Glacier and Banff National Parks

Flying into Kalispell, MT reminded me a lot of flying into Idaho Falls. Both airports are tiny, with no more than a handful of gates to fly from. You can arrive 30 minutes before your flight without concern of getting held up in security causing a missed flight. There might be one or two places to formally sit down and eat, and a couple choices for snacks and beverages. That’s where the similarities end when comparing my trip to Yellowstone to a trip to Glacier National Park.

We knew that there was no chance we would see nearly as much wildlife in Glacier as we saw in Yellowstone, so those expectations could not have been set too high. We thought Yellowstone would pale in comparison to the gorgeous, sweeping views and panoramic vistas of Glacier National Park since it is part of the Rocky Mountain range. Driving on the Going to the Sun Road from western Kalispell to eastern Many Glacier it was evident this was not a bad assumption. The road treacherously teeters along the side of the mountain, with drivers heading east clinging to the mountains edge and drivers heading west cautiously avoiding the sharp mountain wall. Many opposing drivers had to come to a stop to allow one or the other to proceed in order to make sure neither made an expensive mistake. Driving certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.

As we made our way through the park, smoke from ongoing wildfires permeated the air. The beautiful vistas were a hazy landscape. Only outlines of mountains could be seen. All color and texture were lost, muted by the dense smoke. It smelled like a campfire. We smelled like a campfire. To say it took the wind out of my sail was an understatement.

On our way through the park we stopped at Avalanche Creek and walked the mile long Trail of the Cedars. Huge cedars lined the wooden walkway, but the showstopper belonged to the Avalanche Gorge. About halfway through the trail there is a footbridge where the river water cuts through the rock to Avalanche Creek. Here we could see everything in the completely clear water. It was deceptively deep at about 6-7 feet deep, though it looked like it could only be inches because of how clear it was. This was one of our favorite parts of the park. Even with smoke permeating the air, the creek was crystal clear.

Continuing to drive east, we stopped at Logan Pass and hiked to Hidden Lake. Along this trail we got our first views of some of the applauded wildflowers that line the creeks. I can only imagine how beautiful this place would be in the spring! Further down the trail we encountered several mountain goats and a marmot right on the trail. Views of the lake below were not nearly as breathtaking as they would be on a clear day, but the unexpected wildlife raised our spirits. We loved the goats!

Day 2

Early the next morning we decided to hike one of the most popular trails, Grinnell Glacier Trail. We expected this experience to guide us to decide whether or not we wanted to spend the rest of our trip in Glacier, or if we should cancel some of our reservations and spend time across the Canadian border in Banff National Park. Starting around 7:30am, much of the smoke had dissipated overnight. We were excited to have a chance to see the park in all its glory. Armed with our bear spray, we began trekking along the Swiftcurrent Lake then Lake Josephine making loud noises to deter any bears from eating us for breakfast. Thoughts of bears consumed our minds, fueled by research and stories of encounters throughout bear country. We clapped and sang in mild paranoia of bears ready to lunge at us at any moment. Pretty sure we would’ve scared them with our off-pitch high notes, but alas, we did not see a single bear.

As the trail began to rise, views of a third lake came into view. Even with the smoke beginning to set in, sights of Grinnell Lake, bluer than any lake I’d ever seen, sat perched between the mountain range surprising unsuspecting hikers like ourselves, motivating us to continue. Our legs were quite worn out from the continuous climb but we pressed on. The last half mile was exceptionally killer since we were already tired and it was very steep and rocky. When we finally reached the glacier we could not believe our eyes. A fourth lake, milky turquoise blue, came into view. It sat directly below the Grinnell Glacier, no doubt formed by the melting of the glacier over hundreds of years. We were able to experience the glacier all alone because of how early we started our hike. Not a single sole was passed while we hiked to the top. It was awesome 🙂

We passed many people on our way back down, everyone asking “how much further?” out of breath. Lunch was had and finally we were back where we started at the Many Glacier Hotel. In all, we made the 12 mile round trip in about 6 hours. We collapsed on the couch in the lodge, right in front of the giant fireplace. Shortly thereafter snow began falling in the mountains. After already hiking 3 trails and not seeing a change in anticipated smoke, we decided it would be best to head to Banff the next day. Both of us had always wanted to go to Banff anyway, and this was a good opportunity to find out if it was worth a trip at some point in the future.

