Grand Teton National Park Trip (Nov. 28 Dec. 01, 2002)

 

 

Thursday, November 28, 2002 (Thanksgiving)

 

What a great day! What a long day, as well! Now that I write these lines, I am sitting in Jackson, Wyoming surrounded by Ski Mountains Snow King and Jackson Hole just south of the Grand Teton National Park. To get here, I drove 950 miles from Fargo in one day! I got up at 4:00 and drove almost 14 hours, only stopping to refule the car - averaging about 70 miles per hour! What a ride that was.

 

First, I got on Interstate 94 and headed straight West 350 miles across North Dakota. When the sun rose, I had already been driving 3 hours and more than 200 miles. If you need to go far, you better start early! The weather was fine, fair skies, very good visibility and a gusty headwind up to 25 mph. When leaving, it had 12 F; it continually warmed up and the radio said it would have record-setting warm air. At one point it got up to 64 F - that's 52 F warmer within a 8 hours or so!

 

After crossing over into Montana the Interstate follows the Yellowstone River to the West-Southwest. The Yellowstone is a bigger stream here than the Missouri in Bismarck, which I crossed hours ago still in darkness. The landscape is wide open here in Montana, with dry grassland and windy plains, just like in the Dakotas.

 

As I approach Billings after 600 miles, I can see some snow-covered mountain ranges in the distance to the Southwest. These are the Rocky Mountains forming a natural barrier for the great Yellowstone National Park just behind it. I need to refuel the tank for the second time today and look at the clock: 600 miles in 8 hours! That's a 75 mph average - that's only possible since I literally hit the Interstate 1/2 mile from my home, cruised along at about 80 mph and only stopped for fuel once in between. The road was sometimes covered with snowdrift, which called for full attention when passing the occasional truck through the gusty wind. Montana traffic - what traffic? There was maybe one car per mile, in the beginning maybe one per 5 miles.

 

In Billings I double-check at the gasstation to make sure I take the best roads into Wyoming. Unfortunately the roads through Yellowstone NP - both the most direct and the most scenic route - is already closed since end of October due to snow in higher elevations. So I have to go around the West side all the way to Bozeman (at 750 miles) and then down south to the corner of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The road briefly enters the vast Yellowstone NP - it is a magnificent scenery, even though this is just the outer boundary. A few low clouds roll in and the temperature hovers right around freezing. The road has patches of snow so again, I must drive carefully not to end up sliding off the road someplace.

 

I cross the continental divide into Idaho. In fact, I drive through Idaho for about 1.5 hours or so. On the first pass down the road is completely covered in icy snow and I am coming down with the usual 65 mph or so - slowly I reduce the speed and think, well here on snow we are not in a hurry any more, safety is now more important...

 

After cruising through a State Forest and seeing the sun nearing the horizon, I get to see the Grand Teton range for the first time. It reminds me of the Wilder Kaiser in Tirol, maybe a bit higher, but with similar rock formations and horizontal size. The setting sun paints beautiful orange to purple colors into the evening sky. I stop to take some pictures, but they cannot adequately convey the mood. The air is crystal clear and visibility is unlimited to the horizon. What a way to see this area for the first time - perfect.

 

At 920 miles I reach Ashton in Idaho and it's getting dark. Should I continue over one more mountain pass through darkness to finish the last 30 miles? I decide to go for it so I don't need to drive again in the morning. I need to focus, as its more difficult to judge the surface conditions of the snow / ice in the darkness. I also have been driving for more than 13 hours now...

 

The road over the pass is a bit icy, but it turns out to be just fine. On the saddle I get out of the car to take in the view down the Jackson valley at night - great! I also feel with my shoes that the road is really slippery now! So I drive down the last 5 miles or so extra careful.

 

Finally in Jackson, it is about 6:00pm and I check out a few places for a room to stay for two nights. This is no problem as it is still off-season. So I find a nice room for $ 40 / night. However, no restaurants are open due to Thanksgiving, except a Sportsbar; but there is so much smoke in there that I just decide to not eat out tonight. So I grab another cereal bar and banana and save my appetite for tomorrow's breakfast buffet!

