After making our way into the depths of Wyoming we finally were on track to arrive at Grand Teton NP on our third day in. This was our first park stop, and also the first night of camping/the only night we did not have a campsite reserved in advance for the entire trip. Naturally, I was freaking out about this, since it was 4th of July weekend and nothing first come first served is ever guaranteed. On the other hand, MJ was very nonchalant about the entire process, he insisted we stop as many times as possible before arriving to the campsite to take in the views, while I just wanted to have it figured out. We stopped in the small town of Dubois outside of the park to gas up the car and made our way through the entrance en route to Signal Mountain Campsite. We had great views of the Tetons on the drive in, I was still at the point where the sight of mountains with snow on top of them in July is so unusual and breathtaking, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We finally made it to the campsite and circled around the loop in search of an empty site. Since we are both new to both National Park camping/camping in general we did not really understand the system right away but we were thrilled when we found a spot that appeared empty and inviting for us to take. We parked the car and got out to take a walk around the rest of the site, see everyone else’s set ups, find the bathrooms, etc. As we looped around and came back upon our spot we noticed a car parked behind us, blocking us in. Confused, we approached the older woman who was waiting for us to return. Turns out, she had the spot reserved for that night and the next few nights of the weekend, we just didn’t realize because her indication was on the tiny piece of paper at the site post rather than a tent set up or other equipment laid out to show occupation like the other sites we had seen. Expecting a sassy confrontation with a woman clearly more experienced than us, it turns out that Jane ended up being the best thing to happen to us. She is a native of Wyoming and the Teton area and had the spot saved for the weekend but wasn’t using it that night. She agreed to let us just pay her for the night and we could use it and be out the next morning before her party was due to set up. Score!!!! I couldn’t thank her enough, the shaggy haired ole hippy she was. It was such good luck for our first night in the wilderness (aka a campsite filled with probably a hundred other people). After Jane left us, we decided to take the time to try setting up our tent for the first time, since we wouldn’t want to struggle through it later that night. A solid 45-60 minutes later we finally had the thing standing tall… Well standing, at least. If anyone knows anything about camping, you probably understand how tiny a 2 person tent actually is. When ordering our gear online I somehow imagined it being like the tent we used to campout in our backyard in as kids, the one you could literally walk upright inside of and bring every possession you’ve ever owned along with you to fit comfortably. Our tent was no such thing, which earned her the name Tiny, and we have learned to love her flappy sides and lumpy bottom.
We left camp to get out into the park, starting with a stop at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart followed by a drive to the summit of Signal Mountain. There were great views at every twist and turn which is really amazing to us east coasters. We made our way down to the Jenny Lake area and had a picnic lunch out of the trunk with a view of the lake. Fully recharged, we arrived at the trailhead for the day’s hike at Jenny Lake, 3 miles to see Hidden Falls and a few other sites with a ferry ride back across the water. It was a pleasant, mostly flat hike around the border of the lake leading to two waterfalls and multiple overlooks. I really enjoyed it as our first hike in the parks. After returning to our car we continued to drive through the park to a spot called Mormon Row, a dirt road in the middle of a meadow with old homes of pioneers backed by the Tetons. On our drive through the area we also happened upon an entire massive herd of buffalo out grazing! This was one of our first real encounters with the wildlife and we were enthralled. Hungry for dinner, we drove back up through the park to the area called Colter Bay where we enjoyed dinner at a pizzeria overlooking a marina filled with boats. We walked a bit around the shore as well, still amazed by the combination of mountains and water. We returned to the campsite by a reasonable hour and rinsed off in the Jackson Lake, the true outdoorspeople we are. We saw a deer in the midst of the campground, which really enforced that we are in their home, not out own, and I’ll admit we put all of our food in the bear-proof container before calling it a night. (Truthfully, we didn’t know if bears can smell food from inside your car? We were safe in using the container this night, but laziness kicked in by the next time we camped and decided to risk keeping the food stored in the car, luckily no bears decided to ambush the rental over the course of the trip.)
