September 14-16 – Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park

On Monday morning, our intention was to get up at 6:00 and be on the way by 7:00, since we were headed for a stop at Eagle Creek RV Service in Idaho Falls to get our chassis battery problem fixed and the first oil and filter change for the Dutch Star. However, a time zone mistake that we didn’t catch until midway through breakfast meant that we didn’t actually get going until about 7:40. The ~70 mile drive to Idaho Falls was entirely on Idaho 20, another smooth two-lane highway, so it took only about 1:15 to get there.

I backed the Dutch Star into their repair bay (with about 3 inches of clearance on either side), and they set to work on it. We expected the service to take four hours or so, so our first order of business was to find a car wash to wash the quarter inch of dirt off the Jeep.

Freshly washed Jeep. Front stayed clean for about 30 minutes, rest stayed clean for five hours.

Having accomplished that, we took a leisurely 50-mile drive on Idaho 26 along the Snake River to Swan Valley. There we found Rainey Creek Country Store, a store that the guy at Eagle Creek said was famous for their locally made ice cream (a sign inside claimed that they dished out about 12,000 serviings on Eclipse day) . The drive was along scenic, and the ice cream was good (though nothing particularly special, in our opinion), but the drive through wheat fields managed to get about 1000 bugs smashed on the newly-washed Jeep’s windshield, bumper, and hood.

By the time we got back and had lunch, it was about 12:30, so we called Eagle Creek to see what was up with the Dutch Star. They had finished the maintenance work, but they had decided they had to take the batteries out to charge them up so they could load test them, and while they were charging, their guy went out to lunch. So we killed a little more time, and showed up there at 1:00, hoping that having us haunting their comfortable waiting room would motivate them to get done quicker. Shortly thereafter, they did determine that both batteries were bad, so they located some in town. Unfortunately, the first two they had delivered were the wrong ones, and by the time they got the right ones, installed them, and made sure they were charging, it was 3:00.

We fueled up the Dutch Star at the next door Pacific Pride, hitched up the Jeep, and were on our way to West Yellowstone, Montana by about 3:30. That was only 108 miles, partly on Interstate 90 and partly back on Route 20, so we made good time and arrived at Grizzly RV Park in West Yellowstone at about 5:30, with the odometer reading 8656, for a net of 178 miles that day. Unfortunately, about 10 miles of it was in rain, and there is no more efficient way to get a car dirty than to tow it behind a motorhome. But the Jeep was still in the range of dirty that can be removed by Optimum No Rinse, so it got washed for the second time in a day.

Campsite at Grizzly RV Park

It was cloudy and drizzly and in the low 40’s when we arrived at West Yellowstone  (elevation, about 6700’), and the weather got worse from there. Overnight, it rained quite a bit, and we decided that we would wait until we could stop at a store (of which there are quite a few in West Yellowstone) to buy an umbrella before venturing into Yellowstone Park. That meant that we got to the park entrance (which is within a few miles of West Yellowstone) at about 9:30. The weather was pretty dismal – 34 degrees and raining, not hard, but steadily. The cloud cover was also low, blocking the view of the surrounding mountains (as we have experienced before on this trip).

Yellowstone is an enormous National Park, much larger than any of the others we have visited. The two loop roads (one on the north and one on the south) add up to 142 miles! Our objective for the first day was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was my favorite sight on two-previous cross-country trips – one 39 years ago and one 47 years ago. It was a substantial drive to get there, maybe 70 miles or so. We stopped a few times on the way, once at a geothermal pool, and a few times at scenic overlooks, at which the scenery we mostly saw was mist, rain, and fog.

Geothermal pool at Yellowstone
Geothermal pool, with various color minerals and algae.

We saw our first large wildlife along the road, a lone buffalo that looked like he was taking a break from entertaining park visitors.

Buffalo in Yellowstone

One thing that you see today that I don’t remember from the long-ago trips is burned out areas of the forest. In several of the parks we have visited this year, the drive or walk is through areas that have burned fairly recently (anywhere from one to 30 years ago). I believe that is because 40 years ago they aggressively fought any forest fire, particularly those on National Park lands. Since then they have determined that letting fires burn (or even starting controlled burns) is better forest management practice. While it’s interesting to see how the forest regenerates itself, the older sections are more scenic. In Yellowstone, the predominant tree is the Lodgepole Pine. Its pine cones, which hold the seeds, are actually sealed shut until they are opened by fire. The new seedlings in the recovering burned areas grow very densely. I guess some must die out as the forest matures.

