Grand Teton & Yellowstone National Parks: Never A Dull Moment

Ya’ know, sometimes you just have to grab the bull by the horns and take a detour from your planned vacation to find a little adventure. Todd and I were on our road trip to Salt Lake City and the Ogden Valley when we noticed just how close our route was to Yellowstone, one of our favorite National Parks. Despite the fact that we had no camping gear or hiking equipment, we just couldn’t help ourselves. As a bonus, we’d be driving right through The Grand Teton National Park in order to enter Yellowstone from its southern entrance.

We left Ogden Valley late in the morning on Sunday. It was just about dinnertime when we made it to Jackson Hole, WY. One of the hotels we explored as an overnight option recommended we eat at Bubba’s B-B-Que Restaurant. Their salad bar was pretty good and I enjoyed the brisket dinner, but the corn on the cob was way overcooked. In a small town like this, it seemed like Bubba’s was a hotspot for the locals. I’d say it’s worth a try if you’re heading through this area.

After dinner, we found ourselves headed toward the park looking for a motel to crash in. Our budget was small, so I wasn’t sure we’d find a place I’d even want to write about. Just then, we saw the Elk Refuge Inn. This motel-style inn was just across the street from the Elk Refuge and it looked nice enough from the outside.

Behind the counter in the small check-in area was the owner ready to help me. When I asked him if he had a room available for the night and how much it would be, he responded with a cheerful smile, “I do have a king room and I’d like to get as much as I can.” It was obvious he was joking around with me so I responded, “Great, I’d like to pay as little as I have to.” He offered the room to us for about $10 less than the cheapest option we had, so I gladly took it.

I was blown away by how nice it was in our room. The bed looked super comfy and the room, although very small, was equipped with a small fridge, granite counter tops, a flat screen TV, a new A/C unit, and a very nice bathroom. It was perfect.

We had a great night’s sleep and hit the road early to make our way through Teton National Park. Apparently, preserving the Teton Mountains and Northern Jackson Hole was a difficult process despite its history of inspiring the visitors of this region from as early as the 1890s. In fact, the acting Superintendent of Yellowstone, Colonel S.B.M. Young, proposed to expand Yellowstone’s boundaries south to protect the migrating elk herds of Northern Jackson Hole as early as 1897.

A year later, Charles Walcott, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, made a similar proposal suggesting that the Teton Range along with the Northern Jackson Hole region be protected. Neither proposal resulted in action. In fact, another attempt to protect the region was made between 1916-1919 after the creation of the National Park Service, yet it too went unapproved. This time it was because of Idaho Senator John Nugent’s fears of losing his sheep-grazing permits. It wasn’t until 1929 that the park finally got the attention it deserved.

The original Grand Teton National Park, set aside by an act of Congress in 1929, included only the Teton Range and eight glacial lakes at the base of the mountains.

The Jackson Hole National Monument, decreed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt through presidential proclamation in 1943, combined Teton National Forest acreage, other federal properties including Jackson Lake and a generous 35,000-acre donation by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The Rockefeller lands continued to be privately held until December 16, 1949 when impasse for addition to the National Park was resolved.

On September 14, 1950, the original 1929 Park and the 1943 National Monument (including Rockefeller’s donation) were united into a “New” Grand Teton National Park, creating present-day boundaries. Teton NP

What an amazing park it is. In the summer, The Grand Teton National Park is pretty quiet as much of the wildlife has migrated back into Yellowstone for the summer. We did see large groups of swans in just about every lake in the area and an abundance of butterflies fluttered along the lake edges. I caught a glimpse of a few pronghorn, but that was sheer luck. The helpful visitor center staff on the edge of Jackson Hole suggested a few key stops where she thought we might see moose and wolf, but no such luck on our quick pass through the park.

The Grand Teton National Park is home to the largest bird in North America. The Trumpeter Swan weighs 20-30 pounds and lives in the valley year-round in quiet open water. Teton NP

Yellowstone National Park

World’s Largest Collection of Geysers
It’s wonderland. Old Faithful and the majority of the world’s geysers are preserved here. They are the main reason the park was established in 1872 as America’s first national park—an idea that spread worldwide. A mountain wildland, home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk, the park is the core of one of the last, nearly intact, natural ecosystems in the Earth’s temperate zone.

Since we’d both been to Yellowstone before, we made a plan of attack. Our plan included skipping the breathtaking Old Faithful, the Artists Paint Pots, and the Petrified Tree. We felt there were spots we didn’t see on our last visit that deserved our attention more. This had to be done mostly because we were limited to only a day trip through the park.

Honestly, I’m glad we chose to see mostly new spots because we found some amazing new-to-us sites in the park. Our first stop quickly became my new favorite. Black Sand Basin is located directly across from Old Faithful and it has a more constant geyser which erupts every few minutes with a very interesting build-up to several large sprays. One visitor boasted that she thought it was better than Old Faithful. I can see her point in some ways because there were less people, the geyser was more frequent, and some sprays even shot up to 20 feet in the air. Not to mention, this geyser sits on the edge of a beautiful river.

