Grand Tetons & Yellowstone: August, 2008



Planning

    How this trip came to fruition is pretty funny.  Sometime late in 2007, my wife and I, newly married, decided we should tour the American west, so we set our sights on Yellowstone National Park.  The more research we did, the more interested we were in the general region, moreso than just seeing Yellowstone.  We finally decided that towards the end of the summer in 2008, we would fly out and visit the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.  It wasn't until a few months later that one of us, seemingly joking at the time, threw out the idea that we should backpack through each national park.  That sounds like a great idea to most of you reading this, until you realize that right up the point of tossing out that radical idea, neither of us had backpacked.  Ever. 

    We, being of the "trial by fire" type, decided "what better way to learn how to backpack, than by trekking through the most desolate area of the contiguous United States for a week?"  We picked the dates, arranged our flights, figured out our rental car situation (that will come later), and were off to plan what would be our biggest adventure ever. 

    We did everything a diligent researcher would do: planned our entire trip based on word-of-mouth from strangers on internet chat boards.  We used backpacking websites, trail maps, books, and advice from our local EMS employees to pick our trails and campsites, which becomes funnier the further you read this story.   We finalized every little detail from the time the plane landed until the time we had to return to the airport.  Finally our trip was here.  After 9 months of planning, packing, re-packing, and yet more re-packing, it was time to truly test our intestinal fortitude and go spend a week in the wilderness. 


Day 1: Go West, Young Man...and Wife

    We flew from Hartford to Salt Lake City on Saturday, August 8th.  After landing and getting our backpacks, we strolled outside and waited for the shuttle to our rental car company.  Not being a large, nationally-recognized car rental service, Brooke and I were mildly interested to see if this place really existed.  If not, some dude was $400 richer.  $400? For a rental car? Well, not just your average rental car, people.  We were driving to Wyoming.  And then Montana.  And then back to Utah.  I wasn't about to do that trip in a Dodge Neon.  We arrived at Rugged Rentals, and there she was.  Our 2007 Jeep Wrangler hard-top with removable roof.  Yes!  We photocopied our licenses, gave them our Social Security numbers, checking account routing numbers, and mother's maiden name, and were off.  I plugged the address into the TomTom borrowed from my dad, and our route was set.  275 miles later, Brooke and I would be in Jackson Hole, WY, with absolutely no idea where we would sleep.  Who cares? I was driving in a Jeep Wrangler with the top down through the Rocky Mountains.  Screw itineraries. 

    The ride up was monumentally uneventful, so I'll do us all a favor and spare the details.  We arrived in Jackson Hole, WY five hours and two gallons of diet coke later.  It was close to sunset, so the last 30 miles into town was amazing.  We drove on a west-to-east route into town, driving through the Targhee National Forest while the sun sat behind us.  The town of Jackson Hole should be on the "bucket list" of every person who appreciates the outdoors.  It boasts a world-renowned ski resort, the Grand Tetons, an Elk refuge, a bar that has horse saddles as seats, and now us.  What more could a town ask for?  We didn't really feel like sleeping in the Jeep for the night after such a long day of travel, so we drove around to every cheap hotel we saw, to no avail.  We wouldn't be picking up our back-country camping permit until the next morning, so we had a night to kill.  After striking out at three hotels, we were directed to the Snow King Resort.  Sounds expensive, right? Bingo.  In jeans and a t-shirt, I could not have looked more out of place if I tried.  I explained our plight to the gentleman behind the check-in counter, and luckily for us they had one room available.  He kindly apologized that this room, though, was half the size of a normal room and it sported only a Murphy bed; it was $119 for the night.  I couldn't get my wallet out of my jeans fast enough.  It had been a long day, and knowing we wouldn't have a good night's sleep or decent meal for several days, $119 sounded like a steal.  And quite the steal it was! We parked the Jeep and grabbed our bags, and went to our room.  Much to our surprise, he had severely misled us on the quality of our room.  Disappointed, we were not.  We had a king size bed and a view of the mountains to the east of Jackson Hole.  $119 was suddenly the biggest bargain since Seward's Folly.  We dropped our stuff and hopped back in the Jeep, determined to find a nice hot meal before our adventure began the next morning.  We took a stroll downtown, popping into the gift shops and reading the menus posted outside all of the restaurants.  I had to buy some fuel for the backpacking stove that I had yet to even try out, and was wise to wait until Jackson Hole, WY, where I shopped at the coolest sporting goods shop ever, Jack Dennis Sports.  Every restaurant seemed intent on making our wallets much lighter than we intended, including a hamburger at one restaurant which shall go unnamed for $24, so back to the hotel it was. We grabbed the Jeep and decided to head south from Jackson Hole where we knew there were more hotels, motels, and restaurants.  We finally settled on The Virginian, which was located in a small, family-run motel.  The meal was hot, good, heavy, and best of all, cheap.  Nothing screams "week-long hike" like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  This would not be one of my better decisions this week.  Satisfactorily full to the point of sweating and losing the better part of my vision for ten minutes, we headed back to the hotel to relax before we subjected ourselves to Mother Nature and her endless cruelty.


