YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - To Judith Meyer, the now-abandoned Howard Eaton Trail in Yellowstone National Park is about much more than just a circular horseback route connecting geysers to mudpots and Old Faithful to the Lamar Valley.
To Meyer, an associate professor of geography at Missouri State University and a former Yellowstone summer tour guide, the trail is about the timeless connection of visitors to a place despite the passing of 100 years. It is about environmental change, as well as sameness. It is about how something as simple as a trail ride on horses can speak to the issue of women’s suffrage.
“I get so excited talking about it,” Meyer said in a recent telephone interview.
Traveling from Gardiner by easy stages, all the regular points of interest in the Park are visited, with stops of from one to two days at places of special note — Lower and Upper Basins, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and near Yancey’s, where a side trip is made to see the Park buffaloes. (A small herd of buffaloes, purchased from Howard Eaton in 1902, has now grown to number one hundred and fifty animals.)
— Eatons’ Ranch 1915 brochure
The Howard Eaton Trail was dedicated in 1923 to honor a pioneering Wyoming outfitter who guided hundreds of people into the park — many of them Easterners. He led 66 horseback tours from 1883 to 1921. Eaton died in 1922, six months before his namesake trail was dedicated.
In her research on Eaton, his trips and the creation of the trail, Meyer said she found that “influential and well-funded riding and hiking clubs started to push the Park Service for an alternate route” in Yellowstone in 1920, when the agency was still in its infancy. The result was a 157-mile “quasi grand loop” trail finished just before Eaton died.
Yet as Meyer discovered, the trail didn’t necessarily go where Eaton had toured his guests. His route would vary from year to year to accommodate grazing for his horses. Eaton would also lead riders across thermal features that were later off-limits out of safety concerns.
“The idea that he was walking on a trail is a ridiculous idea,” Meyer learned.
Even after the trail was established, it was moved in the 1930s and 1950s to make room for automobile travel and as the Park
Service modified its rules. By the 1970s, the entire route was closed because it passed along waterways and through prime grizzly bear habitat. The trail was also too long to be effectively patrolled, the Park Service contended.
Because of this patronage it is necessary that some rules be adopted for the general welfare, and particularly is this true with regard to intoxicating drinks. None are sold on the ranch, nor may they be ordered from any source through the ranch management. Anyone on the ranch proving objectionable through the use of intoxicants may not remain. The friendly personal service and accommodation offered to visitors is contingent upon a reasonable requirement of individual consideration for the general good.
— Eatons’ Ranch 1915 brochure
“There are several people who have been working in Yellowstone for many, many decades who have bemoaned the disappearance of the Howard Eaton Trail,” Meyer said.
So she thought it would be interesting to locate the old trail and use modern GIS technology to map it. Along the route, she and her fellow trail researchers would snap photographs from the same vantage points that photographers with Eaton had captured in 1912 and 1913.
This June, the group set out for a week and a half to photograph some of the scenes. Back at the university, the photographs were then placed side by side and overlaid with the historic photographs to show the change, or in some cases, the lack of change.
“It’s eerie how the only parts that have changed are the humanized parts,” Meyer said.
The exception is where the trail, once as clear as a wide road in the old photos, is now grown over with new trees and other vegetation near Indian Pond.
“That says something about the endurance of the Yellowstone landscape,” Meyer said. “We talk about loving it to death, and it’s changing, but the park is still there.”
She unveiled a poster utilizing a 1950 version of the trail map overlaid with some of the photos during an annual science seminar in Yellowstone this fall. Now, Missouri State graduate student Kortney Huffman is incorporating the work into her master’s thesis in geospatial science, utilizing about 15 to 20 photographs.
“I expected a lot more change,” Huffman said.
It was her first visit to Yellowstone and she wishes the group could have reached more of the photo points to try and duplicate the scenery for comparison, but there just wasn’t enough time.
“Trying to find where the photo was taken was the best part,” Huffman said.
One of the photo pairs is taken looking at the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone. In the old photo, horseback riders leave the park. This summer, it was a hybrid Toyota Prius entering the arch.
“It still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Meyer said. “It’s uncanny how the old and the new overlapped.”