Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Road Home Part 2: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

As you can probably guess by the date on this, we're back in Northern Virginia! I have a few more posts I meant to write over the last few days of our road trip...but honestly, I was just so tired by the end. And after each day of driving or touring or spending time with family (I think that may be a direct quote from my last post), I just couldn't muster up the energy to actually report on it.

Now that I've gotten my excuses out of the way...want to hear about some national parks? 

I hope I can remember all of the interesting stuff since this happened well over a week ago. I do recall that it started before the sun rose...

As far as "aggressive" itineraries go, this was the mac daddy. My original plan for our 1.5 days in Jackson Hole was to explore the town when we arrived (which we did) and then drive up to see Grand Teton for our full day. Soon after Uncle Barney signed on, he mentioned something about being close to Yellowstone. So of course I said, "we can make that happen."

When he suggested Yellowstone, Barney didn't realize that it's two hours from Jackson Hole. But I'm so glad he didn't know that (and didn't know that I would add a shuttle to the moon for the afternoon if there was time for it). Yellowstone was by far one of my favorite destinations on our trip. But I'll get to that in a minute. Our first stop of the day was Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

Several weeks into our road trip, it became clear that I do best in "organized" nature. No exploring or getting off the beaten path for this girl. I like my paths well beaten. And preferably paved. 

So I go for the more populated trails and tours. And one touring possibility that kept coming up in my Google searches was Jackson Lake Boat Cruises, about halfway up to Yellowstone.

In order to have plenty of time to spend in Yellowstone (and make the two hour drive back as early in the evening as possible) I thought the 7:00 a.m. cruise made the most sense (I KNOW). We were out the door at 5:45 so we didn't miss the boat. 

We arrived at the lake with plenty of time to realize how inadequate our lightweight fleece jackets were. Luckily, the gift shop was more than happy to outfit us in Grand Teton National Park sweats.

Yes - they were all wearing shorts. Mother of the year!
It should come as no surprise that when they started boarding, George elbowed his way to the front to get (what he considered to be) the best seat. Barney joined him and Eleanor and I sat behind them. 

Oliver positioned himself on a bench a few rows back and practiced being a teenager.

This was a "breakfast cruise," so we stopped on an island to eat and take in the views.

The kids heard something about a good spot for skipping rocks, so most of our time on the island was spent by the water (which was crystal clear).

By the time we arrived back on the mainland (is that a thing for lakes or just the ocean?) it was warm enough to take off our new Teton finery and head up to Yellowstone.

Our first stop was Old Faithful, which is conveniently located at the bottom of the first "loop" (one of the two in Wyoming - here is a good map of the area).

We saw Old Faithful twice since it was go time when we arrived, and then again when we were done exploring the rest of the area. I just took a video of the first viewing by the lodge. It's at least four minutes - far too long for a blog post. But here are pictures of the our second viewing of the back. You have to stand pretty far back (because, you know, it's basically a boiling water volcano) so it doesn't look that big in pictures. But that's over 100 feet of water (the average eruption is 145 feet).

When I chatted with our hotel concierge (something you should ALWAYS do when exploring a destination), she said that the first thing to do upon arrival at Old Faithful was to check the next eruption time, as they occur every 90 minutes. That way we would know if we should go directly there (no later than 15 minutes prior so we could find a good spot), or spend up to an hour walking around Geyser Hill first. There are screens announcing the next eruption time in both the snack bar/restaurant and at the lodge.

Incidentally, this wasn't the first time I've seen a geyser. In March 2001, Chris and I went to Iceland and visited the "first" (i.e. described in a printed source) geyser: Geysir. I cannot include a picture of this because we were still using film cameras back then, and I'd have to locate and scan one of the prints. But I do know we took pictures of Geysir because March is COLD in Iceland, and I remember standing for something like 15 minutes, growing icicles as we waited for an eruption. Apparently we were lucky to see this since Wikipedia tells me that not only are the eruptions infrequent, they have been known to stop altogether for years at a time.

Thank you Old Faithful, for living up to your name and providing an organized experience for my family road trip.

Back to Yellowstone...

Another quick bit of advice from the Homewood Suites Jackson concierge: Old Faithful Lodge offers the best bathrooms in Yellowstone. You can find a port-a-potty at every stop on the loop, but only the lodges or stops with restaurants or museum buildings will offer full bathrooms. She also said that Norris Geyser Basin's bathrooms are the worst. I can't speak to this, as armed with so much Yellowstone potty info, I held out for the big ticket bathrooms.

I realize this seems like an odd tangent for a blog post about natural wonders...but when you have three kids in your car, knowing where to find good bathrooms is a major priority.

So back to geysers... One of my favorite areas we visited in Yellowstone was the geyser basin by Old Faithful. Most were just flat pools of water with some rolling boils here and there. The colors were incredible - some actually looked like natural swimming pools, they were so blue. After seeing Old Faithful and eating our packed lunch, we had plenty of time to check this out.

This is actually a picture of a geyser (see the bubbles at the very bottom of the frame) by a stream. Above you can see the walkway that winds around the geyser basin.

This one needs a "no diving" sign.

Someone lost their hat! It was breezy. Also - I love how the clouds are mirrored in the still pools.
Our other stops on the west side of the loop were Fountain Paint Pots....