The temperature continued to drop to 30 degrees as we climbed to an elevation of 8000 feet, give or take five hundred, and the precipitation changed to snow. Despite this discouraging weather, the park was quite crowded by the time we got the parking lot for the brink of Lower Falls overlook. We took the steep .6 mile, 600’ vertical drop trail to the top of the Lower Falls.

Therese on the trail to the brink of the Lower Falls. Rain paused, clouds lifting.

For those of you who make a trip out west, if you see nothing else, do not miss this view! My memories from those two long-ago trips did not let me down, and it remains the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, North Rim Trail
Brink of Lower Falls

Fortunately, the clouds had pretty much lifted by then (11:00 or so) and the snow had slowed down to intermittent, so we were able to see the canyon quite well. We took lots of pictures, but for whatever reason, the camera doesn’t correctly capture the colors of the canyon walls, which are a beautiful yellow color. I have inserted below an unmodified picture, and the same picture where I tried to correct the colors with a photo editor. Neither picture comes close to capturing the beauty of it in person.

From Brink of Lower Falls, colors as captured by camera.
From Brink of Lower Falls, colors modified

After climbing back from the Lower Falls trail, we made the brief walk to the higher overlook that the less adventurous visitors can access from the parking area (which also provides spectacular views).

Then we walked about ¾ of a mile on the North Rim trail to Lookout Point, where you get a view of the Lower Falls from downriver. It was still snowing, but for walking, that is preferable to rain, since at least some bounces off rather than soak through your clothes. At Lookout Point we took the Red Rock trail, another steep 600’ descent that provides a great look at the Lower Falls from below. Despite the big crowd in the parking lot, there were very few hikers on this trail (no doubt discouraged by the snow and cold), but there was a family of six down there that took our picture on our camera after we took their picture on theirs.

Red Rock Trail
Fearless hikers at end of Red Rock Trail
Lower Falls from end of Red Rock Trail

After climbing back up, we took the short walk to the easily-accessible-from-the-parking-area overlook, from which you can see not only the falls, but where we hiked down to on the Red Rock Trail.

Lower Falls from Lookout Point, and the end of the Red Rock Trail below.

After the walk back to the Jeep, we ate lunch in the car, since the snow was still coming down, now with increasing intensity. After lunch, we stopped at the final Grand Canyon overlook, Grand View, which is indeed an appropriate name.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Grand View overlook
Canyon from Grand View overlook

We then drove up to the Tower Falls, which luckily (since we were a little tired of walking through cold and snow) is easily visible after a 150-yard stroll.

Tower Falls, Yellowstone

By this time, it was about 4:00, so we drove back to the campground, which took about 90 minutes. It was amazing how many visitors there were, despite the fact that it was a cold, snowy, weekday in September. I can only imagine how crowded it must be during the summer months.

Before going to sleep Friday night, we made plans to wake up early on Saturday morning and make  the 80-mile drive to the South gate of Yellowstone Park and on into Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone. So we got up just after 5 am, and made the unwelcome discovery that when the water temperature starts out very cold (just above freezing), the “on demand” water heater in the Dutch Star will not get it hot enough for a comfortable shower – think lukewarm at best. In all our previous uses, the water temperature started out in the high 50-degree to low 80-degree range, meaning that a maximum temperature rise of 45 degrees was required. Apparently a temperature rise of 65 degrees is not in the cards. So after quick showers, we were ready to go by 6:15, still in pitch dark.

The first hint of possible trouble with our plan was that we had to brush off an inch and a half of snow that had accumulated on the Jeep overnight. But the temperature was 30 degrees, and the roads were not slippery, so off we went. The Yellowstone west gate was unmanned at that early hour, and there was very little traffic on the road through the park. However, as the sun came up, it became apparent that the cloud cover was very low (a few hundred feet, maximum) and the snow picked up again. By the time we got to Grand Teton, the snow was serious enough to be sticking on the roadway. We stopped at the Colter Bay information center to consider our options.

Colter Bay Visitor Center – snowing

We thought about turning back and seeing more of Yellowstone, but we decided to stick it out. Grand Teton is much smaller than Yellowstone, perhaps 35 miles, and there is one major north-south road. From the north, it goes along the shore of Jackson Lake for about half its length, and then closer to the Tetons (which are on the west side of the park) beyond the southern end of the lake. As we headed south, the snow petered out, and we stopped at some of the turnouts to verify that we could see absolutely nothing. By the time we got to the visitor center at Jenny Lake, at the south end of the park, we hadn’t seen Teton one. But, with my Meteorology 101 expertise, I was confident that the clouds would lift as the surface temperature increased, we just had to wait them out.