Day 3

We left our hotel at 5:30am, cramming in the few minutes of network usage we got between the park’s edge and the Canadian border. Since we didn’t have any maps of Canada and we wouldn’t have reception outside the United States, this was vital. We took numerous screenshots of the route to Banff and TripAdviser’s top 10 things to do once we got there. Once we arrived at the border, there was a large gate, locked tight, with a sign saying “Hours of Operation 7:00am to 11:00pm.” The border closes?! Let this be a lesson to everyone that the United States is open from 7-11 only. Ha!

We waited about 20 minutes for the clock to strike 7:00am before a man pulled up and unlocked the gate. The Canadian border patrol tried to convince us to go to Waterton instead of Banff, stating the bad traffic in Banff and Asian tour busses that flock to the park. We disregarded her advice and followed the Rockies straight north. The morning sun and big sky of rural Alberta made for an extremely pleasant drive. Once we arrived in the park, we stopped in the title town of Banff to get maps and advice from the Visitor Center. We waited in line for about 30 minutes before finally receiving a tiny map of the town and the Lake Louise area. I requested a map of the surrounding area and though the guide acknowledged she had them, she denied me. Ok. Onward.

We decided to spend our time in two ways: the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and the Plain of Six Glaciers trail. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is located in Banff and is the reason why Banff is a national park. That said, it was nothing special. The cave was about 25 feet in diameter with a pool of water giving off strong scents of sulfur. We paid $3 to get in, and were in and out in about 10 minutes. I’ve seen bigger, more interesting caves in the boring midwest. Once we realized we had been duped, we got out of there as quickly as we could. Better experiences were to be had!

It took quite a bit longer to get to Lake Louise than we anticipated. Banff (the park) is huge! I think it took us about 45 minutes to get there from the town via the highway. Traffic backed up throughout Lake Louise. People parked all along the road as the end was a giant parking lot that undoubtedly was full. We parked near the end and walked up to the lake. After having seen Grinnell Lake and it’s milky turquoise blue color, Lake Louise did not shock us with its color. However, Lake Louise was much more accessible. We could walk right up to it and put our hands in the water. Red canoes speckled the lake. White-capped mountains shot up on both sides of the lake. It was yet another spectacular sight.

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail begins at the far end of Lake Louise, and of course goes straight up the mountain. Early on there were rapids and waterfalls that lined the trail. As we climbed higher, the view of Lake Louise behind us only got more incredible. The bright blue water cradled between the towering snow-capped mountains covered in vibrant green pine trees resulted in the same photo captured over and over again. It was beautiful! Near the top of the trail there sits a tea house. It appears to have been someone’s home that’s been converted into a small restaurant. The Lake Agnes Tea House workers climb the same trail as visitors once a week, bringing with them fresh groceries for their rotating menu. We wanted to enjoy a piece of blueberry pie, but we were already pressing against our allotted time if we wanted to make it back to the US before closing time. We pushed onward to the top of the trail, taking in the sights of Abbott’s Pass and the Lower Victoria and Mount Lefroy Glaciers before heading back down.

At this point we were power-walking back around Lake Louise, watching the clock in growing recognition we were getting a little behind schedule. The plan was to be on the road by 5:00pm so that we would make it back to the border even if we needed some contingency time. As we pulled out of our parking spot right at 5:00, we were happily on our way back. We decided to get out of the park and stop in Calgary for food and gas. That plan went out the window right when we crossed the park border and hit deadlocked traffic due to road construction. We spent at least 45 minutes going about 5 kilometers in distance. Eventually we approached an exit for a road that I could partially see on one of my map screenshots. It headed south and looked like it might be a large, makeshift bypass around Calgary. Given we had already spent about an hour going nowhere, we didn’t have a choice but to try it if we wanted to sleep in our already paid for hotel that night. By this point it was evident we weren’t going to be stopping at a restaurant. Pringles and beef jerky ftw!

