Hike, Bike, Paddle: Grand Teton

After 10 days navigating Yellowstone’s massive roadways and crowds, we ventured south to Grand Teton National Park, which quickly eclipsed our enjoyment of Yellowstone thanks to its smaller size and even smaller crowds. As you enter Grand Teton you notice the immensely flat landscape broken by a single chain of mountains. With no foothills to obscure the view the Tetons are visible from nearly the entire park and provide the most jaw dropping backdrop to everything you see.

As with Yellowstone, many of the campgrounds were closed for the season, so we settled on Gros Ventre at the very southern border of the park. The campground is situated along the Gros Ventre river and is heavily wooded with cottonwoods whose leaves had turned a brilliant shade of yellow, which contrasted perfectly with the never-ending blue sky. In addition to the outstanding scenery of the campground, Gros Ventre is a hot bed for moose activity. We could hear them walking by the camper at night and watched them grazing in the mornings and evenings.

Nearby was Mormon row which we explored one evening near sunset. This area includes several old structures left over from some of the earliest settlers to the area. It includes an old barn that is in nearly every picture you see of Grand Teton. We had fun poking around the old farmsteads imagining what life was like, the back-breaking labor probably didn’t seem quite so hard when you had that fantastic view to look at all day.
One of the things we liked most about Grand Teton was the variety of activities we could enjoy. There is plenty of hiking to be had, but there are also several bodies of water and a bike trail that travels from the park all the way into Jackson Hole. We managed to put the canoe in twice, once on the Snake River where we observed four bald eagles flying over us – 2 of which were squawking up a storm as they swooped and circled, playing in the sky. The river was pristine and at times we would look down and see nothing but fish blanketing the bottom. On another paddle we canoed across Jenny Lake before hiking to a waterfall on the other side. Shortly after leaving the boat we ran into a young black bear on the trail, which was quite a treat.


Our last day we hopped on our bikes for an 8-mile ride to the National Museum of Wildlife Art located just a few miles outside the park. While the family was skeptical at my suggestion to visit an art museum, they were all quickly smitten. The museum hosts artwork from the 1500s to present day, all with the common thread of wildlife. Many of the subjects were from the western parks we had been visiting and the historical descriptions given next to each of them added a layer to our appreciation of the American West. My favorite artist by far was Carl Rungius, an impressionist who completed some of his most popular work in the early 1900s and became one of America’s most notable wildlife artists. For as much as Rick and I enjoyed wandering through the galleries, Liam and Cora Jean had a ball in the children’s wing. It was full of books, puzzles, dress up clothes all related to animals. And the crowning jewel was the art studio where the kids could work with clay, paint, or sketch their own wildlife art. The studio even had animal models from bird beaks and feet, to various mammal noses and eyeballs!

The trip wouldn’t be complete without Rick sneaking off to tackle one of the more difficult hikes in the park, which for the Tetons was Amphitheater Lake. The hike offers views of Grand Teton from a beautiful sub-alpine lake located at 10,000 ft…or so I’m told. ☹

A Little Place Called Yellowstone

After leaving Glacier, we traveled south towards Yellowstone, briefly stopping in Helena and then Livingston, MT. Neither Maggie nor I had ever been, and I didn’t realize just how massive the park was. The park has an upper loop and a lower loop that look like a figure 8. Each loop takes a couple of hours to drive. Since we arrived late in the season, many of the campgrounds were closing or had closed for the year which made the remaining campgrounds pretty scarce. Luckily, we were able to secure a site at the Norris campground, located in the southwestern portion of the upper loop.

Since it was close by, we started our exploration of the park at Norris Geyser Basin where we all learned about Yellowstone’s different hydrothermal features (hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and mudpots). From there we drove to the Old Faithful visitor’s center to watch Old Faithful erupt along with hundreds of our closest friends.

While Maggie and I found the hydrothermal activity very interesting and different, the kids really wanted to see the herds of bison, pronghorn, and wolves which are located in the Lamar Valley on the northeastern side of the park. The drive to Lamar Valley did not disappoint. We saw dozens of buffalo herds, some of which were only a few feet from the road and several pronghorn antelope. We made the drive late in the afternoon in the hopes of doing a dusky hike along Slough Creek which, according to the ranger we asked, was the best time/place to spot one of the park’s wolf packs. While we didn’t see any wolves, we were treated to some gorgeous views and a few bison bulls.

The next day Maggie had to head into the nearby town of West Yellowstone to do some work. After dropping her off at the library, I took the kids to the Bear and Wolf Discovery Center. The BWDC is a non-profit that takes in nuisance bears (bears that have learned to associate people with food) and allows them to be ambassadors for their wild counterparts. It is also where a lot of bear proof containers and trash cans are tested before they can be certified as “bear-proof.” Liam and CJ enjoyed seeing all the animals as well as several mangled prototypes that did not pass the bear-proofing test.

Later in the week, our friend Jacob was kind enough to pop in and visit us for a few days between business trips. The kids enjoyed the car full of junk food that Jacob brought for them and, in return, I enjoyed taking Jacob on a short, but punishing hike to the top of Avalanche Peak.

Jacob also joined us for a hike through Pelican Valley which is touted as “some of the best grizzly country in the lower 48.” While we did not see any grizzlies while we were hiking, we did see and pick up two Dutch tourists who asked to join our crew for safety since the ranger told them that they should not hike this particular trail with less than 3 people in their party. After 6.2 miles of Liam and CJ yammering away at them, I expect next time they’ll take their chances with the bear.

After a long day of hiking and exploring the park, we all decided to get dinner at the Old Faithful Lodge. After waiting close to an hour to be seated, we had a bizarre dining experience in which we had to sit at a table with a random person who was pounding liquor. A fellow customer who was observing our dining experience, felt badly enough for us that he surreptitiously paid our tab. After dinner, Maggie had to drive Jacob’s rental car, because neither Jacob nor I were able to drive. I’m not sure if it was the speeding or lack of headlights that first caught the park ranger’s attention, but within minutes of leaving, Maggie was pulled over on the side of the road and getting grilled by the park ranger. It appeared that she was about to get a slew of tickets, but when she told him that she was the designated driver and the ranger saw the two numbskulls that she was having to drive around, he immediately softened and let her go with a warning.

Yellowstone is a massive and well visited park, but it’s beauty really does live up to the hype. Even though it was more crowded than we like, we were able to find plenty of solitary hikes and breathtaking vistas without another human in sight. Seeing bison up close, watching the mist rise from the rivers in the morning as they meander through fields of golden grasses, and observing coyotes hunting down their lunch were just some of the unforgettable sights of Yellowstone.