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Trip Report Yellowstone and Grand Teton NPs in Late June

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I spent the last week of June in Yellowstone National Park, plus a couple of days in Grand Teton National Park and some non-park areas around Yellowstone. These are very frequently discussed destinations. So rather than posting a narrative description of my trip, I thought I'd just touch on a few random points that may be of interest to people who are planning to visit soon.

My two previous trips to YNP and GTNP have been in the first week of June and the first week of September, respectively. The weather was certainly better this time. There wasn't a drop of precipitation the whole week, and there were barely any clouds at all. Daytime highs were in the mid-to-high 80's most days. I understand that this isn't the usual weather pattern this time of year, and that the recent heat wave brought us unusually warm temperatures. It was very different from my other trips, which I remember as gloomy, blustery, and drizzly, with occasional snow, and few sunny days.

It was wonderful to be able to walk around YNP without being bundled up in a fleece and rain gear. Also, clear weather is really important to viewing the various brightly colored hydrothermal features, as the colors get quite dulled in cloud-filtered sunlight. I saw far more wild animals in this trip than in my previous trips, although I'm not sure if that was because of the time of year or the weather. There were lots of baby animals of various species to be seen, and I consider that a big advantage of visiting in the spring/early summer, versus later in the year.

On the other hand, the crowds at YNP were substantially worse than I've seen before, and that was a big minus. Again, I don't know how much to attribute the crowds to the time of year versus the good weather. It wasn't so much the number of other people that bothered me, as it was their behavior. It's heartbreaking to see people destroying natural wonders by, say, carving their initials into thermophilic bacterial mats, or letting their children destroy hot springs by tossing rocks into them. Other parents let their small children sprint noisily around hotel hallways at 5 AM, or incessantly scream and blow whistles in nearly-deserted and otherwise serene spots, where the rest of us were trying to enjoy a quiet walk at sunset. And even as a person who does a lot of driving in the Northeastern U.S., where drivers are hardly known for their politeness, I was rather appalled by people's behavior behind the wheel. When people drive into a parking lot, why do they feel the need to park immediately in one of the entrance road's two lanes, tying up traffic for hours, when there are perfectly good parking spaces to be had further ahead? And if someone wants or needs to drive an RV at 15 MPH in a 45 MPH zone, would it kill him or her to pull over into a turnout now and then, so that twenty cars aren't stuck behind him or her for fifty miles? One day I was stuck in a traffic jam that was almost four miles long, and took me half an hour to get through, just because the people at the front had stopped to watch a bison herd by the roadside, and they couldn't be bothered to move their cars ten feet onto the shoulder so that others could get by or share the view.

I'm not sure if I'd plan another trip to Yellowstone during peak season. If I did, I'd be sure to plan carefully, so as to avoid having my trip spoiled by other travelers. There are definitely ways to avoid the crowds. Even just staying away from the geyser basins between Norris and Old Faithful helped a lot (although some of my favorite sites are there). The Park is also pretty empty around the beginning and end of the day. And walking just a hundred yards out onto a hiking trail seems to be a pretty reliable way to achieve some peace and quiet.

Construction Projects

There are no major road construction delays in Yellowstone right now. However, the highway between GTNP and YNP is undergoing major construction, beginning just north of Jackson Lake Lodge, and continuing up to somewhere before the YNP southern entrance. Signs warn of delays up to 30 minutes. I drove this stretch twice and didn't see any active construction work at all, but both times were on weekend days, so maybe they're just not working on weekends. There's a road hotline that you can call if you want to know more.

Beartooth Highway is open.

Xanterra is currently renovating the lobby of Old Faithful Inn. If you exit the Inn via what I guess is sort of a side entrance, you have to walk through a little temporary walkway surrounded by ugly plywood sheets. But the main front and back entrances are unaffected. The famous fireplace is being renovated and is out of service. And the “skyline” is tarnished by a big crane that is hanging over the roof of the building. But otherwise I didn't notice any effects of the renovation project upon the lobby scene. I would think that anyone who is, say, planning a dinner in the dining room wouldn't notice any significant inconvenience.

There's also a big renovation project going on in the Canyon area. They're rebuilding the roof and exterior facades of the big building the houses the lodging registration office and the various dining facilities. There are big ugly temporary walls around the building, and another huge crane towering over it. Some of the entrances into the building have been closed. But all facilities remain open – you just may have to walk a little farther to reach an entrance. Several of the parking spaces near the lodging registration office have been roped off and are being used for construction equipment.

Wildlife spottings

Bison: The bison are everywhere in Yellowstone, and it's great to again see them reclaiming their homeland. There's a particularly large herd with lots of calves that seems to be making its way slowly southward along the western side of the park, mostly on the outer side of Grand Loop Road. This is the herd that caused the half-hour traffic jam that I mentioned above, and also the one responsible for the goring incident that occurred near the Norris Campgrounds (http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/how-dangerous-are-bison-in-yellowstone.cfm). As of June 29, the last stragglers were a bit south of Fountain Flat Drive.

Elk: Elk are pretty much everywhere in Yellowstone too, although in much smaller numbers than the bison. As usual, the most reliable way to find elk is to look for the herd-in-residence that lives in the Mammoth area. There are a number of calves there now, including a cute baby that's so little that it's kind of wobbly when it walks, and its back legs get tired and give out sometimes.

Black Bear: There are at least two mother bears, with one and two cubs respectively, who have been hanging out right by the road, between Tower and Canyon. They're not always there, but they frequently are. I saw them as late as 11 AM and as early as 4 PM, so it doesn't seem necessary to be there at dawn or dusk to catch them. This was the first time I have seen baby bear cubs playing together in the wild, and they were extremely adorable.