As we headed south on Route 40, we passed through some of the most beautiful scenery, though we were more focused on where we could find the nearest gas station. After the gas light came on, we finally passed a tiny gas station buried off a side road. We pulled a U-turn and headed to the pump, relieved we finally found a gas station in the expanse park. I jumped out and tried to turn on the pump with no avail, so I headed to the door. The gas station was closed. It was 8:03pm and the gas station closed at 8:00. It was starting to feel like nothing was going to go in our favor when we got back on the open road. Eventually we made it to the tiny town that connected us to the main highway we drove in on. Theresa shot off to the restroom while I got the gas pumping. We traded places, dug out our passports, hung up the hose and hit the road. No time to spare! The fastest path back to the main highway turned out to be a gravel road. Awesome. Now on the main highway we encountered more construction, speed limit set to 50 km/hour. Here we started running manic calculations of the conversion of kilometers to miles, our speed and the distances from one town to the next. We sped like crazy for an hour and a half in pitch black on a highway surrounded by free range horses and bison hugging the white lines of the highway. Fortunately we made it to the border station in one piece with 15 minutes to spare. Whew! We made it!

Day 4

Much of the next day was spent chuckling about how ridiculous our previous day had been, and how lucky we were to be back in Glacier for the night. We checked out of Many Glacier en route to Whitefish. We opted to make our last hike the Highline Trail after ditching the Iceberg Lake trail because it would have been our third trek up a mountain to see a glacier. The Highline Trail starts at Logan Pass and took us along the edge of several mountains, the trail sitting like a shelf on the mountain ledge. We went out about 4 miles before the smoke started overtaking the views. On our way back west along the Going to the Sun Road, we visited Lake McDonald. This lake is traditionally blue, though it is extraordinarily clear. We enjoyed some peaceful moments at the lake’s edge, before continuing to make our way to Whitefish. By now we had our fill of the park and decided to head to Whitefish where we would spend our remaining time in Montana.

Whitefish is a very nice town located a few miles west of Glacier National Park. It sits on Whitefish Lake and boasts some of the best summer and winter vacation spots for travelers all around the area. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake delivered some of the most relaxing moments of our entire trip. The rooms were not missing a thing! They were huge, with a lavish bathroom complete with separate bathtub and shower. After a couple of hours enjoying the comfort of the room, we made our way down to the pool and tiki bar where we had a couple drinks and delicious dinner all while overlooking the lake and the sun setting behind the hazy mountains. It was the perfect ending to a great, albeit unexpected trip!


New River Gorge

Located in the heart of the United State’s rich mining history, New River Gorge is a beautiful park that overcame its industrial past. Once populated by coal dust, railroads, mining and timber towns, New River Gorge managed to avoid permanent scarring. Railroads and coal conveyers still sprinkle the landscape, but today they provide a window to the mining world that employs the West Virginian population, past and present.

The New River cuts through the lush green Appalachian mountains providing ample opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts. White-water rafting is among the most popular activities on the New River, as it is home to some of the best rapids in the United States. Hiking, rock climbing, cycling and fishing are on the short-list of activities that kept us entertained for days.

Day 1

For our first day in the park, we decided to go to ACE Adventures and raft the New River. Our other option was the Gauley River, which is known to be more of the bucking bronco of the two. Since we were traveling with my mom and sister who had never gone before, we opted for the tamer of the two. The Lower New River all day trip still gave us plenty of thrills! My two sisters, mom and I were paired with 4 young men from Indiana who were outgoing and goofy. Along with our tour guide, Smiley, they made the excursion a lot of fun! It didn’t take long before I was thrown out of our raft on the second rapid we went through. First out of the raft for the whole crew! Not much later a big rapid shot Kara airborne across the raft taking out Katie in her path! Both ended up in the water, getting hauled back into the raft by our newfound friends. Part of the way through the trip we set up a small camp on the beach and the ACE Adventure guides made a hot lunch. The hot food warmed us from the cool June air that we were unfortunate to experience during our river ride. During our trip, the water felt warmer than the air temperature!

