Anniversary Trip to Yellowstone

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Jackson Hole, WY and sleep there
  • Friday: Drive through Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park on the way to West Yellowstone, MT
  • Saturday-Sunday: Exploring Yellowstone
  • Monday: Fly back

Dates: May 7-11, 2015

Our Odyssey:

Tim and I spent a lot of time this past December and January (before we starting working again) watching Netflix and hibernating from the Wisconsin winter. During this time, Tim watched many, many hours of documentaries about the United States’ National Parks. This spawned our grand idea of celebrating our 5 year anniversary doing what we love best- exploring in nature together. We picked Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park for our long weekend getaway in early May.

We both flew straight from our business trips (me from Baltimore, Tim from LA) to Jackson, Wyoming on that Thursday night. it was dark when we landed, but around the airport we could see the moonlight illuminating snow on craggy peaks that seemed to jut up out of nowhere. I was already stunned by the beauty.

We got in around 9:30pm, and after nearly missing my connecting flight and considering that it was 11:30 Baltimore-time, I was pretty tired and ready to get to our hotel and in to bed. We had a few hiccups, however, thanks to National Car Rental. Rather than having a counter at the airport, like the other car rental companies, they had a shuttle that picked people up after each incoming flight. For some reason, the shuttle for our flight left before checked baggage even came out. We waited for a while, figuring they must just come on a regular schedule, but after a half hour we decided to call and just make sure we didn’t miss the last shuttle of the night. It’s a good thing we did, because they actually weren’t planning on coming back for us (or for the other couple that was also waiting), despite knowing their reservation list. Because their off-site location is 20 minutes from the airport, we then had to wait for the driver to come back and get us. When we finally got to the rental car office (40 minutes later), and got our vehicle, Tim and I drove a few blocks and then realized the gas tank was half empty. We turned around, went back to the rental counter, and the guy working the counter said he didn’t mean to give us that vehicle…oops. So after all of that, we finally got the right vehicle and made our way to our hotel.

We stayed at the Parkway Inn- an absolutely charming and western-style hotel. The attention to detail in the rooms was spot-on- everything was rustic and beautiful (think point cone decor, stained wooden doors, cozy bedding). The free breakfast the next morning was pretty good too.

Friday was a busy day for us- we were up early to hit the road, heading north to Grand Teton National Park. Our plan was to drive through the park, maybe do some short hiking, and then continue north to the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Only 15 minutes from leaving our hotel, we were driving past the airport and its mountains, and it was then we realized- those stunning peaks that rise from the ground so suddenly are the Grand Tetons themselves! Seeing these mountains before even knowing what they were made the first impression that much grander. No wonder I was so enthralled the night before!

Grand Teton National Park comprises the 40 mile stretch of mountains known as the Teton Range. The tallest of these, Grand Teton, rises up 7,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole below. What makes these mountains so visually striking is that they appear to rise up abruptly. There are no foothills or a gradual incline. This is the result of the fact that the valley below is actually sinking at the same time that the mountains continue to grow. You can actually see some of the scratches along the face of the mountain from the two forces grinding against one another.

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Above: Grand Teton National Park

Tim and I believe learning about places you visit is one of the main reasons to visit them, so naturally the visitor center was our first stop in the park. As we pulled into the parking lot, a moose grazing on the grassy patch greeted us! The park is known to be home to many moose, so this was a perfect first encounter!

In the spirit of learning and fitting with mine and Tim’s playful dispositions, we also obtained the Junior Ranger activity book. If you complete this book (each national park in the US has its own book specific to that park), along with a few required activities, then you become a Junior Ranger for the park- with your very own badge!

After watching a brief film about the park’s history and geology, followed by an oral quiz by an enthusiastic ranger, we were off to explore the park. We started with a relatively short 4 mile hike to Taggart Lake, where we saw glacial lakes with water so clear you could see rocks and branches on the floor, snow-covered trails, and two moose- one walking along the trail ahead of us then going into the bushes, and another moose grazing on a side of a hill. Three moose, four miles, and our Junior Ranger badges all before noon!

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Above: Moose during our hike

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Above: 1. Me crossing a stream during our hike Grand Teton. 2. Snowy trail. 3. Tim makes a snow ball. 

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Above: Tim at the lake- the destination of our hike in Grand Teton

Continuing our drive north, we had views of the lake and mountains, and even with the clouds covering the tops of the peaks, it was still beautiful. The highlight by far, though, was the herd of twenty or so elk who stopped traffic to cross the road, and we were lucky enough to have a first row seat to watch these majestic animals, one after the other, trot across the road. Not even a half hour after exiting the official boundary of the park, we came to the entrance of the world’s first national park- Yellowstone.

