Week 3: Wyoming

After getting some extra blankets and warm clothes from Wal-Mart in Riverton, we started driving to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. We drove through the eastern entrance of the park to get to town and right away spotted some Bison grazing! This was super exciting, as was seeing the Teton Mountain range in the distance. The sky was a but hazy from fires in the Pacific Northwest, but we could still see the huge, snow-capped mountains rising right out of the plains.

We drove into town and checked into the SpringHill suites, which I reserved on points. They had a nice outdoor pool and patio area which we were grateful to use to relax a little. I had wanted to eat at a nice restaurant for dinner in Jackson with my husband, but between the crowds and labor shortage, it was almost impossible to get a reservation anywhere. I was able to get 2 seats at the bar at 5:15 at a farm to table restaurant called Trio, so my husband and I left the kids in the hotel and headed over there for a fancy meal. It was pretty delicious (and expensive) and afterwards we walked around the town for a bit and browsed in some of the tourist shops.

We went back and got the kids something to eat and then walked around town a bit more. On our way back to the hotel we heard some music and walked across the street to check it out. We happened to be next to the Jackson Arts Center, and a band was playing, Midnight North. We settled in on the grass and listened to their show and people-watched. They were a great Western, jam-band style band and even did some Grateful Dead covers.

The next morning I had to take my son to the Urgent Care in Jackson as his ear had been hurting him and we were concerned he had an infection. It turns out he did and was prescribed some antibiotics. Luckily the urgent care and pharmacy didn’t take very long so once we were done we headed into the park. Unfortunately by the time we got there all of the popular areas were over-crowded with people. The Jenny Lake parking lots were full and people were parked on the side of the road for miles. We decided to keep heading north to some of the less popular spots and ended up in the Colter Bay Area. We did the short lake view hike around some of the bays with views of the mountains in the distance. As we headed back down south it was later in the afternoon so we were able to easily get a parking spot in the Jenny Lake area. We took the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake over to the trailhead for Cascade Falls and Inspiration Point. The trails were packed even at this time so I can’t imagine how busy they were earlier in the day. Cascade falls was beautiful as was the hike up to Inspiration Point. My husband and I wanted to hike around the canyon a bit more but the kids were nervous about the hike back. Rather than wait for the shuttle we decided to hike back the 2.5 miles around the lake to the visitor center. It was a beautiful hike and away from the crowds. When we got back to Jackson we were excited to try Big Hole BBQ which had some awesome ribs.

The next morning my husband had a meeting and the kids were tired, so I rented a bike and rode out to the bike trail that goes next to the National Elk preserve and along the park. Unfortunately the skies were so hazy from the fires you could barely see the Tetons! But the ride was pretty great anyway. It was cool to watch the planes land right next to the mountains into Jackson Hole airport.

That afternoon we enjoyed the pool. walked around town a bit more and got some tacos and some amazing gourmet ice cream at Moo’s. That evening there was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Arts center next to our hotel. We spent the evening watching that (it was great!) and then went to bed early as we had an early morning planned.

That morning we left Jackson at 5:30am in order to get to Yellowstone early enough to beat some of the crowds. We drove up John D. Rockefeller highway up through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone National Park. As we got closer to Old Faithful we could see columns of steam rising through the trees. I couldn’t believe how other-worldly this looked. When we arrived at Old Faithful we learned it had just erupted so we had about 90 minutes to walk around and explore the geysers and hot springs in the area. Of course I knew that these are the most famous features of Yellowstone, but nothing can prepare you for seeing them in person. It’s like walking on top of a beautiful, primeval, volcanic hellscape, with sulphuric springs bubbling up almost everywhere you turn. As it got to be the time for OF to erupt, a huge crowd had gathered and sat on the benches around it to watch the show. It was pretty incredible when it finally went off, but odd with the stadium style seating and everyone clapping.