Day 2: Into the Wild

    We woke up nice and early Sunday morning, mostly because both of us were nervous as hell.   We showered, got our stuff together, and hopped in the Jeep.  The back-country office didn't open for another hour or so, so we drove around looking for a light breakfast.  We opted for a light breakfast, because my wife knew that regardless of whatever planned activity we had, I would always order anything that resembled "Lumberjack Special."  We found a quaint little coffee shop on the outskirts of town, and grabbed a coffee, a bagel, and a banana each.  We ate & drank on the way north to the back-country office.  The Tetons loomed to our west as we drove between them and the National Elk Refuge to our east.  We found the newly-erected office, and joined the fifty or so tourists mingling in the lobby.  The young lad behind the "Back Country Camping" counter met us with a smile.  I would later find out, as will you too, that his smile was not due to his good nature, but more indicative of what our parents' generations call "Eddie Haskell Syndrome."  He retrieved our bear canister (used to store food and thoroughly confound any bears trying to get to said food), checked our maps, issued our trail permit, and gave us sage advice: hike to Delta Lake.  We had read about Delta Lake, and seen pictures of it as well, on the internet.  It was said to be one of the most surreal, idyllic locations in the park.  He gave us directions to Delta Lake, which seemed easy enough.  "Go up about half of the switchbacks, and then on the left turn of one, take the little path that goes off-trail, and you'll find Delta Lake."  Now, that sounds easy enough, until you see how vast this place is.  It's enormous.  Imagine someone giving you directions to a place two towns away by simply telling you to take a few lefts and a right.  "Vague" is an understatement.  We took our paperwork and headed back to the Jeep.  The trailhead would be but a few miles north from the back-country office, so off we went.  We parked the Jeep, filled our water bottles with water, double and triple checked everything, locked the Jeep, and suddenly realized for the first time that we were actually doing this.

    Though the Trails Illustrated map had rated our hike for the day as "extremely strenuous," we paid no mind to that, and believed the smiling lad from the back-country office, who assured us "it's not that bad."  And he was right.  The first mile or so weaved through a meadow and deep forest, with each turn evoking a new reaction from us east-coasters.  We passed a few backpackers along the way, exchanging the obligatory greetings and head-nods.  After another half-mile of twists and turns, the trail took a sharp right and headed gradually uphill for another mile or so.  It was an easy incline, but long enough that breathing became a bit more difficult, and the amount of sweat racing for the surface of my skin tripled.  With deep valleys to each side of the trail, and views that would impress Sir Edmund Hilary himself, we didn't mind taking our time lollygagging up this section.  We took turns staring through the monocular desperate to find any form of wildlife, unsuccessfully.  After the gradual mile uphill, the trail met up with two other trails, one that headed south into the larger valley, and one that headed due north towards Jenny Lake.  Our trail continued to head west, uphill towards the three Teton peaks. 

    We stayed at this trail junction for twenty minutes or so, enjoying our first energy bar purchased at EMS what seemed like forever ago.  It was at this point that we realized how far we had come, both literally and figuratively.  From buying the  $.99 energy snacks at a retailer in Central Massachusetts, to actually eating them on a trail in the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming, we knew that our months of stressful planning and outdoor education had paid off.  We shouldered our packs, and headed for the switchbacks.  Our good friend back at the back-country office had been very clear that we were to go up "half" of the switchbacks.  No more, no less.  What?  Anyways, it was barely 10:00am, and we knew we had a good ten more hours of daylight to find a lake that was now only three miles away.  Switchback after switchback, steeper each turn, we fought on.  We weren't in necessarily good shape, but we weren't couch potatoes, either.  But neither of us was physically prepared to carry thirty pounds on our back at 7,000 feet above sea level.  The higher we got, the further away Jackson Hole felt.  The Elk refuge grew smaller and smaller, looking more like one's lawn than a massive federally-protected tract of land.  With each turn, the air grew thinner and our energy became more depleted.  Still cognizant of the fact that we had ample time to find our site, we were liberal with our water breaks.  At each turn on the switchbacks we would look for that small path that would deliver us to what was supposed to be THE place to camp in the Tetons according to the ranger station. 

    Wildlife! For the first time! Brooke and her eagle eyes spotted a family of mule deer off to the north on a ridge, no more than 100 yards away.  A mother and two young fawns, I was anxiously awaiting a horrific mauling of the animals that would make National Geographic proud.  Thoroughly disappointed, we kept hiking up and up, in search of the elusive foot path.  After what seemed like too many turns, we finally found our path.  It didn't look promising at all.  It could only be followed with the eyes for fifty feet or so until it disappeared into thick brush.  I've watched enough Discovery Channel to know two things.  One, Grizzly bears have migrated south into Grand Teton National Park in the past six years, and two, bears love thick brush.  Awesome.  So, off we go.  We followed the steep path down for a hundred feet or so, through thick underbrush, before it headed back uphill towards a clearing.  We mistakenly thought that the clearing, 500 yards or so to our north, might have been Delta Lake.  We couldn't have been more wrong.  We met a young couple heading in the opposite direction who informed us we were "about an hour to an hour and a half" from Delta Lake, but it was a pretty hike from this point on.  We finally reached the clearing, and I had colorful, vivid thoughts of how I would end the life of the chipper little guy at the back-country office who told us the hike wasn't that hard.  We were staring at a boulder field filled with rocks the size of small cars.  We would have to boulder hop, with thirty pounds on our back, the last 1/4 mile up to the lake.  Luckily, there were cairns built every 100 feet or so, so we knew which rocks to make our way towards as we chipped away at the distance between us and rest.  Taking a 30 second break every four or five rocks helped a little, but we figured that the faster we got to the top, the better things would be. 

