Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Visiting Two Beautiful National Parks

All photos courtesy of Josephine Matyas

This year the U.S. National Park Service celebrated its centenary. Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones, a musician-writer and a writer, took their expertise on the road to find the most interesting getaways south of the border

The night before, a 5:30 a.m. alarm seemed perfectly reasonable. Not so much when the unholy noise shattered a perfectly good sleep. It had snowed during the night (early September in Yellowstone; anything’s possible) so we pulled on layers and quickly brewed mugs of coffee. The freedom and flexibility of travelling in a small RV can be intoxicating, especially when you need to be on the go in record time. Bed to kitchen: four feet. Kitchen to driving compartment: three feet. Morning starts are quick and efficient.

This day was devoted to wildlife watching and getting out early was a big part of our strategy. We wanted to avoid roadways clogged by late risers who straggle from their hotel beds, snake through the breakfast buffet and are finally out in full force at the middle part of the day. Besides, any self-respecting park ranger will advise you to be up and on your way before sunrise.

Yellowstone is world renowned for its geothermal wonders, but it’s also famous for its wildlife. Bear, elk, bison, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, coyote and wolves all make their home in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. This mix of lodgepole pine forests, mountain meadows and sagebrush-dotted plains is their territory and we are just passing through. Signs everywhere warn of bear interactions. Checking into the campground we signed a waiver acknowledging this was bear country and could be dangerous. In all campgrounds, there were large metal bear-proof boxes for food storage and cans of bear spray on sale in the park’s general stores. Bear 101 handouts cover the basics: watch for scat or tracks, make noise when hiking, travel in groups and do not run if you come face-to-face with ursidae.

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The sun was barely cracking over the Absaroka Range when we spotted a half-dozen elk nibbling on grass along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake (see above). In the fall, frisky elk are rutting and smart humans maintain a safe distance, especially not getting between a bull and his female harem. Later in the day, we watched as frazzled park rangers tried to direct foot traffic well away from a protective bull elk and his dozen cows who’d staked claim to the main intersection outside Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Elk are everywhere.

Spotting wildlife is easy. Yellowstone’s two wildlife hotspots are the Hayden Valley (along the Grand Loop road winding beside the Yellowstone River—a draw for the fly fishing, hip wader crowd) and the Lamar Valley in the open Northern Range of the park. Both spots are sure bets for herds of bison, which often clog the roadways, creating “bison jams.” Drivers used to rush hour traffic will feel right at home. In no time, a smelly one-ton bison can create gridlock.

Next: Leaving Yellowstone was difficult…

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Before the West was Won, bison roamed these sprawling valley grasslands by the millions. By 1900, a tiny Yellowstone herd of just two dozen bison escaped the poachers and hunters and through protective management the free-ranging herd has grown to almost 5,000. Bison watching could give birding a run for its money: pull up the hand brake, dig out the binoculars, load a blank camera card and settle in for the afternoon.

Leaving Yellowstone was difficult. The southern route out had been closed by a forest fire; when it opened we hurried past still-smoldering blackened tree trunks. Forest fires are a part of life here and play a critical role in the regenerative lifecycle of Yellowstone. It’s both shocking to see the wide swaths of lodgepole pine wiped out in the epic fires of 1988 and 2003, and enlightening to see the new growth of aspen seedlings and young pines sprouting from seeds released by torched trees.

Grand Teton National Park sits cheek by jowl at the southern border of Yellowstone, but in geological terms it could be a thousand miles away. The relatively young Teton Mountain Range juts skyward along an 80-km range formed by plate tectonics and the scouring action of glaciers. The Tetons have no foothills; rising dramatically as though punched upward through a smooth surface. To the east a large plain was formed by the valley floor slipping downwards along the (still active) fault line. Over millions of years of geologic action, the craggy mountain peaks and the valley floor have separated more than 9,000 metres, creating a paradise for hikers and climbers.

Park Ranger Brian Appleby knows these mountains intimately. He spent most of his career as a backcountry ranger in both parks and can count 489 backcountry nights in Yellowstone alone. Now serving as Grand Teton’s kayaking ranger, he leads the popular wildlife watching outing at the Oxbow Bend pullout.

“The oxbow bend in the Snake River is the perfect spot for food, water, shelter and nesting sites,” he explains to a binocular-armed group, huddled together at the outlook over the winding waterway. “Moose like the willow shoots, white pelicans feed on the aquatic life, otters and beavers play along the shoreline.”

A juvenile bald eagle swoops over the river bend and everyone raises their binoculars in unison. “They nest in this area. But look up—they won’t nest in anything less than 25 feet off the ground,” he says. “They launch themselves from the nest. They literally catapult themselves to fly.”

Both parks turn out to be wildlife rich experiences. That didn’t deter us from exploring the world-class National Museum of Wildlife Art on the outskirts of the park (close to the town of Jackson, WY). Most of the painting and sculpture galleries reflect the wildlife of the area. Works by renowned artists like Carl Rungius, Ansel Adams and Canada’s own Robert Bateman are organized in themes portraying anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to animals), predator and prey, the heroic male and the nurturing female.

Our itinerary meant we had to move toward Utah. The only way to make a clean break from Wyoming was a promise to return. Sooner rather than later. This state is a real keeper.

For more information

www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com provides info and online reservations for lodging and campgrounds in the park
www.nps.gov/yell for information on Yellowstone
www.nps.gov/grte for information on Grand Teton
www.visittheusa.ca for planning information

An annual National Park Pass that gives unlimited entry to all National Park System sites is $80 USD.

There’s more on our website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, how to buy an RV, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.