Day 4: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

It’s a brisk 21° here in Pennsylvania this morning but it still doesn’t feel like this weather is actually cold after our October trip to Yellowstone. Day 4 began in frosty Canyon Village with temps in the single digits. Matt and I were getting used to being outside in the cold by Saturday so honestly the hardest part was just sitting in the rental car waiting for it to defrost enough to make the short drive to the dining hall building. (Then, unfortunately, the breakfast of french toast and strata at Canyon’s cafeteria was cold, soggy, and flavorless, but I’ll address the park food later!)

Lackluster meal behind us, Matt and I headed up to Artist Point once again to gawk at the massive Yellowstone Canyon and Lower Falls in the distance. This time we were prepared with Yaktrax on our hiking boots which made the short but extremely icy walk to the lookout feel much safer.

Next we drove back down South Rim Drive towards Uncle Tom’s Trail, a steep stairway down to the base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. We were excited to see that our car was the only car in the parking lot – what luck!! But the reason soon became apparent… Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed. At the time we figured this was due to snow/ice on the stairs* so, emboldened by our Yaktrax, we started along the snow-packed trail towards the lookout point, curious to see how far we could get.

The beginning of the trail was fine, but what was not fine was how isolated we felt the moment we started hiking away from the parking lot. We had become accustomed to having a few other tourists around us at all times but this trail was lonely and silent. We thought about all of the “BE BEAR AWARE” warning signs we’d seen around the park and decided to turn back. Just as we arrived back at the parking lot we noticed a couple hiking towards us. I asked them if they were also heading towards Uncle Tom’s Trail and, when they replied that they were AND that they had bear spray, we promptly turned around and headed back towards the waterfall with them.

We had fun chatting with our fellow hikers as we journeyed up the south rim trail. We stopped at overlooks to snap pictures of the waterfall below, but we never did see the actual turnoff for Uncle Tom’s Trail. (Probably because the trail was buried under a few inches of fresh snow!) In the end we found ourselves up at the Artist Point parking lot once again, so Matt and I peeled off to return to our car via the road while our newfound friends continued on to see the famous overlook for themselves.

After lunch at the Canyon Village General Store we drove south to explore the Hayden Valley and mud volcano. The mud volcano area was home to one of the coolest thermal features we saw (and heard!) on the whole trip: Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The spring is inside a cave that constantly spews a column of steam out into the basin around it. The best part was the ominous low rumbling sound that accompanied each “dragon’s breath” of steam. Click below for a video.

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Our next stop was Lake Village on the shore of the massive Yellowstone Lake. We drove by the Lake Lodge (closed for the season) and stopped by the visitor center before soaking up some sun at the edge of the lake. By this point it had warmed up to the 30s which felt downright balmy compared to the weather we’d experienced for the past few days.

We enjoyed the drive back north along the Yellowstone River before again feeling the pull of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  As the sun was getting low in the sky we visited the canyon one last time, this time on the north rim with stops at Lookout Point, Grand View and Inspiration Point.

Although the day ended on a high note scenery-wise, the food was, once again, not the strong point of the trip.  We’d been exclusively eating park food since Thursday and by dinner on Saturday that was starting to wear on me. This was the last night Canyon Lodge was open for the year and several items on the limited menu were already unavailable or running out as we waited. (For example, they ran out of penne partway through making Matt’s entree and brought him a tiny portion of chicken-sausage pasta that was also missing the sausage because they ran out of that, too!!) I understand that it was the last night of dinner service so obviously the restaurant didn’t want to have excess food left over, but after several meals in the park I was ready to get out and eat some “real” food made with fresh ingredients. More on that in my recap of Day 5!!

*Now that I’m home and have the internet at my fingertips I realize that Uncle Tom’s Trail is actually closed for a large scale maintenance project, not because of conditions on the trail in October.

Day 3: Geysers and Hot Springs Galore

When we woke up on Friday it was -4° (yes, that’s Fahrenheit). Brr!! We ate breakfast before dawn and asked the receptionist at the hotel’s front desk if he knew when Old Faithful might put on its first daytime show. Based on the last known eruption which had occurred at 6:45AM he recommended that we be ready and waiting outside between 8-8:30. So out we went!

By 8:15 the sun was out and it had warmed up to -2°F. Ha! We were super bundled up and waited with a few brave souls to see the world’s most famous geyser do its thing. Soon enough Old Faithful began shooting a tower of water into the air, creating a brilliant white plume of steam against the perfect blue sky.

Next we headed to Midway Geyser Basin, home of another one of Yellowstone’s most well known sights, Grand Prismatic Spring. Google it and you will see gorgeous images of vivid rainbow colored water that looks like it was photoshopped by mother nature. But unfortunately this was not what we saw on Friday. In the single-digit temperatures the heat from all of the geothermal springs, vents and geysers in Midway had created a frosty, eerie world of fog, steam and ice that obscured most of the colorful attractions. This was pretty cool on its own account, even if we didn’t get to see Grand Prismatic in all its glory!

