Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park Trip
(Sep. 1 – 4, 2006)

 

Until a few days ago I didn’t know where we would go on this 3 day Labor Day weekend. The weather in South Florida was pretty miserable – as always this time of the year – hot and humid, rainy with the occasional tropical storm rolling in from the Atlantic (like Ernesto one week earlier). So it seemed desirable to get away someplace with favorable weather and maybe mountains… I also still had plenty of miles on my United Airlines account, so I hoped to be using some award tickets for me and my son Philip. After some searching in the midwest and west of the U.S. I found a destination with suitable flights (leaving Friday late afternoon after work and returning Monday evening) and still seats available: Billings, Montana as starting point for a drive through Yellowstone National Park and on into Grand Teton National Park for a weekend of sight-seeing and hiking!

 

Friday, September 1, 2006

 

I leave work in Fort Lauderdale at 1:30 to pick up Philip from school in Wellington and then head back all the way South to the Miami airport. Lots of driving, but that’s the price of admission for a trip like this. We get to Miami on time and check in. We carry minimal luggage, two small backpacks and a duffel bag with extra pair of shoes. Pretty light weight for 3 ½ days of travel! I hope they won’t take out my mini bottle of shampoo and tooth paste, which according to newest safety rules are no longer allowed on board in your carry on luggage. Nobody checks, so everything is fine. Our first flight is to Denver, where we have a 1.5 hr layover for the second flight to Billings. We gain 2 hours switching from Eastern to Mountain Time and arrive at 10:50pm, almost 1:00am by Florida time. We step poutside into a cool, dry air and wait for the Dollar rental shuttle to pick us up. It is the first time in many months for us that we are comfortable putting on a sweater.

 

After a 5 min drive we get to the rental place, receive our vehicle and drive another 10 min to our first hotel. We are wasting no time at all to check in and fall asleep within minutes.

 

Saturday, September 2, 2006

We get up before dawn and have a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby. Time with daylight will be precious today, so we start very early. At 6:30 we are departing just before sunrise. The sky is clear and one can already see the mountains to the SouthWest of Billings.

Philip is still a bit sleepy in the backseats but this quickly changes when we turn off the Interstate I90 in Laurel and drive closer towards the mountains. We pass Red Lodge, an old mining town, where we also get some Gatorade and snacks for lunch on the go. After Red Lodge the Bear Tooth Pass road starts to climb into the Absarokee Mountains.

This road leads along the state border between Montana to the North and Wyoming to the South. I had been in the close vicinity 3 years ago when I tried to climb Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana.

The first part of the pass the road climbs through multiple switchbacks on the Northern slopes which are in the shade and pretty cold in the morning.

We need to use the car heating unit, something really strange for us Floridian’s only used to car air conditioning… Soon we reach the very scenic Rock Creek Vista lookout point above 9000 ft.

We stop and walk around to take in the scenery. The slope drops to three sides and you feel like in a ship on the ocean. I’m also thinking: With this weather, it was definitely worth it coming out here across ¾ of the North-American continent, some 5.000 miles of flying and 650+ miles of driving.

A short while after this stop the road climbs up to a high plateau and crosses over to Wyoming. Philip and I stop at the state border and play football by throwing the ball across the state line.

There is even a bicycle rider who just sheds some cloths as the sun is warming up the cool morning air at 8:45am. It is a long climb from Red Lodge over 5.000 ft topping out at almost 11.000 ft near the West Summit. The view is spectacular:

We stop at various points of the road to take in the view and to explore the local surroundings. Philip loves to throw rocks – into water, down a slope, wherever – like all boys his age I guess! I enjoy the view while he’s trying to find out how far a rock will roll down the slope of the mountain.

The view now opens up towards the West with the mountains and high plateau of the Yellowstone NP in the background. We park at the West Summit and walk around a bit amongst the boulders and rocks.

I’m thinking that riding a bicycle here is definitely an ambitious undertaking. But you could hardly pick a better day for coming to the Bear Tooth pass than this weekend – the forecast was spot on with absolutely no cloud in sight anywhere near our location!

There are many lakes, dozens of big ones, and hundreds of small ones. Dropping down a thousand feet or so we again reach below the tree line. I stop frequently for pictures.

Philip reminds me not to stop at every turn so we wouldn’t take forever to even get to the Yellowstone park. I have to agree…

Our first stop is in Cooke City near the North-East entrance of the park. We are having some breakfast in this sleepy little town, which every now and then wakes up from the vibrations of a dozen Harley Davidson bikes roaring into town.

