Every year my wife and I take our family, us and four kids, to Yellowstone National Park. In fact, we go to Yellowstone several times a year. For us, Yellowstone is a fun family vacation in an amazing wilderness setting. There are plenty of wildlife to be seen, geothermal features of deep blue and green hot pools and spouting geysers, and new hiking trails to explore.
However, Yellowstone is in the wilderness and one that contains a lot of potential risks for park visitors. It is a place that still claims the lives of tourists from time to time, and where a multitude of injuries are reported with trips to local or regional medical care facilities. If you’re preparing a family trip to Yellowstone, planning for safety is as important as planning your itinerary for the week.
So, what precautions and safety tips would I share for Yellowstone visitors? Visitors to Yellowstone National Park should be aware of the potential threats posed by wild animals, the hidden and unexpected hazards inherent in geothermal areas, the risks of traffic and pedestrian accidents by distracted drivers, and the unique precautions of camping outdoors and venturing out into unknown territory when hiking and exploring.
Let’s take a closer look at these precautions and safety tips:
Years ago, when my grandparents would drive through Yellowstone, you could feed the bears, an experience that often took place from inside your car and handing food to the bears along the side of the road, or who had come up to your vehicle. Thanks to the implementation of wise conservation rules, that is no longer allowed, and could even prove dangerous.
Yellowstone National Park officials have established guidelines for park visitors when viewing animals. Park visitors are required to stay at least 100 Yards (the distance of a football field) away from grizzly bears, black bears and, and wolves. All other animals, such as bison, elk, moose, coyotes, bighorn sheep, foxes, deer, and other smaller animals require a safety distance of 25 yards.
While bear and wolves are known for their predatory status and come with a certain reputation that brings fear to most people, moose, and bison can be very dangerous if you get too close and encroach upon their comfort space. This danger can increase if a cow moose is protecting her offspring or if it is the season of the rut for bison.
If out hiking, exploring, or animal viewing, always follow the guidelines established for distance from you to the animals. However, if you encounter a moose on the trail give it the extra distance to continue its course and allow it to pass. If the rut is in full swing, simply stay farther away from bison than is recommended, especially a male bison who is acting aggressively. Too often park visitors view these majestic animals more like an overgrown cow, docile and only concerned with eating grass and rolling in the dirt. Don’t be fooled! Just this week, a 9-year old girl was attacked and tossed high into the air by a large male Bison. Luckily, she survived the attack with minimal injuries and I’m sure her parents were terrified when they realized what had just happened and the speed with which it occurred. You can watch the video of the incident below.
When out hiking and exploring there are important measures that should be taken to avoid a bear encounter, to reduce the likelihood of an attack, or to thwart an attack should it occur.
· To avoid an encounter: good statistical data gathered over years of research has shown that when venturing outdoors the likelihood of a bear attack is substantially reduced if you hike in groups of at least 3 people. Further, consistently making “human” sounds while hiking is another important strategy. Bears do not want human encounters. Your voice is a warning to them, and they will seek to avoid an encounter by fleeing the area. Most bear attacks take place when we humans startle a bear, and especially if the bear is a sow with a cub.
Other preventive measures include avoiding areas where bear activity is visible such as diggings, day beds, animal carcass cache, bear scat or tracks. All of these are signs of bear activity and the possibility that bears are in the area.
· To reduce the likelihood of a bear attack if there is an encounter: If you encounter a bear that sees you be sure to stop where you are and continue, or start, talking in a calm manner. Don’t turn your back on the bear and stand your ground. If you see the bear but it does not see you, slowly start backing up to increase the distance between you and the bear. Don’t make sudden moves and absolutely do not run from the bear as this will trigger its predatory instincts and likely result on the bear chasing you down. And if they give chase, they will chase you down as they can run 30+ miles per hour. This means they can cover 50 yards or half a football field in less than three seconds.
· To thwart an attacking bear: If a bear makes a charge at you this is considered an attack. The attack may or may not be a bluff charge. Either way, you better have bear spray and know how to use it. The proper use of bear spray is your best shot at deterring the bear’s attack. Bear sprayed, properly employed, irritates the bear’s eyes and respiratory system causing temporary blindness and difficulty breathing. It has been demonstrated as an effective bear attack deterrent but has also been shown to be an effective deterrent against the attack of other animals such as mountain lions, moose, coyote, and other animals.
