Yellowstone unveils electric, automated shuttles for summer testing

In 149 years, Yellowstone National Park has moved from horse-based transportation for visitors to the first testing of an electric shuttle capable of operating without a driver.

On Wednesday, the park launched a $360,000 public experiment into what could be the next generation of park transportation when it unveiled two eight-passenger, window-walled cubes nicknamed TEDDY (The Electric Driverless Demonstration at Yellowstone).

“This type of technology can really help us achieve some of our major sustainability goals that we’ve set here in the park,” said Cam Sholly, park superintendent, as the vehicles were unveiled to the media on Tuesday.

Such technology could be tested at any location, but Canyon Village provides a remote setting at an elevation of 7,900 feet where snow can fall any month of the year. Through Aug. 31, the vehicles will navigate the maze of Canyon Village’s parking lot to provide riders a free and quick lift to nearby lodging and campsites to demonstrate the shuttles’ capability at avoiding errant pedestrians, distracted drivers and unpredictable wildlife.

Cubed

The vehicles are cute, resembling a life-sized child’s toy. On the sides they are artfully decorated — one with the photo of a regal bull bison and the other with a wide-angle view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Springing over the tire on one is an outline of a fox.

“They are distinctly different,” said Charlie Gould, a transportation fellow with Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute. “The attraction to the public is strong.”

Named Olli by their manufacturer — Knoxville, Tennessee-based Local Motors — the vehicles were 3D printed. Inside each cube is $300,000 worth of high-end technology installed by Beep Inc. Twelve cameras mounted on each shuttle provide a 360-degree view of surroundings. Three 12-volt batteries and one large 400-volt lithium battery power operations for 40 miles, about 1.5 hours, before recharging is needed.

Thanks to GPS, laser measurements using LiDAR and radio signals from an antenna, the vehicles have accuracy up to 1 centimeter, Gould explained. Known as Real-Time Kinematic positioning, a fixed antenna interacts with the shuttle and satellite positioning information to achieve accuracy.

The nearly 7-foot wide, 13-foot long vehicles can carry 1,350 pounds. Similar vehicles have been deployed in Maryland, Italy and Berlin.

During their short ride, visitors can view a five-minute video that explains the testing program while also touching on Yellowstone’s history and the importance of giving wildlife room to roam.

“Obviously we’re not moving a lot of people,” Sholly said, but the shuttles are testing the technology to see if it works.

Future tests could expand the routes depending on what is learned this year, he added.

Partners

The test deployment is being conducted in partnership with the Department of Transportation Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

“We’re just trying to understand the technology we have today,” said Joshua Cregger of Volpe, providing technical assistance to the National Park Service after releasing a 2018 study on automated transit.

Yellowstone may be the first national park, but Wright Brothers National Memorial had the honors of launching the first Park Service study of the Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation (CASSI) on April 20.

Still, Yellowstone will likely provide a more difficult and unusual testing ground for the vehicles. When the crews from Florida-based Beep Inc. arrived eight weeks ago, they encountered three-foot deep roadside snowbanks and winter-like cold.

Future

Deployment of automated electric vehicles in Yellowstone and other national parks is uncertain at this point. Right now, the partners are simply seeking more information, which will include passenger surveys.

In the same vein, the park has initiated a separate study analyzing the best ways to enjoyably move visitors through the park while also protecting the park’s unique and fragile environment. Through 2022, the transit feasibility study will focus on four of Yellowstone’s most congested areas: Old Faithful, the Upper Geyser Basin, Norris Basin and Canyon Village. The study will inform whether piloting a local transit service in Yellowstone is feasible, the Park Service said.

A 2018 survey of park visitors revealed that 80 to 90 percent of tourists in Yellowstone approve of shuttle services as long as they aren’t the ones riding them, Sholly said. Shuttles could be combined with other traffic-reducing measures, such as timed entry, to address a continually increasing number of visitors. During peak summer visitation the park’s main roads and parking areas are over capacity by about 29 percent, the Park Service said.