One interesting thing I noticed about the geyser was that as it builds momentum, the mineral deposit walls, shaped like a wide circular tub, filled up with water. At its peak, the gushing water flows over the deposit’s edges. When the geyser slows its pace, the water recedes into the tub-like formation until you can’t see the water level any longer. I watched two full cycles of this from several different view points in this basin area. I was mesmerized.

Our journey through the park continued around the southwestern side. We stopped at busy spots like Upper Geyser Basin, Midway Basin, and we meandered along Firehole Lake Drive to Lower Geyser Basin. After fighting the crowds, all we wanted was a quiet spot to enjoy ourselves. We noticed that the dead-end road called Fountain Flat Drive was just that. There was a hot spring along the river and one car in the nearby lot. Perfectly quiet.

We made the short walk to the river’s edge to relax. But, just as we were about to sit at the picnic table, we began hearing sirens. At first we thought someone had been injured, but quickly realized it was in fact rangers alerting visitors of a large incoming herd of buffalo moving along the road, through our picnic area, to an open pasture on the other side of the river. Of course, it was the one time I didn’t have my camera at the ready. It was truly amazing to see them trotting down the road together. I counted nearly a dozen babies in the herd. Keeping our distance, we grabbed cameras and ran along the group, watching them empty into the field to graze on the tall grasses. We were pumped.

After all the action, we decided to make a quick stop at the Madison Information Center, where we encountered our first big wildlife up-close and personal. There might have been 5 cars in the parking lot here, but I don’t think I saw five people. We returned from the little information booth and sat in our truck, snacking on cheese and crackers, when suddenly Todd turned to me and said, “There’s a buffalo walking up the path right there.” The path was no more than 15 feet away. The buffalo stood at least as tall as I am; he was massive. He seemed to mind his own business munching on grass, but when Todd cracked the door he sprung into action ready to confront whatever made the noise. Of course, Todd being a smart man, he closed the door again and took photos from inside the truck. I was fortunate to have had my door open on the opposite side of the vehicle so I had a clear shot of him.

The giant buffalo began to slowly move across the parking area towards a man who I believe had not noticed the large animal. I shouted at him, “Sir, there’s a large buffalo heading your way!” He looked at me blankly and just stood there. Todd grumbled under his breath, “OK, just stand there then, get mauled…” The buffalo was nearly 10 feet away when the man finally slithered quickly into his front seat and closed the door. Everyone was safe and sound. The buffalo crossed the parking area, went through the woods, and then crossed the main road into the deeper parts of the park. Later we found out that a man who refused to move was mauled by one of these giants just the day before we were in the park. The theory, “if I stay still they won’t hurt me,” is wrong. They are very territorial creatures; this is especially true for the large males who travel alone.

What an adrenalin rush. As we took off for more park sites, we talked about the the wildlife we wanted to see while in the park. There were elk, bison and buffalo, wolves, goats, and fox.

22 miles later, we stopped for lunch in Canyon Village. There was a ton of construction work going on in Canyon Village: a new roof, expanding buildings, and possibly a new hotel coming. Well, that’s what it looked like, anyway. The cafeteria had many items to choose from, but nothing really rang my bell. After all, it was just a cafeteria.

Canyon Village was at the exit point of Todd’s favorite spot in the park, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We hiked down into the canyon on a well-paved and popular trail. At the base of 15 or more steep switchbacks, you can see and feel the thundering edge of the massive Lower Falls. There are many turnouts and vistas along the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and we pulled out to experience every one of them.

Our goal for the day was to make it to Mammoth Springs before sundown so we could get a good look at the pools and hot spring flows before dark. In the evening, the park comes to life. Most big game animals are out in numbers to graze and enjoy the cooler hours of the day. Elk seemed to be popping up everywhere and we spotted a pronghorn as well as an injured buffalo. I wondered if the wolf packs would find him in his hidden valley high up near Mt. Defiance. At about 10,500 feet high, this was the tallest point in the park.

We made it to Mammoth just in time, parked and began to explore the area. We had been to this spot almost 5 years earlier and were shocked at the changes it had undergone. The bright oranges and blues we remembered were now white and grey and inactive. It seemed as if the whole area was dying. Even the images seen on the signs throughout the feature showed a vastly different scene. Of course, there were a few new springs that colored the landscape, too. The overlooks on top of the springs gave the best views of the valley as the sun sank behind the hills.

Just as we were wrapping things up and heading back to the parking lot, we ran into a few wild creatures we hadn’t encountered before. A yellow and black striped snake slithered into its hole alongside the boardwalk. A few hundred yards away, a chipmunk scurried up the stairs, stopping only for a second right in front of my feet.

When we got to the road, we noticed several elk grazing their way down the hillside. After a few minutes, they worked up the courage to cross the road, jump the boardwalk, and make their way to the gushing springs for a drink. It was hilarious to watch these gangly young elk dance and play with one another so close to the public. One elk was particularly curious, approaching several visitors and even a few boisterous little dogs. This close encounter of the animal kind was a great way to end our time in the park.

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Maps:

Grand Teton NP Map

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