Sunday, October 18, 2015

Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

Disclaimer:  This post turned out a lot longer than I thought it would.  If you're short on time or don't care about my ramblings, take the time to look through the pictures.  I think you'll enjoy them!

Yellowstone and Grand Teton are the 4th and 8th most visited National Parks in the US, and for good reason. Each boasts some of the most magnificent nature you will find. I originally didn't plan to make it up here in conjunction with our camping trip to Sinks Canyon State Park (you can read about the rest of the trip here) since it was 3 hours away, but our friends, the Leonards, really wanted to go. My fears were validated to an extent because it turned out to be a very stressful day. In retrospect, I'm glad we went, though, for three reasons: 1) It was beautiful; 2) I knew I wanted to spend more time up here, and it gave me eyes-on to do better trip planning for next time; 3) It marked 3 more things off my bucket list!

We hit the road at 0530 that morning because Brad wanted to get there as the "dawn's early light" was hitting the Tetons. Sure enough, we were driving into the park with the soft glow of the morning against the mountains. It was stunning!

From there we headed into the park with the intention of driving along the inner road down to Jenny Lake, but poor signage at Moran Junction left us guessing, and we wound up taking the outer road. Nevertheless, we were treated to another awesome view of the Tetons, so we stopped to heat up oatmeal and coffee while we appreciated it.

Back on the road, we passed a sign for a glacier view. This was the first glacier my family had seen, so we all ooh'd and ahh'd.  If you've never seen one, it's the large white patch on the mountains in the middle of the screen, below.

After driving a bit further, we turned down the one-way scenic loop toward Jenny Lake. Vanessa had been talking about how spectacular the view was, and it was truly spectacular. Our camera is awesome, but I'm still not sure the pictures do it justice.

Much of the rest of the drive north followed the edge of Jackson Lake, a very large and pristine lake. After stopping at the Coulter Bay Visitor Center to admire it and turn in Junior Ranger books, we headed toward Yellowstone.

I didn't realize it until recently, but the two parks are very close together. Consequently, there's no reason to not visit both parks while you're in the area (which probably also explains why Grand Teton is one of the top 10 most visited parks even though it's less famous). They're only separated by about 20 miles, and this beautiful stretch of roadway has also been preserved by the National Park Service as John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway as a tribute for his philanthropic donations to Grand Teton National Park and others.

Upon entering Yellowstone National Park, one of the first things I realized is that it's huge! Yellowstone is laid out with the main road forming a figure-8 through the park.  I knew going in that we wouldn't have time to see more than the bottom half of the figure-8, but seeing signs from the entrance about Old Faithful (our first planned stop) being more than 30 miles away was a little disquieting. 

Vanessa and I both have a thing for waterfalls, and we saw a sign for Lewis Falls along the way.  It was definitely worth the stop, but there was even better stuff in store for us during the rest of the day.

Old Faithful blows about every 90 minutes, so, when we arrived, we immediately went to find the predicted eruption time.  Sure enough, it was scheduled to go off within about 10-15 minutes.  While I wanted to see Old Faithful (you have to, right?), I really didn't think I would be that impressed.  Sure it's caused by volcanic activity occurring just below the surface, but after all, it's just hot water shooting up out of the ground.  Old Faithful holds a magic to it, though.  You do have to see it.  You won't be disappointed.

Afterward, we went back to the cars and fixed a picnic lunch then headed back to the Visitor Center to claim our standard souvenirs of patches and postcards.  While we were in there, a ranger announced that another geyser, Beehive, was going to erupt within the next 10 minutes -- something it only did every 12-18 hours, blowing higher and putting out more water than Old Faithful -- so we went out to see it, too.  It was very impressive and picturesque sitting right beside a stream.

Driving on, we next stopped at Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring.  While they don't typically erupt like Old Faithful and Beehive, they do put out considerable amounts of steam.  The water inside was a crystal clear light turquoise, but the area around betrayed all the sulfur mixed with it, staining the ground around in vibrant colors.

As we headed east toward the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, we were stopped by a herd of buffalo that decided to cross the road.  These buffalo clearly knew they had the right of way.  One stood halfway on the road for several minutes before several others finally decided to cross the road.  The "road guard" buffalo then casually crossed himself, allowing traffic to resume.

 Next we arrived at the trails to see the two large falls.  I didn't get very good pictures of them, though, because our family was getting tired by this point, so we chose to stay put and rest.  I definitely need to put this on the list for our next trip.

As we headed south again toward Yellowstone Lake and the entrance, I was amazed at the number of geysers you could see that steamed continually.  I had no idea there were so many and that you could see that much geyser activity as you simply drove through the park!  Interrupted from my reverie, though, we were again stopped in traffic as some people were pulling off the road and others were pulling back into traffic.  About a hundred yards distant, we noticed a large animal.  Vanessa stuck her head out of the window and mouthed "bear", so we both pulled off the road to get a better look. (For those of you panicking right now, there was a ranger there that made sure folks didn't decide to just hike out and scratch ol' Pooh behind the ears.)  I got out of the car, Cristi grabbed the camera with the zoom lens, and Brennan got on top of the car, so we handed him the camera.  Turns out it was a grizzly (you can tell by the hump behind the head) -- and Brennan did a great job getting pictures!

By this time, it was getting on toward sunset, so we stopped to admire huge Yellowstone Lake.  The soft glow against the water and the distant mountains was spectacular!

As darkness took over, we finally headed back to our campsite, arriving back about 10:30.  We were worn. out!

Lessons Learned:
So I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I was happy to get eyes-on to help ensure I didn't try to cram too much in next time we come.  I thought I'd share a few of those lessons for your Yellowstone trip planning as well:

1)  Don't try to do Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the same day.  Although they're close together, they're just too big to be appreciated in a single day even if you're staying on site.
2)  Try to go in the off season.  High season is July and August.  Your price for going then is large crowds at each of the major sites and bumper-to-bumper traffic along the figure-8 route. You may still find snow in the parks in May/June, but should still enjoy your visit.  September/October is probably the best time to go.  Some of the roads start shutting down in mid-late October, but it's open for winter activities, like snowshoeing and snowmobiling. The crowds were light by Yellowstone standards, and that was about as many people as I like to handle for a National Park. 
3)  If you only have one day in Yellowstone, do the bottom half of the figure-8.  It has all of the sites that most people would recognize.
4)  If you have multiple days, consider breaking Yellowstone up into quadrants.
5)  Sunrise and sunset really are magical times in the parks (sunrise particularly for Grand Teton because the road is on the east side).  Consider taking in at least one of those times while you're there.
6)  If you enjoy camping, both parks have campgrounds with flush toilets and showers.  Such amenities are unusual for National Parks.  If you can afford it and can get reservations, consider staying in one of the historic inns.

This day trip was amazing, and I'm glad Brad and Vanessa encouraged us to go.  It's easy to see how this area  of the country inspired our nation to preserve Yellowstone as the very first national park and why 3.5 million people visit each year. I can't wait to go back to both parks so we can spend more time there. If you want to start planning your trip, I used the Grand Teton and Yellowstone NPS sites extensively to find maps, itineraries, and places to stay.  If you've been to either of them before, I'd also love to hear your ideas on what to see, how much time to spend, and where to stay.

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