Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grand Teton

On Monday, July 14, we rose early out of our campsite in Yellowstone to head south for Grand Teton. Almost immediately after driving into the park, we were rewarded with some amazing mountain views across Jackson Lake.

We puttered around for most of that day. We found a campsite at Signal Mountain campground, bought some fresh fruit, and inquired about a backpacking permit and were disappointed to find out that many of the Tetons’ great loop routes weren’t doable due to dangerous snowfields at the passes. That afternoon, we hung out at the Jackson Lake Lodge, whose main lounge is a veritable internet cafĂ©, with dozens of people working on their laptops in front of panoramic views of the Tetons through the lodge’s huge windows.

We drove out to Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats close to dusk to look for wildlife. We didn’t see anything, but the scenery sure was pretty.

Driving back from the lodge after dark, though, we passed elk after elk grazing right beside the road. Fortunately, they were all beside the road and not in the road.

The next morning, we got up pretty early and headed toward Jenny Lake to go hiking. On the way there, we got a good look at the Grand Teton from a roadside pullout.

At the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, we looked into a backpacking permit for the next two days. We had been considering routes in the south Tetons because that area was supposed to have less snow than some of the other routes closer to the Grand Teton. Besides, we had already hiked the fabulous Paintbrush Divide / Cascade Canyon loop almost six years ago, so we wanted to try something different. We considered two canyons in the southern part of the park, Granite Canyon and Death Canyon, and the rangers that we had talked to the previous day had told us that we couldn’t even reach the camping area in Death Canyon due to a steep snowfield just a few miles from the trailhead.

Today, though, at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, the ranger told us that we could easily hike up into Death Canyon, although we’d hit serious snow at the top of the camping zone and beyond. Since Death Canyon was supposed to be more scenic than Granite Canyon, and since this ranger seemed to know what he was talking about, we got a permit to stay in the Death Canyon camping zone for one night, planning to just do an out-and-back hike.

Grand Teton’s backcountry system is interesting, in that for the most part, they don’t have designated campsites. Instead, they have “camping zones,” which are regions of trail marked on maps and marked with signs on the trail that indicate where you enter and leave the camping zone. They have quotas for each zone, but once you get a permit, you’re free to stay anywhere in the zone, as long as you’re 100 feet from the trail and from water and you leave no trace. Some sites do have marked campsites, and in the interest of minimizing your impact, it’s best that you use one of those, but you’re not required to.

Anyway, after getting our permit, we started hiking the trail around Jenny Lake. More great mountain views were in store.

We hiked out around the Moose Ponds, which seemed like they should be chock full of mosquitoes and moose, but we saw no moose and surprisingly, very few mosquitoes.

We soon reached the opposite shore of the lake, where a ferry boat deposits tourists. There, we found a massive cascade of water.

And farther up was Hidden Falls.

A couple dozen people were taking beginning rock climbing lessons on the cliff above the falls. We stopped to watch for a few minutes.

Then we hiked up to Inspiration Point, a nice overlook of Jenny Lake.

We’d done most of this hike before as part of our backpacking loop six years ago, but it’s a fabulous hike, well worth repeating.

Toward the end of the hike, we got still more great mountain views.

When we finished hiking, we were famished, so Brian bought some ice cream at the general store. Sarah wanted real food, though, so we found a picnic area and make quesadillas for lunch and brownies for dessert (really, hot brownie pudding – they never really cooked through). It was a nice picnic table in the shade, so we stayed a little longer to play a game of Scrabble. Just a few turns into the game, though, it started raining, so we scurried away to find someplace indoors. The Jenny Lake Lodge let us play our game in their lobby while we watched it rain briefly outside.

The next day, we started hiking up Death Canyon. We expected to hit snow fairly early on, so we decided to start at the Granite Canyon trailhead rather than the Death Canyon trailhead so that we could hike some extra distance. The hike through the valley to Death Canyon wasn’t very exciting, but once we reached Phelps Lake, we got some pretty views.