“Vehicular demand for roads and parking in Yellowstone is expected to exceed capacity between 2021 and 2023,” according to a 2016 study, despite the fact that the park has about 16,680 parking spots in 254 lots and pullouts. Sholly said he’s not a fan of adding more parking to address the situation.

Sholly is already predicting Yellowstone will soon top 5 million visitors in a year. The current peak year was 2016 with 4.2 million visitors. This year, he said the park could see 4.7 million tourists, accelerating the urgency for finding transportation solutions.

“We need to have reasonable actions that are well thought out,” Sholly emphasized.

Big

Because of its large size, Yellowstone presents unique transportation challenges, but the issue of traffic congestion isn’t isolated to Yellowstone. Nationwide, between 2009 and 2018, annual park visits grew from 283 million to 318 million annually, an increase of 11%, according to the National Park Service. In response to the increased visitation, parks are experimenting with alternative bus fuels, electric buses and bike share opportunities.

The shuttle testing is part of Yellowstone’s Visitor Use Management Program, which focuses on understanding and responding to increased visitation in the following areas: impacts on resource conditions; impacts on staffing, operations and infrastructure; impacts on the visitor experience; and impacts on gateway communities and partners.

Drivers

Although capable of operating on their own, the TEDDY shuttles will be staffed with a driver to make adjustments to unusual occurrences like a vehicle sticking out of a parking space as well as to ensure users feel comfortable with the automated technology.

Bob Ryner, a retired principal, signed on to be one of the six drivers who will be working in the park this summer.

“This is the reason I joined Beep, to be here,” he said.

He’s looking forward to interacting with the wide variety of visitors Yellowstone attracts, as well as the park’s world-renowned wildlife. He’s also willing to override the automated route for unique and unusual scenarios.

“If I see a bear with a deer leg in its mouth, I’m going to stop and look,” he said.

Golfer under investigation for teeing off in Yellowstone, other national parks

A comedian drumming up interest in golf may have sliced into a hornets nest by hitting balls in Yellowstone and other national parks.

Jake Adams is touring the nation to hit golf shots in 50 states in 30 days, posting video of the adventure on his Instagram account — jakemadams3.

On day three in a snowy Colorado mountain meadow he uses a small pile of snow to tee up his ball and swings his driver while strapped to a snowboard.

On April 26, Adams stopped in Billings, Montana, where he is shown hitting a ball at Briarwood Golf Course as well as off the Rims with two locals. That was day 25 of his tour.

Yellowstone golf shots

These screen grabs show comedian Jake Adams teeing off in three different locations in Yellowstone National Park.

Later the same day he’s shown on the banks of a river hitting a ball in Yellowstone National Park, then on top of Mammoth Hot Springs’ travertine terraces toward the hotel and boardwalk below and finally from a boardwalk next to a hot springs pool.

KHQ 6 news first reported Adams teeing off in Yellowstone. The National Park Service responded to the station’s request for comment with an email stating: “The individual who recently was captured on video hitting golf balls in Yellowstone National Park showed a lack of judgment and common sense. He violated regulations designed to preserve Yellowstone and protect the experience of other visitors. The National Park Service is investigating this illegal act.”

Adams isn’t the first online personality to run afoul of park regulations. In 2016, four travel bloggers were sentenced to jail and fined after they recorded their walk onto the thermal area around Grand Prismatic Spring. Visitors are required for their own safety and to protect delicate thermal features to remain on boardwalks.

Boardwalk shot

These screen grabs show comedian Jake Adams teeing off in three different locations in Yellowstone National Park.

In an interview, Adams told ABC News he was making the trip to emphasize a different side of golf.

“My kind of mission for golf as a whole is … it gets so stuck and like it’s patriarchal and kind of like traditional values of this stuffy country club and you know, kind of my message is there’s so many more people, you know, my age … who don’t believe in those traditional values that love and enjoy the game.”

