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Trip Report Five days in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons trip report

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Every year or so, we (two Aussies) meet up with friends from France and share a holiday. In 2011 it was Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons, and we decided that if we were going to get the best out of the experience we would hire a guide for three days and then finish off with two days flying solo.

The night before our tour with EcoTours (http://jhecotouradventures.com/) we stayed in Jackson Hole, a town that is a cross between a cowboy town and an upmarket sort of resort. There are arches made of elk antlers at the corners of the town’s central park, and lots of verandahs and boarded walkways past the shops so you feel you are in the set of cowboy movie. There are also plenty of interesting shops, including a lovely American Indian jewellery and craft shop, as well as plenty of restaurants and bars. We wandered down to Sweetwater for dinner, a homey sort of restaurant specializing in all-American food.

The next morning at 6am our guide from EcoTours, Taylor Philips, arrived at 6am to collect us. Taylor is a great young man who, armed with a degree in environmental studies from the east coast, moved to the area about ten years ago, where he worked as a tour guide and in restaurants until he could set up his own company about six years ago.

And set up he is. The car is a Ford Explorer, huge, with fabulous vision and a pair of roof hatches so you can pop out of the top of the car for a look, a great advantage when the bear you want to observe is down in the sage or behind a low ridge. He has it set up with excellent quality binoculars and a pair of scopes, powerful telescopes that will allow you to see a little wolf several thousand metres away. And the hardware isn’t the only provision: there’s so much food in the way of snacks and picnics and breakfasts that we all put on weight. It was all good food such as fruit and granola bars and trail mix and he also provided fresh coffee in our own filter mugs. He had laminated sheets of information about the different animals and the geology that he used to explain all the stuff as we went along.

We headed off and the first things we saw were bison, huge headed heavily bearded beasts who represent all that is the wild west for me. There were babies too, cute little caramel coloured calves who we later saw playing with each other, chasing each other around like puppies, which was a great surprise to us and a charming one at that. Then Taylor took us up a back road to see a den of coyote puppies who had been moved there, under an abandoned house, by their mother. We watched them playing for ages, the cutest little fellas romping through the grass and pouncing and catching mice and just generally being adorable.

Not too much later there was a ‘bear jam’, dozens of cars pulled over to the side of the road with rangers directing the flow of people and traffic. A black bear was in the woods eating an elk baby it had killed. We got a reasonable look at it before it was time to move on. We then spent quite a lot of time hunting down another bear, 399, who is famous among the locals and had had two cubs this year after disappearing last year. We never did find 399 but she became the topic of much discussion ad speculation during the course of the trip. We pulled into Jackson Lake for lunch by the water, and spent more time moseying around as we slowly headed up into Yellowstone. During that day we saw elk and antelopes, often with babies, and a series of beautiful birds: blue heron, yellow eye ducks, other ducks, woodpeckers, bald eagles etc. Later in the evening we arrived at Old Faithful Lodge, which absolutely knocked my socks off. The building was built in 1905 or thereabouts, maybe a bit later, doesn’t matter, and has been retained. It is a multi storied log cabin with a vast atrium at its centre; you can look up and the whole thing winds up like a magical Disneyland treehouse. We had an early dinner in the restaurant and then headed out for a walk around Old Faithful to watch it go off, which it duly did.

On our second day we got up for a 5.30 start. We were very grateful for the hot coffee and muffins that followed soon after. We were heading out looking for bears and things and pretty soon we found some. Over the whole three days we saw something like 14 bears and cubs, mostly grizzlies (or grizz as the locals call them). We scoured that area and gradually worked our way up to the north and through the Lamar Valley to Cooke City where we were stopping for the night. There were a lot of bear jams where we piled out of the car and peered at big bears feeding in the distance. One highlight was a momma bear and her two cubs who were just finishing the food and the cubs began playing, lying on their backs and rolling around with their feet and great big paws in the air. It was beyond cute.

Among the animals and birds we saw that day were a white fox that dived headfirst into the snow to catch a mouse, and a marmot. We had a picnic lunch by the river and then walked along the path to try to see some harlequin ducks. No ducks but we did meet friendly blue jay who posed for photos. We stopped briefly in Mammoth to have a look at the visitor centre and the watercolours and early photographs that the explorers had done and to take pictures of the elk that live in the town.

