Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Summer 2015
This post is long overdue, but a busy Summer complete with moving will do that.
We set out on Friday June 19th, with an itinerary that included a two leg drive to Grand Teton where we spent three days, followed by five days in Yellowstone, and finally a more leisurely three-day drive home. Friday night was spent at an unremarkable hotel in Casper, WY before an early morning drive to GTNP. We arrived at the park just after lunch time, but the prime camp grounds were already full (read: Jenny Lake). This was the beginning of the busy season, and we had arrived on a Saturday.. After driving through one campground, we found another that sounded promising from the guide books, but by the time we got there things were filling up quickly – so we decided to roll the dice and move the next morning if we had to.
The ranger at the gate gave us his “favorite” site – which I was convinced was a line – but when we got to the site, we could see why he liked it. When you’re in a campground with a few hundred sites – it’s hard to imagine you’ll have any privacy – but here we were.
This was car camping – complete with running water, flushing toilets, and camp stores a few blocks away. But we also had the feeling a bear or other animal could ramble through at any moment.
Grand Teton is a fantastic park. It’s a little more laid back than Yellowstone. There’s less people. With Jackson Hole so close – you can take a break from roughing it with a hot sandwich and a cold beer for lunch if you feel like it (and we did). There was some wildlife, but not a ton, and it certainly doesn’t have YNP’s geological features. But if I were going to do one of them again – it would have to be GTNP.
Our time in GTNP included driving taking in the mountain range from many directions, including the view from Jenny Lake. The views here are obviously spectacular – with vast open prairies and pine stands meeting directly with a 13,000′ elevation mountain range. The stars were amazing as well, but we had to wait out the full-moon setting after midnight before taking them in. Watching the moon set over the Tetons was pretty fuckin cool. Jackson hole was almost two hours from our campsite – but mostly because the drive included 15 or 20 miles on a 25mph not quite two-lane dirt road. I’ve wanted to go snowboarding there for years, but even in the Summer it’s pretty rad. We had lunch in town, and then took the famous 100-person gondola up to the top of the mountain for waffles. So on the top of the mountain there’s this tiny little wood building that looks like it’s been up there for 30-40 years – but keep in mind things age faster at the top of the world. The UV light, thin\dry air – things get old quick – so 30 years up there is like 100 years down here. Anyway – in this little building – they make fresh waffles, fill them with nutella, fruit and whip cream, peanut butter, and whathaveyou, fold it up like a taco, and you’re on your way. They’re super yummy, and the entire top of the mountain smells like fresh waffles. Clearly a waste of an afternoon.
The only downside to GTNP is that you really see everything in a hurry, so our three days turned into two, and on Monday we drove up to the shit-show that is Yellowstone in the Summer. If you know me – you probably know I like camping where there are no other people besides the ones I went with. I would rather hike three miles or canoe twenty with friends if it means we don’t have neighbors. Yellowstone was the opposite of that: People. Everywhere. Traffic jams. Construction. Overflow parking. Lines.
It was pretty discouraging to see two of the three campgrounds we had on our list were already full by the time we hit the entrance gate. Our fourth and fifth choice campgrounds were a solid hour or two drive from the South entry, and it was obvious it was going to be a rush of people trying to get to the same place before anyone else. Since there was a lot more to do in YNP the campsite was less important, but we still didn’t want to end up in a 400 site campground..
At around the halfway point we hit a traffic jam – but unlike the city – this one was just stopped. For.e.ver. It took us close to an hour to go half a mile, but finally we figured out what was going on – bison crossing. Or more accurately – people stopping to take pictures of the bison crossing. Keep in mind, there are signs posted every couple of miles that say don’t stop in the road to take pictures – use a turnout. Yeah right. It also says don’t approach bison. Yeah right. These animals are freaking everywhere.
This group was 50′ off the road, just chillin. But everyone seems to think these are the only bison in the park – get a picture now before they’re extinct.
This guy and his family nearly caused an accident about 30min after the bison. They made the mistake of grazing within view of the roadway – a particular stretch around a blind corner with no shoulders. This was just a taste of things to come – but by this time we were getting hungry and our campground was still an hour (actually two) away, so I put the WRX to work passing the seers seeing all of the sites except the signs.
After arguing about directions, talking ourselves out of backcountry camping, an hour wait before a construction zone, and then another hour wait at the campground while an old lady bickered with her old husband about which sites were or were not in fact occupied … we finally had a site. Unfortunately it was very hot, which made my attempts to nap futile. We decided to drive up to Mammoth, check out the hot springs, and some nature.
These hot springs were pretty awesome. There was a heavy sulfur smell, lots of dead trees and plants where the springs had flowed more recently, bacteria mats, steam, and lots of warnings about stepping off the path.
