Yellowstone – Do They Have the Death Penalty in Wyoming?
My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was an unmittigating disaster. We decided to do a road trip with my in-laws from Seattle to New England with two days of our trip taking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Arriving at Yellowstone late afternoon we decided it would be nice to go for a drive into the park just for a few hours as a taster for the following two days. Although I never saw sight nor sound of Yogi, we spent a delightful three hours in the North section of the park, seeing herds of buffalo and a black bear with her two cubs in tow. Leaving us very excited for the days to follow.
Snow in May, Really?
Unfortunately, Yellowstone is on a plateau at the end of the Snake River basin which eventually makes it way and empties into the Pacific Ocean. This geographical anomaly causes weird weather patterns up and around Yellowstone. As a consequence, the next day we woke up to 6 inches of bloody snow. It was the last week in May; who knew? Apparently, this is quite normal.
Although we would be seeing lots of interesting things on our tour across America, it was Yellowstone that would be the highlight of my trip. I blame National Geographic for this. Therefore, six inches of snow would not in any stretch of my imagination stop me from going into the park to see Yogi’s domain. Unfortunately, my fellow travelers had other ideas. (Note to self: add snow chains to packing list for next trip.)
To say I sulked for the next several hours is an understatement. It started at breakfast. The poor waitress could have dished up a gourmet feast fit for a king and I would have turned my nose up, which I did. And I was promptly taken to task by my mother-in-law. I wouldn’t mind, but adding insult to injury, roughly a mile or so outside of the park, there was no sign of snow. Another part of this weird weather anomaly.
At this point I am trying to gauge which state we were in, and if I could use diminished responsibility or severe provocation in my defense in the killing of my in-laws. I was seriously wondering whether they still had the death penalty in the state. I’m happy to say I didn’t kill them, much to the delight of my poor husband, because we love them really. And I stopped sulking sometime between the Black Hills of Dakota and aptly named Devils Tower. So buyer beware, although they say Yellowstone’s best month to visit is May, there is a possibility of snow
Yellowstone is Open From May
Yellowstone National Park opens in May with a staggered schedule (they start clearing snow around the end of April), and staggered closing again in September and October. Although the amenities and facilities are generally closed during the long winter months, two of the five entrances stay open for snow vehicles and snowmobiling, and some lodges are open for Christmas until March.
With all this pertinent information at hand, it was with great excitement that I booked 8 days of pure Yellowstone and Grand Teton the following year.
A Good Trip Ruined by NASA
About two weeks prior to leaving, I read a news article about the boffins at NASA deciding to take thermal images of Yellowstone from the space station, resulting in two if not three snippets of information.
After years of leading us to believe there may be a teeny weeny volcano in the middle of Yellowstone. NASA have now decided to correct their initial findings of Yellowstone ‘having a volcano’, to Yellowstone ‘being a volcano’. With the whole of the 3,472 sq. miles of the park being one giant caldera. Let me clear up any confusion here; all 63 miles north to south and 53 miles east to west is going to blow its top, eventually.
Apparently, this caldera is easily visible in certain areas of the park if you know what to look for. It begs the question, did no one ever think to investigate what this giant caldera-looking geographical object was? There are enough boffins in the park on a daily basis to work on this. I’ve seen the National Geographic channel and can attest to it.
And, yet again, with the words insult and injury springing to mind, not only is it several thousand years overdue to blow its top, if it should go bang it will take two thirds of the western bit of the United States with it. Voicing my fears to my friends, Charlotte (the running friend) happily piped up. Yes, but what an amazing way to go.
And so it was with these comforting few words ringing in my ears, we headed out west. And I had an appointment with Yogi bear.
Flights in and out
Because the two parks are so big you really need to think about which airport to fly in and out of. We flew into Salt Lake city and drove up the 89 to Jackson following the Snake river. it took about 4.5 hours. We actually drove back to SLC from West Yellowstone, through Idaho falls and Pocatello. It worked for us because we wanted to see a bit of the surrounding country and SLC but for convenience you can fly to Jackson Hole, saves a lot of driving and time. But you will pay a premium.
We enjoyed our last day in SLC but thats another story. Both Billings and Bozeman have airports. and its around 3 and 2 hours respectively to get into the park.
Quick Tip about National Parks
The National Parks in the U.S. are not free and can cost up to $30 entrance fee. If you’re planning on seeing three or four, it may be prudent to pay $80 for an annual pass.