 

I walk around the town to get some fresh air and stretch my legs. This is a very nice, cozy place. Wooden boardwalks along the streets, small strip malls with banks, restaurants, art galleries, apparel stores, mountaineering shops and movie theaters; I feel like I am in Tirol, say in Kitzbuehel. The air is fresh, but without wind it is not cold. They have a town square with a war memorial. On all four sides there are 10 feet tall arches built out of elk antlers! Everywhere they have stuffed animals, from bison to elk to grizzly! And poster-sized pictures of the Grand Tetons can be seen everywhere. So I'm thinking: If you don't mind driving this far - which is really a bit crazy - then you can get to a nice winter ski-resort even from Fargo in one day!

 

Friday, November 29, 2002

 

When I look out the windows in the morning I see that thick clouds have rolled in - probably some fog; I just can't believe the weather turned all bad, with the clear skies yesterday evening that would seem strange. So I take it easy and first check into the Teton Steakhouse Family Restaurant for a hearty Cowboy Breakfast buffet. It is a totally different world out here: I have a classical american breakfast with eggs, ham and sausage. I am eating under the watchful eyes of a huge stuffed bison, on wooden tables with lots of branding iron prints, on the walls there are all kinds of cowboy artefacts, horse shoes and saddles etc. They have several writings on the wall with word plays on the meat-rich diet, such as: "Of course we server Vegetarians. (What do you think cows eat?)" or "There are many ways to cut down on red meat. (We recommend a nice, sharp knife!)".

 

After the all-you-can-eat I am ok for the rest of the day. I check out some sports stores to see whether I can rent some skis. After a quick talk with one of the employees I learn that the much better place to go skiing is at Grand Darghee, back towards Idaho where I came from yesterday. It's at much higher elevation, so there is much better natural snow. Here in town they only have a fairly small hill and used snow-making machines to get enough snow on the slopes.

 

So I change the plan and decide to go skiing tomorrow at Grand Darghee; that way I won't have to drive over the pass back and forth and can just keep going towards home tomorrow evening. That means that I will spend today in the Grand Teton National Park. Maybe hiking or snow-mobiling. I get some information about the snow-mobiles; it's pretty expensive, to the tunes of about $160 per day. But it looks like a very nice way to get into the Yellowstone NP backcountry during winter and encounter some wildlife there. However, Yellowstone NP is not open for snow-mobiles yet.

 

I stop at a Visitor Center which has beautiful displays of wildlife such as deer, bear and eagles. they also have plenty of magnificent photos, maps and all kinds of information. From the first floor they have a viewing deck with viewing glasses for the herds of deer grazing nearby. I even take a few pictures of the place.

 

Eventually I decide to just drive back through Grand Teton NP as far as I can go all the way north to the boundary of Yellowstone NP. Unfortunately the fog is pretty thick, so it doesn't look like it will be lifting anytime soon. I park the car at a campground closed for winter and hike up along a road towards a small mountain peak. When the road is too flat and goes back and forth, I decide to follow the Summit trail. However, there are no tracks and with about a foot of powder snow it is not easy to find the trail, much less walk on it. So I plow through the forest and snow; it is easily the most scenic and backcountry style walking I have done in years. After about 1/2 hour or so I decide to turn around, as it doesn't seem to be worth going on. I won't get up above the fog here...

 

After returning to the car I drive all the way north until I get to the Yellowstone NP. Luckily, the sun has lifted the fog back here and so I can see some of the beautiful surrounding. Plus it is much warmer - right around freezing point. I could follow the road, but it is far too long for walking to really get into the more scenic areas of Old Faithful or the Yellow Lake.

 

So I drive back and pass many famous turnouts, the places where everybody stops to take the scenic pictures. Not today; I think, there must be a way to get up high and above the fog.

 

Upon returning to Jackson, I decide to hike up the Snow King mountain right next to the ski slopes. The fog is still hanging in thick and it is getting past 3:00pm in the afternoon. So I go light and almost run up in a race against the clock. Will I be able to get up high enough to get over the fog and soon enough before the sun goes down? One other skier is hiking up in front getting high in the fog, but he is going very slow, so I catch him within about 20 minutes or so. I think he is turning around, probably too tired and with the thick fog it takes a lot of faith and hope to keep going. So I'm thinking how come that I always end up in a race against the clock during these trips? I finally see the top of the ski lift peeking through the thinning fog. Will it be high enough to get out of the clouds?