So we spent an hour or so at the visitor center.  As we have at practically every National Park, we watched a 20 minute film about the park, which was nicely done. The Tetons are a geologically young formation, formed on the boundary of two tectonic plates. The mountains are on the western plate that is being pushed up as the eastern plate is pushed down. That causes the characteristic that is most unusual about the Tetons – they rise very abruptly from a level plane, with no foothills. That makes for spectacular scenery (when you can see it), since you can get quite close to the steep rise of the mountains. It also explains why the Tetons are composed of very old, hard granite, even though they are young mountains.

In the exhibit section of the visitor center, there was a wall dedicated to mountaineering. Grand Teton National Park is a very popular mountaineering destination and training ground, because the Tetons are not only challenging to climb, but easily accessible and the granite composition means that the rock is very strong and stable. There are several mountaineering schools based at the park.

When we came out of the visitors center, we could see glimpses of the base of the Tetons, which was definitely progress. We headed back north on the park road, and even though it was only 10:45 of so, we stopped at one of the first parking areas and ate lunch while watching the clouds slowly lift.

Clouds starting to lift about 11:00 am
Six minutes later.

While waiting out the clouds, another group spotted a herd of 20 or 30 pronghorns (not actually antelopes, according to the park brochure) headed south. They were a little too far away to get a good picture, but we took a few anyway.

Herd of pronghorns (center left of picture)

Just as I predicted, as the day got warmer (up to about 36 at this point), the clouds started to lift and thin out, and our decision to wait rather than pull the plug worked out great. We did indeed see the Tetons as we headed back north, and it was well worth the trip there. Snow and occasionally sleet were still falling, but at least they were falling from clouds that were high enough to avoid blocking the view.

Clouds lifting on the Grand Tetons
Grand Tetons, about 12:00.

As we passed the dam at the north end of Jackson Lake, we stopped to take another batch of pictures (we had stopped in the same place on the way south in the morning). The improvement in the weather can be seen in the pictures below:

View from Jackson Lake in the morning – there are Tetons out there somewhere.
Same view in the afternoon
Jackson Lake in the morning.
Afternoon at Lake Jackson
Selfie at Jackson Lake

By the time we left Grand Teton to wind our way back through Yellowstone, it was about 1:00. We took the eastern side of the south loop, avoiding the larger crowds that we thought would be on the western side, where Old Faithful and most of the other geothermal features are located. That route goes along the picturesque Yellowstone Lake for a while, and then along the equally picturesque Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone Lake

The elevation is slightly higher than Grand Teton NP, and the temperature accordingly decreased to 34 or so, with a bit of a breeze and rain and snow occasionally thrown in. That was enough to convince us that even the usual pansy “hikes” we took were inadvisable, so we contented ourselves with the sights that can be seen from the numerous turnouts and parking areas.

There was still plenty of traffic, but it flowed pretty well except for places where wildlife was spotted, which would slow to nearly a crawl.

Buffalo, drive by shooting (with camera!)

At one point (luckily near a turnout place on the road) there was a huge elk with a rack of antlers that must have spanned 5 feet. He mostly kept his back to the crowd. One fearless (read stupid) photographer walked to within about 10 yards of the elk, despite warnings everywhere to give them a wide berth. I was hoping to capture a video of said photographer being gored by the elk so I could post it on YouTube, but the elk seemed completely unphased by that idiot and the other 100 human photographers taking pictures from a safer distance.

Large elk, mooning the crowd.

Yellowstone also has a lot of Buffalo, which are the most commonly observed large animals. There were herds of 20 of so along the Yellowstone River, and also some along the Madison river which runs along the road to the west entrance.

Buffalo Herd along Yellowstone River

We got back to the campsite about 4:30, and spent some time figuring out what to do the next day. We had tentatively made plans to stay another day in the area, visiting Old Faithful and the other geothermal features on the southwest part of the southern loop road, which we had not been near. However, we decided that having seen similar stuff at Lassen, we would pass on it and move on towards South Dakota.

We ate dinner at Madison Crossing Lounge, a nice enough restaurant in West Yellowstone, walked around the town a little bit (the temperature was back down in the low thirties), and then headed back to the warmth of the Dutch Star.

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