If you are planning on only being in the park for a day or two, you may want to consider renting bear spray from Bear Aware located at Canyon Village. However, if you are planning on spending a few more days, you may want to buy your own, assuming you want to take it back home with you for future use and are not flying back home as it cannot be transported on airplanes.
If you are planning on buying the bear spray, buy it before you go to Yellowstone because the closer you get to Yellowstone the more expensive the bear spray will cost you. Amazon is a great way to buy Bear Spray at an inexpensive price. Below are some different deals I found there.
Geothermal Features and Board Walks
Some of the most amazing features of Yellowstone are the myriad presentations of geothermal features – the deep blue and green hot pools, the multicolored microflora mats, the spouting geysers and mud pots that are scattered throughout the park. The park service has spent millions of dollars building and maintaining boardwalks that can take you right up to the pools, mud pots, and geysers, but in a safe manner. It is extremely important that you walk and not run when on the boardwalks. Sometimes they can be wet as mist may come off the hot water and not offer the desired traction making them slippery at times. Additionally, special caution should be taken when walking these areas with small children. We make it mandatory to hold on to our young children’s hands and enjoy the interaction of explaining the dangers to them so that they understand the reason to not run or let go of our hands while cultivating an appreciation for not only the beauty but the dangers of these features. It’s important to understand that some of these hot springs can reach temperatures over 450 degrees and one slip or poor choice can spell disaster.
Since the year 1870, 22 people have died when they slipped and fell into one of the many hot pools, or even jumped into it in an effort to save a pet that accidentally fell into a pool. So, please don’t run on the boardwalks or allow your kids to explore freely without being supervised or more importantly protected in these areas.
The speed limit in Yellowstone National Park is 45mph on all major roads. However, several of the side drives will have a much lower speed limit of 10-15 mph. The speed limit is set to not only protect you and the other drivers who share the road, but also the wild animals that may suddenly dart across the road just as you are driving by. Nighttime driving can be especially precarious with vision limited and certain animals more active at this time. Each year hundreds of animals are killed in the park and a good portion of them could have been avoided if drivers would slow down, follow the speed limit and adjust speed to current driving conditions.
Of special concern are the famous so-called bison jams and animal viewing traffic jams that are prevalent in the park. When you consider the combination of circumstances that are present in these situations – cars pilled close together, people looking at animals and not focused on the road, changing circumstances, etc., you can see how car accidents can occur. More importantly, animal viewing traffic jams can be especially worrisome with people, including children, out of their cars jockeying for the best viewing or photo op positioning and cars trying to get past the jam and on to their desired destination in the park.
While is shouldn’t have to be said, NEVER DRINK AND DRIVE! Yes, there are cases of people imbibing and then driving in the park, posing a risk to everyone and everything else. Animals killed, park visitors injured, and structures damaged have all been reported in the events of Yellowstone with alcohol as a contributing factor. So, enjoy the park in a state of mind to fully enjoy the splendors and uniquenesss of Yellowstone.
Camping in Yellowstone can be an amazing experience. On a clear night, the sky will be filled with shining stars, an occasional shooting star, and even a passing satellite. You may get to hear the howling of a coyote or wolf in the distance, a bugling elk, or the grunt of a bison. Yes, bison are known to walk through campsites in the middle of the night. My wife and I have experienced this – the combination of excitement and some fear when you know that bison are just outside your tent.
Camping in Yellowstone, whether at an established campground or backcountry campsite, requires that you follow all the parks rules and guidelines to fully enjoy the experience and also not fringe upon the enjoyment of others who are also seeking such an experience.
Food should never be left out where animals, big or small, can get to it. All food and cookware are to be stored in a bear-proof container or in your locked car. Even small animals, such as a ground squirrel, can cause some damage to materials.
Campfires are to be monitored at all times and be fully extinguished when not in use. Every bit important is to keep a watchful eye on children who seem to be drawn to the site of the fire, that glowing illumination in the black of night.
Tent camping should only be done in areas where permitted. Some campsites are restricted to hardshell camping only due to increased bears activity in the area. Sometimes certain campgrounds or even picnic areas have been temporarily closed due to intensified bear frequenting the area.
For a complete list of the Parks camping rules and regulations, you can click HERE.
An interesting book about Yellowstone that I would highly recommend reading is “Death in Yellowstone” by Lee H Whittlesey. The book details the different accounts of deaths that have occurred in the park since 1870. This presents the true dangers of Yellowstone and can give the reader a glimpse of Yellowstone’s wild side.