Take Your GPS? Don’t Take Your GPS? It Won’t Work Anyway
Should you be a smart cookie and take your trusty GPS with you, don’t be surprised that after entering your places of origin and destination if the trip shows a nine-hour drive when the journey is actually about 14 miles. It’s because it thinks your trip is in winter when the park is closed, even if it’s the middle of June and the temps are off the charts. And because of this bolloxed algorithm of Google’s, it shows the shortest route is via the Black Hills of Dakota with a quick stop off in Wisconsin. For those Brits who are not sure which state is Wisconsin, you only need to remember two things, there’s snow and ice nine months of the year and mosquitoes the other three.
You’d think with all the money, boffin time and technical know-how spent on those geostationary satellites they’d have got round to adding a “can we tell if it’s snowing” gizmo depending on the time of year. You never know by the time this goes to press. They could have it all figured out.
Yellowstone obviously has some accommodation in the park, but there are lots more outside, so booking can be left to within a few months of your visit. But remember, it all gets very busy in the summer months. Yellowstone is roughly the size of Connecticut with speeding restrictions throughout. Therefore, it may be prudent to split your accommodation to fit in with whichever way you are coming and going using the park’s five entrances, some of which are closed depending on the season. There are 12 campgrounds, some are on a first come first served basis and others need reservations.
Personally, I would never camp in Yellowstone. I’ve seen the size of one buffalo (never mind a whole bloody herd), thank you very much. And let’s not go through the bear rigmarole again. (See my Yosemite post.)
whats going on in the parks
There’s a link to booking at the end of the blog it works for all the parks. Its easy; you pick a park, all accommodation with prices are listed, what activities are going on in the park, any special celebrations ie. Christmas, July 4th, Halloween etc. We found a stargazing trip in the valley and booked there and then through this web site. You can even talk to someone if you are not sure of anything.
Its the gateway to the parks west entrance and looks like it has struggled financially in recent years. But things are improving, hence the rejuvenation of our hotel and a few others dotted around. It not difficult to understand how it fell on hard times, with one of the longest recessions in near history, exacerbated by the parks short 6-7 month season.
Its has the usual assortment of touristy shops of souvenirs etc. however all is not lost, they are nicely decked out in a western faux kind of way and NOT full of tat. And I’ve certainly seen worse.
We ate at some very pleasant restaurants with excellent food to match. I believe there are more snow mobiles than cars in the winter months. I think West Yellowstone is trying its best in what have been difficult times. The words ‘small town hospitality’ spring to mind. And for that very reason I am not going to name the hotel because I am sure by now the place looks a whole lot better.
West Yellowstone our Regenerating hotel with building site views
My dear husband always keen for a bargain found us a hotel in West Yellowstone for which to explore the park.
Arriving there on our first evening after leaving the delights of the log cabin that had been home for a few days. I thought we had arrived at a building site. My husbands face dropped as he remembers the debacle of Montreal AND Philadelphia (lets not go there, just yet). He kind of gets PTSD when we arrive at a hotel and this was no exception. I think it was Philly where I refused point blank to extricate myself from the car. The imprints my false nails left on the dashboard give some indication of my reluctance to leave the aforementioned vehicle.
Our Arrival at the Building Site
Because he knows exactly what I am thinking, he puts on his ‘don’t shit with me’ face. (I am not sure if its for my benefit or the hotel mangers) and goes to pick up the key. The crunch time comes when I open the curtains to see what kind of a view we have. I have learnt to temper my disappointment over the years, its not my husbands fault he likes a bargain. We have a view that is a cross between a town dump and building site. There is an old saddleless bike that’s seen better days and one of those -all in one- large plastic topped picnic tables with integral metal legs and plastic bench seats. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say it had recently been used as a makeshift dissection table. It made a handy lean to for the pieces of broken sheet rock. Littered around was enough rubble to infill a ten story new build.
Sometimes a Girl has to do What a Girl has to do.
I promptly head for reception. – Sometimes a girl has to do what girl has to do-. I ask for a better room perhaps on the upper floor where I could possibly sit outside on the verandah. The manager politely tells me there are no spare rooms but they do have a picnic table I can sit at and enjoy the view. I shit you not! I look to see if he was joking, he was deadly serious. Upon my return to our room my husband reminds me we weren’t going to be in the room often and we could keep the curtains shut. Because I love him I didn’t drop him with a karate chop.