As we continued down the river, we came across a giant rock from which our guides encouraged us to jump. Kara and Katie were the only two of us bold enough to give it a go. Near the end of the excursion, we made our way to some lower class II rapids which I believe they called body rafting. We jumped out of our raft and let the current take us through some boulders that created some swift currents for a totally different kind of rafting experience. At this point we were able to catch some good group photos of us in the river with the New River bridge in the background.

Once the trip was over, the guides brought us back to the ACE Adventure Resort where they prepared a DVD of our trip. We found it to be worth the wait. We laughed and laughed as we watched what really happened when we tumbled out of the raft, and some close calls of those who were nearly thrown out yet managed to somehow stay inside. On the river it all happens so fast you only get a small dose of what all happened. On DVD, we had the whole picture at regular speed, slow-motion, rewind and re-watch.

After taking showers and cleaning up, we went into Fayetteville to find something good to eat. Pies and Pints, a small pizza style restaurant in Fayetteville, won out. They made their own root beer, and it was almost as good as their pizza. It certainly was a good cap on a good day.

Day 2

This morning we decided to sleep in a little bit since our zipline adventure started at 10:15. We booked this through ACE Adventures as well. Before we left on our vacation, our research proved we could get better discounts by booking ahead and grouping adventures. We rode on a total of 9 zip lines in about 2 hours. We went from one rocky cliff top to another, with some of the best ones nearer to the end. After that we took Smiley’s recommendations on trails worth hiking and started on the Long Point Trail which ended with a great rock plateau overlooking the New River Gorge and bridge. We hiked this trail 3 different times during our trip easily making it our favorite. Living in the midwest, views like that at the end of the Long Point trail can be few and far between. We also did the Butcher Branch trail which intersected with the Long Point trail. Mom took a spill on our way down the steep trail, but her pain was worth the gain. There was a beautiful waterfall at the end of the trail. Coming back up to the top of the trail was a workout!

This evening we ate at the Cathedral Cafe in Fayetteville. As you may have guessed, the cafe is inside an old cathedral, complete with stained-glass windows and soaring ceilings. It doubles as a library, housing a collection of donated books free for the curious minded. After dinner we went to the Visitor Center, just north of the bridge on state road 19. We took a small trail there that took us to an outlook of the bridge. There were some good photos of the bridge we snapped. After that we went back to Long Point, hoping to get some good photos of the bridge. We found out we needed the morning sun. It was still a relaxing way to end the day. We decided to top the day off with an ice cream cone from McDonalds, before heading back to the motel.

Day 3

We got up nice and early and headed straight to Diamond Point via the Endless Wall trail. The trailhead was not well marked, but we were able to find the parking lot. This trail took us up to the top of the gorge where there were several outcroppings of rock where we could easily look down on the river cutting through the valley. We saw two deer on the hike. Diamond Point is the largest rock outcropping, and there were many areas to peek out. The brush and trees up there all appeared to have been burnt somewhat recently. We continued on the trail and eventually got a peek of the bridge, but no good photos were to be had. Shortly after, the trail started going downhill so we decided to head back to the start since it was not a loop.

After finishing the Endless Wall trail, we drove the slow, winding backroads to Babcock State Park. This was a beautiful park with a working grist mill and beautiful water falls. After many pictures and a trip to the gift shop, we headed down to Sandstone Falls. We had to drive a while to get to the falls, so maybe it’s something we would not repeat, but it was another view of New River.

From there we headed down to Beckley, WV to visit a coal mine museum. They actually had a complete mining village that was reconstructed for display. We went through the museum, then the village which consisted of a family home, a one person house for a single miner, a schoolhouse, a chapel, and the huge three story home of the supervisor. Later we rode on an actual mining car down into the mine to learn how the mining was actually done. The tour guide was a descendent of miner’s who used to earn their keep in the dark, dangerous coal mines. The average coal miner had to use a pick axe in the working space of the underside of a desk with no more light than what his headlamp provided. Laying on his side in a claustrophobic tunnel, he would pick away at the walls until he had enough to load by shovel into his wagon. The miner’s were paid by the ton! Heartbreakingly, these mining towns were owned by the mining companies who paid their employees in company issued scrip instead of government issued currency. This meant the earnings were only usable in places that were owned by the mining company. Furthermore, the homes, grocery stores, hospitals and other basic-needs suppliers were owned by the mining companies. So at the end of a long week of working in the mines, a miner had to pay his company issued scrip back to the mining company for his rent and groceries. In the end, the miners hardly had anything to live on, and their savings weren’t worth anything outside of their mining village. The injustices miners had to endure barely raise it above slave standards.

After the mining expedition, we headed to the Outback Steakhouse for a delicious meal. Then, of course, we had to hit McDonalds for our 49 cent ice cream cone 🙂 before heading back to the motel. Sue, Kara, and Katie enjoyed the hot tub a bit, while Erin relaxed in the room.

Day 4

We got up early once again, ate our continental breakfast, then took one last hike up Long Point trail, hoping to capture some good pictures of the bridge at daybreak. It was a beautiful morning for a hike! Eventually it was time to start our trip back home. During our drive back,we stopped at Bob Evan’s original farm in Rio Grande, OH. We toured their farmhouse, where they displayed antiques used during the era of the original restaurant opening and aired some of the old commercials. We then ate in the restaurant before heading back to Erin’s house in Cincinnati.


A Week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

When I was planning my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, I browsed endless sites telling me that I couldn’t experience everything Yellowstone had to offer in one trip. People far and wide have visited Yellowstone on several occasions and still hadn’t crossed everything off the list. Well, when I plan a trip I don’t do it with intentions of having to come back. The world is full of spectacles demanding to be seen. I don’t want to succumb to the reality that I will never be able to do it all. So I don’t.

If you like to take your time, tinkering around one or two attractions a day, then this agenda probably isn’t for you. But if you are like me and you want to experience all of the highlights with a good dose of off-the-beaten-path, then this itinerary will let you see more of Yellowstone than you can find anywhere else.

For a thorough trip, I recommend planning 6 or 7 days, depending on how long your drive/flight takes you to arrive. If you’re flying, be sure to check all surrounding airports, not only for saving a buck on your flight, but also to check out the costs of car rentals. I decided to fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho for four reasons:

  1. The arrival time (12:52pm) and departure time (3:16pm) allowed me to maximize my days
  2. Car rentals from the Idaho Falls airport were ~$100 cheaper than at other local airports
  3. Drive time to the West Yellowstone entrance and Jackson, Wyoming were both a manageable 2 hours from Idaho Falls
  4. It allowed me to cross another state of my bucket list (true story)

It’s important to look at the first two of these together. I originally thought I would be getting the best deal by flying into Bozeman, MT. However, after realizing my flight arrived at 11pm when all car rental places were closed meant I would have to stay the night in Bozeman. Not a big deal, I thought. I could just get up early, pick up the rental car and kick off my adventure at dawn. Not so. The car rental did not open until 7am, and if it was anything like car rentals from past experiences, it would have a line 5-6 deep by the time I got there. Also, my return flight from Bozeman to Cincinnati departed at 6am, which meant I would have to either drop off my rental car “after hours” and pay an additional fee, or drop it off by 9pm the night before and lose more precious time that could be better spent. Which brings me to my next point. The cost of time. After mapping out drive times from Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Jackson, and Denver, Idaho Falls offered the shortest and most even drive times considering we planned to visit the northern most part of Yellowstone all the way south to Jackson. Flights were easily half to a third of the price from Salt Lake City and Denver, but our trip purpose was to experience the great outdoors, not the cramped interior of the cheapest rental car we could afford.

Yellowstone National Park divides into four primary hotspots: Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and Southeast. I find that it is easiest to tackle the expanse park by cutting it up into these manageable sections. The route you take through the park is entirely up to you. Depending where your starting hub is, you’ll probably want to start by whichever one is closest to you. Since we came from the western entrance, we started at the southwest section first. This allowed us to do a big clockwise loop through Yellowstone before heading south to Grand Teton National Park. And since the southwest is full of geysers and other geothermal features, we didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of what was in store for us.

Day 1

The southwest section is chock full of places to go. You’ll want to spend your day visiting the 3 geyser basins. Start at the Upper Geyser Basin, the southernmost of the three. Here you will immediately get to see what most people travel to Yellowstone to see, Old Faithful. Between eruptions you can tour the Old Faithful Inn, the oldest standing hotel structure in the park. Its hallowed halls reminded me of what I envision the Titanic must have looked like. You can also walk the boardwalks and trails and see many, many more features. Each of these are unique in their own way, so don’t just gawk at Old Faithful and call it a day. Bike rentals are available though I discourage them because they aren’t allowed on the boardwalk, which means you don’t get to access much of what you’re there to see.

After checking out Old Faithful, make your way north to the Midway Geyser Basin. We were largely unimpressed by this one, primarily because the Grand Prismatic Spring is the key attraction and it’s difficult to see when you’re so close to it. Optimally you would get to view it from above. You can get a better view by taking the Fairy Falls trail (photo below); you only have to go about a mile to get the best view. The Midway Geyser Basin was also a heavy tourist destination. Busloads of people were there which made it hard to enjoy.

The Lower Geyser Basin is the least touted and touristy of all of the stops, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit. It isn’t very big, and you can walk the boardwalk to see the Fountain Paint Pots and geysers. Given that you can see all of the sights here in less than an hour, you should make it a point to take it in before moving on. We finished off our day watching Old Faithful erupt from the upper deck of the Old Faithful Inn while having a local craft beer.

Day 2

On your second morning in the park, start driving north toward Mammoth. On the way, drive through the Firehole Canyon and take in the waterfall. It won’t take but a few minutes to drive the loop and be back on the main road. Next, stop at the Norris Geyser Basin. You can never see enough geyser basins! We felt this one was pretty unique and underrated. The Porcelain Trail took us right through the heart of the basin with much to take in. We did this trail early in the morning which made for quite an eery feeling. Whatever time of day you pass through, be sure to stop.

As we continued north, we got our first sighting of elk and bison. We couldn’t contain our excitement as we pulled over, put on our 4 ways, and jumped out of the car. Little did we know this was just the tip of the iceberg for our wildlife sightings. Of course no one is guaranteed to see wildlife, especially from within site of your car, so don’t hold back expecting to see something later.

When we got to Mammoth we drove up to the hot springs since they’re on the south side of the historic district. Up there we found another amazing view of natural wonders, this time with the town of Mammoth below. Terraces of calcium deposits highlighted by colorful bacteria and algae had us wondering if we were on another planet for a moment. After making a brief stop to the visitor’s center, we started on the Beaver Ponds Trail. The is quite steep at the beginning as the trail is shared with the Sepulcher Mountain trail. Keep at it and you’ll be glad you did. The views were magnificent! We could see all the way up to the Boiling River and beyond to Gardiner, MT. We saw 4 elk along the trail and were told by others we passed that we just missed about 30 more. The trail is about 5.5 miles, which took us about 3 hours. It was time well spent! As we approached the town, we stumbled upon an elk grazing on the lawns of the town buildings.

a few miles north of Mammoth are the famed Mammoth Hot Springs. We parked at a lot and walked down a riverside trail to the springs. Clothes draped over fences along the trail indicating we had reached the springs. Many were brazen enough to enter the cold water, easing their way to the mouth of the Boiling River where the two rivers converge. Regretfully, we retreated back upstream without taking a dip.

Day 3

Head east on the Grand Loop Road over to the Lamar Valley. The Lamar Valley is known for the hundreds of bison that graze through the valley. The solitude and sanctity made it one of my favorite places in the park. Drive east about 32 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs until you get to the Lamar River trailhead. This trail goes ~7 miles out and back through the cutting valley. We were fortunate enough to see at least 50 bison along this trail, with one sitting all alone right on the trail and another moseying down the mountain as we rested on a log. At first we couldn’t tell if the speck at the top of the mountain was a bison or not. After it began moving downhill, we were certain it was, so we decided to stay put and see how close he would pass by. The bison made quick work of traversing downhill! Before we knew it he was observing our presence, deciding what to do. We were all a little nervous even though he was about 25 yards away. Eventually he decided to swing around us in an arc, keeping our attention throughout. We were delighted to get to see some bison in their natural habitat instead of along a road which had started to become a common occurrence. Be sure to stay at least 10 yards from them as they are dangerous, although their constant, peaceful presence can convince you otherwise.

On our return journey, the clouds lifted and we were able to see the gorgeous valley we’d been hiking through in all its glory. The sun brought out all the colors of the blue sky, green trees, and yellow grass. We spent some time just taking it in.

After finishing the Lamar River Trail, make your way west and south to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The 24 mile long canyon offers yet another uniquely impressive sight. Cutting through the canyon, the Yellowstone River curves its way south until it flows into Yellowstone Lake. Follow signs to the South Rim of the canyon. Take the South Rim trail which partners with Uncle Tom’s Trail and Artist Point. The South Rim trail is a fairly flat and easy 2.5 mile hike that takes you along the canyon rim to Artist Point. You will get some of your best photos of the canyon and the waterfall at Artist Point which truly resembles a painting, but be warned, tourists and tour busses are everywhere. If your legs aren’t exhausted, take Uncle Tom’s trail into the canyon. On a sunny day you’ll catch rainbows created from the mist of the powerful waterfall. There is nothing more than a small landing at the bottom of the steps, so it can get quite crowded, but you’ll get your closest shots of Yellowstone Falls if you’re patient.

While we were hiking the South Rim trail, my mom stopped to talk to a girl wearing an Ohio t-shirt. She originally said she was from Dayton, the later refined her homeplace to Tipp City, a place not far from where we were from. Since we’re from a very small town in farm-country Ohio, it’s enjoyable to meet people from nearby towns, even though “nearby” can be an hour or two away. Meeting this girl 1500 miles from our homes was a pleasant reminder of how small the world can be sometimes.

Day 4

When we got up fog coated all of the scenic areas. Hayden Valley could not be seen, so we took a quick loop around Dragon’s Mouth and soaked in the sulfuric scents that wafted through the air. I say this sarcastically as the smell was almost hard to stomach at times, but it’s a staple of the geothermal features of the park. Hayden Valley was still foggy, so we decided to head north and hike the Mt. Washburn trail. We knew that it would take us a while to reach the peak since it was a little over 3 miles and a 1400 foot elevation gain. The views were supposedly spectacular, though it was a bit of a gamble given the dense fog coating the entire valley. We decided to buy some sandwiches and set out on the hike, knowing we could take our time to let the fog clear. Much to our delight, the fog lifted as we climbed the mountain. Bighorn sheep caught our attention about halfway up the mountain. Once we reached the peak we could see the entire park, from the Lamar Valley to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to Yellowstone Lake to Old Faithful. We could even see the Grand Tetons! It was spectacular! There’s a watch tower at the very top to spot fires in the park, and a ranger lives in the tower atop the mountain. I can’t imagine living in such an isolated location, but the view wouldn’t get old! After conquering the peak, we decided to eat our sandwiches near the top while looking out towards the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake. There cannot be a more magnificent view of the park to have lunch. We soaked it in.

