Week 4: July 25-31 The Old West
Week four brought us into some of the classic Western parks. We got up close to bison, felt the heat rise from geothermal springs, roamed across prairies, glimpsed iconic sculptures, and cooled off in a true-blue glacial lake, under the best mountain scenery of our trip.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho
Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the world's first national park. 96% of Yellowstone is located within Wyoming, but Montana lays claim to 3%, and Idaho trails along with 1% of the park in its boundaries.
Yellowstone sits on top of an active volcano, and there are over 10,000 geothermal features in the park, including hot springs, geysers, mudpots, and fumeroles. At least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone since 1890, according to the NPS.
We walked among the hot springs at Lower Geyser Basin, which is the largest in the park, covering 18 square miles. It is also the area with the largest volume of water discharged. The NPS website states that measurements made in 1930 indicated a volume of about 15,300 gallons per minute!
We also went to the most spectacular of the hot springs: the Grand Prismatic Spring, located in Midway Geyser Basin. At 370 feet across and 121 feet deep, it is the park’s largest hot spring, with a temperature of about 160 degrees. Its rainbow appearance is due to thermal-loving microbes that live on its surface. Here is a description from Smithsonian Magazine that describes this phenomenon:
"Hot springs form when heated water emerges through cracks in the Earth's surface. Unlike geysers, which have obstructions near the surface (hence their eruptions), water from hot springs flows unobstructed, creating a nonstop cycle of hot water rising, cooling and falling. In the Grand Prismatic Spring, this constant cycle creates rings of distinct temperatures around the center: very, very hot water bubbles up from the middle and gradually cools as it spreads out..."
"Water at the center of the spring... can reach temperatures around 189 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it too hot to sustain most life...Because there's very little living in the center of the pool, the water looks extremely clear, and has a beautiful, deep-blue color (thanks to the scattering of blue wavelengths—the same reason oceans and lakes appear blue to the naked eye). But as the water spreads out and cools, it creates concentric circles of varying temperatures...And these distinct temperature rings are key, because each ring creates a very different environment inhabited by different types of bacteria. And it's the different types of bacteria that give the spring its prismatic colors."
Of course, we paid a visit to Old Faithful to watch the world's most famous geyser erupt. The NPS says, "Old Faithful can vary in height from 106-184 feet (32–56 m) with an average near 130 feet (40 m). This has been the historical range of its recorded height. Eruptions normally last between 1.5 to 5 minutes." Old Faithful erupts around 17 times a day and can be predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate within a 10 minute variation. Sure enough, we saw it erupt 10 minutes before schedule!
The eruption was as impressive as we had been lead to believe. Old Faithful did not disappoint!
Besides geothermal activities, we also did a little hiking and scenic driving (aka looking for wolves) in Yellowstone. Wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, 69 years after the last wolf was killed there in 1926. The Lamar Valley, in the northeast section of the park, is the best place to view wolves. We drove through the valley, but given that it was midday, the notoriously skittish and mostly nocturnal wolves were not out for us to see.
Yellowstone's features were very beautiful, but to be honest, our experience was marred by the crowds. We expected crowds. It was summer, it was the centennial, it was Yellowstone, one of the crown jewels of the NPS. But we were definitely not prepared for just how busy it was.
Even on a Sunday morning, at one of the campgrounds that had sites open, we waited in line for three hours to get a campsite. There were people in line who had waited for two hours, only to be told that they didn't make the cut. We got very lucky. Most of the park's campgrounds were first come, first served, and we just had to deal with this because we switched our itinerary around and were playing things by ear. The park does have privately-operated campgrounds that are reservable, and this may be worth doing if you know your dates months in advance.
The roads will be packed, and you will wait in line for everything you want to do or see (unless you go hiking, which we did.) But, if you want to see Old Faithful, the hot springs, or animals, you're going to experience massive crowding, traffic congestion, etc. hen you visit the hot springs and mudpots, you have to travel along a raised boardwalk for safety. When a long line of hundreds of people are clamoring to walk, stop, and take a picture in exactly the same place, shoving and bumping is bound to occur. Watch out! You don't want someone's selfie stick to knock you into a 150 degree hotspring...
