USA Coast to Coast: The Ultimate Road Trip. Part 7
11th – 20th August 2014
The clock was now ticking down to the main event of our whole trip. Yellowstone National Park, the place where Yogi, Boo Boo and Ranger Smith hang out was just around the corner
Stopping for a night in the small town of Pinedale we visited the Man of the Mountain Museum. This museum had many exhibits about the fur trade, mainly beaver, as well as the exploration and history of the early settlement of Wyoming and the lifestyle and culture of the Plains Indians. It was quite interesting but after a couple of hours we returned to our cosy log cabin for the evening.
Next on the big ticket items was Grand Teton National Park. This is the home of the ski resort town of Jackson Hole where many of the the rich and famous fly in on G5’s to their holiday homes and spend the winter months powder skiing the slopes.
We caught the sky tram from trendy Teton Village to the summit, an elevation of 10,450 ft. straight up and spent a couple of hours soaking up the magnificence of the, dare I use another adjective, drop dead gorgeous views. Crazy powder hounds with Go Pros stuck to their heads actually jump off the top of this mountain, ski over 4000ft to the bottom and then for kicks do it all again. Liam with his fear of heights had a tough enough time just looking out of the sky tram windows, let alone ever entertaining the thought of jumping off the top. As for me, well I’d give it a go.
Apart from the tram ride and the views, the amount of accommodation in the village was astounding and they were still building more.There’s a lot of people out there with a heck of a lot of money. Leaving the village we stopped briefly at Jenny Lake. With a backdrop of Grand Teton Mountain it’s no wonder that this beautiful mirror lake has become the poster child in a lot of advertising for the area.
Not far from the lake we crossed the Snake river, a couple of people were standing on the bridge pointing down towards the river, so of course we stopped the car to see what the fuss was about and low and behold, right there within spitting distance we saw our first Moose.
Standing around 6 ft and the size of a horse moose generally are shy, elusive creatures who like to hang out in swamps and wetlands and munch on willow, twigs and aquatic plants. But this guy was right out there in the middle of the river and wow could he pull a crowd. Within minutes hundreds of people pulled off the road and leapt out, cameras in hand, to watch him go about having his lunch. The traffic got so congested that the park rangers quickly arrived on the scene to help out with crowd control. Moose sightings like this are extremely rare we were told. We stayed about 15 mins before moving on to drive the Elk Range, a wildlife loop, and when we rejoined the main road an hour later the cars and people were still there so we stopped again. Sure enough so was Mr Moose, but he was even closer to our vantage point now. The bush telegraph had worked well in our absence and along with those seeking a kodak moment were the pros with their tripods and long lenses waiting to capture that Nat Geo cover shot. We were thrilled to have been Johnny on the spot that day.
Following I 89 north, a few hours later we arrived at the southern entrance to the holy grail of all US national parks, Yellowstone. We still had a good drive ahead of us, around 80 miles, before we reached the town of West Yellowstone and the Branding Iron Hotel which we’d use as our base over next five days.
During summer the pilgimage to the park never seems to stop. People arrive in droves and the accommodation in the surrounding towns, within the park as well as the many campgrounds are RV parks are packed to capacity.The general rule is that you don’t just show up, bookings have to be made months in advance.
We were lucky to have scored a room by booking just a couple of weeks earlier. It was the only dates they had available in a take it or leave it situation. No arriving earlier and no extensions considered. Stating the obvious, Yellowstone is all about nature. Waterfalls, ravines, thermal activity and of course the showstopper, the wildlife that roam the plains, woods and hills.
The park spans the two states of Wyoming and Montana, but the lion’s share is in the former. Divided into two areas, the northern and southern loops, it is the south in our opinion that has more of the attractions and definitely more animal sighting possibilities. We’d hit the road early each day and most times return after dark ready to do it all again tomorrow. The up close and personal factor with the animals was off the richtor, especially in the late afternoons and early evenings. Where ever there was a traffic jam you could be sure that one of the big three were involved, bison, bears or elk.
