With more than 4 million people a year visiting Yellowstone, most with cameras, it’s not often someone makes a discovery of something truly rare in the national park.
Among the grizzly bears, huge bison and stealthy wolves is something that, until recently, was thought to be extinct in the park.
A working pay phone.
That’s what Jim Holstein with Yellowstone Tour Guides discovered last week when visiting the closed campground at the Norris Geyser Basin, one of the more popular areas of the park.
There are still two pay phones standing in the Norris Campground in an area that doesn’t get cellphone service. To Holstein’s surprise, one of the pay phones still works.
“One of them still works,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I believe you have to make collect calls, but it may still take coins.”
Pay phones and collect calls are relics of a bygone age for anyone under a certain age. Last year, Cowboy State Daily tried to find working pay phones across the state and only confirmed one. Seeing a pay phone and having to work out the logistics of a collect call could be more intimidating and stressful than the seemingly docile bison throughout the park if the pictures seen on social media are any indication.
But the Norris Campground pay phone could be a literal lifeline, which is why it's still operational.
"It's one of the few areas in the park that has a pay phone because there's no cell service," Holstein said.
The Norris Campground closed in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not reopened.
Holstein attended a meeting with Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly, who explained that it’s unlikely the campground will reopen anytime soon.
“It’s a lack of staffing,” Holstein said about what’s keeping the campground closed. “They don’t have the housing that they need in the Norris Area. They’ve had to put several people on the job (managing) the parking lot and making sure it doesn’t back up into the intersection and beyond. Housing has gone toward that (rather) than the campground.”
Anyone who knows the location can still see vehicles and activity in the Norris Campground, as it’s being used as a staging ground for construction crews. Reopening it to camping requires more resources that are being prioritized elsewhere.
“It’s been having troubles with water supply and antiquated sewage systems. They don’t have the money to get it up to snuff again,” Holsteinsaid.
‘If You’d Like To Make A Call ...’
While the campground itself may be closed indefinitely, the restrooms and working pay phone are still accessible during the summer. Anyone with a nostalgic urge to make a collect call and stick the bill to someone else can do so.
Yellowstone is one of the few areas where pay phones still serve a practical and important purpose. There have been extensive efforts to improve connectivity throughout the park, such as the installation of fiber optic cable, but there will always be plenty of areas where cellphone calls aren’t possible.
That’s why there are still operating pay phones in one of Wyoming’s most isolated places.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.