    The fact that we were slowly approaching 9,000 feet above sea level was not lost on us, as the more effort we put into each step, the more light-headed we became.  In what was undoubtedly the most physically challenging thing either one of us had ever done, we finally made it out of the boulder field and back onto a trail.  The trail wasn't exactly flat, but it wasn't boulder hopping either.  It was then that we realized that if one of us had slipped and fallen, a broken arm or leg would have been the least of our injuries, as there were several spots that had we fallen, we would have tumbled to our deaths.  Fun times!  Happy thoughts aside, we were determined to finish our climb.  Each step grew in difficulty as our lungs struggled to pump enough oxygen into our bodies.  We would later discover that living on the east coast, we would have been better served to start our hike after at least two days of acclimation to the altitude.  But who needs important details like that?  We crested the last hill with burning legs and aching backs, and there it was - Delta Lake.  My wife has traveled extensively, and I'm no slouch either, and Delta Lake, situated at the bottom of a Glacier in the Middle Teton, is without a doubt the most beautiful sight my eyes have seen.  The greenish hue of the water reflects the glacier and rock above.  The water supports no life as it is just a large collection of glacial melt, so it sits motionless with the only noise coming from the roar of the water as it plunges off the edge, running to valley floor thousands of feet below. 

    I was nauseous from a combination of exertion and altitude sickness, so the fact that we couldn't find a suitable campsite made things moderately more stressful.  We scanned the shoreline and saw nothing but jagged rock, with no flat, grassy spots in sight.  The only area large enough to fit the footprint of our tent was positioned against a flat rock 30 feet from a 500 foot drop-off.  The rock would provide us with shelter from the wind and impending rain.  After setting up camp and finding a suitable food preparation area, I decided to lay down in the tent in an attempt to cure my growing nausea.  Well, the nausea won that battle, as it decided to hang around until the next day. 

    As the sun played hide and seek with us behind the wall of granite to our west, storm clouds slowly rolled in.  We feverishly finished boiling our water for our dehydrated dinner, and threw as much food down our throats as we could stomach.  My max capacity was 2 bites.  I still to this day don't know if that was due to the altitude sickness, or the slab of meatloaf I devoured the night before.  Either way, I was going to bed on an empty stomach.  We retired to the tent around 7:00pm with the sky full of black clouds.  The storm never seriously developed, only teasing us with sporadic fits of rain.  Sleep would be hard to come by.  Our tent sloped a little, so we kept sliding to one side of the tent.  On top of that, Coleman was a bit generous by rating our sleeping bags to 32*.  They're more realistically rated to 40*, and with the nighttime temperatures coming within three or four degrees of that, we were thoroughly chilled to the bone.  Even with socks and a fleece hat on our heads, we each slept in the fetal position anxiously counting the minutes until sunrise. 


Day 3: To Yellowstone, and Beyond!

    Well, as it always does, the sun did rise.  We scanned the area for any movement, as bears were constantly on our mind.  We kept a keen eye on the lake, as we were also anxiously awaiting a majestic elk to make its way down to the edge to take a drink of water.  That never happened, and do this day I'm still pretty pissed.  We returned to our food prep area to boil more water for our dehydrated scrambled eggs and bacon.  Because my nausea was still holding me hostage, I could only muscle down two or three bites, which meant one thing: I was going to hike on an even emptier stomach than when I slept, at least until I felt better.  We sat around enjoying a piping hot cup of black instant coffee, deciding what our plan of attack was.  We had two options in front of us.  Our back-country permit listed our second night campground at Amphitheater Lake, another 1,000 feet above us.  The climb would take us north of 10,000 feet above sea level.  My stomach told me that was a bad idea, but I knew from my copious amounts of research that the more time I spent at high altitude, the more my body would adapt.  The problem with the hike, though, was that the 1,000 climb to Amphitheater would only take us about two hours, and arriving to our site at 11:00am would leave us with an entire day of nothing to do.  To those reading, it sounds pretty shallow to think one could get bored in such a majestic place, but it does happen.  That's why most people pack books, ipods, etc. on the trail.  The other problem with this plan was that it would give us a six hour window the next day to wake up, take down camp, hike out, and drive north through Yellowstone to the back-country office in Mammoth to get our Yellowstone permit.  A six hour window for a six hour task.  That's cutting it close.  Our other option would be to hike back out to the trailhead, hop in the Jeep, grab some lunch, and make the drive through Yellowstone at our own leisurely pace, viewing as much wildlife and sights as we wanted.  We would grab our permit at Mammoth and then grab a campsite in the Mammoth area for the night.  We opted for plan B, as this vacation was supposed to be relaxing to an extent, and the possibility of not getting our Yellowstone permit if we opted for plan A would have completely derailed the entire trip. 