Yellowstone’s Two Loops
Yellowstone is split into two loops: the upper and lower. This is very handy when deciding how to go about seeing everything in the park. You’ll want to allow a good three to four days for a general sightseeing trip. You can, of course, spend a few weeks here and I know people that have.
At the Grand Prismatic Spring we got talking to a couple from France, travelling with their two small children (probably aged around 7 and 4) on two really amazing Pino style tandem bikes. We had seen them cycling through the park the previous evening and remarked then that we had never seen bikes quite like those. The front section had a recumbent seat and was tailor made for children. They were camping in the park for over two weeks as part of a 6-month holiday, cycling from Vancouver Canada to Mexico. I am still trying to get my head round this one as I can’t imagine the logistics involved, especially with two small children. Only the French!
Old Faithful Hotel and Geyser
This is the hotel that most of us have heard about and seen. The Old Faithful Inn is another beautiful log cabin. I feel quite disrespectful calling it by that name because it is so much more. Everything including the light fittings is made of Yellowstone sourced wood. And, of course, not 100 yards away is ‘Old Faithful geyser’ erupting every hour on the hour (only joking). It doesn’t really erupt every hour, but it’s very close so you don’t need to time your visit because if you plan to be there for over an hour and a half, you’re going to see it. Just keep an eye on the clock behind reception for the next eruption time. But you’re probably going to want to spend a day or more to see most things. As this is the original hub of the Park and there’s lots to see and do.
We took in the architectural tour, this time legally. (see Yosemite blog). The rooms in the older, original part of the hotel are quite small, the words ‘swing’ and ‘cat’ spring to mind. The room had no closet or wardrobe and ‘Sacre bleu’! no en-suite, either. Not only that but you have to use the public toilets just off the main lobby. With my bladder there’s no way I am sharing a bathroom in the middle of the night with the great unwashed. Even if the rooms do come at a bargain price. The newer wings of the hotel have all the usual facilities.
Yellowstone Bus Tour
One of many Yellowstone bus tours depart from Old Faithful most days. We got our tickets on our arrival at the hotel, feeling very lucky that we were able to get a seat at this late stage. I don’t expect you could just roll up during the busier school holidays. I always try and find a bus tour wherever we go; it allows my husband to take in the delights of which he wouldn’t normally see as he does all the driving. I can drive but my husband says he prefers not to sit in the passenger seat. Not sure why this is.
There are two loops, we took the lower loop tour which is around 6-8 hours, lunch was not included but we did stop at a restaurant café so we could all eat. Lots of tours do provide lunch, but check first. The next 8 hours or so, at $79 each, was some of the best money we’ve ever spent (apart from the Angola rodeo, but that’s another story).
You can only watch in wonder and amazement at the landscape. Some areas could double as some far flung planet in a Star Wars movie. I think they actually have. The bus stops at most points of interest for a walk around, photographs and loo breaks. I wish I had sat on the right side of the bus. This seemed to have the more interesting views.
Death and Destruction
As ever in the parks there are lots of walks with signage advising trail length and average walk times. They also threaten death and destruction if you so much as take anything away with you or chuck anything into the molten landscape. Most paths are wooden walkways over bubbling mud and other stinky stuffs, with a distinct lack of guard rails. So if you have toddlers it may be worth investing in a child’s harness. I know some people don’t like them, but in Yellowstone I believe it’s a safety first issue.
Pets are another problem. There are some areas that are so delicate that dogs are banned from these walkways even with a leash. But there is always some stupid idiot who either didn’t see the 4-foot signs, just chose to ignore them, or think they’re meant for someone else. As my husband says, you can’t fix stupid. But maybe natural selection will find a way.
The landscape mesmerizes with strange and awe-inspiring sights, sounds and smells that greet you at every turn of the path. The mind boggles as the words stable and unstable come out in equal measures as you watch the moving earth.
Grand Prismatic Spring
One of the tour stops is at the Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s the epitome of Yellowstone and not visiting it is akin to visiting Niagara Falls and not seeing the water.
You approach it from ground level where there’s little to see really, but don’t not go. Where you really need to be to see it at its best is at the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook. If you look straight ahead over the spring and up the hill, you’ll see it. Its trailhead is a mile or so south at the Fairy Falls car park area. It’s then a two-mile round trip to the overlook and back.
As the overlook is not on the bus tour, we returned to the Prismatic trailhead the next day. Seeing the Prismatic Spring from the overlook is on the Yellowstone’s not-to-miss list. We spent a few enjoyable hours walking up to the overlook, taking photographs and chewing the cud with fellow travelers, and the French biking family.
