The night sky in Yellowstone glowed overhead. I had stopped in the Lamar Valley late one evening, and as I turned out the headlights, the surrounding landscape went pitch black. Hardly a sound troubled the stillness certainly not the howling of wolves I was hoping to hear. Above me, a gillion lights pricked the canopy. A galaxy of stars clustered into a murky arc from horizon to horizon the Milky Way.
The starry heavens are just one of many things that tie together Greater Yellowstone. That night I was standing in its heart, Yellowstone National Park. But later, those same stars would illuminate my camp in the Beartooths, far to the north, just as years earlier, they had glistened on my camp in the Wind River, miles to the south.
Greater Yellowstone encompasses 14 million acres, making it the largest temperate ecosystem in the world that remains essentially intact. Its namesake park, larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, comprises a mere 16% of the total land. With the Beartooths anchoring its northeast corner, Greater Yellowstone spreads west across several other ranges and the three rivers that Lewis and Clark named after Jefferson and his cabinet. To the south it reaches the grasslands of the Wyoming plains and the headwaters of the Colorado River system. Up its spine runs the Continental Divide, and at its center rises one of the youngest mountain ranges in North America, the Tetons.
Remarkably diverse, the regions that comprise Greater Yellowstone are none-the-less inextricably, perhaps inexplicably, linked by natural forces. The grassy marshes of Red Rocks Lakes bear little resemblance to the alpine lakes of the Tetons, yet the pristine habitat of both ended up being the salvation of the trumpeter swans now swimming in Grand Teton National Park. Trout in Atlantic and Pacific Creeks lie on opposite sides of the Continental Divide, yet they may have started as siblings in Two Ocean Creek, whose waters split around a rock to flow east and west. The intertwining of natural processes here is evidenced by the explosion in elk and bison numbers when wolves were eliminated, and the relative balance that has been achieved since their reintroduction. Taken as a whole, Greater Yellowstone is an ecosystem in the most fundamental sense of the word a complex symbiosis of living elements that, when left alone, will flourish indefinitely.
Though its importance for habitat preservation can't be overstated, Greater Yellowstone also ties together one of America's preeminent outdoor playgrounds. With two national parks, seven national forests and at least a dozen wildernesses, its backcountry can keep hikers on the trail for a lifetime. Its waters range from alpine lakes to roaring whitewater, enough to thrill the most avid anglers and paddlers. Its scenery is unsurpassed for anyone cruising through in vehicles, and the fun continues on the snow, long after the crowds are gone. But nowhere does the magnificence of this region shine brighter than in the wildlife that binds the ecosystem.
Enjoy some of GORP's favorites in the lands around the first national park.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication