Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

On Wednesday 7 June, following 12-days of moochdocking in Colorado, we hit the road for the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks. With a vague notion of destinations, no reservations anywhere, and no solid schedule other than returning to CO before July 4th, it felt great to be back on the road.

We spent the morning making our way across Colorado’s high plateau from the Vail Valley towards Wyoming. After a delicious lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Craig, CO, we turned north on CO-14 and entered Wyoming. For miles on end we saw nothing but rolling hills, distant mesas, and the occasional Pronghorn. Eventually, we met up with Interstate-80 for a quick 80-mile jaunt to the west towards Rock Springs, WY, before heading north towards Jackson.

For the most part, we prefer the meandering and more picturesque US and State highways more than the Interstates. We enjoy driving through the small towns and seeing the interesting sights along the way. The back roads give us a real feel for an area’s personality. However, sometimes we need to strike a balance between our back roads mosey and the need to put some mileage behind us and an interstate is the solution.

After 413-miles, we finally called it a day. We spent the night at the very nice Warren Bridge BLM Campground just outside Pinedale, WY. We considered some free dispersed BLM camping options further south, but Warren Bridge was an hour closer to Jackson and had a dump station on site. It made more sense for us because we planned to dry camp in the Tetons and wanted empty black and grey tanks and a full fresh water tank. There were only a handful of other rigs at Warren Bridge and the über-friendly hosts immediately greeted us and gave us the rundown. Owen enjoyed riding around the campground and playing in the labyrinth after 8-hours cooped up in the truck.

airstream at warren bridge

Our campsite at the Warren Bridge BLM Campground. Did you know a labyrinth is different than a maze? Neither did I, but the camp hosts explained it to us. Evidently, the hosts have been working here for several years and built the maze labyrinth in 2013 or 2014…they’re very proud of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of it.

Early the next morning, after a thorough pump and dump, we headed north and followed the thaw-swollen Hoback and Snake Rivers into Jackson, WY and Grand Teton National Park.

The Tetons is one of our favorite National Parks. Both Anna and I still recall the awe we felt upon first seeing the peaks rising up over 7,000-feet from the floor of Jackson Hole. We could sit and watch the vast array of diverse wildlife in the valley or the clouds roll around the peaks for hours on end. Grand Teton National Park never seems to gets old to us.

Owen checking out Phelps Lake after our day hike in Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve area of Grand Teton National Park.

Owen checking out Phelps Lake after our day hike in Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve District of Grand Teton National Park.

Though we didn’t have reservations, with several options both inside the park and in the National Forest surrounding the valley, I was confident in our ability to find somewhere to stay. Our first choice was a National Forest dispersed camping area known as Upper Teton View. Given the quantity and quality of reviews on Campendium, I suspected this area might be busy. I was right!

airstream grand teton national park big big trip

Our free campsite overlooking the Grand Tetons!

Luckily, we arrived at Upper Teton View early and managed to snag a prime spot with gorgeous, unobstructed views of the valley and the Tetons. Once we were parked as the afternoon wore on, the dispersed area quickly filled with other travellers. The building community didn’t bother us though, we still had our view and new-comers were spacing themselves out nicely so as to not interfere with other campers. However, after a GIGANTIC Texas fifth wheel pulled up right next to us, deployed their multiple slides, and fired up their TWO loud and obnoxious generators, I was beginning to question the wisdom of our decision.

jackson wyoming elk arch grand teton national park big big trip

We spent one afternoon exploring Jackson, WY. Besides a bustling tourist trade (t-shirt shops, tacky souvenirs, etc.), Jackson has an awesome park in the center of town, the highlight of which are these four Elk Antler Arches. We also enjoyed a delicious late-lunch and beers at the Snake River Brewery.

Over cocktails that evening, Anna and I even began to discuss moving to one of the National Park campgrounds because they have rules and designated sites. For instance, you generally can’t run your generator 24/7 and you have to park in a designated site, that isn’t right up in your neighbor’s junk. Thankfully, the Texans killed their generators sometime around 10pm—I guess when they were done playing video games and watching their satellite TV—and everyone had a restful nights sleep.

phelps lake grand teton national park

Another shot of Phelps Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

We awoke the next morning to find the Texans (and several of the other late arrivals) gone; the camping area was peaceful and empty again. This would become the routine for the remainder of our stay. By mid-afternoon, overnighters would start to arrive in droves and by sunset the place was packed. However, by early the next morning the grassy plateau was relatively empty again. Since we were out and about most of the time, combined with our relatively isolated and front-row view of the Tetons, we spent four glorious nights enjoying our own little slice of paradise. We hated to leave. That is until we were packing up and three GIGANTIC matching fifth wheels pulled in.

The obligatory photo of Moulton Barn [Grand Teton National Park].