 

I am charging up, sweating, the slope is so steep that plowing up through the deep snow is very strenuous. To my delight I see a few trees on the top glowing in bright yellow evening sunlight! So I can still make it. I cover the last 200 feet or so straight up, which requires me to dig in with my bare hands and almost crawl up on all four. But I am so pumped I hardly recognize how much I'm sweating. Suddenly I realize that it is much brighter - and I turn around to see that I have cleared the fog and can now see the entire Grand Teton Mounatin Range to the West towering above a see of low lying clouds - it is absolutely spectacular! What a reward for keeping going up through the disheartening thick fog and steep slope!

 

I step up out on the ridge next to the top of the skilift and the view is breath-taking. I can see all around with the sun setting in about 10 minutes painting beautiful colors in the evening sky. I take lots of pictures and actually delete previously taken ones to make room for more pictures on my old memory card. It is overwhelmingly beautiful. I am thinking: How can I go on living without mountains - this is just too good to pass up upon!

 

 

When I finally filled up the memory card and the sun is down behind the horizon, the high cirrus clouds create a fabulous evening glow. Even though it is very nice up here, I need to hurry up and get down. Down in the fog and with the sun gone it is getting dark quickly and I don't want to get caught in darkness above the ski-slopes. I dress up with my GoreTex and mittens. I basically slide down the steep slope under the ski-lift almost like a skier in fresh powder. With this technique and my new heavy boots I get down in about 20 minutes. Under the fog the town of Jackson starts to glow in the evening darkness and it reminds me of the times when we had our winter vacations in Kirchberg near Kitzbuehel, Austria.

 

It's only 1/2 mile or so to the hotel. I take a shower and get ready for a nice dinner at a nearby steakhouse. This is also where I write these notes while waiting for a table to clear and then for the food to come. I also see the pictures - what a great day it finally turned out to be!

 

Saturday, November 30, 2002

 

Check-out time is around 7:30 for me - I want to go back over the Teton pass to reach the ski resort Grand Targhee on the West side of the Grand Teton mountain range. You have to approach it from Idaho, even though the ski resort itself is back on the Wyoming side. Like the day before, Jackson is covered in fog; but as soon as I get up towards the Teton pass, the sun is greeting me to a crystal-clear blue sky!

 

 

I stop at the little town called Driggs and check out ski rental places. The first two places tell me that there is not enough snow yet for them to rent their skies. Oh no! What a pity that would be if I couldn't get any skies! It immediately reminds me of trying to rent a kayak in the Apostle Islands, when the first two places turned me down as well. But like back then: The third time works the charme: I get some nice carving skies for under $20 a day. I also buy some sunscreen and cheap sunglasses, as I accidentally left my own back in Florida the last time I was down there. (I figured I wouldn't need sunglasses in Fargo for the next couple of weeks!)

 

The valley sits at 6000ft, the ski resort starts at 8000ft, the summit is at 10,000ft. So first I have to drive up to the base of the resort. The road is wide, but very icy. I really wonder why they don't clear it or use salt! Twice my Ford starts to slide sideways due to the icy riddles. The adrenaline warms me up nicely, but I decide to slow way down as I don't necessarily want to crash into the snow banks along side the road.

 

Eventually I get to the base. It is already very sunny and really mild, almost like a day of spring skiing! They don't have too many ski-lifts here, only 4 or 5. But 2 of them are modern, high-speed quad chair lifts. With them you get so much skiing in, there is never any wait more than maybe 3 minutes and hardly time to recover, as the lift ascends so fast. There are many slopes, something for every skill level. I pick a couple of northerly runs, as the snow holds up best in the shadow. I also enjoy the company of the local folks here when going up in the ski-lift. There is always some interesting story to be heard, and at times our quad chair is quite international (UK, Canada, France, etc.).

 

From the top there is a magnificent view all around. Just to the East, there is the mountain range of the Grand Teton towering more than 3500ft higher than the top of the ski mountain. The view to the West into the plains of Idaho and the far mountains is amazingly clear. To the North you can see the mountains of the Yellowstone NP. We are at the boundary of two weather systems, to the North it is blue sky as far as you can see, and just 5 miles to the South or so there are some clouds rolling in. What a great day of skiing and sun!

 

 

 

After lunch I head over to another peak which you can only reach after about 20 minutes of hiking. It is very warm hiking up with ski-boots and the whole works. But the view from that peak is gorgeous and it is a bit secluded, so you get a bit of that coveted backcountry feeling! Another reward for this little hike is a steep northerly slope inaccessible from the ski-lifts and with some powder left. Reminds me a bit of the area in Lac de Tignes in France. This must be really great here after some good snowfall! They say this is one of the areas with the best and most snow in the entire US!