Along his journey, Adams said he’s seen some stunning landscapes from which to hit golf shots, including drives aimed at state capitol buildings.

“Every state has something beautiful in it, except for Mississippi,” Adams told ABC.

In his last post, on Day 29, Adams was in Alaska. His final stop is Hawaii.

Watch Now: Yellowstone, where strange tales abound

Yellowstone National Park historian Lee Whittlesey describes the three expeditions that were made into what is now Yellowstone Park in order to confirm the fantastic stories that surrounded the landscape.

25 years later: Politics, myths and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone

In the same year that Yellowstone National Park marks the 25th anniversary of gray wolf reintroduction, Colorado voters will have the power to pass or reject an initiative that would require its state wildlife division to reintroduce wolves by 2023.

“For the first time, voters will determine whether they want the state to reintroduce wolves to that state,” said Jonathan Proctor of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, which sponsored the signature gathering for the initiative.

“If this goes as we hope and we pass this, we will have wolf connectivity across the entire Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Mexico,” he added. “Colorado is the missing link.”

Yellowstone

That link began to be rebuilt on Jan. 12, 1995. On that day under tight security, eight wolves that had been live-trapped in Canada were hustled into a secret enclosure inside Yellowstone where they would be kept to acclimate to their new surroundings.

In March 1995, the wolves, along with another group of 14 more Canadian wolves, were released into the park where they have since thrived at a level of about 100 wolves. The same year four wolves were released into Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

There’s no doubt in Mike Phillips’ mind that the wolf reintroduction was the most important wildlife restoration project ever conceived and executed in the United States. As the park’s lead biologist at the time, Phillips oversaw the work, calling it an “historic conservation success.”

Given the controversy surrounding wolves — which were slaughtered into extinction in the early 1900s — not everyone shares Phillips’ perspective. Even after 25 years some landowners, hunters, outfitters and legislators continue to disparage the animal.

No comfort

The continuing animosity for gray wolves and other wildlife has been deeply troubling for Phillips in his work as a state legislator. Bills he has introduced to protect wandering park wolves and outlaw running over coyotes were rejected by his committee opponents who held the majority.

“I’ve always been intrigued by legislators who proclaim such great faith” in God but treat nature with contempt, said the Democrat from Bozeman, Montana. “I think their God would hold wildlife in great regard.”

The rejection of such bills became so galling that he no longer prays with the Senate during the Legislature, choosing instead to step into the hall and pray alone.

“I couldn’t find enough comfort,” he said.

Myths

Phillips said reintroduction of wolves in western Colorado would fulfill the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal of recovery by restoring the animals to a significant portion of their range. Without Colorado, he predicted the agency will face lawsuits in trying to claim the species has recovered.

Proctor, of the Defenders of Wildlife, said polls show a majority of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction in the state. He said that’s partly because Yellowstone’s wolves during the past 25 years have provided an example of the species’ effect on other wildlife and habitat, as well as helped to dispel naysayers’ myths.

For example, Proctor said, wolves have not decimated Montana’s or Wyoming’s elk herds; although the population of elk did decline substantially in the park.

Wolf watchers have injected an estimated $5 million into the economy of towns near the park and tourism numbers have climbed to new heights in Yellowstone.

Scientific study of wolves in Yellowstone has demonstrated their impact on other species, as well as the natural environment. Wolf kills feed other animals. A reduction in elk may have helped restore some vegetation.

Some ranchers have learned to coexist with wolves through preventative programs coupled with livestock reimbursement programs for documented wolf kills.

“We had all of the fear mongering” when wolves were proposed for reintroduction, Proctor said. “But the reality of what’s happened on the ground has been largely positive.”

Politics

The re-establishment of wolves in the Northern Rockies has been as much about politics as biology. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson supported wolf reintroduction and took a lot of heat from his constituents for doing so, but he thought it was the right thing to do.

