Jeff Hammer: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

What a difference a year and a flood makes. Luckily, my wife is organized and persistent. Over a year ago, she made camping reservations on two different websites, and we were able to camp in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks at various times throughout the summer of 2021 using our newly purchased Winnebago travel trailer, but we noticed an unforeseen consequence of the recently enacted policy of campground concessionaires requiring reservations instead of the time-honored practice finding a campsite first come first served.

Many of the folks who reserved campsites were not showing up and those campsites remained empty. Whether they were too lazy to call in to cancel or perhaps there were unforeseen events that prohibited them from claiming their campsite, I can’t say. Nonetheless, the situation was a shame, because there were many folks that were turned away from campgrounds who could have put those sites to good use, but were not allowed to because they had been reserved for some other family or individual.

This year, however, there are just as many, if not more, empty sites, not only because people are not showing up to claim their reserved site, but also because fewer people seem to be traveling to our national parks, at least those in Wyoming. Just a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I spent seven nights collectively in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and at each of the campgrounds at which we stayed, many sites went unclaimed, so in theory, one could show up and rent a campsite unannounced.

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This is a relatively new post-pandemic development, as earlier this year, my wife spent a lot of time scouring websites for campsite availability and every campground indicated that all campsites suitable to accommodate our truck and trailer had been reserved for the summer all the way into September.

Then much of Yellowstone flooded, and now it appears that many folks have canceled their reservations, which has opened up sites for those of us who failed to be online at the exact moment the appropriate website began allowing reservations many months ago. I feel bad for those folks, but not bad enough that I won’t take advantage of the situation, which led to the situation where Gayla found openings in Grand Teton and Yellowstone recently. It was almost like the old days.

Even with all the changes over the years, national park campgrounds are still some of my favorite places. I’m kind of a people watcher, which is one of the benefits of traveling by plane. Airports are excellent places to get a glimpse into the lives of people from nearly every country in the world, and let me tell you, there are some interesting folks out there. National park campgrounds offer the same opportunity but on a much smaller scale.

Every morning, before breakfast, Gayla and I walk a few of the campground loops with our coffee in hand and we notice things. Now that our country is open again to international travel, we are seeing more and more folks from Europe, Canada, and Mexico at campgrounds. Many motor homes manufactured in Europe appear more like military vehicles in style and color than recreational vehicles. Those folks must have some serious money. For one thing, fuel costs for those things must be stunning, but even more impressive would be the cost of getting those vehicles to the United States because they don’t just magically appear here. They must be put on an ocean-going barge at some port in Europe, most likely England, and taken off that vessel in some place in Canada, probably Nova Scotia.

Motor homes, wherever they are manufactured, have become huge over the years, and it’s hard to find a motorhome which does not have a smaller vehicle being pulled behind. Those combinations take up a lot of space. Even fifth wheel travel trailers have become a lot bigger. Both types of RV’s can be ordered with outdoor spaces that look all the world like many decks which are attached to stick built houses. Yes, one can bring a deck and all its accessories, including state of the art barbeques. 

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Camping ain’t what it used to be.

I can live with these changes, but there is one change that, in my opinion, needs to be addressed.

Many years ago, the National Park Service accepted responsibility for operating the campgrounds located in national parks, but sometime within the past few decades, that agency ceased that practice and leased out that job to concessionaires who handle the day to day activities necessary to providing camping accommodations to the general public.

Previously, we would occasionally see law enforcement rangers patrolling campgrounds. I thought that was good practice, if for no other reason than having a law enforcement presence in the campground was just good public relations. That is no longer the case. Campgrounds have never been hotbeds of criminal activity. Quite the opposite is true, but the fact that the park service law enforcement does not have a presence in the campgrounds causes some people to toy a little with the campground rules, as set by the agency.

For example, campground rules state that all vehicles must be on the campsite itself. In other words, it is not acceptable for campers to drive off into the grassy areas adjacent to the campsites, otherwise the whole campground would soon become a gravel parking lot. Who wants that? But yet we see this happening on every camping trip. Concessionaire employees can be seen zipping around on their golf carts at all hours of the day, but never have we observed any of them telling these rule benders to move their vehicles. 

Another campground expectation is that nothing that might resemble food or contain food odors is to be left out at the campsite. Those items can attract bears while campsites are unattended or during the night. Things like coolers, camp stoves, dishes, and other objects too numerous to mention here, but yet it happens all the time, and again, the campground workers say nothing as they conduct their patrols. I’m really not sure why. When campers first enter a campground, employees stress the importance of keeping a clean camp, which is particularly critical now that the grizzly bear population is the highest it’s been in over a century.

When the Park Service handled the day-to-day operations of the campgrounds, periodically we would see rangers drive through and if campers left their campsite for the day but left food items out, rangers would confiscate all of those items and put them in a secure building. When the campers returned and found their belongings gone, they immediately assumed it had been stolen and would contact law enforcement. To their dismay, they soon found out that their camping paraphernalia were safe but to have them back would require them to pay a fine. 

My wife and I witnessed just such a scenario one day many years ago at the Lizard Creek Campground in Grand Teton. We happened to be walking by the ranger cabin and overheard a conversation between rangers and some unhappy campers who wanted their camping gear returned. The campers were loud and they tried to be intimidating, but law enforcement remained cool and steadfast in their commitment to keep bears and people safe. I’m not sure how the situation turned out, but I hope the campers vowed never to return to a national park campground, which would have been best for all concerned.

On another occasion, when our older daughter was just a toddler, we were tent camping at Bridge Bay Campground in Yellowstone one August. At about 2:00 in the morning, I was awakened by a car door slamming nearby and soon the loud and exasperated voice of a ranger was heard waking up the camper in the next site. He was not gentle with that gentleman who left a cooler sitting out next to his tent, and I’m glad he wasn’t. That knucklehead endangered not only his only life, but those of us in close proximity, not to mention the life of a bear. The next morning the camper asked me if I heard the ranger come by, and when I answered in the affirmative, he apologized. He learned an embarrassing lesson, and I hope he still remembers it. I do.

But now those lessons are no longer given, and I predict it will only be a matter of time before a hungry human-conditioned bear can no longer resist the odorous draw of an easy snack by rummaging through a campground which offers food rewards by lazy or clueless campers. Complicit will be concessionaire employees and park law enforcement who for reasons unknown to me fail to enforce food storage requirements.

Just last year, a female cyclist was killed in a small town in Montana by a food conditioned grizzly. The bear, having received food rewards from previous campers, dragged the woman from her tent in the wee hours of the morning. She died nearly instantaneously. We have seen grizzly bears in the most unlikely of places, so having one turn up in a campground anywhere in northwest Wyoming is a certain possibility.  

A good portion (too many to count, really) of my predictions throughout my life have proven to be wrong. Just the other day, I stepped outside in the morning and looked at the sky, and predicted that we would experience no precipitation during the day. However, by early evening, we had experienced at least two light rain showers, a misguided prediction if there ever was one. I hope the above prediction is just as faulty.

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