When we originally set out for Hayden Valley first thing in the morning it was because we had seen several signs at the ranger stations that a bear had been spotted feeding on a carcass. Because of the fog, we couldn’t see anything. When we returned, there were plenty of others trying to get a peek at the bear making it hard to park. The reports of the bear had also started more than a week before, which we took to mean there couldn’t be much left to the carcass by the time we arrived. We waited a bit to see if the bear was around before taking off to see the rest of the valley. Sun shining down on the Hayden Valley shows off so many shades of green they cannot all be counted. With the Yellowstone River cutting through its marshlands, it is a truly unique and beautiful sight.

If you aren’t worn out yet, or for some reason you skipped the Mt. Washburn trail, hike Elephant’s Back Trail. It’s only about 3 miles, though it has some pretty steep elevation gains which is very challenging if you conquered Mt. Washburn earlier in the day. Elephant’s Back Trail provides some unique views of Yellowstone Lake, and would be especially neat during sunset. We hiked this trail in the morning and had the sun shining towards us which washed out some of the color gushing from the outlooks along the trail. It was still worth it, but we knew it could have been better.

Day 5

Our last day in Yellowstone was bittersweet. We had seen so much! All of it surpassed our expectations. Yet we were eager to get to Grand Teton National Park. Before we left Yellowstone, we walked through the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Some people recommended skipping this one, but we hadn’t been to a geyser basin that we didn’t enjoy, so we chose not to skip it. We were all glad we didn’t! This basin was unique in that it was right next to Yellowstone Lake. Many of the geothermal features were right in the lake itself. All of them bursted with superior colors. While we were there, we ran into another person wearing an Ohio t-shirt. When he said he was from Dayton, Theresa pressed him asking if he was really from Dayton or if he was from a smaller town like Tipp City. Turns out he really was from Tipp City and he was in complete shock that Theresa, a person he had not known for more than 10 seconds, somehow seemed to know this. We all laughed at the unlikeliness and shared the story about the girl we had met earlier in the week who was also from Tipp City.

After enjoying the West Thumb Geyser Basin, get some road snacks and head down to Grand Teton. Take the 42 mile drive and enjoy the many vistas and pullouts that give hard to rival panoramas. One advantage the Grand Tetons have over Yellowstone is that there are more pullouts and it is far less crowded. You also have a much greater chance of seeing moose! We followed every road, sign, and pointer that had the word “moose” in it – Moose-Wilson Road, Moose Junction, Moose Ponds, etc. After spending the entire day in the park, we were deflated from not seeing nearly as much wildlife as we saw in Yellowstone and exactly zero moose.

We only hiked one trail in the Grand Tetons, the Jenny Lake trail. It is the most popular trail, and for good reason. The trail is pretty easy while walking around the lake, and there are wildflowers that spot the path. Once we reached the other side of the lake, the trail splits for Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls, each worth viewing. We opted to take the boat back across the lake.

Day 6

Before taking off and heading back to the airport, we decided to get up early and search for a moose one last time. After spending 2 hours driving around everything named moose again and again, we decided to finally give up and leave the park. Just as we turned onto the main road, we saw two moose at moose junction cross the road behind us! We whipped the car around as quickly as we safely could and watched them mosey across the road and into the woods. Only about 3 carloads were fortunate to get to see them and we were elated to have been one of them. We could finally depart feeling like we had seen everything there was to see.

I haven’t said much about Jackson, Wyoming, a popular vacation destination, because I found it touristy and underwhelming. If visiting endless tourist shops is your idea of a fun trip, then this town is for you. My expectations were too high, and the whole town reminded me of a hotel gift shop. You should and probably will visit just because there’s not many other places to stay near Grand Teton and you should experience it for yourself. Perhaps by better setting your expectations, you will have a different impression. And visiting in winter would no doubt be an entirely different experience as the ski slopes seem to end right into the streets.