Word to the wise: don't go to Yellowstone in July and August. If you must, try to go to the major attractions early (before 9 am) or late (after 6 pm), or go in for the day and camp outside the park. Even consider backcountry camping to get off the grid and away from the masses.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Tetons were simply sublime. The morning of Tuesday July 26, we broke camp at Yellowstone and headed to the gateway town of West Yellowstone, then dipped south through the Targee National Forest of Idaho. Soon, we curved back southeast to re-enter Wyoming.
The drive was stunning. As you approach the border, the Teton Range gradually comes into view, and eventually dominates the skyline. The Tetons are an unusual mountain range, because they do not have foothills. The peaks are straight up, shaped like a jackknife, and very rocky.
By mid-afternoon we were trailing the gorgeous Snake River, searching for a campsite in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We easily found one, set up, and decided to head into the town of Jackson for some old-west cowboy sightseeing. Jackson is the gateway to both Yellowstone and Grand Tetons (which are only 45 minutes apart.) We enjoyed some of the touristy kitsch before heading back to camp. The Snake River at sunset was truly something.
The next morning we headed into the park and easily snagged a campsite at Signal Mountain by 8:00. We wandered over to the Jackson Lake Marina, and rented a tandem kayak for two hours. It was the perfect time of day to be out, mid-morning, sun warming the water, but still refreshing.
Jagged and defiant, the Teton Range seems to rise directly from the lakeshore. Ribbons of blue and green water give way to pebbled shores. We snaked through little island channels, soaking it all in.
After kayaking, we did a quick one hour hike on the Christian Ponds Trail, which wound through scrubby meadows and took us to some overlooks of Emma Matilda Lake. It was an easy 3.5 mile loop that definitely delivered on the Tetons views:
After working up a little sweat, we had to take a dip in Jackson Lake. It's no exaggeration to say it was the best swim of our lives. The water was certainly not warm, but it was far better than most mountain lakes. Dozens of families were out that day enjoying the water.
We lounged on the "beach" at Colter Bay for two hours, before enjoying an ice cream and an NPS movie at the visitor center on wolves in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
This is an under-appreciated aspect of the National Parks: the ranger-led talks and visitor center videos. Occasionally you get a lone ranger who doesn't have the best public speaking skills and drones on an on, or cracks bad jokes. But we did a number of these talks and videos, and for the most part, they were exceptional and interesting.
We heard talks on: the California condor (the largest bird in North America with a 9 foot wingspan, way larger than Michael Phelps); Mesa Verde archaeology; the geology of the Grand canyon; the history of bison at Yellowstone; wolves and grizzly bears in the Tetons; and various types of "animal senses" at Capitol Reef. Don't miss out on these! It gives you a whole new depth of understanding about the park.
On our last full day, we wanted to do a classic Teton hike, so we hoofed it on a nine mile loop trail around Jenny Lake. Starting at String Lake, we worked our way toward Cascade Canyon, decided not to go that route, and checked out Inspiration Point before heading back on the return leg.
This hike was our favorite of the entire trip. Long miles, outstanding views.
South Dakota, “Great Faces, Great Places”
Post-Tetons, it was time to head east across the plains of Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We set up at Comanche Park Campground and went into the town of Custer for a few hours, before checking out the Crazy Horse Memorial light show at night.
The Crazy Horse Memorial depicts Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Interestingly, it is still under construction.
In the 1930s, Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, was searching for a sculptor to build monument to a Native American hero. After learning that Korczak Ziolkowski had won a prize for sculpting at the World's Fair, he wrote to Ziolkowski, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too."
Ziolkowski agreed, and work began in 1948. Though he died in 1982, his wife and children continue to work on the monument and operate the memorial museum. The sculpture's final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet. Crazy Horse's head will be 87 feet. The monument and museum are run by a non-profit foundation and do not accept any state or federal funding.
The night show, Legends in Light, depicted Lakota traditions and history in colorful, 3D light displays. It was incredible! We couldn't get clear photos or video, but this link gives you an idea:
In the morning, we saw Mount Rushmore National Monument. Each head is 60 feet high. This means Crazy Horse is taller than Rushmore, a little known fact.
The monument has a couple of cinematic claims to fame. Parts of National Treasure were filmed here, and it was also the location of the chase scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The four presidents represent different era in American history:
- George Washington: the struggle for independence & birth of the nation
- Thomas Jefferson: territorial expansion
- Abraham Lincoln: permanent union of the states & equality for all citizens
- Teddy Roosevelt: 20th Century role in world affairs and rights of the common man
Later that afternoon, we toured Jewel Cave National Monument, which is the third longest cave in the world (181 miles.) It is also unique because, unlike many other caves, it was not carved by underground rivers. Instead, it was formed by the movement of acidic groundwater.
