The cold front had definitely arrived by the time we woke up on Thursday. Matt and I bundled up and walked to breakfast, noting that our hotel still had its grass sprinklers on (because it’s not SUPPOSED to be 10° in mid-October!) which had created a nice sheet of ice on the sidewalk. After coffee and a hearty salsa-verde-smothered breakfast burrito at Bubba’s BBQ we were ready to tackle the day’s adventures.
We hoped those adventures would include Yellowstone National Park since we were scheduled to spend the night at Old Faithful, but as of 8AM the park roads were still closed. Luckily Grand Teton National Park is at a much lower elevation than Yellowstone so the first half of Thursday’s itinerary could proceed as planned. We drove north past Teton Village, bought an Annual Parks pass at the Grand Teton entrance station (I’ve always wanted an excuse to visit more parks!!), and continued along the dirt Wilson-Moose Road for several miles, enjoying the sight of snow-dusted Aspen trees with brilliant yellow foliage.
Soon we came to Jenny Lake. As a kid my family vacationed here and we spent a night in a cabin at Jenny Lake Lodge. I honestly don’t remember much about the night other than that my mom would always say it was the nicest hotel we had ever stayed in. (For the record, I checked to see if Matt and I could stay here but, like most of the lodges in GTNP and YNP, it had already closed for the season back in September.)
Jenny Lake itself was beautiful. We stopped at several pull outs and carefully navigated icy paths to get different views of the lake and the Teton mountains beyond. This might be a good time to mention that we used three cameras on this trip: my trusty Nikon D90 DSLR, our super wide-angle GoPro Hero4 Silver (usually manned by Matt) and my brand new iPhone 11 Pro. This trip was the first test of the iPhone’s camera and it did not disappoint. Between the great color rendition, wide angle option, smarter macro/portrait mode and “photos capture outside the frame” setting I was completely hooked on this phone after day 2.
OK, iPhone ad over. Continuing north, we next arrived at Jackson Lake and gorgeous views of (most of) the Tetons. We never did see their peaks due to the clouds but the parts we could see were pretty impressive.
Matt and I had brought lunch along in the car and around noon we stopped at a pullout along Jackson Lake to eat. Surprisingly we had maintained limited cell service through much of Grand Teton National Park and over lunch I called the Yellowstone roads hotline to see if there had been any changes in the road status. Alas, as of 12:30PM on Thursday the roads were still closed. After lunch we reluctantly headed south, back in the direction we’d come from, resolved to salvage the day by seeing more of Grand Teton before spending a second night in Jackson.
On a whim we turned down a dirt road that took us to one of the most beautiful views of the trip. After several hundred yards of bumpy driving we pulled over and had easy access to the rocky bank of the Snake River. Looking west across the crystal clear water we could see the snowy Tetons in the distance. Perfect! Just as I crouched down to take a photo my phone buzzed with a text message from Yellowstone… the roads had opened!!! We finished up at the river and headed back north, finally Yellowstone-bound.
Yellowstone’s road opening announcement came with two caveats. First, the road from Grant Village (where we’d be coming from) to Old Faithful (where we were going) was still closed as it included a high-elevation mountain pass. This meant a 79 mile detour around the Grand Loop Road to get to our final destination. Second, snow tires were required throughout the entire park. Hmm. I had spoken with a ranger the day before who told me she’d never put snow tires on her car since moving here from the east coast 7 years ago. She assured us that we’d probably be fine in our 4WD rental if we avoided the mountain passes. So basically caveat #1 cancelled out #2, right? Despite the snow tires warning we entered Yellowstone, confidently flashing our Annual Pass before proceeding north.
The higher elevation was immediately apparent. Where Grand Teton had snow-dusted yellow aspens, Yellowstone had miles and miles of snow-encrusted lodgepole pines. Except for the places where forest fires had left miles of blackened tree trunks with snow-covered new growth underneath. It was a striking difference and was just the beginning of the otherworldly landscape that is Yellowstone National Park.
Our first geothermal encounter came at West Thumb geyser basin, where we were pleasantly surprised by the huge number of colorful pools, bubbly hot springs and amazing views of Yellowstone Lake. The entire area was crisscrossed by snow-covered boardwalks that we shared with just a handful of other tourists. I guess that was one major benefit of the recent road closures!
Our 79 mile detour took us past the road to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (which was still closed due to snow), Canyon Village (where we’d spend Friday and Saturday nights), multiple geyser basins and the impressive Firehole River. It was 18° out when we drove by the river and we marveled at the fact that the water was STEAMING in the frosty air. We pulled over so Matt could dip his fingers in the water which, he reported, did not feel especially warm.
We pulled into the Old Faithful parking lot at dusk and were greeted by crowds of people walking back to their cars. Apparently we’d just missed an eruption. The parking lot and all of the sidewalks were snow and ice-covered so we carefully skidded ourselves and our suitcase into the Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the night. We’d missed seeing the famous geyser on Thursday but we still had the whole next day to explore all of the geysers and geothermal oddities in the area.
Stay tuned for day 3… STEAM! AKA all you can see when hot springs meet single-digit temps.