The hindmost end of an American bison in motion leaves little to the imagination. While a bull’s horned frontend and shoulders are swathed in a dense, brown, fleece jacket, the trailing end is shorthaired and fully exposed.

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From the front seat of my car, staring at a 2,000-pound beast wandering along the centerline of Yellowstone National Park’s Madison Road, his bare tushie seemed to meander back and forth just beyond my car’s front bumper. A bison dominating the road occurs frequently in America’s — the world’s — first national park.

Every few paces, that bull looked back over his shaggy flank, appraising how long a line of cars had backed up behind him. He appeared to know that sauntering down the road’s centerline would delay traffic in both directions. On one of the season’s busiest weekends, cars on Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road moved at the speed of a deliberate but decidedly unhurried bison.

The Yellowstone Paradox

More than just bison, Yellowstone National Park opens wide a window into one of the world’s premier wildlands, and reveals the Earth’s hydrothermal dynamics and raw tectonic power. Yellowstone is a paradoxical blend of maximum accessibility and majestic isolation. But, record-sized crowds and year-in-advance reservations at many park lodgings can challenge potential visitors to look for alternative seasons and accommodations.

I have heard it said that 99 percent of the people visiting Yellowstone use only 1 percent of the park. For that small percent of visitors willing to get more than a quarter-mile off the road or beyond paved paths, experiencing that “majestic isolation” can be both exhilarating and very humbling.

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The late spring and early autumn shoulder seasons have gained popularity, but still offer relief from summer’s peak crowds. Three Montana “gateway towns” — Gardiner, West Yellowstone, and Cooke City — provide a eclectic range of accommodations, shopping, and recreation just outside the park.

Staying in the Gateways

Through the towering Roosevelt Arch at the northwest entrance, Gardiner has long been a park gateway and well understands visitors’ necessities. Accommodations range from private lodges to national chains such as Travelodge by Wyndham. Restaurants favor cowboy fare with bison and elk frequently appearing on the menu. Several shops and markets round out the conveniences.

The Yellowstone River cuts through town and anglers around the world know of the region’s classic fly fishing for gaudy cutthroat trout. Guides from Park’s Fly Shop arrange and outfit wading or float trips, while several rafting companies regularly schedule adventure trips on nearby waters.

Smallest of the three gateways, Cooke City and nearby Silver Gate lead into Yellowstone’s northeast corner. Perhaps the most “Western” in ambiance, the town’s hospitality compensates for the smaller array of tourist amenities. Several good cafes and restaurants line the single street, and a drink in Miners Saloon offers an opportunity to say “hello” to Danny behind the bar, and get embraced or embarrassed by the friendly patrons and free-ranging conversations.

T-shirts and Huckleberries

West Yellowstone on the park’s western edge is the largest of the gateways, with  nearly 70 motels and other accommodations and enough T-shirt shops to sate a serious browser. But, amid the gift shops, snack wagons, and souvenir stores are some singular culinary experiences including unexpected Asian cuisine at the Red Lotus Restaurant, a range of flawlessly smoked and barbecued meats at the Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., and a vintage ice cream counter at Eagle’s Store, serving locally made huckleberry sundaes.

Yellowstone Avenue, the town’s main east-west street, passes the Visitor Information Center and enters the park on the way to Madison Junction, the Grand Loop Road, and the world’s largest congregation of geysers, fumaroles, boiling springs, and hydrothermal features, including the iconic Old Faithful.

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The Old Faithful area could be the prime example of Yellowstone’s paradoxical nature. Crowned by the Old Faithful Inn, surrounded by lodgings, visitor facilities, acres of parking lots, and two camp stores, it is easy to forget that the geyser’s regular, pluming spurts are the geothermal pulse of a 30-by-45-mile wide volcanic caldera boiling away a scant few thousand feet beneath us.

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The Lamar and Hayden Valleys present a completely different park. The landscape is primordial, with massive, open sagebrush prairies circled by mountains shrouded with lodgepole pines. More than 3,000 bison share the grasslands with herds of pronghorn antelope and elk. Wolves, bears, and the occasional puma — not humans — sits atop the food chain. This part of Yellowstone has a nearly pre-Columbian aspect. Walk out into the middle of the Lamar, beyond sight and sound of the Grand Loop Road, out into that majestic isolation that is the Yellowstone paradox.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Visit his website at www.reedhellmanwordsmith.com.

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