Are there stereotypical Glacier People and Yellowstone People?
WORDS BY EDNOR THERRIAULT
ILLUSTRATION BY MADELINE THUNDER
We love Glacier National Park. Intrepid outdoors enthusiasts swarm the park each year to ride their bikes up the plowed section of Going-to-the-Sun Road in the spring, or hike endless miles in the steep backcountry to spend a summer night in the spartan alpine lodges reachable only on foot or horseback. But it’s getting mighty crowded out there. Post-pandemic visitor numbers have swelled to the point where an entrance ticket to Glacier must be purchased months in advance in an online lottery, and the moment they’re released, those tickets are snapped up in less time than it takes to put a buffalo calf into the back of your Jeep Cherokee.
That infamous incident happened a couple of years ago in Yellowstone National Park, and the recent rash of tourist misbehavior has threatened to overshadow the park’s incredible natural bounty. Like Glacier, Yellowstone boasts its share of grandeur: stunning peaks, towering waterfalls, rugged wilderness and roaming megafauna. But the differences between the two parks seem to have created two disparate demographics of visitors. Recently, a friend was recalling some of his experiences at Sperry Lodge, Glacier’s iconic wilderness chalet. He recounted with great fondness his several trips with friends to the gorgeous wood and rock structure perched on a glacial cirque at the end of a demanding 6.7-mile hike. I asked him if he had a similar spot in Yellowstone. He looked at me as if I’d broken wind in the buffet line.
“We’re not Yellowstone people,” he said.
Yellowstone people. Glacier people. Is this a thing? After spending a couple decades visiting both places, I started searching my own memories for examples of tourist characteristics that might be distinctly associated with either park. As a writer, I’m not given to broad generalizations about people. As a humorist, though, I’ll jump on a juicy stereotype faster than you can say “wool socks and Birkenstocks.”
At first glance it would seem obvious: Glacier is a hiker’s park, Yellowstone is for motor touring. Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road is a carefully planned, 142-mile figure-eight that links most of its major attractions. In total, the park has 370 miles of paved roads. By some estimates, 95 percent of Yellowstone visitors never venture more than 100 feet from the asphalt, barely far enough to try and ride a buffalo. Think about that: 95 percent of Yellowstone’s visitors use 5 percent of the park.
Glacier, by comparison, has more footprints than tire tracks. It has barely 100 miles of paved roads, and only Going-to-the- Sun Road transects the park. Compare that with 700 miles of hiking trails, and you’ll get an idea why you see more hiking footwear than flip-flops among Glacier’s visiting hordes. It’s worth noting, though, that Yellowstone actually has more trails—900 miles—and, at 2.2 million acres, is also more than twice the size of Glacier.
So, with all this hiking versus driving, what kind of visitors are packing the parks in these post-pandemic booms? One indicator I can provide from personal observation is hats. My wife and I sat in the lobby of Many Glacier Hotel one August morning, lacing up our boots while clusters of over-caffeinated hikers chattered around us.
One woman was inspecting the contents of her teenage daughter’s backpack. “No, honey, I said ‘bear spray,’ not ‘hairspray.’”
“I hear there’s a moose family at Lake Josephine,” said an excited young boy sporting a pair of fresh-out-of-the-box Merrells.
“Kuinka kaukana on Grinnell Glacier?” asked a blonde, middle-aged man. He was Finnish.
As the hikers began to filter out of the lobby, I noticed that nearly everyone who wore headgear was sporting a version of the same hat. You know the type: sometimes called a boonie hat, it’s a wide-brimmed, floppy fabric job with a chin cord that always seems to find its way into your mouth. It may have a mesh insert around the crown, and there is a snap on either side of the brim so you can bend one side up, Australian-style, like the machine gunner in “Rat Patrol.”
In Yellowstone earlier that summer, the hat styles I saw were all over the place. There were a few “Rat Patrol” hats, but also ball caps and trucker hats in an array of colors. There were visors, cloth fedoras with tiny brims, knit watch caps, and a couple of long-billed fishing hats with sun skirts draped from the back. And these were just the hats lying in the bottom of the Excelsior Geyser Crater near Grand Prismatic Spring, where the stiff afternoon wind yanks the lids off dozens of boardwalk-tromping tourists every day. I saw one fellow along the walkway who had managed to keep his camouflage bucket hat clamped to his head. He was also wearing a fluorescent lime-green windbreaker. I had to wonder, does this guy want to be seen, or not be seen?
Glacier Park, especially along its higher trails and Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road, is susceptible to sudden storms pretty much any time of year, sometimes bringing sleet or snow even in August. Its outdoorsy aficionados tend to be prepared for this, and dress accordingly in layers. Gloves, boots, and a warm hat are de rigueur if you’re hiking in the backcountry. The garb you see in Yellowstone, by comparison, covers a wider spectrum. The park has its share of no-nonsense hikers, with sturdy boots, hydro backpacks, trekking poles and extra layers, but the boardwalks and visitor centers are also churning with folks wearing basketball shorts and tank tops, skateboard sneakers, shower slides and river sandals. There are always a few women who seem to be hiking to some mystery wilderness nightclub, wearing leather pants or short dresses and stylish heels, carrying nothing but a phone.
Online these days, it’s easy to find sites that feature tourists behaving badly (“tourons”), and Yellowstone seems to be the touron epicenter. As some of us in the Rocky Mountain West look for the first crocus of the spring poking up through the snow, many Yellowstone locals anticipate the first goring of the season when some knucklehead boldly approaches a bison as if they’re protected by a pair of buffalo-proof underpants. Glacier also sees a few run-ins between wildlife and visitors each year. The internet is full of videos showing people trotting along a Glacier Park road toward a bear or moose, usually sending the animals running (“Let’s go, cubs! We don’t want to get any of the stupid on us!”).
Many of us Yellowstone buffs have found that it’s not hard to get away from the teeming hordes to enjoy the other 95 percent of the park. It’s full of astonishing geology and plant life, and truly thrilling sightings of bears, wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, and, yes, bison, outside the circus atmosphere of traffic jams and overflowing parking lots. By the same token, Glacier isn’t just for hardcore hikers. It offers many easily accessible, short hikes that can take you to its magical cedar stands, seemingly endless wilderness, roaring waterfalls and panoramic viewpoints. By learning the best places and methods to discover the exciting natural features in both of these popular national parks, I’ve found that it’s entirely possible to be both a Yellowstone person and a Glacier person.
Ednor Therriault is a Missoula writer and musician, and has published eight books about Montana and Yellowstone National Park. Under his stage name, Bob Wire, he has released eight full-length albums.
Madeline Thunder is a freelance artist based in Bozeman, Montana. When she is not creating, she can usually be found playing outside.