Afterwards we checked out the Old Faithful Inn, one of the most famous national park lodges and the one that the Wilderness Lodge in Walt Disney World is modeled after. It was pretty cool. Next we drove up to the fairy falls trail to hike up to the lookout for Grand Prismatic Spring. It was amazing to see the whole thing from a distance. We wanted to go to see the spring up close next, but cars were lined up on the side of the road for miles around the parking lot and we decided it was worth the crowds. We spent the rest of the day stopping at various sights along the main road, seeing too many waterfalls, hot springs, and other crazy natural wonders. Towards the end of the day we went over to the Norris Geyser basin. There was a little bit of a line to wait to get a parking spot, but it was so worth it to see this incredible part of the caldera. The pools and geysers in this part of the park are supposed to be the hottest and most sulphuric of anywhere else. It really did seem like you had entered the gates of Hell as you walked around it. We spent a while hiking through both sections of the Norris Geyser basin and then started making our way to our campsite at Mammoth.

When I had first planned this trip I missed the opening date for booking campsites at Yellowstone. Because of the pandemic the NPS had changed some of the reservation windows. I also knew that there were about 6 first-come first-serve campgrounds in the park, although I was nervous about getting to them early enough to secure a site, since the park is so massive and they were expecting record-breaking crowds this summer. At one point I booked us a room in a hotel in West Yellowstone, but at $350 a night it was going to cost us over $1000 for 3 days! I then signed up for an online service called “campnab.” For $30 a month you can enter what campgrounds you want it to search for what dates, and as soon as there is a cancellation you will get a text. I signed up for Yellowstone for our dates and I did receive many tests in the preceding two months before our trip, however you need to respond to the text and book the sites immediately, or they will be booked in under 10 seconds. Fortunately when we were in Chicago I received a text that a site was open in Mammoth campground for our dates, and I was able to book it!

When we arrived in the Mammoth hot springs area, it seemed magical. You could see the hot springs rise up as you drove into the village, and when we arrived into the area with the hotel there was a herd of Elk all over the grounds. We made it to our campsite which did not have much free space but did offer a view of the mountains to the north. There was a tent platform but it was only big enough for one of our tents so we had to set up the other one in a little green space between the parking spot and the road.

After a decent night of sleeping in the tents we decided to head into the Lamar Valley section to see some wildlife and go for a hike. It did not take long before we had to stop to allow a herd of Bison to cross the road. We spent some time taking pictures of them and then hiked for about a mile up the specimen ridge trail where we got some great views of the Yellowstone River. We were all nervous to go further as we did not have bear spray, so we headed back and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Lamar Valley and the wildlife. Back at Mammoth we spent the early evening exploring the upper and lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs, complete with elk spread out around the springs.

The next day we decided to head back into the Caldera section and make our way down to hike out to Lone Star geyser. It took a while to get down there as we stopped at various spots we hadn’t seen yet. Finally we got to Kepler Cascades where we parked and ate lunch, and then started the two mile hike along a river to the geyser. It was really nice to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds for a bit. When we got to the geyser within about 5 minutes it started erupting. There were about 8 other people there watching the eruption which lasted about 20 minutes. It was awesome to see a geyser in more of it’s natural state, away from the boardwalks and stadium seating of Old Faithful. Rejuvenated, we hiked back and made our way over to the Eastern side of the park, where we visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. It was awesome to see some of the geysers actually in the lake itself. After that we headed over to the Tower/Fall section and went to the lower falls view point to see the massive waterfall up close. Next we stopped in at the campground area in this part to get dinner. They had a huge cafeteria style restaurant. One one side you could order home cooking type food such as pot roast and chicken, and on the other side was an Asian stir-fry theme where you could choose what meat, vegetables, and sauce you wanted stir-fried with rice or noodles. Luckily we still had a few hours of sunlight so after dinner we went over to the upper falls viewpoints and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was the golden hour which made the view even more spectacular! Finally we started the long drive back to Mammoth, made even longer because the road from Tower to Mammoth was closed. It was starting to get dark when we got to camp, but the kids wanted us to do the hike up from the campground into the village and then up another hill to see the view, as they had done by themselves the night before. We made our way up and were able to see the sunset over Mammoth. We learned that we took the old Stage coach road down where the visitors used to come in from the North entrance via stage coach. Finally we slept in Yellowstone for one last night.

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