How NorCal’s Outdoor Opportunities Stack Up Against Yellowstone National Park

Photo by Steven Cordes

I gotta admit, I’m torn on this one. I’ve recently returned from a fishing trip to Yellowstone National Park and it’s impossible not to bring memories of all that rugged natural beauty home with you. No doubt about it, the unspoiled landscape, geological features, abundant wildlife and world class trout fishing makes Yellowstone one of the most popular natural areas in the world. 

But coming home to Northern California isn’t exactly like returning to a big, ugly city, either. As someone who loves both Yellowstone and Northern California, I recently found myself reflecting on how my two favorite places on earth compare.

OK, Yellowstone has that “first national park in the world” thing going for it. There are bison, elk, moose, antelope, black and grizzly bears, wolves and deer herds all over the place. Bald eagles are as common as robins. Of course, Yellowstone also has paid staff of hundreds of individuals working behind the scenes keeping order, maintaining the trails and picking up any chewing gum wrapper that might precariously make contact with the ground. 

Photo by Chip O’Brien

NorCal also has paid government staff including policemen, game wardens, park and forest personnel as well as an army of private citizens and businesses, just good people willing to pick up litter or contact the proper authorities if problems are observed. Since these efforts are less coordinated outside of a national park, sometimes it’s hard to know how many people are taking care of business merely because it’s the right thing to do, but they are here.

In Yellowstone it’s not uncommon to be able to see 20-30 mile vistas of gorgeous, unspoiled wilderness, but even the grandeur of Yellowstone can’t compare with beholding Mt. Shasta or Lassen Peak from a hundred miles away. The old volcanoes may seem like sleeping giants, yet they unite us and bring a sense of comfort and familiarity. 

Photo by Chip O’Brien

Both NorCal and Yellowstone sit atop active volcanoes. Volcanic activity is more noticeable in Yellowstone since most of the features have been made into easily accessed tourist attractions. Yet strolling through Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic Nat’l. Park is a shockingly similar experience to Yellowstone’s attractions, right down to the pungent sulphur smell in the air. Did you know that NorCal even has its own “Old Faithful” geyser in Calistoga? It’s a reasonable predictor of impending earthquakes in a 500-mile radius.

NorCal lacks the abundance of large, wild animals Yellowstone has, but since hunting is not allowed in the park it has become a sanctuary for game that would likely be hunted under normal circumstances. NorCal has tons of deer, some black bears, mountain lions, some wolves and elk in the coastal regions. Historians contend that bison may have wandered into parts of eastern Modoc County in the past, but are not considered native. California is documented to once have had an enormous native grizzly bear population, but most believe the last California grizzly was killed in 1924. I was surprised to learn that moose were never considered native to California, but there have been reports of alleged sightings in the Sierras and a few coastal areas.

Photo by Chip O’Brien

One thing Yellowstone has in abundance that NorCal lacks; clueless crowds of camera-toting tourists creating traffic jams and hassling the wildlife. Bison can easily kill a person. So can elk, moose and bears, and they all can run much faster than even the best sprinter. Yet it’s common in Yellowstone to watch idiotic people approach much too close to wildlife. I’ve never witnessed an animal turning on a tourist, but bisons charge naive tourists every year, and there have been a few deaths. Surprisingly, bears have only killed eight people in the 150-year history of the park. 

Automobile accidents are the number one killer of humans in Yellowstone, not wild animals. Accidents (automobile and otherwise) are the sixth most common cause of death in California, well below heart disease and cancer.

Photo by Chip O’Brien

I mentioned I usually go to Yellowstone for fishing, yet truthfully I catch more and bigger fish in Northern California. That said, there’s something in being able to catch wild, native Yellowstone cutthroat trout in a pristine setting. Yet in the 30+ years I’ve been going to Yellowstone, I’ve noticed the fishing has declined. Some moron got the bright idea to toss a lake trout into Yellowstone Lake in the 1980s or 90s, and the lakers out-compete the native cutthroat trout. As a result the fishing in Yellowstone Lake and the river below has fallen dramatically over the years. Meanwhile efforts by California Trout and other organizations continue to improve our fisheries. I’ve landed Trinity River steelhead wearing a T-shirt! Where else can you do that?

Many NorCal fisheries are considered “blue ribbon,” world-class fishing streams, and we typically don’t have to fight large crowds and obscene fishing pressure. Give me a supercharged 20+-inch rainbow trout on the Sacramento River, or a nasty, hook-jawed brown trout on the McCloud any day.

I will continue my trips to Yellowstone National Park, but it’s worthwhile to recognize that much of what makes Yellowstone great exists right here at home. Don’t take it for granted.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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