“My great-grandparents were there wiping them out at the turn of the century,” he said.

Yet Simpson agreed that wolves could help complete Yellowstone’s ecosystem, returning balance by providing an apex predator.

“So I said I’ll take that risk,” he said.

Charging into the role to promote wolf reintroduction was Utah congressman Wayne Owens, a Democrat in a politically conservative state.

Owens died in 2002 at age 65, but his legacy and love for wild places and wildlife are still cherished by his family, said his son, Steve Owens, a Salt Lake City attorney.

“I have a button with a wolf on the front with red eyes that light up that says, ‘The eyes have it,’” he said. “He handed them out to members of Congress with a live wolf in a cage outside.”

Wayne Owens became enamored with wolves after taking a week-long course on wolf ecology in Yellowstone in 1986, according to the book “The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone,” by Thomas McNamee.

In 1987, Wayne Owens introduced the first bill calling for the release of wolves in Yellowstone. Although the bill failed, he kept pushing, ending one speech by howling.

In a 1993 Deseret News article, Wayne Owens said he decided to pursue wolf reintroduction after one of his sons questioned why congressmen in the states surrounding Yellowstone could stop the park managers from pursuing the task. Wayne Owens told the newspaper, “There was no answer except, ‘That’s politics.’ And that wasn’t good enough.”

His advocacy for wolf reintroduction could have played a role in his later defeat when running for Senate, yet his support for the animals never wavered.

“We all have a tremendous love and respect for nature and wild things,” Steve Owens said of his family.

Utah, on the other hand, remains largely anti-wolf, a fact that bothers him. He called the authorization of state funds to lobby the federal government to not reintroduce wolves “utterly offensive,” a sentiment his father would have shared.

“He said we should take the best 10 percent of lands and reserve it,” Steve Owens said. “He said we should tithe the lands for God.”

Snow-shredding machines: Snowbikes add new spark to winter motorsports

There’s a new electricity in the winter air. Snow-churning, tree-dodging, modified machines called snowbikes are supplying the spark.

Motorcycle riders are no longer confined to the fair weather months. They can now purchase kits that swap out the front tire with a ski and replace the rear wheel with a track that resembles a smaller version of those on a snowmobile.

Interest in the motorsport is steadily accelerating.

“After Polaris bought Timbersled in 2015, that’s when things took off,” said Brad Abbe, owner of Power Sports Tech in Roberts, Montana, who used to sell the kits but now manufactures products for modifying snowbikes.

Timbersled, which started building the kits in 2008 in Ponderay, Idaho, had risen to the top of what’s becoming a competitive field among small businesses manufacturing the conversion kits. Polaris is one of the big manufacturers of UTVs, ATVs and snowmobiles. By buying Timbersled, Polaris focused attention and advertising revenue on what had been a niche in power sports.

Converted

Mark Hoffman has found his sweet spot in that niche. For almost two decades he built high-end, high-powered snowmobiles at his Clyde Park, Montana, business Crazy Mountain Motorsports. In 2015 he dropped snowmobiles completely, moving on to snowbikes. After riding one, he no longer wanted to snowmobile.

“They’re way easier to ride because it’s narrow,” he said. “It’s not trying to fall over all the time” when stopped on a steep sidehill.

Hoffman said he’s seen 20 percent of the Crazy Mountains in his backyard on a snowmobile and now plans to see the other 80 percent on a snowbike because they can go where his snowmobile couldn’t, and with less of a workout for him. On a snowmobile he was constantly leaning, pulling and lifting while riding, but not on a snowbike.

“I’ve always been a motorcycle guy,” Hoffman said. He started riding when he was only 4 years old and has raced motorcycles.

Yet he put his daughter’s friend, who had never ridden anything motorized, on his 450 KTM and she was immediately cruising around a meadow doing figure eights and giggling, Hoffman said.

“The snowbike market is in its infancy right now, but it’s exploding,” he said. “I’m just really excited about the opportunities.”

