Travel

Wyoming: Nature enthralls at Grand Tetons and Yellowstone

Kayaking in Colter Bay in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.
Kayaking in Colter Bay in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT

He was right out of Central Casting.

“I’m K-ay-n,” he said in his Western drawl as he walked over from his ranch next door.

Dressed in a white dusty cowboy hat, suede vest, jeans and metal-toed boots, the barrel-chested Wyoming native had come over to welcome us to the log home we had rented for five nights. Behind him in the corral, his horse Valentine nosed the dirt.

Ken, a retired large-animal vet, and his wife, Bobbi, kept an eye on this VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) for the wealthy couple who lived out of town.

He seemed a little hesitant, perhaps uncomfortable, having to deal with us city folks. When we asked him for the home’s Wi-Fi password, he had to skedaddle back to his ranch to try to track down the owner in search of what would seemingly be vital info for any vacation house.

Still, meeting Ken put us in the mood for this Western adventure to spend four days seeing two of the nation’s most beautiful national parks — the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.

The vacation home on a country road just a few miles outside the Moran Junction entrance to Grand Teton National Park provided the perfect launch point for our visit. It was early September, and the families that crowded park roads during summer months were dwindling. In their place were the AARP crowd, the empty nesters, young couples and people like us — old high school friends who reconnect every couple of years.

The Grand Tetons celebrates its 85th anniversary this year as a national park, and Yellowstone — the nation’s first, established in 1872 — celebrates 142 years. Beyond some spruced up lodges and refurbished trails and walkways, the parks and their stunning scenery look how I remembered them on a visit here in the early 1970s.

The National Park Service offers arguably the best deal in the country: a seven-day pass for a combined visit to the Tetons and Yellowstone for just $25. The NPS, however, is exploring raising that fee by $5, possibly by next year.

▪ Day One: On our first day we weren’t up for a strenuous hike, so we started out at the Tetons’ Colter Bay Marina to rent kayaks ($20 an hour for a double, $18 for a single, two-hour minimum). The marina opened out into a vast inlet framed by the majestic Teton mountain range. The bay was calm, and aside from a couple of motorboats that skirted the water a distance away, we were the only ones out there. We ate our sandwiches on a small island, sitting among large boulders as we gazed out at the almost indescribably beautiful view.

A friend had recommended closing out the day on the back patio of the historic Jackson Lake Lodge, the park’s main hotel. Built in 1955, it was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architect who also designed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, and lodges in Bryce Canyon and on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had a critical role in the preservation of the Tetons, funded the building of the lodge, whose 60-foot-tall panoramic windows in the grand lobby overlook Willow Flats, Jackson Lake and the mountain range.

The patio outside the lodge’s Blue Heron lounge is definitely the place to watch the sunset. We ordered huckleberry margaritas and drew in the view until it got a little too nippy.

▪ Day Two: Most people will recommend hiking around 1,191-acre Jenny Lake, one of the prettiest trails in the Tetons. A little more than seven miles around the perimeter, the loop trail is relatively flat but there are some rocky uphills and downhills, and hiking boots are definitely recommended.

The trails, bridges, visitor pavilions and other structures around Jenny Lake are undergoing a $17 million upgrade to make many of the paths easier to navigate as well as easier on the feet. Few improvements have been made since the system was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Construction of the whole area is supposed to be completed in three years.

If you’re hiking in mid-May through September and don’t want to traverse the whole loop, a boat shuttle can bring you back across the 21/2-mile long lake.

On the west edge near the boat dock you’ll find a trail that juts off to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. You do not want to miss this. After the Point, continue on to Cascade Canyon. This connects with Paintbrush Canyon — much deeper in the mountains where we passed seasoned backpackers wearing jingle bells to scare off the bears. “Make sure you clap before going around the corners,” cautioned one. We didn’t encounter bears but we did get up close and personal with a mini glacier and more waterfalls, which were just fine with us.

▪ Day Three: We spent Day Three with Kyle, our guide on a whitewater trip down the Snake River. Originally from Rochester, New York, Kyle was in his fifth year as a river guide, and he sprinkled humor into his presentation. (“On the left you’ll see a bear cave. That’s because it’s always bare.”)

Jackson Hole is filled with whitewater outfitters, so you can pick the level of thrill and difficulty you’re comfortable with. Our trip was a mix of calm and riveting with Class I to III rapids. And you can’t beat the view. Kyle said the Snake River draws some of the rich and famous — a fellow guide hosted Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire in his boat, and Vice President Joe Biden has made the journey.

Earlier in the day we went hunting for moose and found a bunch of them at Gros Ventre campground, about a five-minute drive from downtown Jackson. It was mating season, and they tend to congregate at that time along the river. For the most part they seemed to ignore the dozens of photographers and tourists watching their every move.

However, a week after we left Wyoming, a female moose died at the same spot after it was spooked by the throng of people and a rutting bull moose.

Park officials said they would crack down on wildlife viewing and planned to limit access to the area because onlookers were not honoring park rules requiring people to get no closer than 25 yards from a moose (and no more than 100 yards from bears or wolves). Indeed, when we were there the tourists hovered as close as 10 yards away from the moose — me included.

▪ Day Four: We saved Yellowstone for our last day. The park sits atop one of the world’s largest active volcanoes and has 10,000 thermal spots. In early July, one of these spots melted a section of a road near the appropriately named Firehole Lake. Even though Yellowstone experiences up to 3,000 earthquakes a year, scientists don’t expect any catastrophic eruption for 10,000 or more years.

We had ample opportunity to see wild bison and elk close up, the park’s “Grand Canyon,” assortment of hot springs and geyser basins, and of course, Old Faithful. We made it there five minutes before the blast — with hundreds of other spectators — and caught the whole show, which lasts from 11/2 to 5 minutes.

While Old Faithful may be the park’s most famous feature, we didn’t think it was the most interesting. We were enthralled by the colorful geyser basins, hot pools and mudpots — copper-colored, sky blue, yellow and emerald. Between the Upper and Norris basins is the world’s largest concentration of geysers. The Park Service has built walkways throughout these basin fields to allow a great view from a safe distance. The best scene was of a buffalo lazily lounging in one of the hot fields.

We didn’t get to Lamar Valley in the northeast edge of the park, where wolf watchers position themselves for days or even months to observe or photograph the packs. Dusk and dawn are the best times to see them.

While we were happy with what we covered in just a day in Yellowstone, we couldn’t imagine being here in the summer. Even in September, many parking lots were filled when we tried to stop to explore.

Going to Wyoming’s parks

Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to Denver; Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and United fly nonstop from Fort Lauderdale. Tthen you take a 11/2-hour flight to Jackson Hole. You'll know you’ve arrived because it’s decorated with statues of elk and other wildlife. The airport is eight miles north of Jackson.

Jackson Hole: Refers to the valley that is 80 miles long and 15 miles wide. The town Jackson (also referred to as Jackson Hole) is not as big as I expected, but it was more touristy than I had hoped. It has a very walkable downtown lined with shops, eateries, art galleries, small museums and hotels. The centerpiece is a town square, with each corner decorated with large arches made of elk antlers. It seems that all of the 4 million tourists who visit each year have to be photographed under one of these arches.

Western dancing: Across the street from the square, make sure to stop at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (25 N. Cache St., 307-733-2207; www.milliondollarcowboybar.com), which offers Western dancing and live music six nights a week. A bar since 1937, it features bar stools topped with saddles and animal mounts featuring a life-size timber wolf in pursuit of a bighorn sheep, a grizzly bear and mountain lions.

Lotus Cafe: For the crunchy crowd — way on the other side of the cowboy spectrum — Jackson Hole offers the fabulous Lotus Cafe (145 N. Glenwood St.; 307-734-0882; www.tetonlotuscafe.com/Lotus_Cafe/Welcome.html) offering organic and natural meats, vegetarian, vegan and raw choices from around the world.

Rafting: Most of the rafting companies that offer whitewater tours of the Snake River are based here. We used Sands Whitewater Rafting and Scenic Tours, based on recommendations from people who lived in town. (www.sandswhitewater.com). There are also ample hotels and lodges, but keep in mind that there is some driving to do to get to the national parks.

Driving: Grand Teton National Park begins five miles north of Jackson on Highway 89. Entrance gates are at Moose Junction, 12 miles north of Jackson or at Moran Junction, about 30 miles north of Jackson. For Yellowstone, you’re looking at a 60-mile drive north on U.S. 89 to the South Entrance, then another 40 miles to Old Faithful, which erupts every 60 to 90 minutes. Speed limits on these highways are low — 55 during the day/ 45 at night and slower in the parks to prevent collisions with wildlife.

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