The obligatory photo of Moulton Barn [Grand Teton National Park].

As the new rigs jockeyed for position, I noticed they were hovering like vultures, waiting for our luxurious site to open up. Being a good neighbor, I mentioned we had about 30-45 minutes before we were ready to depart and they were welcomed to our site. No problem, the new comers killed the time by unloading a couple full-size, residential propane grills and more than one ATV, while enjoying several PBRs and smokes. Meanwhile multiple dogs and kids ran amok around the entire dispersed camping plateau, inspecting the other sites and alternately throwing rocks off the ridge or at each other. Maybe we didn’t hate to leave after all?

grand teton national park sunset big big trip

Our final sunset from our door at the Upper Teton View dispersed camping area just outside Grand Teton National Park.

Where I was pretty confident in our ability to find a campsite in the Tetons, I was less so about our chances in Yellowstone. Given how crazy Yellowstone is in the summer, combined with the fact that many of the first-come, first-served campgrounds were still closed for the season, I was concerned that we may not find a spot inside the park. Because Yellowstone is HUGE, we definitely wanted to be inside the park so we wouldn’t be forced to deal with the entrance lines.

Towards the end of stay in the Tetons, after we had done everything we wanted to do, we decided to take advantage of a bad weather day and drive to Yellowstone to scope out campgrounds. Grant Village was the first open area as we drove north from the Tetons. While Anna and Owen checked out the Grant Village Visitor Center, I went to the campground to see what was available. Our plan paid off with a reservation for five nights in the Grant Village campground. On Monday June 12th we moved to Yellowstone National Park.

june snowstorm yellowstone national park big big trip

During our first few days in Yellowstone, we enjoyed less than optimal weather, which ran the gamut of rain, thunderstorms, cold, snow, and thundersnow! Since we were dry camping, the weather forced me to break out the generator for the first two days in order to keep our batteries charged.

We had first visited Yellowstone in October 2009, during a cross-country move. Anna was five months pregnant at the time so Owen has never been to Yellowstone. Our 2009 visit was right after the first snowstorm of the season and the park was relatively empty and incredibly beautiful with all the fresh snow. We managed to score a last minute room at one of the lodges near Old Faithful and had a fantastic time touring the empty park. While we knew it would be much busier this time around, we looked forward to sharing Yellowstone with Owen.

During our Yellowstone visit, Owen worked on two kids' activities, the usual Junior Ranger book and the Yellowstone Young Scientist Book. The Young Scientist program dealt specifically with the park's geo-thermal features and featured a Ranger-led walk through the Upper Geyser Basin. Each kid is issued a backpack of scientific gear and Owen took his responsibility very seriously. He was the only Prospective Young Scientist on the walk, so we had a very personalized guided tour of the Upper Basin. Earning the patch was tough, but we all learned a lot!

During our Yellowstone visit, Owen worked on two kids’ activities, the usual Junior Ranger book and the Yellowstone Young Scientist Book. The Young Scientist program dealt specifically with the park’s geo-thermal features and featured a Ranger-led walk through the Upper Geyser Basin. Each kid is issued a backpack of scientific gear and Owen took his responsibility very seriously. He was the only Prospective Young Scientist on the walk, so we had a very personalized guided tour of the Upper Basin. Earning the patch was tough, but we all learned a lot!

In all, we spent 10-days in Yellowstone. Our plan was to spend the first half our stay in the southern portion of the park and then move further north to make exploring that end of the park easier. During our stay in Grant, we managed to explore most of the major southern areas, including multiple visits to the Upper and Midway Geyser Basins, as well as the Canyon area. We also spent one long afternoon driving out through the Lamar Valley, which was relatively deserted and stunningly picturesque.

castle geyser yellowstone national park big big trip

We timed our return visit to the Upper Geyser Basin so that we could catch both Castle Geyer (above) and Grand Geyser erupting. Both were spectacular!

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyer Basin [Yellowstone National Park].

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyer Basin [Yellowstone National Park].

After Grant, we headed north. We had been unable to get a reservation for our second half stay and planned leave early and stop at campgrounds until we found something. Our first planned stop was at Madison (our preferred choice). If no joy, then we would venture onward to Norris, Indian Creek, and ultimately Mammoth. If we couldn’t get a site anywhere in the park, we would take it as a sign and leave Yellowstone to continue our explorations into Montana. As we approached Madison, I commented to Anna that since I had been unable to get a reservation all week, we should skip it and continue to Norris. Anna insisted we stop and I’m glad I listened to her! Even though the sign out front said “Full” we snagged a really nice pull-through site. The folks at the front window cautioned me that I might not fit into that site, but we easily got into it and had room to spare. In our opinion, the Madison Campground is one of the nicest campgrounds in Yellowstone and is easily our favorite.

baby bison yellowstone national park big big trip

Although the crowds were starting to build, the highlight of visiting in early June is the opportunity to see all the baby animals. We spotted a bear cub in Grand Teton (sadly, no picture) and about a thousand Bison Calves in Yellowstone.