From the hot springs, we ventured further into the rolling prairie of the Lamar Valley. According to the books – this is where the wildlife was. And they weren’t wrong. We saw a bear, rams, bison, some deer, and some pretty rad roads. I also saw some idiots in a rented Mustang drive up to within 5 feet of bison crossing the road. No wonder they kill people.
So after seeing all of that in just one day in Yellowstone – it was hard to deny the park’s appeal.
On our second day – we hit most of the rest of the things one is supposed to do when they visit Yellowstone. Almost. We checked out the caldera rim road, some minor geysers, Grand Prismatic Spring, mud pots, and the Yellowstone River’s massive canyon and waterfalls.
It was at these destinations that I started to lose my shit over the tourists. People randomly stopping on stairs to take pictures – in the middle of a moving crowd. People taking up the entire two-way sidewalk forcing most everyone else onto the street – even when we’re walking single file on our side. I did the immature semi-confrontational, semi-passive-aggressive high school move of firming up the shoulder and giving them a good bump. One guy was walking the other way and out of nowhere turns right in front of me – with an infant in a carrier on his back. I had to hug them so all three of us wouldn’t go tumbling into the street.
I get that this is an international tourist destination – the park just isn’t set up for it. The signs aren’t in enough languages. Parking lots aren’t big enough. Sidewalks aren’t big enough. Road (and almost all) signs are in English only. But thats the rub – if you do all of these things to accommodate all of these people – the park loses something. There’s already trash all over. They have problems with people throwing stuff in the springs. People are probably going to ruin the place either way. But more funding for the parks system, combined with some access limitations would go a long way to preserving these for the future. I personally would never go during the busy season again – and technically we were only in the start of the busy season – not the peak between July 4th and Labor day. I might have turned around and left..
A couple of these were an interesting site.
And this guy was staying a couple of sites away from us, on a drive between California and Maine. Helluva car.
This was our Yellowstone campsite in the Indian Creek campground. Nothing special – but a decent car camping spot. The families around us were pretty chill so overall this worked out well.
This ended up being our last night in Yellowstone. We packed a lot of stuff into two days, and with the construction, traffic, people, and everything else – we decided to meander home, and take a couple of extra days along the way. So we decided we would head out of the park towards the Northeast, and drive the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Highway is 68 miles of Route 212 from about Cooke City to Red Lodge, MT. It has been called “the Most Beautiful Drive in America”, and they weren’t wrong. The route features steep zig-zags, switchbacks, gorgeous scenery, and unpredictable weather. On the Wyoming side speed limits are relatively tame at 30-40mph. Once you hit Montana it’s 55mph and no guardrails.
This is the kind of road and scenery used in Car Commercials and Top Gear. The views were breathtaking – the roads were fantastic. I only slowed down when the brakes in the Subie were starting to smoke during pitstops for pictures. These roads would have been fun in almost any car – but I’m glad we had something with some oomph.
In Red Lodge we stopped at a little diner called the Red Box Car for some delicious burgers, fries, and malts. After a week in the woods it was perfect. We decided to head back south into Wyoming to stay in Cody for an evening.
On a side road out of town, you drive by the Smith Mine Disaster – the worst coal mining disaster in Montana’s history. On February 27th, 1943 – an explosion ripped through the mine, killing 74 of 77 men working. The explosion was so deep underground they couldn’t hear it at the mouth of the mine – yet it knocked a 20-ton locomotive off its tracks 1/4 mile away. The plant was shut down, rusty shacks and a highway plaque is all thats left.
After a night in Cody – in a hotel with way too much taxidermy, a so-so hot tub, and some pretty decent BBQ – we headed east to South Dakota. Somewhere along the way we stopped at a pretty cool air firefighting museum in the middle of nowhere.
It had a little office next to a rest stop on the highway – a $5 donation lets you walk around the planes. It seems like once upon a time they let people walk through a couple of the planes, but, judging by the state of things they’ve probably had them closed up for years. Still – I’m not going to pass up some antique planes hanging out in the desert.
We decided to stay in Deadwood before heading home. I hadn’t been since I was maybe 11 years old – and remembered it being super cool. A lot has changed since the last time I was there. Tons of new hotels, new casinos, new roads.. It lost a lot of the charm it had back then, but it was still a lot of fun. Enough fun that I was too busy drinking and gambling to take any pictures.
So two national parks checked off the list. I would go back to Grand Teton, Yellowstone – probably not. The only way I would go back would be in the early spring or late fall – before or after the rush. Like a lot of things – people ruin it.
At some point I’ll get around to developing the film I took – so look for another post in a few weeks. Or months.