National Park Tour 2010

(Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National parks - July 2010)

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Trip report

Elaine, Sierra, Cooper and I had a fantastic three week (mostly) tent camping auto tour of Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks.  Our 3,120 mile adventure took the family over high mountain passes, winding river roads and wide open plains; and in the end we felt inspired by the beautiful geography and diverse animal life our national parks had to offer, although I’m pretty sure our minivan will never smell the same!

The trip started with a drive out to a friend of a friend’s cabin (and accompanying guest cabin – sweet!) on the east fork of Mill Creek in Montana (just north of Yellowstone); there we met our friends (who had driven out from Kentucky) Mike, Teri and their son Henry.  A friend of theirs offered us the use of the cabins for the month of July, providing a nice “home base”.  Our reunited group spent a few days of R&R reacquainting ourselves before making day trips to Yellowstone; exploring Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar and Hayden Valleys, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mud Volcano areas of the park.  Making the commute from the cabin for several days made us realize that staying in the park would be necessary, as Yellowstone is so large and the travel times increased because of the traffic snarling “bear jams”; so we decided to camp for two nights in the center of the park for better access to Norris Geyser Basin, Fountain Paint Pot, Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful Basin and West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Showing Sierra and Cooper the boiling mud “hot pots”, multi colored “prismatic hot springs” and the enormous fountain-like geysers of the Yellowstone caldera were the original attraction to the National Park.  What came as a surprise was the amount and diversity of wildlife.  Herds of pronghorn, elk and bison, but also yellow-bellied marmot, chirping pica, scavenging coyote along with black bear (some cinnamon colored) and grizzly bear.  The birds we saw were equally amazing: trumpeter swan, white pelican, heron, hawk, osprey and eagle to name a few.  Animals were literally everywhere!  The only thing I really wanted to see and didn’t was a wolf (I woke up early one morning in the hopes of spotting one in the Lamar Valley).  Although I’ve never been on an African safari, I was left with the impression that Yellowstone National Park is as close as one can come to that experience in the lower 48 United States.  That being said, the swarms of stupid humans got in the way of any impressions one might harbor for a “wilderness experience”.  The views Edward Abbey expressed in his classic book Desert Solitaire were abundantly brought to life as people jumped out of their cars, trampled subalpine wildflower filled meadows, and put themselves in jeopardy in the quest of a “perfect shot” of large potentially dangerous wildlife (special emphasis on DANGEROUS WILDLIFE).  Rarely have I seen such an opportunity for the human herd to be culled by the animals being jeopardized by said humans.  Karmic justice (in my opinion) would have nature “thinning” several busloads of these “stupid humans” every summer in Yellowstone.

. . . Whew . . . now that I have gotten that off of my chest, we can move on to Grand Teton National Park, which was pleasantly less crowded than Yellowstone.  We camped for five nights at Colter Bay, which provided fun playing opportunities along Jackson Lake for Sierra, Cooper and Henry as well desperately need services like showers and laundry.  We hiked Taggart, String and Leigh lakes along with Inspiration Point and Cascade Canyon. I also woke up early a couple of mornings to watch the alpenglow sunrise over the majestic vertical rock faces of the Teton Range.  A sense of bewilderment took hold one morning remembering Ken and my epic climb of the Grand Teton via the Exum direct route way back in 1992.  That climb was probably the most “classic” of my climbing career, and 18 years and two children later I’m not so sure I’d attempt it today (route description part one and two).

Eventually the cabin started calling our names, so everyone piled into our cars and drove back to the relaxing paradise along the east fork of Mill Creek; where we spent a rest day before driving west to Virginia and Nevada cities, both period western mining communities dating from the 1860s.  It was interesting to see and a bit of a highlight for Sierra and Cooper, as Elaine and I broke our normal rule by allowing them to go nuts in a fully-stocked candy store, where they loaded a couple bags full of salt water taffy, flavored jelly beans, lemon heads, spearmints, and other assorted goodies.  We then said our sad goodbyes to Mike, Teri and Henry, as they were headed back to Kentucky, and we were headed to Glacier National Park.

What Yellowstone had in strange geological features (as well as animals), and Grand Teton had in vertical rock, Glacier had in stunningly gorgeous mountains.  Peak after peak with seemingly endless interlinked ridges, all with stunning waterfall-filled green valleys fading away in every direction.  It was a marvel! Once again we chose a centrally located campground (Avalanche Creek) to be able to explore the park, hiking Avalanche, Fish and Hidden lakes.  Sierra and Cooper had an absolute blast running up and down a snowfield near Hidden Lake, where we also saw several herds of bighorn sheep and mountain goats.  Another thrill was for Sierra and Cooper to earn their third National Park Junior Ranger badge (they had also earned badges in Yellowstone and Grand Teton).  The relaxed atmosphere and overall beauty made me think that of the parks we visited, Glacier is where I’d like to go back and explore some of the more remote areas.

Our 3,120 mile journey ended with an 11 hour and 15 minute driving day from the Avalanche Creek campground to our driveway.  Elaine was ready to get home, and to be quite honest, so was I.  The simple luxuries of refrigeration, clean sheets, and blissful quiet were all a delight after our long journey.  There’s nothing like being away to make you appreciate home!

In the final analysis, every National Park we visited was crowded . . . overrun, even . . . and the sense of wilderness was a rare experience.  But even with these pitfalls, they are a treasure!  Each park had amazingly unique geography, flora and fauna.  They are a birthright of every American, whose preservation is more patriotic in my mind than baseball or apple pie.  I’d highly recommend jumping in the family wagon and seeing them all!

Photos from the trip:  Click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.


Travel links

Trips from the last two years    Interactive travel map



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