Where Grant was old, run-down, crowded, and muddy (we had a lot of rain and snow during our stay), Madison was much newer, with clean and well-maintained facilities. Madison’s campsites were also large with plenty of open space amongst the trees to spread out. With the majority of our touristing completed, we were able to sit back and enjoy Madison’s numerous Ranger Programs and its easy access to the Madison, Firehole, and Gibbon Rivers. Although Owen had already completed his Junior Ranger and Young Scientist booklets and earned the patches, he attended several Junior Ranger programs at the Madison Junior Ranger Station. The campground’s location at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers into the Madison River made fly fishing these world-renowned rivers an easy walk from the campground. Owen and I spent a few mornings and afternoons on the water looking for fish. The Bottom Line? We loved Madison and can’t wait to go back.

owen with echo fly rod big big trip

Teaching Owen to cast his new fly rod in Madison Campground [Yellowstone National Park].

madison river fly fishing yellowstone national park big big trip

Owen breaking in his new fly rod on the Madison River [Yellowstone National Park].

owen and dad in eno hammock madison yellowstone national park big big trip

We really enjoyed Madison Campground. Since we had seen most of what we wanted to see, and the weather had dramatically improved, our final few days in Madison were much more relaxed [Madison Campground, Yellowstone National Park].

Midway through our visit to Yellowstone we began to notice an increasing number of daily visitors. On Saturday, 17 June I drove into West Yellowstone, MT to procure a very specific fly rod for Owen and discovered a quarter-mile long line to get back in to the park. Finding a parking spot at the popular attractions between the hours of 10am and 4pm was becoming difficult. Trash was starting to overflow. The geysers were beginning to sprout hats and vault toilets at the pullouts were extra ripe. On Monday the 19th, we drove to Mammoth Hot Springs and promptly got stuck in a 5-mile long Bison-Jam that took an hour to negotiate. Yellowstone finally thawed for the season and Humanity was beginning to bloom; time for us to go…

grand canyon of the yellowstone yellowstone national park big big trip

As usual, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was incredible. With the spring thaw in full force, the Falls of the Yellowstone River were pretty dramatic.

upper mammoth terraces yellowstone national park big big trip

We were feeling pretty burnt out by the time we got to the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, so we didn’t spend as much time exploring as we could have…We’ll have to spend more time here during our next visit!

old faithful junior ranger young scientist yellowstone national park big big trip

A Junior Ranger and a Young Scientist!

We knew it was time for us to move on as congested roadways, wildlife-induced traffic jams, overflowing parking lots, and humanity-clogged visitor centers became the norm. Don’t get me wrong we love Yellowstone! Spending 10-days in the park had us reconsidering future plans and wondering if a season in Yellowstone was right for us? We enjoyed almost every minute in the park and briefly considered relocating to Mammoth or trying to extend our stay at Madison, but we knew we had to pull-chocks and continue our journey. So, we were just a little sad as we packed up and headed out on the 20th. But our departure decision was quickly validated as we passed a 10-1/2 mile long, on-coming lane, Bison-jam that was filled with cars, trucks, and RVs of every shape and size, all loaded with people looking for some Yellowstone magic. Time for us to go before that magic wore off…

north entrance gateway theodore roosevelt yellowstone national park big big trip

This beautiful archway, which Theodore Roosevelt dedicated in 1903, stands at the northern entrance to the park and welcomes visitors. Part of TR’s speech is immortalized at the top of arch and it says, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” As we sat in more and more traffic jams, I kept telling myself to embrace the sentiment of TR’s words, but the reptilian core of my brain told me it was time to go.

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2 Responses to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

  1. Chrissy J. says:

    Did the rangers tell you the sad story of the Morning Glory Pool? So named because, originally, it was all shades of vibrant blue, like a morning glory. But over the years, people threw so much junk into it, it changed the temp of the pool, which changed the types of microorganisms that lived there, which changed the color. There’s an article on Smithsonian Magazine’s website about it, from a couple of years ago, for the interested reader.

    • Jeff says:

      Thanks for the comment! There are several signs nearby that tell that same story. I realize that those things happened years ago, but a lot of people still do a lot of stupid and selfish things at these parks, although it’s better in the National Park Sites than in the state or locally governed sites. For instance, we are in Colorado Springs this week and visited Garden of Gods (a Colorado Springs City Park) yesterday…what a zoo! We saw tons of folks flagrantly climbing on the rocks and taking selfies right next to the “Stay on the Trail” and “Do Not Climb on the Rocks” signs. People can be such assholes!

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