could be thousands of people throughout the park, and you may never see a single one of them. During the busy months, which are now May through September, it's nearly impossible to get the solitude of true wilderness.
While Yellowstone doesn't quite see the level of visitation as The Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains, it is on track to see four million visitors in 2015. Everyone I've talked to, both locals and tourists, have seen the effects of the increased visitation.
During the "tourist season," most locals stay out of the interior of the park, and for good reason. Every parking lot is packed full by mid-morning. Cars will park in the grass, on the curb, and even along the main road. If you do find a place to park, you're still facing hundreds, if not thousands of people crowding boardwalks that are just a few feet wide. Most of these people have no interest in your safety, and couldn't care less about your enjoyment of the sights. You will be pushed around, you will be in their way of pictures, and you will have them in your own pictures. Photos of Old Faithful are synonymous with crowds of people, but is that really what you came to Yellowstone to experience?
The main routes through the park are two lane roads, but when people see an animal, traffic laws and safety mean nothing. If there is so much as a single bison near the road, you can expect traffic to back up for several miles, and possibly last several hours. If a tour bus makes a stop at one of the scenic attractions, you can expect a dense group of 50 or more to be making their way through the boardwalks. Most of the day, there are two or three of these buses in every parking lot, along with dozens of cars.
Yellowstone is not the only National Park experiencing overcrowding. The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains all have crowds during peak season.
This has been an issue since the creation of the National Park System. When the public was first allowed to drive their own vehicles in to the parks, as opposed to being restricted to private tours, the crowding quickly began. Anyone with a car and vacation time could visit the national parks on their own. The infrastructure and accommodations were not ready for the huge influx of visitors, and the overall experience suffered. Why do people still come, knowing there will be crowds? The sights are more than worth it, even if you're packed in like it's a sporting event.
What should the National Park Service do about these issues? In Yellowstone specifically, they are making road improvements, but that will hardly help with traffic. They have made improvements to the visitor center, but that doesn't help with crowding around the actual attractions. Some parks, such as Denali in Alaska, only allow buses to drive the park road after a certain point. This is not how I want to experience the outdoors. I want to plan my own trip, and do things my way.
Both local businesses and tourism groups are spending their advertising money to get as many people visiting as possible. The best solution I see is to cut back on promoting visitation. The people will still visit, but in more tolerable numbers.
I've found my own way to enjoy the area during the summer, by exploring the backcountry. Evidence of humans is apparent everywhere, even miles from the road. Still, most people don't get more than a few hundred yards away from the road, so it's your best chance for some peace and quiet. During the winter months, most of Yellowstone is closed to public vehicles, but the surrounding areas of Montana and Wyoming offer that peace and quiet I truly enjoy. If you want to experience nature in its truest sense, go in the off season, and get as far off the road as you're comfortable with.