Takeoff

Hoffman and CMX aren’t alone in seeing a spike in snowbike interest.

“We saw a decent increase in sales in the last couple of years,” said Travis Burian, owner of Yellowstone Motorsports in Bozeman, Montana, which sells the Timbersled kits.

Abbe began snowbiking in 2012. He was one of the first to sell the Timbersled kits out of his shop. Every year the company’s sales doubled. But motorcycles aren’t made for winter. Abbe would see his engine temperature drop in one minute from 180 degrees to 80 when he’d drive off-trail and into powdery snow that cooled the motor.

“I noticed right away bikes had problems,” he said, so he started making parts for his own use.

Now Abbe manufactures four products to make motorcycles more winter friendly, including a motor cover that keeps snow out and a thermostat to keep coolant at the optimal temperature. He started making the items for himself, then friends, and is now producing them for a worldwide market.

Riding

Burian and Abbe had also both snowmobiled before jumping to snowbikes. Converting motorcycles to be snow friendly machines pushed several buttons, the biggest being the maneuverability.

“It’s a riot,” Burian said. “You can make your own line wherever you want to go.”

Abbe said the bikes need a firm base of snow to ride on, otherwise they will chainsaw down. Ideally, 6 inches of fresh snow atop some hard pack is the best riding, he said.

“They’re so agile,” Abbe said. “You’re able to get into places you never would get into with a snowmobile.”

“It’s just like riding a dirt bike in the woods,” Burian said. “It changes how you ride in certain zones.”

Chilly White, writing in a 2018 article posted on bikebandit.com, explained the experience of riding snowbikes this way: “For those who have never ridden a snow bike, the best analogy I can think of is this; it is like riding a Jet Ski on sand dunes. There is a freedom unlike anything else I have ever done.”

White recommended a strong bike since the “the track and deep snow suck horsepower.” Burian rides a Honda 450. White also advocated an electric start, since “kick starting a snow bike requires some balancing technique. The rider is an extra foot or so in the air, so no touching the ground.”

Pockets of devoted riders have sprung up in places like Bozeman and Kalispell, Montana, Abbe said. Many of them are older, looking for something different from snowmobiling. But he’s also seen groups of riders with a wide-range of ages — from 16 to 60 — because snowbikes are so easy to ride and fun.

History

The idea of snowbikes has been around a long time. Searching the internet turns up a snowbike built by BMW in 1936, called the Schneekrad. The only problem was it couldn’t be steered. That has been followed by several other creations with catchy names like the Sno Go, which mounted two skis to the front of a motorcycle’s wheel, without taking the wheel off, and a twin track to the back; the Sno Shoo, which featured a ski on the front and a wide track on the back; the Sno Byke and Sno Blazer, resembling modified scooters, and the Shrew, Sno Job, and Alpenscooter — all early motorcycle-snowmobile hybrids. Chrysler even got into the business by buying the Sno Runner from a Japanese chainsaw manufacturer.

In 2001 A.D. Boivin, a Canadian company, introduced the Snow Hawk, which never quite took wing and was sold in 2011.

It took the X Games to launch the sport to a wider audience in 2017. White, the bikebandit.com writer, credited 2 Moto with creating the modern snowbike kit, but said Timbersled took the invention to the next level by making its kit better at plowing through backcountry powder. Yeti, MotoTrax, Camso, and Montana’s own Crazy Mountain Sports are other kit manufacturers. Riders in online chat rooms extol the benefits and downsides of the different kits.

Locally

Crazy Mountain Motorsports touts a kit with a proprietary 12 ½-inch wide track that sports 2 ½- to 2 ¼-inch lugs for gripping the snow. The wide track is all about flotation atop the snow, which is especially important to backcountry riders. In the front, CMX offers its own 11-inch wide ski.

“They do go really well in handlebar-deep snow,” Hoffman said.

