YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming — Here is something you don't usually see in Yellowstone National Park in mid-June -- empty seats on the benches surrounding Old Faithful just before an eruption. It is a pleasant surprise for this couple.
"I'm trying to think of the last time I was here in the summer," said Karen, a visitor from Bozeman. "I think it was '95 and it was busy packed. And I know it's gotten worse, so this is nice."
And as the famous geyser erupts there is fanfare, and photos, but not like you would see in a normal year. About half of a normal year's visitors are going through the west entrance. Shop owners in the tourist town of West Yellowstone say they are getting by, and some are enjoying the opportunity.
"I used to work in a hotel and we would get three or four tour buses a day, which was really cool," said Heidi Cannon, a worker in West Yellowstone. "It's cool to see different cultures, but we're seeing more Americans now, which is nice because in previous years people from Idaho and Utah wouldn't come because it was so packed. You know, you can't park anywhere -- the tour buses. You can't walk on the boardwalks. You know, it's hard to enjoy the park when you can't get where you want to go."
And visitors have noticed that more animals are appearing close to the roads, like this herd of bison. They were less than a hundred yards from the main highway, and I was one of only two humans there, close enough to record their distinctive sounds.
But it's not just bison, elk, or an occasional coyote. People are reporting seeing more bears in Yellowstone, and in neighboring Grand Teton National Park, where we captured the famous grizzly 399, and her four cubs on video.
We've been here four days now," said Carol Muir. "And we've seen bears three out of the four."
Muir would normally come here in May when bear sightings are most likely, but that wasn't possible this year. She is pleased with the smaller crowds and the abundance of visible wildlife.
"And fewer campgrounds open," noted Muir. "And what I've heard, and what I've observed anecdotally is, you can just walk right in and get a campsite lickety-split."
For the record, that was last week, when the lodges, like the one at Yellowstone Lake, were completely closed. That is changing this week, but what won't change is the absence of those buses dumping dozens of tourists at every park feature. They will be restricted to ten passengers per bus during the first two phases of re-opening, and operators would lose money every time they sent a bus like this one into the park.
People like Heidi Cannon, working in and around the two parks say this creates a great opportunity for people in this region to see Yellowstone and Grand Teton the way they might remember from decades ago.
"A lot of people from Utah who come every year are saying this is their favorite so far, already."