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Above: Herd of elk crossing the road

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Above: Entrance signs to the parks

Yellowstone National Park’s most popular treasures are accessible via the Grand Loop road, which makes a figure eight all around the park, connecting the geyser fields, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth hot springs, and the entrance to the Lamar valley (which is home to many species of wildlife and often referred to as the Serengeti of North America).

We drove east and made our first stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Three elk grazed right beside the walkway, steamy wisps dancing over their heads from the surrounding geysers. We saw a number of thermal features- geysers, hot springs, and the occasional mud pot. We quickly realized it would be impossible to capture the activity of this place in pictures- the heat of the steam, the sulfuric smell, the gurgle of bubbling water and the movement of it all can only be experienced in person.

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Above: Elk grazing in West Thumb Geyser Basin

From the geyser basin we continued north past Yellowstone Lake and then stopped at  an area called Mud Volcano. This place was awesome- highly active, smelly, and very gurgly. In particular, I was a big fan of the Dragon’s Mouth Spring which spits water from out of a cave, like a dragon breathing fire from its lair. We also spotted a large bison right by the walkway- the perfect opportunity for a bison selfie!

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Above: Bison at Mud Volcano

Our next stop was a quick but fascinating one- Sulfur Cauldron: a large vat of liquid nearly as acidic as battery acid. I think it’s just crazy that the earth has this naturally-occurring pool of liquid that would melt your skin off if you touched it. What a cool planet we’re living on!

Our last site for the day was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which I didn’t even know existed before I began planning this trip. While not to be confused with the Grand Canyon in Arizona, this canyon is nonetheless impressive as well, and it’s one more feature of this region that just makes me astounded that so much unique geology can exist in such a small area. Of course, all of these unique features are different outcomes of a very active earth- and with all the chaos, it does make sense you would end up with hot springs, geysers, mountains, volcanos and a canyon all near each other. By the way, Yellowstone is actually a volcano and many of the features lay within the crater left from previous eruptions.

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Above: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

We stopped at several view points to see the Upper and Lower Falls over the canyon walls before making the drive west to the western entrance of the park, during which we saw many more bison, including a small herd crossing the river. We stayed at a basic hotel in West Yellowstone, Montana, right by the park. The town of West Yellowstone is quite small and feels the way one might expect a small Montana town to feel- slow-paced, sleepy, and empty. At least until you get to the bar. Apparently that’s where everyone is, and so that’s where we went for dinner and a few local brews. We each enjoyed a fantastic buffalo burger- don’t worry, these aren’t the Yellowstone bison, but rather farm-raised bison.

The story of the Yellowstone bison is an interesting one- due to hunting and poaching in the 1800ss, they nearly became extinct. Thankfully, new laws and tighter enforcement were put in place, and the remaining bison herd of Yellowstone repopulated themselves into the magnificent, abundant population you see there today. Learning how close we came to losing this grand beast brought me a deeper appreciation of each one I saw on this trip.

The next morning we were up early for “geyser day”. Our plan was to head to Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin first, followed by the Lower Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin and whatever else the park had in store for us. Not even a half hour into our drive we came across a vehicle pulled over and a woman on the side taking pictures of… something. We knew by this point that it would be a mistake not to stop and ask what she saw. And so, just alongside the road, we saw a coyote, tan and small, blending in with the grass in the field.

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Above: 1. Marmot on a rock. 2. The marmot pokes out his head. 3. A coyote. 4. A ground squirrel

Our timing to the Old Faithful visitor center could not have been better. We arrived 15 minutes before the next predicted eruption, and so we took our seats on one of the front benches surrounding the geyser with a great view. The geyser is a bit of a tease initially- it spurts short flumes of water out in quick gusts numerous times before the water finally breaks free from the pressure and shoots up one hundred feet into the air. The water rushes upwards for a few minutes before eventually calming down, at which point the pressure begins to build up in preparation for its next big release about an hour and a half later.

We knew we wanted to hike up to a hill, Observation Point, behind the geyser to watch the next eruption, and since we had some time we finished our Junior Ranger requirements for Yellowstone and got our badges.

During our hike up, we came upon a darling little marmot sitting among some rocks- he or she was a cute little critter, small and fluffy with a sweet little face. It was everything you could want in a furry woodland creature. Observation Point provided a great viewpoint from on high over the next eruption, and being two of only four people watching from there, it was as if Old Faithful was erupting just for us.