He touts his track for its lack of roll resistance, it moves easily when you push the bike, which means the engine doesn’t have to work as hard to turn the track.

Despite its Star Wars look, the technology is fairly easy to install, Hoffman said. Prices for his new kits start at about $7,600 and climb depending on track size and add ons. He recommends hand guards, an engine blanket and thermostat at a minimum. A brand new bike tricked out with all the coolest stuff and ready to ride could cost $21,000.

“The kits keep getting better and better,” Abbe said, just like snowmobiles have advanced with better technology.

“It’s fun to be involved because it’s changing. People keep coming out with new ideas,” he said.

Pit toilets and solitude: Survey shows what modern Yellowstone backpackers want

Yellowstone National Park backpackers want a few more amenities compared to their counterparts surveyed 17 years ago, but in other respects they remain much the same.

The information comes from a recently published survey in the journal “Yellowstone Science.” Lead author Ray Darville, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, published the results to give park managers greater insight into who is using Yellowstone’s backcountry and what they think.

On the topic of improvements, like bridges or pit toilets, more of the modern travelers indicated an interest in such amenities indicating a wish to have a “slightly less ‘wild’ experience,” Darville wrote. Yet they also valued solitude and tranquility.

Comparison

The study mimicked a 1999 survey led by Tim Oosterhous, but also branched off to collect information about how well informed backcountry users were. In a list of 10 questions the backpackers scored an average grade of C, indicating a need for better education of the travelers, Darville wrote. All backcountry campers are required to watch an informational video.

Although most backpackers responded correctly to a question about whether they should run when encountering a bear (no, you should not run), only about one-third correctly answered that a bison can run three times faster than a human.

“Given the relatively greater risk to backpackers compared to other park visitors, we believe backcountry users should have appropriate knowledge,” Darville wrote.

Similarities

Like woodsy travelers of 1999, the 2016 contingent was similar in many ways. The majority were well educated, young, white, non-Hispanic males traveling in groups of about three people.

Unlike their predecessors, more of the 2016 backpacking survey respondents were female, and they tended to stay in the woods a bit longer — 2.62 nights compared to 2.29.

In addition, “In Oosterhous’ study, 83 percent traveled on foot for at least part of their trip, but in our study 94 percent traveled on foot,” Darville wrote.

Interest in Yellowstone’s backcountry has grown as trips to the park have also climbed. According to Darville’s research, “Since 1979, over 1.5 million backpackers have registered in the backcountry offices for an overnight trip, and since 1993, the number of registered backpackers has varied between 35,000 and 45,000 annually. In 2016, almost 45,000 backcountry campers (backpackers) were in the park with about 34,000 in the park during June, July, and August alone (77 percent of all backcountry backpackers for the year).”

Despite the growth in backcountry use, the majority of backpackers said they did not feel crowded, even though the majority — 77 percent — visited in the busiest months of June, July, and August.

Vast terrain

All of those trail-pounders are spread out along about 1,000 miles of trails that lead to roughly 300 campsites. Those campsites now must be paid for with a $3 fee per person per night, a fee not in place back in 1999. But most backpackers said they didn’t mind parting with the dollars since they were going to things like trail and campsite maintenance.

Instead, about one-third of the respondents saved their wrath for commercially guided groups, saying such outfits diminished the backcountry experience.

Although backcountry camping remains popular in Yellowstone, as of August the number of campers had dropped almost 8 percent compared to 2018 — down to 31,200 compared to 33,800 a year ago. Information from September had not yet been entered in the park database. Those numbers seem to be on a steady, although slight, decline since 2016.

Given all of the uncertainties and travails that can go into a backcountry trip — everything from bears to blisters, bugs to bad weather and the monotony of dehydrated meals — Darville found most Yellowstone backpackers are pretty happy with their outings.

“Our study suggests Yellowstone’s backpackers, while a small percentage compared to the total number of annual visitors, are generally satisfied with their backcountry experience.”