We continued on and met a yellow-bellied marmot. These guys are different from the hoary marmots that we’d met near Mt. Rainier. For one thing, they’re brown, rather than gray, and for another, they aren’t nearly as roly-poly.

As we got higher up in the canyon, we were treated to some pretty waterfall views.

When we reached the camping zone, we found that many of the good campsites in the lower section were already taken. But after hiking about halfway up the camping zone (probably close to two miles – the camping zones are big), we found a very nice campsite, with some large rocks to cook on and a tent pad right next to the creek. A marmot thought he was invited to dinner and actually started nibbling on one of Brian’s pack straps until he shoed him away. Otherwise, dinner was uneventful, and we enjoyed sitting out and reading for quite a while in our relatively bug-free sitting area. As it finally started to get dark, we retired to the tent.

We hadn’t seen any snow on the trail so far, so the next morning, we decided to see how far we could hike up the canyon before hitting impassable snow. Maybe if we were really fortunate, we’d even be able to make it over the pass, and then we could loop around to Granite Canyon to hike out, rather than retracing our steps down Death Canyon.

Before we left, we took a picture of the view from the cooking / reading area of our campsite. We had a gorgeous view of the side of the canyon, which was covered in yellow arrowhead balsamroot flowers.

Here’s Sarah, tending our breakfast.

As we started hiking, we followed a creek up the canyon. We’d been warned of difficult river fords so we’d brought our water shoes, but so far, we’d been able to accomplish each crossing by either hopping across rocks or tiptoeing across fallen logs.

The side of the canyon was even prettier as we got higher, with occasional rushing waterfalls spaced among the wildflowers.

A few minutes later, the pass started to come into view. It looked snowy, but not nearly as snowy as we’d feared. We wouldn’t be able to tell if it was passable until we got closer.

Here’s Sarah near the top of Death Canyon. Our campsite is a couple miles back at this point.

For a place with such an unattractive name, Death Canyon sure was beautiful. We kept accidentally calling it Death Valley, whose relative barrenness seemed to better deserve the name. Neither Death Canyon nor Death Valley is named after the landscape, however, but rather after people who died there. Or, rather, legends of people who died there – Death Valley, at least, has had surprisingly few deaths, given its name and perilous climate.

Anyway, as we continued hiking up, we got a better view of Fox Creek Pass, which we’d have to cross to get to Granite Canyon.

In this photo, the trail switchbacked up the green slope to the right of the pass, eventually going through the trees and to the rocks and snow. From this vantage point, it looked like just a small section of dodgy snow that we’d have to cross to attain the pass. We started to feel more confident that we might actually be able to make it over.

The view down the valley was pretty fantastic at this point, too, as we started to be able to see Grand Teton over the canyon walls.

We switchbacked up, up, up toward the snow. During one rest break, we got a close-up photo of the arrowhead balsamroot that we’d been admiring on the side of the canyon.

Eventually, we made it to the snowfield. It was pretty much as it had looked from below. On the one hand, it was steep enough that if you slipped, you’d slide a ways and do some damage. On the other hand, the traverse across the snowfield was short – maybe 20 paces in the steep section – and below the snowfield was some brushy vegetation that would cushion a fall. Furthermore, even though it was still relatively early in the morning, the sun was beating down on the snow, softening it up for better traction. With our hiking poles to steady us, we decided to try it.

The first few steps were a piece of cake. Then came a section where we were walking side-slope – that was a bit tougher, since we had to kick with the sides of our boots to make footholds. But after maybe 10 steps of that, we were through the steepest part, and then it was smooth sailing to the top of the pass.

At the pass, we met a large group of kids who had come up Granite Canyon without ice axes or even hiking poles. They seemed fatigued, but they were happy to hear that they wouldn’t face much snow going down Death Canyon.

The pass afforded some new views of nearby mountains.

This monolith reminded us a bit of Devil’s Tower. It’s called Spearhead Peak.

From the pass, we hiked along the Teton Crest Trail for a couple of miles, and we were hiking on snow for most of that time. Fortunately, we were able to follow the kids’ tracks for much of that distance, and using Spearhead Peak as a reference point, we stayed mostly on course.

The crest is actually the boundary between Grand Teton National Park on the east and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the west. We came to a boundary sign and found another marmot, hanging out at the park border.

More great mountain views:

In places where the snow had melted out, delicate wildflowers had sprouted.

Here’s Sarah, navigating through the snow, trying to find the way down to Marion Lake, which marked the head of Granite Canyon.

After veering a bit to the right, we found the lake.

We got down to the lake, and Sarah tried to turn her camera on to take a picture, and … nothing. The camera wouldn’t start. It didn’t seem like the battery should be dead, and as it would turn out, charging the battery didn’t fix it. We’ll need to send the camera back to Canon for repairs – fortunately, it’s still under warranty.

As we hiked back down Granite Canyon, we got some more pretty views of wildflowers and waterfalls, although we agreed that Death Canyon was more scenic.

The trail was all downhill back to the trailhead, so we made good time, stopping for the occasional photo.

Throughout the day of hiking, Brian had been having daydreams of a shower and a pizza, so when we got back to the car, we drove to Teton Village and connected to the internet to see if we could find a motel in Idaho Falls. We succeeded with a coupon on – next stop, the Yellowstone Motel in Idaho Falls!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


After finishing up our backpacking trip in the Black Canyon of Yellowstone, we drove to the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park. We ate lunch at a picnic table in the area and then did the scenic boardwalk tour of the area’s geothermal features.

This cone from a now-defunct hot spring was the first stop along the boardwalk. At the time, the name seemed like it would be easy to remember, but after seeing dozens of geothermal features all the names run together.

Here, the hot, mineral-filled water runs down a hill.

Further along, we saw Devil’s Thumb and Minerva Terrace. The white formations are formed by calcium left behind from water flow. The hot water flowing to the right of the photo is colored by thermophiles living in the water.

Here are the views from the top of the boardwalk, looking out across the hot spring terraces.

This is a close-up of the water and formations in an active spring.

Continuing along the boardwalk, we got a view of the colorful Canary Springs.

Back in the car, we continued around the main park loop down toward the Old Faithful area. Along the way, we stopped to see just a few of the numerous roadside sites.

This is Gibbon Falls and the view down the valley from the falls.

Of course, we had to make some stops for wildlife jams as well. These elk were hanging out right beside the road and crossed just in front of us.

Next, we detoured down the Firehole Canyon Road, hoping to have a dunk in one of the few legal swimming holes in Yellowstone. Sadly, it was closed due to high water. Even if we didn’t get to swim, we did get some good views along the drive.

Our final stop before Old Faithful was the Fountain Paint Pots area. This area had no fewer than four tour buses and several dozen vehicles (which is actually nothing compared to Old Faithful Village). The up-close views of brilliantly colored thermal features made braving the crowds worthwhile though.

The mud paint pots were especially cool.

Here’s another bubbling mud geyser:

The view across the geothermal flats:

We also stood for a while watching Spasm Geyser shoot off.

Next stop was Old Faithful. Unfortunately, when we arrived the geyser had just erupted. Since Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes, we had awhile to wait until the next eruption. Fortunately, the Old Faithful Lodge offered cheap showers (only $3.25 for an unlimited hot shower!), so we put that time to good use.

Freshly clean, we joined the hoards waiting patiently for Old Faithful.

Old Faithful put on quite a show (the best one of the day, by several nearby watchers’ assessments):

There are a number of other geothermal features within easy walking distance, but at this point it was after 6 pm and we still had a longish drive back to the campground, so we decided to call it a day for sightseeing. Yellowstone is so huge that unless you have an incredible amount of time to spend there, you’d never see it all anyway.

We set up camp for the night at Grant Village, a campground in the park run by the concessionaire Xanterra. In typical Xanterra fashion, nothing is fast and it took us seemingly forever to get through the line to get our campsite. We set up camp and made dinner before diving into the tent to avoid the mosquitoes.

The next morning, we planned a day hike to Heart Lake. First, we set up camp at nearby Lewis Lake so we’d be sure to have a place to stay when we returned from our 15-mile hike out to the lake and back.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we noticed this odd sign.

This was something new. We weren’t sure if it was serious or someone playing a practical joke, but just to be safe, we removed our wiper blades anyway.

The Heart Lake trail is through an area of the park that burned during the infamous summer fires of 1988. The landscape is regenerating, but marks of the fire are still very visible.

The hike turned out to be horrendously buggy, hot, and with relatively unchanging scenery. We hiked at a very fast clip, trying to outrace the bugs, for over an hour before we decided it just wasn’t worth it and turned around. We were very glad that the backcountry campsites had been full when we were planning our backcountry trip, so we didn’t get stuck overnight in the bugs. The lake may be beautiful, but it would take a lot to make up for the overwhelming number of mosquitoes and the unexciting trail there.

With our newfound free afternoon, we hung out and did a much-needed load of laundry at Grant Village. Then we started driving north, planning to see Yellowstone Falls and do some wildlife viewing at Hayden Valley.

Along the way, we stopped at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. The basin is gorgeously situated along Yellowstone Lake and has some of the most brightly colored thermal features we saw.

Here’s Bluebell Pool:

Looking down Yellowstone Lake from the West Thumb Geyser Basin boardwalk:

The Big Cone geyser (presumably, more impressive when the water levels are lower):

Perhaps the most beautiful pool was the oddly named Black Pool, a sprawling expanse of brilliant blue:

The Abyss Pool and its runoff were also stunning.

Finally, a view of the whole geyser basin overlooking the lake:

Back in the car, we didn’t get far before being stopped by a buffalo jam.

These creatures are common throughout the park and are apparently the most common cause of wildlife-induced visitor injuries. Somehow, people think these enormous creatures are docile (though they weigh thousands of pounds and can run 30 mph) and thus do stupid things like trying to pose with them for photos.

Our next stop was the Mud Volcano.

Also at that stop, we saw the Dragon’s Mouth.

The site wasn’t as cool as the whomping sound emanating from the cavernous “mouth”.

Just a bit up the road, we stopped for the roadside viewing of the Sulpher Cauldron.

From here, we entered the Hayden Valley area, which along with Lamar Valley (in the northeast corner of the park), is one of the premier wildlife viewing areas in the park. It was worth a drive for the landscape viewing alone.

People set up high-powered scopes at the turnouts along this section of road and hang out for hours near dawn and dusk to catch a glimpse of wildlife in the distance. One nice family was set up on a hill and let us look at a grizzly sow and cub in the distance where the meadow met the treeline (i.e. four to five miles away).

Up closer to the road, we saw several herds of elk and more buffalo.

When we finally got to Yellowstone Falls, it was getting late so we didn’t stay long. We did walk out to Artist Point for a quick view of the amazing canyon and Lower Yellowstone Falls.

A steam vent was visible near the river.

We also got a fellow tourist to take a rare photo of us together.

And Brian got a photo of Sarah.

It was getting closer to sunset, and we drove back down through Hayden Valley, hoping to see more wildlife.

A herd of buffalo was not far from the road.

And a couple of buffalo were very close to the road.

There were also more beautiful vistas as the sun set.

We also saw another grizzly bear in the distance, moving in and out of tree line.

We didn’t get back to our camp to cook dinner until nearly 11 pm. All in all, it was a rewarding night of scenic driving and wildlife viewing. Tomorrow, we’d drive south to Grand Teton.