I also notice a bicycle rider with heavy loaded paniers. His progress is fast on the down-hills but slow everywhere else. Anyway, he can’t complain on a day like this… Shortly after this refreshing stop we enter the park.

At first the scenery doesn’t change noticably. While driving along we see occasional bison or deer. Bison have been nearly extinct in this area at the beginning of the twentieth century due to overhunting, down to around 100 animals. Thanks to protection and breeding programs, today’s population is back to about 3000 animals, which makes for various sightings of bison every now and then along the road.

Then we get to the beginning of the so-called Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone river flows North from the lake with the same name and cuts through layers of sediments and basalt of volcanic origin, as can be seen clearly at various lookout points.

About half-way into the canyon we stop at a popular overlook and hike down to the river, exploring a side-valley with a nice waterfall.

We also play along the banks of the river, sun-bathing on boulders, and throwing rocks in the water to the chagrin of a fisherman not far from us… The cold waters rushing by and as a result the cool breeze provide a stark but welcome contrast to the hot and extremely dry air, which cakes everything in fine dust as you’re walking along the trails. In this regard, it is definitely similar to the Arizona Grand Canyon with the ice cold Colorado river at its bottom.

The drive continues with frequent photo stops. One thing we both notice is the evidence of wide-spread forest fires several years ago. I don’t recall the details, but I think in the mid nineties there were very large forest wildfires which burnt large parts of this park. Years later, you still see many trees tripped down to the trunks and new seedlings at the bottom.

Our next stop is at the Canyon Visitor Center, a fairly large complex with multiple shops and restaurants. Other than several tour buses with primarily Chinese visitors there is not too much going on, which means hardly any waiting lines and little congestion on the road. All in all I am pleasantly surprised – I had expected more delays and crowds on a day like this.

We decide to have a late lunch around 2:30pm. The chicken cordon bleu with rice, mashed potatoes and gravy sauce brings out a broad grin on Philip’s face!

He’s also drinking coke which makes him very alert, almost hyper at times. But I’m thinking he will probably be sleeping well tonight regardless…

There are several access roads to the rim of the canyon in close vicinity. We stop at one for a pretty spectacular view of the river and the colored sediment walls of the canyon.

Not far from this stop are the two big waterfalls called Upper and Lower Fall. A ½ mile path leads down from the main road and parking lot to the rim of the Lower Fall. At first we turn around after just a few minutes of hiking, as Philip needs to go to a restroom. Luckily there are facilities at this parking lot. So on the second attempt we make it all the way down to the river and the rim of the Lower Fall.


 


The water plunges 308 ft to the bottom. The roar is deafening. There is a cloud of mist coming out of the bottom being blown downstream from the wind generated by the fall. One can see green plants along the canyon walls within reach of the mist cloud, clearly marking the reach of this type of natural irrigation system.

Although there would be plenty more scenic points worth visiting and stopping for we need to continue our drive through the park. Our next destination is the Yellowstone lake, located further South near the end of the park.

I’m in the mood for a little afternoon nap, but on this side of the lake there is a fairly cool breeze of the water and no more sun. A short drive brings us around to a more secluded bay with the lake shore facing the sun and sheltered by the wind.

The sand and pebbles on the shore are dark gray and again of volcanic origin. The water is very clear. Its fish attract anglers in the boats occasionally passing by, but we are happy to just sit on the shores and play with the rocks and the water.

It is about 5:30pm when we decide to move on. We still have 1-2 hrs of driving before we reach the Grand Teton NP and our little town of Doran Junction, where I had booked a motel room for us to stay overnight.

The drive is quite scenic as we pass along the shores of Yellowstone lake and then just South of it cross the Continental Divide. I have always been fascinated by those divides. Water that rains down just to the North of it flows via the Yellowstone river to the Missouri, then Mississippi and finally into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, Louisiana. Water that rains down just a bit further South drains into the Snake river, which flows West to the Columbia river and eventually empties into the Pacific near Portland, Oregon. It also makes for plenty of hills and turns – again, a strenuous route for bicycles if one wanted to take this trip via bicycle.

Eventually we reach the Grand Teton NP and drive along the shores of Jackson Lake. The view is great, the sun is getting low and paints everything in a warm, yellow light.

I remember stopping at this parking lot 4 years prior during my skiing trip to Jackson, Wyoming around Thanksgiving. It was cold, snow everywhere, and a layer of low-hanging clouds / fog prevented me from seeing the mountain range of the Tetons. Not so today. The view is magnificent. There are first signs of leafs turning yellow and red indicating the onset of autumn at this elevation (~ 6000 ft).