    We packed up the tent and all of our cooking supplies, waved goodbye to Delta Lake, and made our way down the trail towards the boulder field.  It was easier this time around, but not according to my knees.  My knees aren't used to this kind of abuse, and they were not shy about letting me know.  Once through the boulder field, we cruised back to the maintained trail, and down the switchbacks with relative ease.  We reached the trail junction where we had taken a break the day before and opted to enjoy another nice break.  We hopped back on the trail after splurging on a pseudo-meal of energy bar, trail mix and Gatorade.  While making our way down the straightaway, we passed by a nice family who informed us that we walked right by a small black bear ten feet to our right, and didn't even notice it.  They were going to yell to us to look, but thought startling the bear might not have been such a good idea.  We thanked them for this.  We continued on our way, and made it back to the parking lot in record time.  Well, record time for us, as we thought we were moving pretty quickly.  It had only been two days and a little more than nine miles, but we were pretty wiped. 

    We threw the packs in the back of the Jeep, and headed off to Dornan's, the spot to have lunch according to Backpacker Magazine.  They hit the nail on the head with this one.  Dornan's is a simple operation.  Picture a huge car port that covers a cash register and a couple guys working some grills, and that's Dornan's.  We ordered two burgers, chips, and the biggest vessel of Diet Pepsi they could provide us with, and parked ourselves at a picnic table staring right at the Teton range.  You can't have a better lunch anywhere in the U.S., and this is a well-known fact.

    After lunch we hopped in the Jeep, typed in our location in the TomTom, and we were off.  We had a three hour drive to the Mammoth region, which is at the Northern entrance to the park.  Three hours of driving a two-lane road through mountains, meadows, and then finally, desert.  We took our time making the drive, making sure to take plenty of pictures and stop at as many sights as we wanted.  We stopped at Old Faithful, and had the luck of the draw.  We parked, walked over to the geyser, and within 30 seconds it erupted.  Not bad, considering it can take up to three hours sometimes.  Contrary to popular opinion, Old Faithful is anything but faithful.  It ranges from 20 minutes to three hours between eruptions, with no semblance of regularity.  Our next stop, after perusing through the gift shop and grabbing a snack at the visitor's center was the Grand Prismatic Spring.  Grand Prismatic is a collection of hot springs that look like circular in-ground pools.  Their crystal blue color is powerfully inviting, as they look warm and refreshing until you realize they're just a few degrees cooler than boiling, and full of caustic chemicals.  The chemicals (I'm no chemist) eat through the limestone and rock, and the pools slowly change shape annually.  Now that our little science lesson is over, I can tell you about the other things we saw.

    We saw an elk.  He was standing about 300 yards away in a field, but we still saw an elk.  After joining the throngs of tourists, we hopped back in the trusty Jeep and continued north to Mammoth.  Just as we were pulling into Mammoth Hot Springs, we were discussing how disappointed we were that we only saw one animal in three hours of driving through Yellowstone.  We parked next to the Mammoth Inn, and started walking towards the entrance to grab an ice cream and map when Brooke looked to her right, and no more than ten feet to her right was a cow elk eating the lawn in front of the Inn.  There were two more elk, another cow and a fawn on the other side of the road enjoying the same meal.  We learned that the elk like to come down at night to eat the manicured lawns of the Inn because it tastes so much better than their usual diet of sage bush in the desert climate of northern Yellowstone.  Write that down.

    We grabbed an ice cream and a soda, the dinner of champion hikers, and made our way to the Mammoth campground.  Full.  Full, as in no sites available.  Full, as in "the sun is setting and we have nowhere to sleep" full.  Well, luckily Gardiner, MT was a ten minute drive to the north, right outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone.  Gardiner has restaurants, gift shops, and yes, hotels.  Perfect!  We cruised through Gardiner and were met with nothing but "No Vacancy" signs.  We tried begging, bribery, and everything short of felonious activity, but the fact of the matter was that we were in Montana, it was now dark, and we had nowhere to sleep.  The Jeep is too small to lay the seats down, and we have too much crap in it anyways, so what were our options?  We went back to one little hotel, where we knew an extremely nice couple would be willing to at least point us in the right direction.  We explained our situation and asked for feedback.  They couldn't have been nicer if they tried, and they certainly went out of their way to help out two strangers from back east.  Not exactly the type of customer service we're used to here in New England.  They whipped out their phone book, and called every hotel in the neighboring town of Livingston, MT looking for a room for us.  They found one for us in a Best Western in Livingston for $89.  Book it, Dan-O!  "Hey, how do you get to Livingston?"  "Oh, take a left out of the driveway, and it's 52 miles north."  "Umm, come again? Did you say 52 miles?"  It was now 10:00pm, and we were faced with a ninety minute drive on a two-lane road through the middle of nowhere in Montana.  I actually kind of dig this kind of thing.