The cave has a constant, cool temperature of 49 degrees, so it provided nice relief from the hot day! We explored some of the passageways and famous cave formations.
The next day, we hit Wind Cave National Park intending to explore more caves. Unfortunately, the cave tours were booked for the morning, so we had to continue on. But, we did get to enjoy the scenic drive through Wind Cave. The park actually features two divergent ecosystems: the underground world of caves, and the above-ground world of the prairies. We saw plenty of bison roaming about.
Badlands National Park, established 1978
Wind Cave was only a few hours from the Badlands, so we continued east to our final national park. Badlands National Park was formed over the millennia by the dual process of sedimentary rock deposits and subsequent erosion, resulting in light-colored, striated buttes and pinnacles.
We arrived just before noon on a 100 degree day, not the ideal conditions for a long hike. So, unfortunately, we only got a 30 minute taste of the Badlands. We walked a boardwalk trail and, once we got to the "continue at your own risk" sign, veered off onto the rocks for some close-up exploration.
We wandered through some of the eroding, chalky buttes that stretch on in harsh, bleached out layers. The Badlands are a rugged place, to be sure. Dry, cracked, harsh, and seemingly inhospitable...
While the landscape seems totally barren at first blush, the Badlands are home to a surprising array of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and rattlesnakes are some of the usual suspects. The Badlands also includes a stretch of grassy prairie where bison can be found.
Week 5: August 1-6- The Home Stretch
On our last week, we said goodbye to the national parks and spent a few days driving and doing some city exploring.
We stayed in Pierre (the capital) and Sioux Falls (a major city) in South Dakota to grab a shower and some laundry.
We drove through fields of sunflowers in North Dakota, the “Peace Garden State,” and enjoyed a night in Fargo, complete with tacos, margaritas, and a really horrible (-ly awesome) $5 Zac Efron movie, "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates." Sometimes you just need popcorn and AC...
On August 3, we crossed into Minnesota, the land of “10,000 Lakes,” and drove to Perham to meet up with Kara’s boyfriend Justin. We toured the cute downtown, and while they had dinner with his family, I checked out the surrounding area.
I caught the cornfields at sunset and snapped a few polaroids. This rural part of Minnesota reminded me of the South. Dusty roads, endless waves of crops, quaint small-town charm.
The next day we drove to Minneapolis, and, unfortunately said our goodbyes! Just like that, one month to the day on August 4, our trip was over.
Kara and Justin were set to attend a wedding that weekend, and I was set to drive the car back to Denver. But not before I passed through Iowa (corn, hay fields, and cows) and Nebraska (more corn, more hay, you guessed it- more cows!) On Friday August 5, I returned to Denver and dropped off our trusty Kia Rio, which we had lovingly named "the white whale." The next day I flew back to South Carolina.
I could offer many platitude to sum up our trip. I could try to encapsulate all that we saw, felt, and experienced in a neat, polished sentiment. Such a task is impossible.
Yet, there is one quote that has stuck with me since I began researching and exploring the parks. So, I will leave it to Wallace Stegner — Pulitzer Prize winning author, environmentalist, professor, and perhaps "the" Western writer:
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
- National Parks: 11
- National Forests: 16
- National Recreation Areas/Grasslands: 5
- National Monuments: 9
- Total NPS Units visited: 41 / 412
NPS Units Visited
- Arapahoe National Forest
- Pike National Forest
- Mount Evans Wilderness Area
- San Isabel National Forest
- Uncompahgre National Forest
- Florissant-Fossil Beds National Monument
- San Juan National Forest
- Curecanti National Recreation Area
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
- Four Corners National Monument
- Navajo National Monument
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Navajo Bridge)
- Kaibab National Forest
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Pipe Springs National Monument
- Dixie National Forest (Red Canyon)
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument
- Fishlake National Forest
- Craters of the Moon National Monument
- Caribou-Targee National Forest
- Flathead National Forest
- Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
- Glacier National Park
- Helena National Forest
- Bridger-Teton National Forest
- Yellowstone National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Shoshone National Forest
- Thunder Basin National Grassland
- Buffalo Gap National Grassland
- Black Hills National Forest
- Mount Rushmore National Monument
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Wind Cave National Park
- Badlands National Park
- Fort Pierre National Grassland