One would like to just sit there and take it all in, not having to move on after short stops. Yet we drive on, down through the Grand Teton NP towards Doran Junction. When we get there, we’re faced with the question as to whether to get to our motel now, or perhaps first drive down to Jackson for dinner and then come back late evening for the motel. We decide to go to Jackson.

While driving along the Snake River with splendid views of the moutain range to the West and the sun sinking below the mountains there. Once we stop to watch a coyote not far from the road, sniffing out some would-be prey and trying to dig it out of the ground (without success). Later we have to stop due to a herd of bison crossing the road in front of us.

These animals are remarkably nimble and can move swift and jump fences if they want / have to. Here they just jumped one fence, crossed the road, jumped another fence and continued in the field on the other side. I wondered what the fences were for, actually, given that the bison could negotiate them with relative ease. Nevertheless, magnificent creatures, up close, better than at the Lion Country Safari in Wellington, Florida. Also a reminder to drive very carefully at night…

Finally we arrive in Jackson. First we stop at a gasstation to refuel and call home. Then we park the car near the center of town and walk the rest. Again I remember the place with its wooden boardwalks, shops and restaurants from a couple of years ago. They have this town square with arches made from elk antlers which I wanted to show Philip:

We have dinner in the same Teton Steak Family Restaurant I also had stopped years ago. I guess they won a customer for life back then J

It is getting really late close to 11:00pm when we drive back ½ hr and finally reach our motel. Philip is of course long sleeping in the back of the car and I have to carry him from the car to the room. Sometimes I wish I was a kid again… It was a long day and I waste no time going to sleep in the cozy log cabin.

 

Sunday, September 3, 2006

I get up at 7:00am and look outside to see the dawn of another crystal-clear day. It is quite chilly when we walk from our cabin to the small restaurant for breakfast. There were actually some ice crystals on the roof of our rental car – some frost overnight! I was especially cold after I started taking a shower, washed my hair and then realized that there was no hot water in the shower – rinsing out the shampoo with ice-cold water, that was brutal! I should have used some water from the sink, where warm water was flowing…

We warmed up over hot coffee and pancakes, served by a group of friendly waitresses with strong accents. When asked about their country of origin, they responded Ukraine; obviously they were making some money there as a first step to establish a presence in the U.S.

After a short drive we came to the famous Snake River Overlook, perhaps the most popular photo stop with the Grand Teton in the background.

There is plenty of wildlife here, despite the groups of people stopping and cars driving by. For example, we saw a weasel and many birds of prey.

It is already 9:30am – a little later than I would have liked, because our planned hike is on an East face fully exposed to the morning sun and also due to the fact that we had a long drive ahead of us going all the way back to Billings, Montana later tonight.

Driving towards our trailhead for the hike the Grand Teton rises majestically up ahead.

It is about 10:15am when we get going at the trailhead. Our trail leads up to the Ampitheatre Lake, about half way up to the top, just at the treeline. This lake sits at the bottom of a bowl shaped like an amphitheatre promising scenic views of the upper mountains.

The trail is 4.7 miles long and climbs about 2500 ft. That’s a long march for Philip; I’m glad to see him make good progress in the bottom half of the trail. We stop every now and then and work our way through the bag of trail mix and the bottles of Gatorade we brought along for the hike.

Again we see plenty of wildlife, inlcuding a snake at the bottom, as well as some deer pretty close to the trail and of course plenty of birds and little squirrels.

Towards the top Philip gets a bit impatient and starts questioning whether this was such a good idea to come here… Hence I’m really glad when we finally see the slope leveling off and the amphitheatre coming into view. And after a bit more than 3 hrs of hiking we reach the lake.

It is a beautiful spot, with clear water, some trees offering shade and the panorama quite impressive. I hike around the lake hopping from boulder to boulder, rejoicing in the relative solitude and wilderness of the place.

Philip takes a picture of me sitting on a boulder a few yards into the water – just like a picture I had taken of myself some 20 years ago while hiking in New Zealand. Sweet memories…

After about 45 mins we need to go – it’s already considerably later than I had planned, which means more night-time driving on the way back.

The way down is long; it’s dusty an hot, and our Gatorade runs out which leaves us somewhat thirsty. But at least it’s not as strenuous as on the way up, and we frequenlty stop to take in the vistas.

