Of all the national parks in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone is my favorite. There are many reasons, but here are three of my top ones.
First, Yellowstone has the biggest, wildest backcountry. Sure, Death Valley National Park is larger, but numerous paved and dirt roads carve its backcountry into a couple of dozen separate units. Yellowstone also has roads, to which millions of tourists can attest, though fewer than Death Valley. But Yellowstone National Park is bordered on much of its north, east and south sides by some of the biggest national forest Wilderness Areas in the country, with no intervening roads or fences dividing the park backcountry from the Wilderness Areas. Which means that Yellowstone’s backcountry is effectively far bigger and wilder than what you might surmise by just viewing a map of the park. In fact, the farthest distance from a road in the lower 48 states is along the far southeastern border of Yellowstone, a fact first discovered by Dave Foreman and myself when we were researching our book, The Big Outside, A Descriptive Inventory of the Big Wilderness Areas of the United States.
Reason number two is wildlife. There is probably no place in the temperate regions of the Earth that compares with Yellowstone — and indeed the entire the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — for wildlife. It is one of the only places left where all vertebrates known to have historically existed still do. And the number of large mammals is amazing! Yes, in the backcountry the animals are typically more secretive than along the roadsides. Nonetheless, if you want a backpack trip with a good chance to see lots of animals in their native wilderness habitats, don’t look any further than Yellowstone. Think elk, bison, wolf and griz, pronghorn, beaver, sandhill cranes, eagles……and so much more.
My third major reason is solitude. Compared with many other parks such as Yosemite, the Great Smokies or even Glacier, the Yellowstone backcountry is uncrowded! Plus, in many national parks such as Glacier, for example, backcountry campsites are allotted on the basis of carrying capacity. This means that if the official capacity for a particular backcountry camp is 12 people at one time, there might be 4 groups of 3 people, all camping within a stone’s throw of one another. By contrast, in Yellowstone, campsites are exclusive. When we reserve a camp, that campsite is ours alone. Even if the camp capacity is twelve and we have just six Big Wild Adventurers, we will not be camping with any other groups. Solitude is an important wilderness value, and the unsurpassed Yellowstone backcountry provides plenty!