Why Yellowstone is Not a Good Place for “Contemplative” Hikes

Yellowstone hot pool

One of the “rules” that I have for contemplative hiking is that it should be done in silence. You don’t have to hike alone, although sometimes it’s good to get outside in nature with yourself, by yourself, and really unwind from the expectations of friends or loved ones. You can relax, go for a long walk in the woods, think about nothing but how the clouds are moving over the mountain peaks, and feel that momentary feeling of oneness and self-lessness. You can do that whether you’re alone, or with a friend, or with a small group of strangers, as long as there’s silence and space for everyone to have their own experience in peace.

Last week I went on a family trip to Yellowstone with my husband and daughter. It wasn’t my first time there, although I was my daughter’s age when I was there last with MY parents. Yellowstone is a place of beauty and danger – lots of danger. It is a place where you have to watch your step, stay on the path, stay far away from wildlife, and be conscious of where you are and what you’re doing at all times. You can be scalded, drowned, bit, and mauled if you don’t. The volcanic nature of the area makes it an ever-changing and shifting landscape, and sometimes the ground beneath your feet can literally drop out on you in a second. (Incidentally, while we were vacationing there last week, a pair of escaped convicts were hiding out in the general vicinity. Something else to be leery of!)

One of the guidelines the park has set up for visitors is not to hike alone and NOT to hike silently. This is to assure you don’t surprise a bear, whose sense of hearing is probably much better than their sense of sight. Bears don’t like to be startled, especially if there are cubs involved. A grizzly can and will rip your face off if it senses that you are a threat.

We listened to a ranger during a group hike in the nearby Teton Range tell us that wearing bear bells on a backpack isn’t enough – as a matter of fact, they’re insufficient in warning bears of your presence. Park officials advise that when you’re hiking in Yellowstone, you go in a group and you get LOUD. I mean, chatty and obnoxious. Give the impression of a large, obnoxious herd clomping down the trail. This way, they say, you’ll scare the bear away and ensure your safety. And just in case, have bear spray with you and “know how to use it.”

Apparently, in the history of the park, there have been only a  handful of fatalities from bears (grizzlies) and in all cases the parties in question were hiking alone.

So when it comes to Yellowstone, contemplative hiking is not a good idea. At least my idea of it.

This led me to consider my recommendations for doing contemplative hiking along the Front Range in silence. I don’t see it as a problem here the way it is in Yellowstone. For one thing, there are no grizzlies here. Black bears hibernate from November – April, so the only time where this may be an issue is in summer. As anyone who likes to hike along the Front Range in summer will attest, there is rarely a trail where there aren’t at least a few people around, chatting away, making the noise, even if you aren’t. As for mountain lions, they know you’re there. There’s never been an incident of a person “surprising” a mountain lion. They’re saavy and stealthy creatures who see you even when you can’t see them.

If the idea of hiking alone and in silence anywhere near the Denver/Boulder area freaks you out, then I invite you to join my Contemplative Hiking MeetUp group. You can meet like-minded people who enjoy going out in nature and hiking, but don’t necessarily enjoy all the chatter and social pressures that go with hiking in groups. I’ve organized four MeetUps so far that have been wonderfully relaxing, contemplative and for the most part, silent. But they’ve also felt safe, because we’re in a group, and a group is intimidating to all manner of predator, be it a furry black one on four legs or a less furry taupe one one two.