After leaving Midway Geyser Basin we headed south to Biscuit Basin. Along the way a herd of snowy bison materialized out of the fog. I love this photo of the bison in the snow, so much so that I just ordered a huge canvas of it for our house. (And I’ll share a secret: it’s actually TWO photos stitched together side-by-side!)

The entrance to Biscuit Basin was guarded by another bison who seemed content to hang around and let people from a tour bus get way too close to him as they snapped photos. We skirted around him to access the snow-covered boardwalks of the basin. Biscuit Basin was much less foggy than Midway had been and we soaked in the views of vivid greens, blues and oranges caused by thermophilic bacteria living in the hot springs.

We headed back to Old Faithful to catch its next eruption before venturing into the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin that stretches back behind Old Faithful. As we crossed a bridge over the Firehole River Matt spotted river otters playing in the water. Cool!! They slithered over logs for a few moments before disappearing in the cold dark water. (But not before I got photographic proof that we had seen them!)

Upper Geyser Basin and nearby Black Sand Basin featured spitting geysers and several more colorful hot springs. After having better luck seeing springs at these basins we returned to Midway Geyser Basin a second time with hopes of glimpsing Grand Prismatic, but it was still shrouded by steam and fog. (Granted, it never got warmer than 20° on Friday so I guess it just wasn’t our day to see the spring!)

As we left Old Faithful to head towards Canyon Village for the night we were treated to another great animal sighting. A coyote crossed the road in front of our car and then trotted confidently through the snowy grass right by my open window. What luck! We had now seen moose, elk, bison, otter and coyote and it was only our first full day in Yellowstone.

We reached Canyon Village in the late afternoon. Remembering how the access road to the canyon’s overlooks had been closed the day before, we drove past our lodge to see if South Rim Drive had reopened. It was still very snowy but definitely open! Since we were so close we figured we’d get a sneak peek of the next day’s main attraction. We drove up to the end of South Rim Drive and, after a short but extremely icy walk, we found ourselves at Artist Point taking in a sweeping view of the canyon and the lower falls of the Yellowstone River in the distance. Wow.

Satisfied that we had seen enough for one day, we drove back down the snowy road and checked into Canyon Lodge. Like Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Canyon has no cell service, no TV and no wifi. (Or rather, there is “wifi in the lobby but it’s VERY slow” according to the receptionist… and the lobby was in a completely different building from our room!) So instead of checking emails, Twitter and Facebook Matt and I sat side-by-side together in a booth at dinner and reflected on the trip so far as we scrolled through photos on my iPhone. Not a bad way to end our Friday. 🙂

Next up for Day 4… the Grand Canyon, a bear print (!) and Yellowstone Lake.

Day 2: Grand Teton to Old Faithful

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.

Day 1: Pennsylvania to Jackson Hole

On Wednesday, October 9th Matt and I woke up at 4AM and drove to the Philadelphia airport. We parked in long term parking, bypassed the bus stop and power-walked to the terminal (isn’t that how normal people begin their travel days?) before being thoroughly sniffed by an official TSA German Shorthaired Pointer in security.  Eight hours later we were greeted by this view as our plane landed in Jackson, Wyoming.

In August I planned a last minute vacation to Yellowstone. Our itinerary would take us from Jackson Hole through Grand Teton National Park, then onto Yellowstone with overnight stays at Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the North Entrance near Mammoth Hot Springs and a final night in Bozeman, Montana. But my meticulously planned schedule was almost derailed before it began thanks to the weather. During our layover in Denver I received several text message alerts from Yellowstone NP advising that ALL roads in the park were closing due to winter weather conditions.

I had been monitoring the weather and knew that a snow storm and unusually frigid conditions were forecasted to coincide with our arrival on Wednesday. In preparation Matt and I packed all of our winter layers and mentally braced for the cold. Our plane landed just as the cold front was moving in. It was 35 degrees out as we deplaned directly onto the tarmac. That seemed cold at the time compared to the weather we’d just come from, but 35 degrees sure felt nice later in the week after we experienced REAL cold!

The temperature steadily dropped throughout the afternoon as we wandered around Jackson. We checked out the elk antler arches in the town square, stopped at a warm bakery for super rich hot cocoa and braved the blustery wind on a trek to the Visitor Center.

Before dinner we hopped in our rental car and headed north on Route 191. (The same 191 that runs through Moab!) Seeing other cars stopped along the road we pulled over near the Gros Ventre River and snapped a few photos. Apparently we had JUST missed a female moose and calf. Darn!

As we headed back to the car Matt noticed something on the other side of the road… a bull moose!! He was at least 100 yards away and was slowly making his way through the brush towards the river. As we watched, the moose lazily crossed the river before turning away from us to continue on his evening stroll. Cool!! We had been in Wyoming for less than 12 hours and had already crossed a major animal sighting off our list.

During dinner at the Snake River Brewing Company I realized that we had been up since 2AM Jackson time. No wonder I was tired! When we got back to our hotel I checked the Yellowstone road status one more time – roads were still closed – before collapsing into bed.

Stay tuned for day 2… onto Grand Teton and (maybe???) Yellowstone!