The rangers would instantly appear from nowhere to make sure that no-one got too close whether they were crossing the road, walking the centreline or swimming across a river. They are wild after all.
But the magic moments were when we spotted an animal and had them all to ourselves before the crowds and the rangers arrived. One such time was while we hiked a trail along the top of Yellowstone Canyon and we had our first close encounter of the grizzly kind. He was right there just to the side of the trail munching away on berries in the undergrowth. So intent was he on filling his tummy he never looked up once, though for sure he new we were there. Armed with our recently bought bear spray, we were very glad when he loped off up the trail in the opposite direction to us.
That same afternoon as we headed back to our car a herd of bison came charging through the woods 50ft from where we were strolling. They ran through the picnic area, past tables and chairs and on through the car park to the field beyond. Without the safety of our SUV that’s as close as we ever want to be to a big herd of them, not that they give a second thought to t-boning cars if the mood takes them, so the rangers told us.
Geysers and thermal pools of water and mud are the other big attraction in the park and there are lost of them scattered around. The most famous being Old Faithful which regularly erupts every 90 mins and shoots steam and water high into the air. It’s a crowd puller with thousands of people turning out to watch the event several times a day.
It was here that we had the million to one chance meeting with sailing friends who we’d last seen in Trinidad two years earlier. They had bought a motor cycle and we touring the USA as we were, and just happened to sit down right next to us to watch Old Faithful do it’s stuff at the11am performance. What is the odds of that?
One of our final stops was at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre in West Yellowstone. The bears that are housed in the centre were relocated here after displaying aggressive behavior towards humans. Most of them developed the bad habits of scavenging food from campsites and rubbish bins and began displaying aggressive behavior to anyone who got in their way.
Sadly, most of the wolves here had been bred for parts in movies and when they got too old or didn’t make the cut would have been euthanized. Having been fully domesticated they were rescued by the centre as they would not be able to survive in the wild.
After a couple of fabulous days in the park seeing and doing everything that Yellowstone is famous for it was time to move on yet again. We headed out via Mammoth Hot Springs, stopping for a look at the ice-like crystal deposits which had formed over millions of years of thermal activity.
From there it was on to Red Lodge through the Beartooth Mts via the spectacular Beartooth Highway. From the northeast Yellowstone entrance the highway took us through pine forests to alpine tundra, past partly frozen high altitude lakes and snow that lingers during summer to nearly 11,000 ft above sea level before descending back down to the valley floor. This two laned switch back road was an engineering marvel which ranks third after the Golden Gate Bridge and the Going-to-the-Sun-Road in Glacier National Park.
While still in the cowboy state of Wyoming, we checked out the town of Cody famous for its “Cody Nite Rodeo”. Having enjoyed the one in Michigan we figured why not do it again.
Cody was very much geared towards the tourists with a massive carpark for all the RV’s and coaches along with a few souvenier shops selling rather tacky shirts, belts, boots and hats. And while it was still fun it just didn’t have the atmosphere of the small town rodeo. Still you never know if you never go.
The next morning we had a go at white water rafting. A small outfit took us for an hour of fun down the Shoshone Canyon River. Ever the thrill seekers, we put our hands up for front row seats in the raft and were duly doused with a couple of chilly waves over the bow while Liam tried his hand at being an oarsman.
The river was down in volume so the rapids weren’t quite like what the brochure showed. We get way wetter landing our dinghy on the beach some days. But it got us out of bed early and we had a taste of something a bit different.
We also popped our heads into the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre. Five museums are housed here under one roof and are packed to the rafters with Buffalo Bill, Native American and wild west memorabilia . There was also a great natural history museum which focused on the animals and eco systems of Yellowstone National Park which was a mere 50 miles away. Moving on from Cody we drove through more beautiful canyons and across the border into big sky state of Montana.
Info: Park Fees. Yellowstone and Teton National Park fee is a combined total of $25 USD and is valid for use in both parks for 7 days