    For what seems like the hundredth time this trip, we hopped in the Jeep and put the address of the Best Western in the TomTom.  Well, it wasn't 52 miles to Livingston.  It was 55.  Six in one, half-dozen in another.  We made the long, arduous drive to Livingston for ninety minutes and saw three lights.  Three.  In 55 miles.  In what was one of the more humorous moments of the trip, probably due to the fact that it was 11:30pm and we had had such a long day, we passed signs for Route 90.  Yes, that Route 90 - the Mass Pike, baby! (Who knew the Mass Pike was in Montana? Weird.)  For shits 'n giggles, I hit "Navigate --> Home" in the TomTom, and was rewarded with 2,293 miles.  And I thought 55 was bad!  We found the hotel, checked in, and immediately proceeded to fall asleep, filthy. 


Day 4: Hellroaring Blisters

    The morning came quickly, so we showered, grabbed some cold breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and headed across the street to buy Brooke some new socks.  She didn't like her merino wool hiking socks from REI, so she opted to buy some cotton running socks.   The world's most epic "told you so" will rear its ugly head in a few paragraphs.  After we found her "instant agony" socks, we drove back to Gardiner, where we met up with a girl from Clark University who worked in Gardiner and gave us a ride to the trailhead.  Brooke also went to Clark U. in Worcester, so finding a classmate from the same graduating class was what I guess you could call a "small world."  We hiked in on the Wyoming side of the park and followed the Yellowstone River 19 miles back to Gardiner, where our Jeep was to be waiting for us.  Along the way we saw our first bear! A brown black bear, if that makes any sense to you.  The Clark girl (name forgotten...) dropped us off at the trailhead, we signed the trail register letting the park service know where would be each night, and read the "Caution: Extremely High Bear Activity" sign with wide eyes.  Hiking here, only 60 or so miles from the Tetons, was like hiking in a different continent.  While the Tetons were lush with growth, full of tall pines and other broad-leafed trees, the northern border of Yellowstone, which weaves between Wyoming and Montana, is high-altitude desert, with the occasion pine tree among acres and acres of sage brush.  The trail was dry and dusty as it descended a few hundred feet over the first mile to the famous suspension bridge over the Yellowstone River.  We hiked the first mile with a nice couple from North Carolina and their three young boys.  They were in Yellowstone for a few weeks in an RV and were sprinkling in some day hikes with their site-seeing.  We said our goodbyes to our new friends after the bridge and continued on past several trail junctions towards our campsite.  We had to cover a little over five miles this first day, but it was slow going.  We were provided with no protection from the sun, and the temperature eased past 90* by lunchtime.  Our first ounce of shade came under a monstrous pine tree in the middle of a field.  We lounged under the tree for twenty minutes or so, and then continued on our way.  The trail descended more towards the river, and our effort was finally rewarded as the last two miles or so navigated in and out of tree cover as it paralleled the river. 

    We finally saw signs for our campsite around 2:30pm, and were there within minutes.  Good news? We had the entire afternoon to rest and recover from three strenuous days.  Bad news?  No shade.  None.  We set up the tent with sweat pouring down our faces as the sun continued to strike down on us with continuous blows.  Our only respite from the sun was to walk fifty feet down to the river, where there were plenty of trees to hide under, but only rocks to sit on.  We would survive.  It felt amazing to take off our hiking boots and soak our feet in the frigid river.  The river is fed by snow-melt from several hundred miles away, and the water never warms up on its way to the Colorado River.  We spent the afternoon lounging by the river and discussing our largest obstacle.  Remember the cotton socks?  Well, the back of Brooke's right foot was a wide open wound no smaller than a quarter.  It was stomach-turning.  The fact that she had hiked this far without complaining one word is a direct testament to her character and strong will.  She was in obvious pain, but has such a positive, glass-half-full attitude that it wasn't going to bring her down.  Our only problem, though, was that we had 13 more miles to complete over the next two days, and this would only get worse.  We began weighing our options, neither of which was necessarily appetizing.  Option number one was to continue hiking towards Gardiner, knowing full well that her foot would be getting worse.  We had to be aware of the fact that if it got worse, and potentially infected, we would be miles from the nearest town with no access to a road or any means of transportation.  Our other option was to hike back out to the trailhead and try to find a ride back to Gardiner, which was 18 miles by car.  We decided to sleep on it, and try to enjoy a nice dehydrated dinner by the river before calling it a night.  Though the sun thoroughly abused us during the day, in true desert tradition, the night was cold.  Our bags let us down yet again, and it was another night of 20 minute spans of sleep until the sun came up.


Day 5: To Hike or Not to Hike...

    We were greeted with a nice little surprise when we woke up.  Forty feet (all measurements are approximated, so shut up) from our tent was a fresh pile of bear scat.  Scat = shit.  A bear shit near our tent.  More fun times!  We made breakfast, which was more dehydrated scrambled eggs and bacon, and enjoyed another hot cup of instant coffee, which was surprisingly good.  During coffee, we talked more about our plan.  Poor Brooke felt horrible about possibly ending our hike early, but her well-being and our overall safety was much more important than 13 more miles of hiking.  We weighed the pros and cons, and the more we talked, the more pros were unearthed.  We decided to hike out, hitchhike back to Gardiner, and then tour Yellowstone in the trusty Jeep for the next three days.  We took our time hiking the five miles back to the trailhead, so as not to exacerbate Brooke's injury.  We crossed the suspension bridge, and knew we only had about a mile left to the parking lot.  Well, a long mile it turned out to be.  Straight up steep switchbacks in the hot, glaring sun.  We didn't have much water and Gatorade left, so we had to ration it until we got to the parking lot and knew we could rest.  We finally survived the last switchback, and dragged ourselves over the last 300 yards to the parking lot.  We dropped our packs, chugged the last of our Gatorade (stupid, in hindsight, not knowing when or how we would get back to civilization), and Brooke gingerly removed her hiking boots to reveal that her open blister had bled all over her sock and was caked with dirt.   