That night we slept in Cooke City, a real cowboy town with a saloon bar where we had dinner. It was full of friendly locals and a lot of fun – we ate 20 inch pizzas.

Our third and final day on the tour was another 5.30 start so we could see wolves. The weather had turned from gorgeous blue skies and heat to freezing cold and rain but we were hopeful of some more good things happening to us. And they did. After an hour’s fruitless searching for wolves along the road Taylor took a turn down another road he knew and we stopped for a scan of the hills. Within five minutes he said well, look there’s some wolves. They were distant, at least three hundred metres away, making their way along a ridge in the sagebrush and nobody with an untrained eye could possibly have spotted them. More points for the guide. We spent almost an hour tracking them through the scopes and Carol particularly was beside herself with delight. They were three wolves probably from the Lamar pack, a white, a cream and a black, and they were working their way up the hill. We watched the groups of elk and bison react, gathering together and bringing their young into the middle of the group as the wolves neared. It was sensational.

We had an early lunch at Mammoth and then walked up the thermal springs there. They were simply amazing, pouring steam and stink and hot water out of the centre of the earth and forming wonderful ridged pools and floral gardens out of the mineral salts in the water. We were fascinated. Then we slowly drove back to Jackson, taking in a few more bears on the way.

We were sorry to farewell Taylor, who had done a magnificent job and found animals that we would never have seen, not ever. That night we wandered down to the town to get something to eat and ended up in the Silver Dollar bar, where we got a table and where it happened to be the local dance and bluegrass music night . The place was full of locals including cowboys in their cowboy hats and silver decorated belts who were dancing up a storm in that old fashioned country swinging style. All the prettiest young women were queuing up to dance with them and we were vastly entertained. One old bloke was in his jeans and fresh white shirt and braces and new white going-to-town hat, wonderful stuff. What dancers!

On day four, the first of our two ‘alone’ days, we weren’t looking for animals, yet we still managed to spot several elk grazing along the valley, yellow headed blackbirds and their brown and blue-black wives, a small snake, a moose, and the elusive red sand cranes! We started the day later and then went to Moose to raft down the Snake River for ten miles. It was a beautiful trip with the Tetons in the background, just stunning. Then we had lunch at Dornan’s across the river and drove up via Jenny Lake to Jackson Lake Lodge. This is the most beautiful setting with fabulous views across the Teton range. The weather turned bad in the afternoon but that was after our float trip and we were happy to have a slow afternoon round the hotel and a drink and dinner.

We spent our last day exploring the geological features for which Yellowstone is best known, the geysers and thermal springs. First we visited Colter Bay visitor centre to see the Indian museum, which was interesting. The artefacts we see with beads and silver are all a product of the Indians contact with white people. They worked with traded Italian beads and the Mexicans taught them to work silver. We saw pipes and tomahawks and beautiful beadwork and so forth.

We stopped at several different sites, including West Thumb which was closed because of elks with babies, then Biscuit Basin and finally the Lower Geyser Basin where we saw the Grand Prismatic Spring, which sounds to me like a Masonic Lodge title! The colours of the pools are amazing, bright turquoise blue, and the run-off creates wonderful ripples and strong greens and yellows in the mud. We trekked up the hill behind the Grand Prismatic Spring to get the most incredible view of it and the valley from up on high.
Taylor had told us that in these thermal areas the layer of the earth’s crust is so thin that the ground can explode in a geyser at any time. We saw evidence of this with bits of the roadway cordoned off as a baby geyser has popped out. The ground can get up to the 200 F mark too. The bison love to hang around these thermal places as it is so warm.

After that we left and stopped in at the Old Faithful Inn for a coffee. Suddenly, just in the last two days, the parks were teeming with people and you could barely get into the inn doors. After our coffee we drove down to Lake Hotel on Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the world at this height. The hotel is another old one, and I must say fairly poorly equipped though prettily sited. You are always at the mercy of the concession operators in these parks, so we had managed our expectations and so, although the food was very average and the service disorganized and scrappy, we still enjoyed ourselves.

The next day we left the park – only to come almost face to face with a large grizzly on the side of the road as we were driving out. It was almost as if the best bear sighting was waiting for us as we left, just to put the icing on a rich and very satisfying cake.

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