 

In fact, I contemplate that this was the first day ever for me to ski in the US! So I definitely lucked out with a good one - and a nice mountain on top of that.

 

At about 3:30 I am getting really tired; definitely not used anymore to 5 hours of non-stop skiing. Even though it is hard to leave from such a beautiful place, I figure it is probably a good idea to get going rather sooner than later. I head down the mountain, drive down the road, return the rental gear and hit the road back North towards West Yellowstone and Bozeman in Montana.

 

It gets dark at 5:30 after about 1 hour of driving. I still know the critical areas with icy conditions on the road from coming in two days ago. Overall the road is mostly dry, but it can be dangerous to go fast at 65 or 70 mph and come around a corner on to icy and slippery surface. So paying close attention is what keeps me awake. One time I stop in the section where the road leads through Yellowstone NP, just after I saw a big deer standing beside the road and staring into my high-beam headlights. I stop, switch off the engine and look up into the crystal clear black night sky: You can see thousands of twinkling stars and the milky way is marked very bright and clearly. In between passing cars, there is perfect silence and just this awesome black and cold darkness. The 5-10 minutes or so are enough to chill me to the bones and it takes me at least another 5-10 minutes just to warm up in the car again...

 

Now I get really tired and barely make it to Bozeman, where I check into the first Motel by the side of the main road. Since it is only 7:30 and I am quite hungry, I find a nice bistro restaurant and settle down for the usual routine of the evening: Order good food, download the pictures from the camera into the PC and write the next day chapter of this trip report. What a great trip!

 

Sunday, December 01, 2002

 

I leave early again, around 6:00am. It's still dark with thousands of stars visible. Shining the brightest is the almost new moon with bright venus very close nearby. It is cold, but there is no fog, so driving is easy - plus from here on back it's all Interstate highway. Driving east into the sunrise is very pretty. You see all the colors on the palette from black to blue. Initially you just see the mountain silhouette against the horizon, then you see snow fields. Later color vision sets in, and the orange and yellow tones are added to the palette...

 

The first 6 hours of the drive are uneventful, except for the occasional stop at the gas-station. The only concern I have is for the wildlife crossing the highway; there is plenty of roadkill along the sides here.

 

Then around noon I pass over from Montana back into North Dakota. Just about 20 miles from the border there is the little town of Medora with the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As I haven't entered into the park last time I drove by in mid-September, this makes for a welcome break in the highway monotony.

 

There is a 25 miles loop road through the badlands with some beautiful little trails and lookout points. Plus there is a good chance to observe wild bison living in these protected grasslands. I do see groups of bison twice, maybe 20 animals at a time. They somehow remind us of the time 150 years ago when millions of these animals roamed the great plains in herds so big they must have stretched to the horizon. Compared to those numbers, this is obviously nothing, but at least the bison is still around and not only as stuffed trophy in some restaurants...

 

I hike a short ridgeline trail with nice views and little signs explaining how the forces of nature conjoined to form this interesting scenery of the badlands. I also stop ata river bend with yellow sandstone cliffs. The lower sun of the afternoon paints its yellow light onto a beautiful scenery. It is an exceptionally mild day with temperatures in the mid-50's - that's got to be close to record breaking: 56F in North Dakota in December - who says it's cold here? There are very few visitors this time of the year, even though the park is open all year round. I stop and watch the scenery. I hear some noise from the water below and notice a big beaver at the water line. Normally these animals would probably be hibernating this time of the year. But since it is so mild, they probably come out and eat some more before it's getting really cold...

 

 

Again, even though it is so nice and I wouold like to stay longer, I have to leave. To return back across North Dakota is about 320 miles from here, and the sun will go down in about 1.5 hours or so. So every minute I end up staying here means another minute of night-time driving!

 

The rest of the drive is uneventful, with the evening sun again producing the finest colors and a perfect, almost cinematic experience of the landscape. After dark, I stop in Bismarck for a small dinner and another load of gas. Finally I hit the home stretch from Bismarck to Fargo, another 2.5 hours of driving. I reach Fargo in the evening at 9:00pm. When it's all said and done, my odometer shows a trip distance of 2,100 miles. 4 days, 4 states, 3 National Parks, 1 day of skiing! Not quite your average weekend...