During the first week of August, my sister came home from Denver and brought a friend from Australia with her. We started our journey in Cody, WY and from there planned an epic road trip through Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons and eventually north to Glacier Park. While it would be a whirlwind trip, I was excited for the opportunity to revisit Yellowstone and finally see the Tetons, a place on my bucket list.
Our timing was less than superb since the fires in Montana kicked up, and we had pretty horrendous smoke competing with the usually pristine views. However, when you have the time you just have to make things happen!
We first ventured to Yellowstone through the east entrance and woke up with a brisk hike to Avalanche Peak. I had never been on this side of the park and enjoyed a new hike where we were rewarded with views, albeit marred by smoke.
Getting in some hiking left me feeling good about this trip to Yellowstone since my memories of previous visits included a LOT of car time. When looking at the map, it is no surprise we’d be very friendly with the car though since most attractions are well spaced and simply take a long time to get to.
Our plan for Day 1 was to go north from Fishing Bridge to Lower Falls and Artist Point, then head back south to West Thumb and down to the Tetons and Jackson, WY for dinner. Day 2 we would tackle the big guys: Old Faithful, Geyser Basin, Paint Pots, Mammoth Hot Springs and then ALL the way home to Valier. Whew, lots of miles…
After the hike, we roamed towards Yellowstone Falls and Artist Point, finding some bison up-close and personal along the way. The size and odd proportions of these beasts never fail to pique my interest. Plus, Yellowstone bison seem much bigger than ones I’ve seen in the Blackfeet herd or on domestic ranches.
We filled up on bison pics, and Artist Point was a welcome stop to stretch our legs and get some good views. The landscape with its variegated colors and stark cliffs is much different than any I’m used to. I can’t pass up a good waterfall, and so far this was my favorite viewing spot on the trip.
We spent a fair amount of time soaking in the views along with the many other tourists before jumping back in the car and heading south towards the Tetons. We needed to wrangle a spot to rest our heads for the night and were worried we may be too late in the day for many camping options. However, we lucked out and found a spot just inside Grand Teton National Park at Flagg Ranch, a pretty crowded campground, but a place to set up a tent and a hammock nonetheless.
With our sleeping arrangements settled, we continued south and tried to peer through the smoke to what we knew were amazing mountains rising to the sky.
While our timing wasn’t great for the Tetons, I still enjoyed the stark peaks and definitely have a return trip on my list of future plans. Our time here wasn’t a total bust though – we did get some better views and good water at Jenny Lake.
After a beer and dinner in Jackson (another place where I could spend a lot more time), we caught some great views of the sun setting behind the smoky range.
After a fairly good night’s sleep, Day 2 dawned clear and road ready. We headed back north toward Old Faithful and Geyser Basin. We had enough time to hike up to an observation point rather than watch the famous geyser from the walkway. Right on cue, Old Faithful fulfilled its name. I remembered being fairly interested in the geyser when I was younger, and my interest hadn’t really waned or grown. It’s a neat phenomenon, don’t get me wrong, but it seems a bit over anticipated.
What I found more interesting than Old Faithful were the other hot pots and geysers in the basin. Each is unique and strange and powerful. The park system does a wonderful job maintaining the boardwalk that allows visitors to walk right next to these thermal features.
While some look fairly inviting, like this one, one must remember the story of the man who fell in one last year. The heat and acid literally disintegrated his body, leaving no remains (check out that story here). Yellowstone is not to be messed with!
Due to time constraints, we could only fit in one more large feature: Mammoth Hot Springs. I think next to Yellowstone Falls, this was my favorite stop. The colorful microorganisms and travertine deposits create an otherworldly feel when hiking up the boardwalk. The area is made of limestone, which essentially disintegrates due to the carbonic acid created and carried by the hot steam rising from the magma layer below the surface. The disintegrated limestone reconstitutes itself as travertine on the surface and rests in layered deposits, creating pools.
While the hot springs were impressive, the lethargy of so much car time caught up with all of us, rendering us a bit zombie-like. Yellowstone has a lot of impressive features, but the slow miles sheltered in trees and a lack of mountain views between geologic formations lead to an exhausting vacation when all you’ve done is sit on your rear for most of the trip. I also have the propensity to either fall asleep or get sick in cars, so I may be partial to walking based trips. Yellowstone is cool and everyone should see it at some point in their lives, but it isn’t a park I need to revisit.
Parks – Part Deux
After recovering at the ranch from our Wyoming road trip, we headed north to Glacier National Park. I have no idea how many times I have traveled the Going to the Sun Road, but I look forward to it each and every time. Rarely have I had a bad time in Glacier and routinely enjoy the mountain vistas. We were a bit worried the views could be compromised due to the lingering smoke, but the smoke wasn’t as thick at the St. Mary entrance as on the prairie. The famous Goose Island photo shoot did not disappoint.
We were on a schedule for this trip too, so our plan was to hike out to Sun Point, drive over Logan Pass and find a lunch spot, and then return and hike to Hidden Lake (from the Logan Pass visitor’s center). We hit our first two goals perfectly, enjoying a picnic lunch sitting along the highway.
Even though we went on a Wednesday, the road was busy and the Logan Pass parking lot very full. After driving around the parking lot for roughly ten minutes, we decided our time would be better spent searching out new destinations. We stopped at the Lunch Creek pullout and headed up the creek, intending to just take a short stroll. As we walked up the creek, a waterfall emerged in the distance and of course we needed to investigate. The waterfall was halfway up a huge gorge headed by Pollock Mountain (9,190 ft).
Two of us were in sandals and one was having symptoms of elevation sickness, so we took it fairly slow, bouldering up the creekbed and eventually topping out over the waterfall.
Once we passed the waterfall, guess what was next – another waterfall! We didn’t hike to this one, but did glimpse a nanny goat with her kid scrambling around next to it in the alpine meadow.
We saw two hikers making their way toward the top of Pollock Mountain, which is something I would like to try someday when I have the correct shoes and nothing else planned. However, this day we had a finale to get to: canoeing and kayaking St. Mary Lake. My brother recently bought a canoe, and it is a GREAT time. We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling around the lake, basking in the sun on our own private beach, watching bald and golden eagles, and cheering the day with beer and wine.
Of all the days I’ve spent in Glacier, this goes down as one of the best.
Pros: massive views, great hiking with easy access, personal nostalgia for the location
Cons: traffic can easily back up on Going to the Sun
2. Grand Tetons (even after a tiny amount of time spent exploring)
Pros: amazing views, potentially great hiking, high elevations
Cons: tough to judge since it was so smokey
Pros: Unusual, unique geologic formations
Cons: SOOO much driving, not as many mountain views