    I grabbed my cell phone and started walking back in the direction of the road looking for a cell phone signal.  I finally found an area on top of a knoll where the phone registered one bar, and called information.  Information had no idea what I meant by "National Park Service in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming," obviously.  The call was dropped, and I couldn't find that one precious bar of service anymore.  We were 18 miles from civilization, had no more liquid to hydrate us, and my wife was hobbled!  I started walking back to where Brooke was resting and was passed on the road by a pretty large RV driven by a woman in her early 40's.  Not thinking anything of it, I kept walking in the same direction as the RV, where Brooke was sitting.  When I got down there, I saw Brooke chatting with the woman driver, and from what I could see, it appeared to be a friendly conversation.  We had heard that hitchhiking in Yellowstone is common due to the park's size and the amount of hikers.  Apparently, the woman recognized Brooke's stylish haircut and cute get-up, noticed she was limping around in pink thong sandals, and realized that "harmful" and "pretty girl in pink thong sandals" do not go hand-in-hand.  The woman told us she was headed back to Mammoth, and offered to give us a ride back.  Along the way, we found out several cool things about her and her two children.  They were from Chicago, and rented the RV in Illinois and drove it through the Midwest to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in northern Montana.  She had broken down on the drive out, and a nice gentleman stopped and got the RV running for her, and she figured she would "pay it forward" by giving us a ride to Mammoth.  To top that off, once she found out our car was actually in Gardiner, she made it a point to drive us the extra ten minutes to Gardiner, right to our car!  Score.  We chatted the rest of the ride, and when we got to Gardiner, I offered her some money to treat her kids to some ice cream as a thanks for giving us the ride.  She steadfastly refused to accept any denomination of money, much to my dismay, and was happy as a clam just knowing that she had helped people, just as she was helped earlier in her trip. 

    Guess what we did next? We hopped in the Jeep! We headed back down to downtown Gardiner (kind of an oxymoron, if you've ever seen the place), and found a great place for lunch overlooking the Roosevelt Gate entrance into Yellowstone.  Much like Dornan's, we asked the waitress for the largest possible quantity of Diet Pepsi (Diet Coke is apparently nonexistent west of the Mississippi) and two burgers.  What a meal.  We walked out of the luncheonette, poked around in some gift shops, and realized we had three days ahead of us to do absolutely anything we wanted.  Our hiking for the week was over, but it was far from failure.  We had planned to hike 30 miles; we hiked 19.  We hiked the in Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, something not many people can say they did.  It was our first official backpacking trip, and it was awesome.  It was the most physically grueling thing I have ever done, and doing it with my wife made it even better. 

    We got our park map, took the roof panels off the Jeep, and headed off for a 20 mile ride through northern Yellowstone.  We saw a bull Elk and three Pronghorn Antelope on the ride, and we finally felt like we were going to see the wildlife that this park is known for.  The visitor's center at Tower Junction is one of the larger ones in the park.  Though it was early, and we had just eaten an hour or so ago, my mind was already on dinner.  The center had a huge buffet, but Brooke and I settled for a Diet Pepsi on the front porch.  It felt good to kick our feet up and relax, knowing that our remaining time in this wondrous place would be spent completely stress-free.  It was now, sitting in a rocking chair on this front porch, that we realized we made the right decision to see the park at our own pace by car.  We knew that we would have more backpacking adventures in the future, and we could always return to Yellowstone for some more back-country fun.  It was getting to be late afternoon now, and we were already discussing our dinner plans.  We could drive more, and return to the visitor's center for dinner; head back to Gardiner, MT for dinner; or we could drive east towards Cooke City, MT.  We opted for Cooke City, and headed out.  Cooke City, MT is the misnomer of all misnomers, as it is the furthest thing from a city I have ever seen.  (Want proof?  Scroll your eyes to the right.)  There were a few restaurants in town, so after filling the tank in the Jeep to make sure we got back to Mammoth, almost two hours away, we grabbed dinner.  The restaurant was quaint; the food was horrible.  The only redeeming factor was that Brooke and I could order a couple local brews that we could never find back home.  After paying the bill and leaving a robust tip, we grabbed a coffee at the gas station and headed back to Mammoth.  We got to the campground, and were relieved to see that there were several sites still available.  For $15/night, we reserved the site for two nights, and drove to site #7.  The site was perfect.  It had a parking spot, a picnic table and a nice little pad for our tent to go.  We set up our humble abode and got an instant craving for ice cream.  The two miles back to the Mammoth Inn felt much longer.  Our ice cream tasted like a million bucks, and as our spoons rattled against the bottom of the bowl we decided to walk around the little town of Mammoth before retiring to campsite #7.  The small gift shop had a rather extensive collection of cowboy hats, but Brooke was having none of that.  After we picked up and put back down every knick-knack in the store, we made our way back to the campground and prepped for bed.  The several games of hangman helped us fall asleep, but we wouldn't stay asleep for long.  Thunder had rolled in, and it should come as no surprise to anybody reading this (is anybody actually reading this?) that tents offer little insulation from loud noises.  We finally managed to string together a couple hours of sleep after being thoroughly shaken by a classic Rocky Mountain thunderstorm.