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Above: Old Faithful

Afterwards we strolled the few miles of walkways among the hundreds of thermal features. There are four types, all of which we saw in the park. Mudpots occur when hot acidic water breaks down clay, resulting in bubbly mud. Fumeroles are hissing steam without much water. Geysers are what most people associate with Yellowstone, where hot water and steam are thrown into the air. Lastly, a hot spring is simply a pool of hot water.

At the far end of the geyser basin is a hot spring called Morning Glory pool, named for the flower. The vibrant blues, greens and oranges in this pool are beautiful to witness, and also indicate information about the water temperatures. Microbes living in the water appear as bands of color when grouped together. Each type of microbe has a preferred temperature range, so the colors you see indicate the temperature of the water. Blue and yellow are the hottest, and brown and green the coolest. Sadly, the pool used to have much more intense colors, but due to people throwing coins and garbage into the pool, the colors have faded over time. Truly sad.

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Above: Morning Glory pool

We then walked back  towards the Old Faithful visitor center where we had parked the car. Just as we neared Old Faithful, we were given a third and final show, completely unexpected by us- perfect timing once again!

We then drove north, stopping at Black Sand Basin, a small area of geothermal features, on our way to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is the largest hot spring in the park, and displays vibrant blues and greens, which you can see in the steam rising from the pool.

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Above: Grand Prismatic Spring

Some of our favorite features we saw this day were the paint pots. These gurgling, stinky pools of bubbling mud were so much fun to watch. Again, pictures don’t really capture it- watching these parts of the earth is like watching a living, breathing thing, and yet it’s our earth, which in our daily life we come to think of as being so stable and predictable.

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Above: Paint pots 

We visited one last geyser basin that day- Norris, which is the hottest area of the park. We walked the few miles of boardwalks here, observing various geysers, and then, exhausted, headed back towards our hotel in West Yellowstone. Along the way, though, we were lucky enough to see a herd of bison, including one calf, crossing the river. It was a special way to end the day in the park.

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Above: Bison crossing the river

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Above: Lone bison on a hill

That night we went out to dinner at  one of West Yellowstone’s favorite restaurants. We enjoyed some Montana beers and a delicious plate of buffalo nachos.

The next morning we got up very early, when wildlife viewing is best, to start our drive north east, to the Lamar Valley. This area is considered by many to be the Serengeti of North America because of the many animals that you can see there. During our drive, we had to pause for a herd of buffalo, again with a calf, to cross the street. It may have been the same herd as the day prior, as we were in the same area, but we aren’t certain.

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Above: Momma bison and baby bison

During our drive to the Lamar Valley, we saw our first of several black bears that day. This was a large male down a ways in a valley, walking parallel to the road. Even from our distance, we could see he was very large.

We saw innumerable bison during our drive, as well as several pronghorn antelope, distinguishable from elk and deer by their smaller size, distinctive white markings along the neck, and cute fluffy white butt.

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Above: Pronghorn antelope

On our drive back west, we came upon a mother black bear and her three baby cubs. There were many people observing these four bears, who were up on a hill near the road, as well as some park rangers ensuring everyone stayed respectful so as not to distress the mom or her cubs. At one point, the three cubs began bouncing down the hill, and one climbed up a nearby tree. Even at his or her young age, the cub was impressively fast scaling the trunk of the tree. Getting down, however, was a bit more clumsy.

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Above: Glimpses of the bears we observed. 

Eventually we headed on, but shortly later we had to pause for yet another black bear to cross the road. Again, we had a front row view as the beautiful animal walked in front of us.

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Above: A black bear crosses the street. 

Leaving wildlife behind us, we headed west to the Mammoth Hot Springs area. This area is home to travertine (calcium carbonate) terraces in a stair step-like formation. On some of these formations, water flows like a fountain. Others are dry. After walking around these walkways, we began making our way out of park, amazed at our luck in seeing all of the great wildlife and geology.

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Above: Travertine terraces

Our drive back down to Jackson Hole took us through Grand Teton once again. the views were stunning- without many clouds in the sky, the mountaintops were fully visible. We took a different road this time and stopped for a few minutes to explore an old homesteader cabin still standing from the late 1800s. Life here, with its cold harsh winters, must have been challenging, especially without any neighbors anywhere nearby.

Our last night in Jackson, we relaxed back at the Parkway Inn, exhausted but content with all we had experienced on our anniversary weekend. Here’s to five years of adventure and love, and many, many more!

 

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