The Wild History of Yellowstone National Park

How Yellowstone National Park Went from Big Game Hunting Grounds to National Attraction

From its conception, Yellowstone National Park has been a “Wonderland”. A place for visitors to see the pristine, unspoiled wilderness. It was a place of unparalleled beauty and adventure where no human had walked before. Realistically, of course, that is not the history of Yellowstone National Park. For thousands of years before it became a national park, Native American tribes traveled to Yellowstone for their seasonal big game hunts.

Standing at Observation Point, you can just imagine what it must have been like to have the natural wonders of Yellowstone National Park as your backyard.

To this day, you can hear the low hum of the lake music call to you from across Lake Yellowstone – a phenomenon that scientists still can’t explain. You can gaze at the steaming geysers dyed brilliant colors by the minerals in the water. You can even experience what it would be like to have a herd of American buffalo block your path.

However, Yellowstone wasn’t always a lush land of bountiful beauty and resources. It started quite literally, with a bang!

When Did Yellowstone Erupt?

Approximately 631,000 years ago Yellowstone Caldera¹ – the active supervolcano that lies under the surface of Yellowstone National Park – erupted. Its ferocity sent 240 cubic miles of lava spewing. You can visit these lava and ash flows within the park, including Sheepeater Cliff, Obsidian Cliff, Firehole Canyon, and Virginia Cascades.

This eruption would lead to Yellowstone growing into a bountiful land with intense thermal features and dramatic landscapes. The volcanic soil grew rich grasslands and forests. The Grasslands brought the bison, elk, and other wildlife. The predators followed the herds: wolves, coyotes, cougars, bears, and, of course, humans.

Just How Big Is Yellowstone National Park?

Seriously, where do you even start to explore a place like Yellowstone? The current Yellowstone National Park covers 2.2 million acres that stretches over Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. And it’s not just Yellowstone’s sheer land area that’s big.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is 20 miles long, 1,000 feet deep and 4,000 ft wide with obsidian and basalt cliffs towering above the valley. Follow this massive water flow along the Yellowstone River as it flows through the expansive Paradise Valley for miles.

Yellowstone National Park: the Nation’s First National Park

Much like hunters today who take a yearly hunting trip to provide meat for their families, Indigenous Americans traveled to Yellowstone for their seasonal big game hunting trip. Prizes like the American buffalo, bighorn sheep, elk, and bear were big enough to feed their tribes through the winter. Even tribes from as far away as Ohio flocked to Yellowstone.

But the first accounts of Yellowstone that made it back to the East coast came from John Colter, a mountain man, trapper, and guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition. His account of Yellowstone heightened awareness of the growing opportunities in the western lands, and his description of the beauty prompted the U.S. government to send out several survey expeditions between 1830 and 1860.

After several surveying teams brought back glowing reports of the Yellowstone area, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that created Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872.

Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park. In 1878, under the direction of the Army Corp of Engineers, Philetus Norris oversaw the creation of a road system within the park that would help Army patrols get from one side of the park to the other more efficiently.

In 1882, Mr. Rockefeller’s North Pacific Railroad built a spur to the Yellowstone area that ended at Cinnabar, Montana. Visitors would then board a stage coach to take them to Yellowstone. Soon cabins and lodges grew up around the railroad to accommodate the visitors frequenting the park.

One summer tourist from New York, Mrs. Alice Morris, became a regular visitor. She spent her summers horseback riding and fishing throughout the park. In 1917, Superintendent Lindsley asked her to study Yellowstone’s trails and make suggestions on how they should be improved.

Alice’s reports mapped many of the trails used today in Yellowstone National Park. In the end, she suggested the three loops that takes visitors through the most stunning features of Yellowstone National Park.

Alice also wrote whimsically about all of the charming aspects of Yellowstone.

The North Pacific Railroad even published a tourist brochure entitled: “Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland”. Alice retold several of her adventures and wrote about what visitors could expect.

Even with the development of roads, well-kept trails, and lodging in Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone was still wild and remains so today.

Conserving Yellowstone National Park by Respecting the Wild

As Yellowstone National Park’s popularity grew between 1920 and 1960, more and more tourists entered the park. This led to overfishing, the elimination of wolves in the name of safety, and feeding the bears.

In the 1970s, conservation efforts focused on educating the public. Rangers put safety precautions in place to prevent people – mainly children – from accidently going off-trail and breaking through into a mudpot. They also posted signage explaining the dangers of leaving the trails and approaching animals extensively throughout the park.

Today, wolves hunt in Yellowstone again and the fishing that Alice loved so dearly – while still legal – has been minimized to prevent overfishing in the area.

And through it all, the American buffalo roam steadily, freely across the valleys as they’ve done for thousands of years.

Check out our blog on the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and how to follow them during your visit.

Yellowstone National Park: Places to Stay Yellowstone

The history of Yellowstone National Park is a wild journey from seasonal big game hunting trips to America’s Wonderland that everyone can access and enjoy. But it is also the stories of the peoples who’ve lived within its grandeur.

From the wildfires of 1988 to the flooding of 2022, Yellowstone continues to remain an untamed yet unbelievably beautiful destination where you can experience history.

Just as the earliest visitors to Yellowstone built temporary hunting lodges, Yellowstone National Park has plenty of places to stay in the park. But if you’re looking for something more uniquely luxurious for your trip to Yellowstone then Under Canvas is just the place.

Under Canvas Yellowstone has upscale Safari-inspired accommodations set right in the heart of the Yellowstone area and just 10 minutes from the West Entrance of the park. With USB charging cords, ensuite bathrooms, and comfortable king-size beds for you to sleep soundly in at the end of your adventures, staying with Under Canvas is the best way to enjoy your Yellowstone adventure.

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