Day 6: Leaving our (carbon) Footprint in Yellowstone

    Our last full day in the park was planned while downing breakfast at the Switchback Diner in Gardiner.  We had the whole day at our disposal, and we planned on doing a lot of driving.  We saddled up and headed east towards Tower Junction again.  On the way, we say another large bull Elk on the side of the road quietly enjoying his own breakfast.  Yellowstone National Park has eight defined areas, each bringing their own unique characteristics to the table, and we managed to drive through all of them that day.  Once at Tower, we took a right and headed south towards Canyon Village.  The ride to Canyon would be promising, as it was home to one of the most beautiful spots in the whole park, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Having never seen the actual Grand Canyon, this blew my mind.  Several pictures later, we were back in the trusty Jeep to continue south towards Fishing Bridge, on the northern shore of Lake Yellowstone.  This route was also one of the more heavily-traveled routes in the park, but Brooke and I must have planned this trip right.  We had read numerous stories about the traffic in the park, and how it can take you several hours to go 20 or 30 miles.  Not this week.  We cruised the 16 miles to Fishing Bridge in about 20 minutes with the roof open and shades securely fashioned on our face.  Along the way, we would stop and load up our camera's memory stick with pictures of Inspiration Point, Artist Point, and the Upper & Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.  All of these places represented what we both thought were some of the most beautiful parts of the park.  The river has carved a gash through the soft, yellow limestone and provided us with some amazing vistas.  Thoroughly disappointed that we had to live 2,200 mile away from this area of the country, we finished off the last few miles to Fishing Bridge.  We stopped at the Mud Volcano along the way.  The whole park is full of cauldrons and spewing hot spots, and this one was especially smelly.  The sulfur fumes wafted in every direction, and you couldn't avoid them unless you got in the car and sped away at highly illegal speeds.  Every turn-off where you could view the hot spots had wood walkways built through the area, so unlucky tourists wouldn't crack through the thin crust above what boils beneath.  Animals, though, have suffered that fate, as you can see footprints at every hot spring and cauldron end mid-journey, giving a bleak reminder of how treacherous this area really is.  We made our way to Fishing Bridge, and decided to park and stretch the legs.  We walked through the numerous gift shops and then grabbed a soda for the drive to West Thumb, on the western edge of Lake Yellowstone. 

    Bison.  They're enormous.  The 21 miles from Fishing Bridge to West Thumb proved to be the Bison "hot spot" for us.  Our speed slowed to a crawl as hundreds upon hundreds of Bison surrounded us on both sides of the road.  A dozen or so Bison claimed the road as their own, too, and used the double yellow line to find their way home, much like an intoxicated soul staggering down a sidewalk.  Once we made our way through the horde of Bison, we found West Thumb.  There was nothing there that was of interest to us (sorry West Thumb), so we continued on our way southwest towards the Old Faithful area.  We had already been there and seen it up erupt, but we were more interested in grabbing a drink at the Old Faithful Inn.  We had heard the Inn was pretty magnificent, and we had to see for ourselves.  The entire Inn is built out of log, and the inside lobby is awe-inspiring.  We poked around the lobby, gift shop, cafeteria (obviously), and found an outside deck on the second floor.  Not having her ID (in the tent in Mammoth), I had to buy two beers while Brooke found us a seat outside.  The deck had bench seating facing the geyser, and even the benches were made out of the same log used to build the hotel, its lobby, and every other square foot of the building.  An hour and two beers later, the geyser was showing no signs of life, so we walked back to the car, content in knowing that having already seen erupt once, we didn't have to wait around any longer.  We cruised back to Mammoth, 51 miles away, with the roof panels still off enjoying the cool, fresh air.  We passed through Madison and Norris on our way, and as we got closer to Mammoth, our urge to hit the Mammoth Inn one more time grew stronger and stronger.  This time, though, it would not be ice cream we would be consuming.  A tall, cool beer sounded really good.  We saddled up to the bar, ordered an appetizer to pick on, and washed down a Teton Ale right from the tap.  Thoroughly full and happy, we made our way back to the our tent and called it a night.


