Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Part One

Posted by Ryan C. Jerz on December 04, 2023

Me at the park entrance, but on the way out Me at the park entrance, but on the way out.

We kicked off the month of October with stress. A relatively hastily-planned trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks was going to kick off on the Saturday that began the area's Fall Break. One of the friends we travel to national parks with is a teacher, so we're a bit more confined during the school year. And this time, that first day of travel was also potentially the last day of operation before a shutdown of the federal government.

(The federal government shutting down or threatening to shut down is a thing Republicans like to use to satisfy their base of increasingly fascist and ignorant voters and to apparently provide some sort of release to its rank and file elected representatives.)

Whatever the reason they do it, it's a thing Republicans do now. Anyway, September 30 was the deadline for them to fund the government they are charged with operating, and they hadn't made any decisions by the time our flight was supposed to leave. At the risk of boring you before anything actually good gets written, I will go over how this worked. TLDR: the government didn't shut down. But if you want to know, we had to make a choice. We were to spend the first night at the Canyon Lodge inside the park. Since Saturday night was technically before the shutdown, we were on the hook anyway. Yellowstone announced they would be fully operational on Sunday anyway, and that was our plan. The next two nights were to be at a rental in Jackson Hole, so we were on the hook there as well. That meant that we had three nights we were paying for anyway before we might encounter a real problem: the west side of Yellowstone's attractions being closed to the public. Bottom line, we went and it all worked out.

Day 1: Travel to Canyon Lodge

Not a whole lot to report here, but it included getting on a plane thinking the government might shut down, and we may not know until after we were asleep for the night within the boundaries of the park.

We flew RNO -> LAS -> BZN and the flights were fine. Southwest, which is where I'm comfortable. Vegas to Bozeman was only about 90 minutes, which was a nice surprise--I figured it was longer. In Bozeman, we picked up the rental and drove the hour or so to the park entrance in Gardiner, Montana. One thing you see along that route is several places that are set up as pretty cool-looking rental spots. There are cabins that look like those you see in tall the cool "you, too can stay here!" articles that promote Hipcamp or something like that. The views from those places would be spectacular, as the mountains surrounding you on the drive are good, even for this guy who lives among the Sierra.

We reached Mammoth in the dark and drove straight through to get to Canyon Village. By the time we arrived at Canyon Village and got checked in, there was only one place open to eat--inside the visitor center. One unfortunate note about the park: the food is kinda bad. It's not inedible, but it's not something you look forward to. At each location, the general cafe setup had some of the same stuff, and maybe one unique item to that place. I tried a few things and will say the best thing I had was probably a 3/5. At this point, I can't even remember what the food was.

The room at the lodge was exactly what I expected. It's pretty small, no television, and acts as a place to sleep and shower before getting out into the freaking national park you're hanging out in right now, so get out there.

Day 2: Yellowstone; Grand Teton; Jackson, Wyoming

When planning the trip, we kicked around the idea of spending more time on the west side of the park because there is so much to see over there. I insisted that the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone be a significant piece, so we'd have to make sure to get to the central portion of the park for that. That's why we stayed at the lodge. We woke up and headed to the stuff to see.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, as seen from Yellowstone Falls The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, as seen from Yellowstone Falls. Photo by Ryan C. Jerz

The Grand Canyon is the killer feature of Yellowstone. Hands down, in my opinion. I'm not a good enough writer to describe the place accurately as it looks or as it feels to experience the falls for the first time or the rest of the canyon. It's incredible, and a stunning place.

We had already decided as a group that we would not be embarking on long hikes. This trip was to see the things tourists see, and the things they make fully accessible as a national park. So, we did most of our exploring as part of our journey from one location to the next. Sign at the side of the road? Stop and check it out. That's how we rolled, so we took the park driving loop for the canyon and hiked down to the Brink of the Falls, Inspiration Point, the Red Rock Tower lookout, Inspiration Point, Grand View, and made an attempt at getting to Artists' Point, but a legitimately torrential downpour knocked that idea out, and it was a smart move, considering the amount of rain made it actually impossible to even see the falls from there.

We learned while exploring the canyon that the water flow at this time was about 1/10 of it's high. The Falls certainly looke dlike they were going hard, so I can not imagine what 10x of this flow looks like.

Yellowstone Falls running at about 1/10 the max water flowYellowstone Falls running at about 1/10 the max water flow. Photo by Ryan C. Jerz

After Artists' Point, it was time to get to the next destination, which was Fishing Bridge, where we planned to have lunch. Along the way, we saw the Hayden Valley, where an overlook gave us an expansive view of the place Bison hang out to mate. Cool. We didn't see any action, though.

Hayden Valley Overlook Hayden Valley overlook. Notice the rain. Photo by Ryan C. Jerz

Churning Caldron in the Sizzling Basin Churning Caldron in the Sizzling Basin. Photo by Ryan C. JerzWe left Hayden Valley and continued down the road. The next stop was the Mud Volcano Trail. We walked the loop and saw Sour Lake at the top. This would be the first of what turned out to be many loops where the primary thing to see was a steam vent with cool colors surrounding it.

At this time of year, the temperatures mostly required us to wear some long sleeves--a fleece or light jacket. I haven't looked this up, but I suspect the cooler temperatures contribute to the amount of steam you see coming off the geothermic features. That's a positive in that it creates a cool mood as you drive through the park. There are so many places where either steam or water is bubbling up, and in the cool weather, seeing those plumes rise up across the landscape is a great look. Now, the downside to this is that all the features are less photographable from the me-as-tourist perspective. The steam blocks views of otherwise perfect features. It's not the worst, but it's a consideration when choosing the time of year to travel there.

