When I left my job at iPass earlier this year, my team gave me several terrific parting gifts. One that I especially appreciate is the America the Beautiful national park pass—for $10, a lifetime pass for folks over 62 (and the occupants of their vehicles) to virtually all of the parks under federal management: National Parks, Forest Service, BLM, and more. That’s an absolutely awesome deal, and we used it almost daily for a couple of weeks in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and often since.
These are parks I’ve wanted to visit since I was pretty young. Now I really regret not bringing our kids here—they are part of our heritage, instilling awe and respect for some of the more bizarre forces of nature. I’m not kidding—being here changes you.
June 10-12: Grand Teton National Park
Coming over the knuckle-biting Teton Pass from Idaho drops you down into Jackson, Wyoming, then you come around the corner and Jackson Hole and the Teton Range unfurl before you. The Tetons are composed of some of the oldest rock in North America—2.7 billion years old—that makes up some of the youngest mountains in the world; they just started forming about 10 million years ago. Massive earthquakes shoved them up while dropping the valley floor, so there are no foothills; you feel like you can walk up and lean against them.
We were able to stay at Headwaters at Flagg Ranch at the north end of the park, a terrific campground. I would do this differently next time though—our driving time to explore the park would have been considerably less if we’d stayed somewhere more central. We cycled between Jenny Lake and Moose, watching Pronghorns feed along the way; and hiked along Jenny, String and Leigh Lakes—in glorious sunshine!
June 13-19: Yellowstone National Park
You probably know that Yellowstone was our first national park, established in 1872. Did you also know that there was no park service until 1916, and the park was protected by the US Army from 1886 until 1918? I can imagine that the soldiers who then became park rangers were happy to escape being sent to Europe to fight in the Great War. Fort Yellowstone is well preserved at Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, where we stayed for a few days, with a distinctly different character from the rustic architecture elsewhere in Yellowstone.
But first, we stayed in the dreadful town of West Yellowstone just outside the west entrance. We did see Old Faithful erupt a couple of times, which was pretty cool; even cooler was the Grand Geyser. It’s not far away, but it doesn’t get as much attention because it’s a lot less predictable than Old Faithful, erupting every 5-15 hours, shooting 200 feet up and accompanied by two adjacent geysers. Here you can meet dedicated, 12 year old, self-proclaimed “geyser gazers”, who will really educate you on these amazing things. (The video you see above is just the first 24 seconds of the 9:39 eruption!)
But the phenomena that really knocked me over were the other geothermal features: the constantly changing, bizarrely beautiful hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), mud pots and travertine terrace formations cascading down from the springs.
And it’s true what they say about wildlife here: there really are herds of 50 buffalo ambling down the road. Elk mommies and babies are plentiful too, and they feed in the peopled areas because they feel safe from wolves and bears. There are warnings everywhere not to approach the elk, but they ignored the signs and walked right by us. We saw a couple of bears from afar, but, sadly, no moose. I still hope to see some moose.
We’ve been feeling so grateful that we finally could be here. While we love our wonderful parks and natural beauty in the northwest, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are so unusual and on such a grand scale; they’re a tough act to follow for whatever is down the road.
June 19-25: Billings and Little Bighorn, in eastern Montana
The best thing about Billings, by a very long shot, was getting our hot water heater problem fixed. Finally, a shower lasting longer than 20 seconds!
But since we were there, we explored a bit. There are 2 things I’ll remember most about Billings: there’s a coal train going by almost every hour, and there’s a casino on every corner—no exaggeration. The trains are funneling mountains of coal from the mines in the Powder River Basin (in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana) to Asia, via the export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Those trains are 120 cars long—imagine what that’s doing for Billings’ traffic (and China’s air quality).
Just outside of Billings we tramped around Pictograph Cave State Park, with rock paintings left by prehistoric hunters in caves below dramatic sandstone cliffs.
Then, heading east with our nicely purring hot water heater, we visited Little Bighorn Battlefield, which we found very moving. The National Park Service is doing a nice job of telling a balanced story of the battle and profiling a few key soldiers and warriors. And we stayed an extra day so we could be here on the 138th anniversary of the battle. The memorial to the US soldiers has been here for about 137 years; we were lucky to be here for the dedication of the completed memorial for the Indians who also fought and died here.
Leaving Montana, we headed east again, into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Having left the Pacific Northwest behind and traversed the Rockies, we definitely left our realm of experience. If you’ve spent time in the northern states from here on east, we’d love your advice on where we should explore down the road!