There were a few other places that the tour didn’t include but the driver recommended, such as the Norris Geyser Basin. Yikes! Did we walk our little socks off getting around all of the hottest most changeable geothermal features of the park. A myriad of hot, smelly, colorful springs and gushing geysers, it’s Yellowstone in a nutshell. You can’t help but wonder if the likes of Capone had an outpost here. I’m telling you, once something goes into those bubbly fields of mud and sulphur there ain’t nothin’ comin’ out.
The Grand Canyon
The other memorable stop was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and the Yellowstone Falls. It’s at the Northern edge of the lower loop and lower edge of upper loop. Steep sheer cliffs guide the river through the 24 miles of gorge.
Mammoth Hot Springs
We also ventured on our own to the Mammoth Hot Springs (upper loop). This area of the park is not within the caldera, and for this reason the topography is completely different, but has equally stunning terrain of valleys and plains. Here, the hot springs are a geological soup of which limestone, carbon dioxide and thousands of year’s of time have formed terrace upon terrace of travertine, making for a very bizarre landscape.
This undulating terrain leading up to the Lamar Valley is where you’ll find herds of roaming wild buffalo, elk and wolves. It’s all so mesmerizing. It’s then you realize Yellowstone is a very special place.
Fodor’s Book on Yellowstone and Grand Teton
Whilst browsing Fodor’s book on Yellowstone. I happenchanced to read about Moulten Ranch cabins. They are described as, and I quote, ‘From the porch of the century old Jackson Hole homestead you can look across to arguably the park’s finest view of the Teton range”. SOLD?
I believe it’s now the only original family homestead in the park. All the others where sold at the park’s inception. This handful of cabins sit in a most beautiful garden and, it’s true, the most amazing view of the Grand Teton Range. And a stone’s throw from Moulton Barn on Mormon Row. The view of the mountains seen in many photographs of the famous barn is the view we had.
At Moulton Ranch our accommodation consisted of three small log cabins, one for kitchen and eating, one for sleeping and one a bathroom. Having never stayed in the log cabin before, it was Goldilocks and the three bears all over again. The very lucky owner, Iola Blake, spends six months a year in this paradise. I have to point out that I booked these cabins over a year in advance.
It’s a 30-minute drive to Jackson, a very cute Wild West kind of place. With wooden sidewalks and storefronts, it’s easy to imagine you are in an old West frontier town. However, spurred on by the tourist trade, it’s come on since its humble beginnings as a settlement in 1897. Today, with its splendid art galleries and two world-class ski resorts, it’s become quite the destination for winter and summer sports. Its shops and outfitters cater to beginner and professional alike. You can also book yourself on a wet water river ride along the Snake River. We must have followed the river for over 20 miles or so on our journey to Jackson, I have never seen so many boats, all shapes and sizes, bobbing along. Some were just giant inflatable rings, some were big enough to fit up to four people. It looked good fun.
To say some of the galleries are expensive is an understatement. For some of the items on sale you’re looking at not only parting with your right arm and leg, but your firstborn, too. However you can still spend a very leisurely and pleasant afternoon walking around the town, having a beer and getting a bite to eat. And for a few dollars that won’t break anybody’s bank, you can ride round the town in a Stage Coach.
The all year round Bridger Gondola at Jackson Hole ski resort is well worth the trip, there is a plethora of year round calendar of events too numerous to mention but there is a link below to take you straight to Jackson Hole.
But the horse drawn sleigh ride from Jackson only available in the winter. No kidding.
The following day we spent a few hours leisurely walking around Jenny Lake. From the visitor center to the Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, where we weren’t inspired to walk all the way back. However we did find the Hidden Falls and mighty impressive they were. We took the boat back from the waterfalls to the visitor center, all very civilized if you ask me.
We also pottered around Colter Bay Village and Jackson Lake Lodge for a very pleasant few hours enjoying coffee and cake. Fortunately they sell an assortment of clothes too, as I needed to replace the wet coffee stained white top I was wearing. There’s no hiding those especially from a venti sized cup. There followed a drive up Signal Mountain and a beautiful walk ending at the Jackson lake overlook. More stunning views of Grand Teton and Jackson Lake, you will not find.
click here for the National Parks Accommodation web site
If you would like to see more visit Yellowstone at NPS.gov.
If you would like to see more visit Grand Teton at NPS.gov.
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