Lake Plateau in the Beartooth Mountains is ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ country

In a state known for its spectacular mountain scenery and views, the Lake Plateau in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains seems to hold a special honor among some adventurous souls.

“The Lake Plateau is drop-dead gorgeous,” said Allie Wood, Beartooth Ranger District wilderness and trails manager.

Her description helps explain why the high, lake-dotted country between the Stillwater and Boulder river drainages in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is so popular. Another reason is because people like Mark Donald, a pastor and the executive director of the Christikon outdoor ministry at the base of the plateau along the Boulder River, has introduced many, many people to the plateau.

Donald estimates that in his 33 years working at and visiting the camp, beginning when he was a staff person while attending college, he’s guided 15 to 30 people a year to the region. Fifteen is the maximum the camp can take into the backcountry based on Forest Service permit regulations. But he was just one of the Christikon guides, so the camp — along with others along the Boulder River — have likely introduced thousands of people from across the country to the Lake Plateau.

“There’s a lot of people because of the church groups,” said Earl Radonski, who for five years led Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ high mountain lakes summer fisheries survey crew into the Beartooth and Crazy mountains.

High routes

The Lake Plateau can be accessed via several routes. There’s the long hike up the West Fork of the Stillwater with a steep climb at the end of the canyon. Backpackers and horseback riders can also trek to the region via the main Stillwater River, turning west up the Wounded Man Creek Trail. On the Boulder side is the switchback-laden Upside Down Creek Trail, where Donald counted 30 turns as the trail climbs about 3,000 feet from Christikon’s back door. Then there’s the Box Canyon Trail up the East Fork Boulder River.

No matter the route, hikers and riders are in for a climb. The West Fork Stillwater Trail tops out at 9,600 feet near Lake Diaphanous after starting out at 6,400 feet 12 miles to the north. Upside Down Creek Trail starts at 6,300 feet and hits Horseshoe Lake 7.5 miles and 3,200 feet in elevation gain later.

“It’s challenging to get up there,” said Alex Sienkiewicz, Yellowstone District ranger, based in Livingston. “And there are some lakes that don’t have (maintained) trails.”

Columbine Pass

Columbine Pass is at an elevation of about 9,800 feet. The pass connects the Boulder and Stillwater river drainages in the Beartooth Mountains south of Big Timber.

From the old Box Canyon Ranger Station on the Boulder River, it’s an 11-mile route to get to 9,850-foot Columbine Pass. The Stillwater River approach, going up Wounded Man Creek, is the longest at about 17 miles.

Many lakes

On approach or atop the plateau there are more than 30 lakes, many of them stocked with trout. The waters vary in size from 7-acre Pippit Lake to 54-acre Lake Pinchot.

“There’s good fishing at all of those lakes up there, but it gets a lot of use,” Radonski said.

Because the lakes tend to get a lot of fishing pressure, Radonski said FWP stocks the more popular lakes every four years, instead of the eight-year rotation used on other mountain waters.

Anglers will find rainbow, Yellowstone cutthroat and golden trout in different lakes, along with hybrids of the different species in the upper end of Flood Creek.

“That’s nothing that happened by design,” Radonski said, but the offspring are beautiful fish, each one a bit different than the other.

Plateaulike

The definition of a plateau — an area of relatively level high ground — is not a good description for this area if taken literally. Trails that travel to the lakes climb up and down mountain passes at 9,000 feet. The region is more pockmarked than plateaulike, as if it were once bombarded by massive meteors that gouged out deep depressions in the rock-ridden land.

Actually, the plateau was created about 50 million years ago when 3 billion-year-old rock was lifted to the surface. When massive glaciers that buried the mountains retreated they scraped out the now lake-filled basins while also exposing the rock-clad mountains.

“It has big views,” said Madeleine Kornfield, who worked on a trail crew for the Beartooth Ranger District for two years and then was a wilderness ranger for seven more. “It has more green, more lakes and it’s a little bit lower than the other rocky plateaus.”