Day 7: Flying Pigs & Riding Horses

    Our last morning was like the previous two or three.  A bright shining sun served as our alarm clock, and we took our time ambling to the campground restroom to wash up and get ready for a day chock-full of activities.  Brooke had planned for our last day to include both white-water rafting and horseback riding.  Up first was the horseback riding.  We packed our camp, grabbed a light breakfast, and headed northeast from Gardiner on a nine-mile-long unpaved county road towards Jardine, MT.  The ranch was set high up the mountains east of the Gallatin National Forest, and was definitely something I could see myself retiring to.  Though we had just eaten a small breakfast an hour or so before we arrived, we still took advantage of the spread of food that lay before us.  While eating as many cold cut sandwiches as we could muster down, we chatted with the other families that we would be riding with.  Of the four other families, there were two from the greater-Boston area, and two from the greater-Chicago area, so it wasn't the most geographically-diverse group of people to ever horseback ride southern Montana.  Neither Brooke nor myself can remember what our horses names were, but we certainly remember how awesome they were.  We forged quite the bond with our equine friends that day.  The ride was two hours long; we went up into the mountains, down into the valleys, and along a river, all the while taking in some of the best views of the mountains since we arrived.

    Once our horseback riding adventure was over, we had just enough time to scoot back to Gardiner, grab a quick bite to eat, and check in at the Flying Pig Adventure Co., where Brooke's classmate from Clark U. worked.  Our rafting adventure consisted of Brooke and I along with a husband and wife and their two young daughters from Minnesota, and our river guide who leads the coolest life ever.  In the summer he is a rafting guide, taking tourists like ourselves up the mighty Yellowstone River, in the fall he's an Elk hunting guide for hire who brings groups of hunters up into the mountains of the Gallatin National Forest, in the winter he is a dogsled guide in Glacier National Park on the Montana/Canada border, and in the spring time he lives out of his pickup truck while he drives down the Salmon River in Idaho fly-fishing until he makes his way back to Gardiner.  Where did I go wrong?!?  Anywho, back to our river adventure.  The trip was about an hour long as we rafted a few miles north on the river.  The sleepy turns were occasionally interrupted by furious stretches of whitewater that drenched every passenger in the frigid waters of the Yellowstone.  At the end of the route, we were met at a beach by a gentleman in a van who ran the shuttle for Flying Pig, bringing soaked rafters back to the store to grab their dry clothes and carry-on with their day.  It turns out, as our guide explained to us, that our shuttle driver, who also operates as a river guide as well, was on season 1 of Deadliest Catch on Discovery.  We were also told not to ask him about it.  Duly noted.

    Once we changed into our dry clothes and had the Jeep packed for the four hour ride back to Idaho Falls, ID, we put 100% of our energy into finding a good meal before the long drive.  Everyone told us to try The Raven Grille, in Gardiner.  This was my kinda place.  The sign out front was so small that we drove by it twice before we found it.  It seated just as many people outside as it did inside, and the menu was written on a large chalkboard hanging above one of the doorways.  Brooke ordered the Bison filet, and I ordered the 20 oz. porterhouse.  Both steaks came on large paper plates, with salad, cornbread, and homemade baked beans.  The meat was cooked perfectly, and all the accoutrements were delicious.  It was hands down the best meal we had the entire week we were out there.  We paid the bill, gassed up the Jeep, grabbed two large coffees, and were off.  We waved goodbye to Gardiner, and headed south, back into Yellowstone National Park for the last time.

    Mammoth seemed rather quiet as we drove through for the last time, or maybe it was because our moods were so somber that it drowned out any movement and activity that was really taking place outside of our vehicle.  We considered stopping for one last ice cream, but decided that since we just ate a few weeks worth of meat, we should hold off.  We carved our way south towards Norris and through to Madison, this time to take a right and head west towards the west entrance, a place we had never been before.  Our last miles through the park were filled with wildlife, an amazing sunset, and almost a few tears.  This place was simply magical, and we had to say goodbye to it.  We had lives and family and friends back on the east coast, over 2,000 miles away, that we had to return to.  It felt good to know that Yellowstone wasn't going anywhere, and that we would return many more times in our lives.  We crossed through the gates and found ourselves in the tourist trap town known as West Yellowstone, MT.  It was full of "museums," gift shops, restaurants, and every other storefront you would expect in a tourist town.  Its tackiness was overcome by the amount of families that we saw thoroughly enjoying this place, so we asked the karma gods to forgive us for rushing to judgment so quickly.  We eventually got on I15 and headed south towards Idaho Falls, two more hours away.  A fill-up and two coffees later, we saw the bright lights of Idaho Falls, and knew that a hot shower and warm bed were minutes away.  We were pretty bummed that we got there after the pool had closed, but our disappointment did not last long, as we each enjoyed a 30-minute shower.  We were clean, full, and tired, and now we had a king size bed to retire to.  Sleep came fast and hard, and oh how sweet it was.  Despite getting the best night's sleep we'd had in about a week, the morning came before we knew it.  I rolled out of bed, pulled the drapes back, and peered down onto beautiful Idaho Falls, ID. 


Day 8: Leaving on a Jet Plane...and I know I'll be back again.

    We grabbed a bite to eat for breakfast and the reality sank in that our trip was over.  The only thing left to do was to hop in the Jeep for the last time and drive the four hours to Salt Lake City.  It was an amazing trip; one that undoubtedly brought Brooke and I closer together.  I would've been sadder had I not fully believed that I would return to both the Tetons and Yellowstone many times in the future.   


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Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks




     
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