Why does everything  have to be a balance beam?
...Artist Paint Pots...

Many of these areas involve steep staircases, as the geyser basins are not always on level ground. 
Boiling mud.

This is probably the highest one we visited.

Rolling boil.
...and Norris Geyser Basin. This was HUGE and I wish we could have spent more time there. But Barney pointed out that we had already done quite a bit of walking, and the Norris walkways were miles long. With an entire eastern side of the loop to visit, we had to cut our visit short. Plus it was starting to look like rain.

Yay! A picture of all three of my children STANDING STILL to pose for me in front of...something. I'll take it!

See the teeny tiny walkway stretching off into the distance? Yeah - we didn't do that.
At Norris, we planned to turn right and head over to the east side of the lower loop. There, we would stop at Canyon Village for an early dinner before driving south through Hayden Valley (known for wildlife viewing). Unfortunately, the entrance to Norris didn't have the best signage (and my navigation skills in areas where GPS doesn't work could be compared to that of a spider trapped in a glass jar). So we went a little off course...

After driving for a long time, not seeing any of the landmarks noted on our map of the lower loop, I had the genius idea to check the upper loop. Yup. We had gone north and were now, in fact at the TOP of the second loop. If Barney found this frustrating, he did an excellent job of masking it. I mean, we did just add about 45 extra minutes of driving to our day. Ooops.

Much like my beloved GPS lady, I don't sweat this kind of thing. I just "recalibrate." Since we had arrived at another major visitor center (Mammoth Hot Springs), we decided to grab dinner there. And really - it did all work out for the best since the added time put us in Hayden Valley pre sunset. THAT'S when the animals are most active and easy to spot.

We didn't see much at first, but the sky and rolling hills were eye candy enough...

We would stop here and there, when we spotted elk and bison. No good pictures though since they were always just a little too far away for my non-telephoto lens camera. But just as we were approaching Mud Volcano (another stop the concierge recommended), we saw a crowd forming. The best tip I can offer for spotting wildlife while driving through national parks: tail lights.

Mud Volcano is another geyser basin - and I would have liked to see more than just the lower part...

...but we couldn't because of ALLOFTHE bison!

Rangers had to to block off the trail to keep tourists and their selfie sticks at a safer distance. But I think our big finale wildlife show made up for missing out on the full Mud Volcano experience. We just added it to our "next time we're here..." lists.

The day ended with a beautiful sunset at 9:00 p.m.

...and a two hour drive back to Jackson Hole. But I can say with complete honesty that it was completely worth it. Because Barney did the driving.

Next up South Dakota national parks!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Road Home Part 1: Town Square Shootout

After weeks of driving west and then making our way up the California coast, it was finally time to head east and eventually, home. Since I had already visited San Diego, San Francisco and Klamath Falls before, I was kind of happy to get back to exploring new destinations, like the national parks.

But before hitting the parks in Wyoming, we made a stop for the night in Boise, Idaho. There, we picked up Chris' Uncle Barney. 

Uncle Barney's name isn't really Barney. When Chris was little he thought Barney's new car looked like a race car and I guess the grownups made a joke about Barney Oldfield and then "Barney" stuck. Just want to be clear that it has nothing to do with a big purple dinosaur. Also - I had no idea who Barney Oldfield was until I heard this anecdote. Here is Barney:

Flash forward to Sioux Falls.

That picture was taken days after he joined us. The only other one I have is of him on a horse. Not exactly an introduction image.

Barney originally offered to come help me with some of the driving. But then I actually started all of the driving, and decided that I wanted to do ALL of the driving. Luckily, we had no idea that was going to happen when he booked his flights and we got to have Barney with us for several days. He helped me with the kids, and encouraged me to add Yellowstone to our itinerary (where I actually did let him drive). So he totally earned his keep.

Our first stop was Jackson Hole. 

We arrived mid afternoon, giving us just enough time to walk around a bit and then watch the nightly Town Square Shootout. Town Square has an arch of antlers on each of the four entrance corners (an estimated total of 8,000 antlers in all). All come from the elks' annual antler shedding - so no animals were harmed. 

We had some time to kill before the shootout. Which means we had time to get ice cream (dessert before dinner is totally allowed on vacation).

We (my kids) also gazed longingly at a stage coach offering rides to tourists. It's like a Wild West horse and carriage ride. 

When we noticed people starting to gather by one of the arches, we knew it was time to stake out a spot for shootout viewing. I asked about this at the hotel and got some good advice on when to go and where to stand. Our position was perfect. We could see everything and the sun was behind us (very important so late in the day). See my notation below...

Here is our view. If you do this, make sure you are facing Dali's so the sun isn't shining directly into your eyes.

The guns were real, but of course, they were all shooting blanks. I only mention this because the show is LOUD. There were a few little ones around us and at least one was in tears when the shooting started. My kids are of a "the louder, the better" age, so we were fine. At the end of the show, all of the children got shells from the the cowboys.

Moos's is where we got our ice cream - which was really good. 

That was pretty much it since we had to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning for one of my "aggressive" schedules. It included two national parks - so I'll cover that in a separate post. Tomorrow: Grand Teton AND Yellowstone.