It feels really good when we finally reach the car back at the trailhead after some 6 ¼ hrs of hiking. The car of course is boiling hot, but we now have airconditioning and additional water. Plus after hiking half day we are happy just to sit in the car and continue our drive.

Passing the Jackson Lake Dam I am again reminded of the winter trip in 2002, when the ground was snow-covered and one could harldy see the lake, much less the distant mountains due to the low-hanging clouds.

This time there are barely any clouds in the sky – except the occasional smoke plume of a forest fire (as can be seen in the above picture the the left). In fact, in Wyoming and Montana we often had bad smells entering the car, either sulfuric gases of volcanic origin, smoke from forest fires or other bad smells of mining factories in Montana towns.

Going North we again crossed the Continental Divide and reached Yellowstone Lake. This time with beautiful afternoon light overlooking the trees and lake to our East.

For the way back we take the Westerly route through the Yellowstone park, which brings us to the famous Old Faithful Geyser. Here we see the huge parking lots, tour buses, resorts and visitor centers with restaurants and shops which are so characteristic of crowded National Parks these days. While driving through the huge park I never had the feel it was crowded, simply ue to the vast expanse of this park. But at the parking lot of Old Faithful Geyser you know this is a popular spot!

Unfortunately we just missed an “eruption” of the Geyser by a few minutes, so we would have to wait another 1 ½ hours for the next big splash. We don’t want to wait that long, but we do walk around the general area for about ½ hour. It’s system of boardwalks is quite expansive, so there are many interesting little springs and smaller geysers to see. There are even herds of bison in the midst of things.

Philip enjoys this part of the trip, even though he is tired from the hike earlier in the day.

Eventually we get on the road again and follow the road towards the North park entrance. There is one more waterfall worth stopping for and generally beautiful colors as the sun is setting.

Just around dusk we reach the Mammoth Hot springs, an area where hot mineral springs have created white terraces of salt and mineral deposits. The near full moon rises and sines in an eerie, orange color. (I later realize that the color comes from a layer of smoke and haze due to forest fires in the area.) We stop for one last walk in the cool evening air, where we spot among other things a large owl sitting on top of the white salt terraces looking out for a meal…

This is obviously quite different from Florida. Now that the second full day winds down, I am happy that we came here. There was so much for us to see in the last 2 days – and the weather couldn’t have been better.

We stop for dinner in a local fast food type restaurant / tourist place. It’s probably the most unhealthy food of the last couple of months, breaded fish dripping in fat with french fries and coke! Lots of sugar and fat! I leave the fries untouched, but need the caffeine and sugar the coke has to offer.

About 50 miles North to Interstate I90 and then another 110 miles to the East will bring us back to Billings. I will stop one more time to get chewing gum and coffee – it is said you can’t fall asleep while chewing gum… Again, not exactly a health food experience, but better tolerating bad food than falling into good sleep behind the wheel!

Well, another reason not to fall asleep was the strange view of night-time forest fires on the hills to the Sout of the Interstate. The full moon would in and out disappear behind smoke clouds, which in turn would glow in orange light from the flmes of the fire – while the view towards the North revealed an extremely clear night sky with the milky way clearly visible. It’s not surprising to me that they call Montana the “Big Sky” state.

Philip of course gets a lot more sleep on days like this, he just lays down and lets Daddy do the driving. All told, we drive 670 miles in the 2 days through Yellowstone and Grand Teton NP. We reach the same Sleep Inn hotel in Billings shortly after midnight. And we need to get up one more time really early in the morning (4:45am) since we have a 6:20am flight out to Denver! I figure we can sleep on the airplanes back to Miami

 

Monday, September 4, 2006 (Labor Day)

Of course our Labor Day isn’t terribly exciting, basically we lose 2 hrs when going back to Eastern Time Zone and we have two flights BillingsDenverMontana with a considerable layover in Denver. Breakfast is a so-called Denver omelette in the mile-high city.

To shorten the layover time we walk around and spend some time on the skywalk – a bridge between terminals tall enough to let airplanes roll underneath!

After some phone calls and some more walking around we finally get on board the United Airlines plane which brings us back to Miami in 3 ¼ hrs of flight time. Another 1 hr drive back from the Miami airport and we’re both back home safely in Wellington.

It was a whirlwind trip with a lot of flying (5000 miles) and driving (700+ miles) involved. But we did see a lot of landscape and wildlife, we enjoyed the cool, dry air of the mountains and saw two famous American National Parks in picture-perfect post-card weather – in my book definitely worth a trip! What did you do this Labor Day weekend?