2 for 1: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks
For those who have not yet been to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, what are you waiting for? It’s the best 2 for 1 recreational bargain this side of the world. For those who’ve already had the pleasure, the mountains and geysers out west are still unspoiled and awe-inspiring. Located mostly in Wyoming, Grand Teton and Yellowstone lay side by side, and $20 per driver with passenger gets you and a friend into both parks for a week. Though some masochistic... er... brave athletes opt to bicycle or (gasp!) hike through the parks, I strongly recommend you drive or take a bus tour. The parks are closed to bikers and hikers in the winter, and in the summer, it’s warm by day but quite chilly by night.
Hell’s 1/2 Acre
On the way there, don’t miss Hell’s 1/2 Acre, in Waltman, Wyoming on US-20. Formed from centuries of erosion of mineral deposits, the ½ Acre is actually about 320 acres of spectacular, multi-colored weathered rock towers and chasms. Native American Indians used to drive bison over the cliffs’ edges to be massacred on the sharp, jutting rocks below. The Indians would then climb down and haul up the meat.
Grand Teton- A Mountain Lover’s Paradise
“Teton,” French for “breast,” is the name of the showcase mountain range. These mountains stretch out 35 miles. The highest snow-capped peak is 13,770 ft. above sea level, and the snow doesn’t melt, even in the heat of summer.
Grand Teton is rustic and serene, and the perfect setting to get in touch with your spirit guide or contemplate the meaning of the universe. In the morning, the rugged Tetons glow purple, pink and yellow, and throughout the day, clouds drift up and down the mountainsides.
“Roughing It” in a Tent
For $15 a night you can camp out at a designated campsite. Each campsite offers a level tent area, picnic table, and an indispensable campfire pit. Leaving food, food containers, or dishes (even clean ones), out in the open is a no-no. The wildlife is fearless, especially when the scent of food is in the air. A bear can smell and track food many miles away.
Of course, this means no feeding wildlife at the roadside as well. Keep at least 300 ft. between you and the beasts of the parks. Large mammals are unpredictable and can easily outrun and “catch” you.
At the Lodge
If “roughing it” cramps your style (as well as your back), the Jackson Lake Lodge offers top-notch amenities. Patio cabins flank the sides of the main lodge in rows, so each cabin has its own door to the outside. The view from the panoramic windows at the back of the main lodge is the reason people come here. Early in the morning, and late in the afternoon, elk and deer forage for food in the expansive meadow between the lodge and the Tetons. The fauna are best viewed from the back ledge of the building.
To get a close-up view of the flora, there’s a long walking trail along the base of the lodge. Stop by the Pioneer Grill for a boxed lunch to take with you. If you’d rather let something else do the walking, the lodge offers horse back riding. In the classy Mural Room restaurant, I got brave and tried the bison soup. Bison is similar to beef, but is leaner. If you just can’t do as the natives did, at least try the huckleberry ice cream at one of the convenience stores. It’s the perfect cool treat on a summer day.
Yellowstone: Super Volcano
Yellowstone got its name from the Yellow Rock River, now called the Yellowstone River. The river was named for the yellowish sandstone bluffs along the some of its banks. The landscape is quite diverse, ranging from lush green fields to fire-blackened timber to wet thermal areas. With over 10,000 thermal features, Yellowstone is the world’s largest thermal area, and is also the name of the “active” super volcano in the park that could blow at any time; the last cataclysmic eruption was 6,400 centuries ago.
With a caldera (volcano crater) measuring 53 by 28 miles, it’s one of the world’s largest and most powerful super volcanoes, and is the reason for all the steaming, hissing, bubbling, and shooting water in the region.
Gobs of Geysers!
The most breathtaking features of Yellowstone are the geysers. Chemicals in the water turn the steaming sulphuric geyser pools brilliant hues of blues, green, yellow, and orange. Some cooler, dormant pools are dark green or rust-colored with algae. Thousands of geysers dot the landscape, and many dangerous areas have walkways built over them.
Most of the walkways aren’t fenced, but don’t forget you could sink through the ground into boiling water if you step off! 100s have died or been badly scalded walking on the unstable grounds. Years ago, half-submerged bison carcasses could be seen alongside some of the unstable thermal areas. Most geysers are unpredictable, and go through periods of activity and dormancy. These periods can cycle in minutes, or in decades.
1920’s Charm at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel was first opened in 1891, and still retains the charm and grace of the 1920s. In the lobby, you can see the work of a local artist and relax next to the picture windows while listening to an in-house orchestra.
Dining at the hotel’s elegant restaurant is like a glimpse into the past- until you notice your fellow patrons are dressed in casual modern garb. Reservations are required, as with most of the restaurants at the parks. Don’t miss out on the most decadent dessert west of the Mississippi- the Molten Chocolate Caldera. So rich and filling, order 1 for 2 people, and don’t forget the milk shots on the side!
On the way back, don’t miss Devil’s Tower, in Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, on SR-24. This is the Devil’s Tower featured in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”! 2 theories attempt to explain the origin of the Tower. Native American Indian legend tells of a tree stump that grew to save some Indian girls from a giant bear. The girls were lifted to the sky on the stump, and the bear clawed at the stump’s sides, forming the fissures.
Geologists speculate the Tower was formed after a large magma column cooled, fractured into mini-columns, and was exposed after the surrounding land eroded away.
Whether you are a Grand Teton/Yellowstone veteran or novice, making the trip out west is still one of the best big getaways. From camping beside a crackling fire, to strolling the halls of an elegant hotel, the parks offer a wide range of accommodations and activities. It’s where you go when you want to get away from the crowding and pollution of city life, but don’t want to do without the amenities of civilization. You can drive over the zig-zagging continental divide, park your car, and actually smell how fresh and clean the mountain air is.
The parks have changed over the years- there are more roads, more buildings, and more people, but the wild areas are still wild, and the bears, bison, deer, elk, and moose still roam free.
Accommodations sell out early, so reserve now for next year!