Radonski likes that from a base camp, backpackers with a few days to spend could fish a different lake or two every day.

“There’s a lot of lakes really close together,” he said. “If you set up a base camp at Wounded Man (Lake), you could go to 15 different lakes, no problem, even though it’s a long hike in there.”

Most of the lakes also have at least one, if not more, level camping sites, and there are several peaks ambitious hikers can daytrip to from base camp.

“It checks it all off,” said Donald, the 50-year-old Christikon pastor.

Pristine lakes, great views, colorful wildflowers and good fishing — the country is so appealing that Donald said one group from Brookings, South Dakota, has returned every year for 22 years.

“It still feels the same as when I was a college kid,” he said. “It’s fabulous country, almost surreal.”

Is the Yellowstone region being loved to death?

BOZEMAN, Montana — On a summer’s day, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a busy place.

The Hyalite Peak trail south of Bozeman features a steady stream of foot traffic, one of the most popular forest recreation destinations in Montana. East of Hyalite Peak in the adjacent Paradise Valley, rafts crowd the shore of the Yellowstone River as people jostle to launch for a day’s float. In both places, vehicles are parked along roads and ditches because the parking lot at the trailhead and fishing access sites are full.

“More people are doing more things in more places,” said Scott Christensen, director of conservation for the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition advocacy group.

That prompts the question: How in the face of such recreation pressure can the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem be protected?

It was a query Christensen posed to a large group gathered in Bozeman on April 23 — academics, land managers, conservation group members and a few motorized recreationists — for the coalition’s two-day symposium titled “Our shared place: The present and future of recreation in Greater Yellowstone.”

Tackling such a broad topic across a vast landscape is no small challenge. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a 34,000-square-mile area with Yellowstone National Park at its vital heart. Spread across the corners of three states — southwest Montana, southeast Idaho and northwest Wyoming — the ecosystem encompasses five national forests that make up almost half of the GYE. More than one-third of that acreage is managed as wilderness, much of which contains the largest predator in the lower 48 states — the grizzly bear.

Recreationists flock to the region to fish, hunt, camp, hike, backpack, raft and canoe. They backcountry ski, snowmobile, motorcycle and ride ATVs. More and more people are moving to the area to be closer to such activities and the environment in which they take place — the forests, mountains, lakes and streams.

It used to be said in rural states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that residents couldn’t eat the scenery, meaning there was no economic value to such beautiful places. So natives moved away to cities like Seattle and Denver to earn a living. But now recreationists, researchers, government officials and businesses are touting mountains, streams and access to such public lands as moneymakers.

The advertising is working. More than 4.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year. From that it’s estimated about 7 million people visited the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most of those visitors are coming during the peak months of summer — June, July and August.

With more active people crowded into one wild space, what will the effects be on wildlife, the land and its waters? At what point does selling, building upon and using the resources compromise the very wildlands that first enticed everyone to the region? And how can so many people with such different ideas of playing in those places ever come to an agreement on controlling or even reducing use?

Yellowstone National Park — which has seen a 50 percent increase in visitation just since 2000 — has been studying many of these questions.

“We tend to look at problems in isolation,” said Christina White, outdoor recreation planner for Yellowstone. “This is very complex. Our biggest challenge is understanding how we operate as a system, and how does it change over time.

“Right now, all potential solutions are on the table,” she added. “But there won’t be a silver bullet.”

Sustainable recreation is the new buzz word, said Wendi Urie, recreation program manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which has 68 percent of its lands in wilderness. Yet what’s sustainable about 39 percent growth in the forest’s visitation between 2008 and 2013?

“A lot of what we hear about daily is people and how they use the area — trail conflicts,” Urie said.

The forest staff is also fielding a lot more questions that relate to recreation, better trail systems, signage, better access, being more responsive to new technologies and activities, in addition to safety since more users are urban, she said.

“So how do we balance all of that?”