Grizzly Bear: There's a group of three grizzlies, with at least one cub, who have been seen on multiple days in a big meadow that's located between Canyon and Lake, on the inner side of the loop. I saw them only once, I think around 3 PM. They were quite far from the road, and I didn't get a great view of them even with my binoculars. Someone spotted a dead bison somewhere out there on the meadow, and I assume that's related. I guess the grizzlies may have killed the bison, or maybe they were merely hanging around to take advantage of the animal's dying of natural causes. But either way, the grizzlies may be around for a little longer. Supposedly, there are also grizzly bears out on Willow Flats, in GTNP. The staff at Jackson Lake Lodge told me that they're out there because the elk are calving there, and the grizzlies are trying to pick off the weak and helpless newborns (nobody ever accused grizzly bears of being sentimental). Because of the bear activity, NPS has closed Willow Flats to hikers, and you can't walk more than about ten yards into the flats, either from the Lodge or from the highway turnout. However, despite scanning the Flats with my binoculars on several occasions, I saw only two elk way out there in the distance, and not a single bear.

Pronghorn antelope: I saw a pair of males right by the northeast entrance road in Lamar Valley, which of course is the area of YNP that is most noted for wildlife sightings. Going out cruising there at dawn or dusk, or even at any other time, is likely to be rewarding for the large mammal enthusiast. I've never seen pronghorn before, and they were quite interesting to watch.

Canids: The most common canids in Yellowstone by far are, apparently, coyotes. I saw a couple in the same area where the bears were, between Canyon and Tower. They're quite unafraid of people, it seems, and both times a lone coyote kind of dashed through a crowd of people that had gathered to look at something else. Besides the coyotes, there was a single grayish fox walking around in the meadow outside of the Lake Lodge one day. I also managed to see a wolf in the area between Canyon and Tower one day. Another day a large crowd had gathered to watch a wolf and several pups in Lamar Valley, supposedly way back by the treeline. Frankly, I didn't have powerful enough binoculars to see them way back there. I do get the sense that Lamar Valley is where one is most likely to find wolves.

Food:

I tend to make use of the cafeterias, grills, and delis more than the dining rooms in National Park facilities. But this time I managed to have dinner in three of the dining rooms, so I thought I'd pass along some quick reviews.

Lake Hotel Dining Room: I've often looked into the Lake Hotel dining room while passing through the lobby, and thought it might be quite nice to have dinner in there. Not so much, it turns out. The room itself is nice enough, with a décor that follows the lobby's airy pinkish theme. The views in the little room in the very back seem nice. But you may well get stuck at a table near the middle of the dining room, in which case you'll be far from any windows, and it will probably be extremely noisy. I was lucky enough to be seated by the side of the room, near a window. So I had a view, but it was rather marred by the very large, disorganized pile of dirty dishes that the staff had stacked up on trays next to every window on my side of the room. It seems that, on that night at least, the restaurant's policy was to clear each table's dishes onto trays by each window, let them stack up all night, and then remove them at closing time. Yuck. The food itself was, well, I'd say awful, but that doesn't fully describe it. It wasn't like actual restaurant food, more like some kind of comedy gag restaurant food. Featureless blobs of muck with barely any taste whatsoever, haphazardly plated in wildly varying quantities, sometimes occupying only one side of a plate, sometimes with a starch or vegetable missing entirely. It was food to be laughed at, not eaten, and I couldn't stomach much of it. Service was extremely slow, and for that I tend to blame the kitchen rather than the serving staff, because our server seemed to be working hard, and the food arrived piping hot. My recommendation: you'll eat much better (well, much less badly) in the Lake Lodge Cafeteria.

Mural Room: The main dining room at the Jackson Lake Lodge in GTNP is often mentioned positively, but I found it to be an even worse experience than the Lake Hotel Dining Room. First of all, the famous mural is relatively small, relative to the size of the room, and you really won't catch much of a glimpse of it unless you're seated at one of the tables in the corner of the room where it is. The view of Willow Flats and the mountains is, as advertised, spectacular. Although it should be noted that it's exactly the same view that you'd get if you sat in the main lounge outside of the dining room, or in the bar (which serves food), or on the public outdoor patio, or even if your own room, if you book one of the mountain view rooms. Service was excrutiatingly slow, and this time it seemed to be the servers' fault – no supposedly hot item arrived discernibly warmer than room temperature. The food was not merely tasteless, but, in most cases, actually foul. My soup had a nasty metallic tang that was very reminiscent of mildly spoiled sour cream. One highlight was the elk loin, a beautifully tender and nicely cooked piece of meat, which was ruined by a hopelessly ill-conceived recipe. My recommendation: you'll eat much better in the informal Pioneer Grill right next door. You won't have the view there, but you could get your food to go and eat it outside, if a meal with a view is important to you.

Mammoth Dining Room: Culinarily speaking, this was the highlight of the National Park visits. The room is not especially beautiful inside, and frankly it was rather loud and stuffy on the night when I was there. However, despite the dining room being very full, the staff was very friendly, and the service was extremely prompt. And everything I ate was good. I would say, admittedly on the basis of only one visit to any particular dining room other than Canyon, that this is the best food venue that I've found in Yellowstone.

Beartooth Cafe, Cooke City: A little bonus out-of-park review, because I like this place so much. I admit that this is the only restaurant I've ever tried in Cooke City. But it's so good that I don't see any reason to try anyplace else when I'm in town. It's a very informal place, mostly serving burgers and sandwiches and so forth, although there are some fancier-looking dishes available at dinnertime. I think they have something like 130 beers available, so you'll need to plan at least one or two repeat visits if you want to try them all.

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