Runoff at the West Thumb Geyser Basin Runoff at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Photo by Ryan JerzWe ate the first of what would be several mediocre lunches at Fishing Bridge, then it was on back down the road. The next stop was the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Now this is a really cool short walking loop with a bunch of beautiful pools and runoff. What makes this place special is its proximity to Lake Yellowstone. The entire loop overlooks the lake, and part of it is right along the edge. It's really pretty. The main attraction is the Abyss Pool. I didn't get a solid photo of it (I really was only taking them to document and not go for something I could frame), but it's cool. I guess you have to go to see it.

That was it. We left that spot, swung into Grant Village for a minute, then made our way in earnest to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton. Except we saw a sign for Moose Falls as we neared the exit. So, we got out and hiked the couple hundred yards down. This spot ruled! It was a small little swimming hole. There were some signs at the parking spot telling us no swimming was allowed at that time (no worries, it was cold), so I'm not sure if that's permanent or what, but it could have been a wonderful spot to relax for a few hours.

The rain made for a fun drive to Jackson, where we would be staying the next two nights. We saw a tremendous rainbow along the way. There were several dozen cars, including ours, pulled over to look at it. We drove down the highway and got a glimpse of the Tetons as the sun set behind them. This would be the only look we got at them, as rain and clouds dominated the next two days in the area. I didn't take a picture of the mountains, but the view I got was similar to that Kanye album cover--kinda backlit, still fucking beautiful.

Day 3: Grand Teton

The rainstorm that was supposed to arrive Tuesday arrived Monday morning. We awoke to clouds and rain, along with no view of the mountains. It would remain that way for the next couple of days--our time in Grand Tetons.

We began the trip through the park at the Moose Visitors Center and made our way north along the park road. The day's first stop was Lupine Meadows, a trailhead spot with some great looks at aspens int he mountains. We could barely see anything due to the rain, but we went there!

Jenny Lake and the Tetons in the rainJenny Lake and the Tetons in the rain. Photo by Ryan JerzJenny Lake was the next destination. The visitors center was closed, but the lake was open. A small driving and biking (biking seemed to be a real popular thing in the park, based on the road signs) loop helped guide us. Jenny Lake is probably an amazing spot to hang out. It's less fun in the cold, wet weather, but the views across the lake toward the mountains were great even with the rain. The loop around Jenny Lake was wet, and probably too long for us on this day, but it would have been a really nice way to spend the rainy day.

Grand Teton National Park really seemed like a park I would go back to visit for a week long backpacking trip. More than the others I've seen to this point, (Yosemite possibly excluded, and Denali, duh) this park is meant to get you into the backcountry. The best looking features are glacial valleys with trails that lead to the world class climbing that happens back there. I would love a trip up the Grand, but you don't do that from a car. This place deserves a commitment to looking around in the wilderness. That feeling might be exacerbated by my missing a great view of the mountains, but everything we could see looked like it would be better if we were a few miles up the canyon.

After hanging around Jenny Lake for a bit, we continued up the road toward Jackson Lake. On the way, we saw a sign for Signal Mountain Overlook and decided it was meant for us. A windy road a few miles long takes you up the hill and eventually there is a parking lot followed by another about a half mile farther. The view is great. It includes the entire Jackson Hole Valley and the winding portion of the Snake River that runs through it.

The view from Signal Mountain OverlookThe view from Signal Mountain Overlook. Photo by Ryan Jerz

We stayed around admiring the view, then made our way back down the mountain toward Jackson Lake. We crossed the Jackson Lake Dam and drove around the Jackson Lake Lodge. We were hungry at that point, so we went on to Colter Bay, where we planned to have lunch and take a look around the visitors center. One aside for this, and any other national park trip, is that both parties who were in attendance also own a National Parks Passport. That means every visitors center that exists must be visited so we can obtain a stamp to prove we were there. It's both fun and enlightening. It's ostensibly a program for kids, but everyone we saw stamping passports was an adult, and we were among the youngest. It was so fun that I decided to start staming a notebook for myself (where I kept notes about the trip) just because I was jealous of the Passport holders. Anyway, we had lunch at a picnic area about a half mile past the visitors center, and it was just about right weather-wise for that day.

From Colter Bay, we were making our way back toward Jackson and our place. We took the main highway instead of the park road, as we had the day before. There were still several stops we could make to see some of the better views and the history of the area. The first of those was Oxbow Bend, along the Snake River. The colors were tremendous, and the majority of our time there was spent trying to maximize our phone cameras to take advantage of the color with the disadvantage of the sun making its way downward behind where everything looked good! That's not easy. This is what that looks like:

Christy grabbing a photo at Oxbow BendChristy grabbing a photo at Oxbow Bend. Photo by Ryan Jerz

The drive back from Oxbow Bend to or place had a few stops, including the J.P. Cunningham Cabin. I didn't take a picture of the cabin itself, but I did get Mr. Cunningham's view:

The view of the Tetons from the J.P. Cunningham Cabin in Grand Teton National ParkThe view of the Tetons from the J.P. Cunningham Cabin in Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Ryan C. Jerz The story surrounding the cabin seemed to be that of a quintessential old conservative. He was against the national park until he was old enough to retire, and then Mr. Cunningham fought for its expansion. Basically, the moment he stopped making his own money off the land, it was fine if the people had it for the good of the whole. I wonder what he made selling it.