The next morning we got back on the road and headed north towards Yellowstone. One day in GT was definitely not enough, I’d love to return and do more there, but we did a good amount in one short day! The landscape quickly and dramatically changed from lakes and snow capped mountains to pine trees and boiling geyser basins. We checked into our campground called Grant Village, but had no issues since our spot was reserved. And the reservation came with two free showers, bonus!
For our first day in YS we had a plan to cover the south loop of the park. Our first stop was Old Faithful, which we saw erupt with hundreds of other people, but was awesome nonetheless. Driving further along, we stopped at various spots to walk among the boiling grounds with bubbling geysers and sulfur smelling steam blowing at us. We saw the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, a landmark I was really excited to see in person. We stopped at a place called Firehole Canyon for an afternoon swim and rounded the top of the loop for a picnic lunch at Norris Junction. We did a quick tour through the museum of national park rangers and walked a short mile long trail to a place called Ice Lake. Towards the end of the afternoon we drove into the south rim area of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which ended up taking my prize for best stop of the day. We saw the upper falls right away and then hiked a bit for a view of the lower, larger falls. This was a stunning excursion and nothing like what I expected. We sat and enjoyed the view for some time before braving the stairs that descended into the canyon (what goes down must come up). I can’t nearly decide how beautiful the canyon is, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking. To round out our loop, we stopped at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel. Walking inside of the lobby in my dusty shorts and sweaty shirt I felt like a lower class passenger aboard the Titanic, all of the upper class was dressed up drinking cocktails and listening to the live piano performance. MJ and I got out of there, we had a campsite to assemble. We returned to Grant Village and put Tiny up, had some dinner at the campground dining area (no, we did not attempt the normal grilling/roasting food experience that you are supposed to do while camping, sleeping outside was enough for us, but maybe we will get there one day) showered and tucked in for the night.
Luckily, we had two days allotted to Yellowstone so we were able to do the north loop on day 2, the 4th of July! We packed up the campsite pretty early and traveled to the next one called Canyon. After checking in there, we drove to the trailhead for our planned hike up Mount Washburn. Since we started early, it wasn’t too hot and there were not as many people out yet, which was a nice touch. The trail began with a steep ascent along the side of the mountain through wildflower fields and then leveled out to a climb with switchbacks going back and forth to the top. As we approached the peak we got our first view of the fire ranger station perched on the top, the final destination. We saw a few mountain goats as we got closer and we finally made it to the summit. We had a great view of the valleys below us and other mountains surrounding us. We learned that the ranger who lives in the station is up there permanently during the summer season, never coming down, sleeping under the stars and looking out for wildfires. We made our way back down, passing more people along the way, thankful we had started our hike early to beat the heat and the bugs. We rounded out the 6.4 mile round trip triumphantly with some cold water and began the search for a picnic area to make lunch. We were pretty tired from the hike as the afternoon wore on, so we had a laid back picnic up near the Lamar Valley area of the park and then turned around to head back towards our campsite. On our way back we had our first bear encounter! We were one of the first cars to pull along the side of the road and see two black bears walking through the field next to the road. Soon enough, plenty of cars had stopped to get a view and a lot of park rangers had also arrived. I got some close up pictures on my camera with my big lens, which I was really excited about. We stopped at the north rim side of the Grand Canyon of the YS on the way back, a view of the canyon opposite from the one we had seen the day before. Back at the campsite we set up Tiny, played cards and took some time to relax. We had dinner at the campground cafeteria again, and enjoyed another free shower. That night I was able to get in touch with one of my friends from USC who I found out is working in Yellowstone for the summer (shoutout to Rayna!). She was actually working at the Canyon Campground restaurant area and we were able to meet up with her and visit for a little bit. We learned all about what it’s like to live in the park for an extended period of time and about how she spends her free time traveling around the area, hiking and camping on the weekends. It was great to see a familiar face all the way out here and it was a really nice way to round out that leg of the trip.
We were heading out of Yellowstone in the morning, onto the next stop. MJ and I reflected on how different Grand Teton and Yellowstone are from each other, only an hour drive apart. It was vast and expansive, brown but filled with tall trees. We had seen a ton of animals; bears, elk, buffalo, goats, deer, marmot, pronghorn and probably more that I’m already forgetting. We thoroughly enjoyed both parks, but were anxious to move onto the next stop, and a shower/hotel bed!