Yellowstone and Grand Teton NPs in Late June

Old Jul 4th, 2012, 08:33 PM
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Yellowstone and Grand Teton NPs in Late June

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/unit...ellowstone.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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Old Jul 5th, 2012, 03:01 AM
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thanks so much for all the useful info - we are planning a visit in August next year- coming from south africa - wonder if you could advise what the costs are and how easy it is to get around - do you need a vehicle or could we catch a bus or a train... we are just starting our research.
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Old Jul 5th, 2012, 03:29 AM
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Too bad about your experience there. One of the good things about YNP is that the roads are generally wide enough to pull over.

We were there in very early August a couple of years ago and experienced none of what you describe. The only really big crowds were at Jenny Lake and it was a Sunday. My mistake to go to such a popular place on a weekend.

I would definitely go back again.
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Old Jul 6th, 2012, 08:33 PM
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Loved your trip report. Thank you. Our trip is right around the corner and it answers a lot of questions I have about crowds and the Beartooth Hwy. Did you enter the park that way? We were trying to decide whether or not take this highway. We have no reason to go that way, just wanted to enojy the drive but the kids might be done with driving if traffic is as bad as it sounds.

Where the animals are currently was an extra bonus. Thank you.

As you usually eat at cafeterias and diners any recommendations for these in the park?

We are staying at OFI and Canyon. I guess I am glad to know about the construction before arriving. Is it bad enough that you would look for other options?
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 06:53 AM
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Loved reading your trip report! You brought back vivid and great memories of our trip to YNP and the Tetons that we took last year! We were there late July and early August, temps were in the 60's-70's. We didnt have many issues with crowds except at Upper Falls, 2 bus loads of tourists! We didnt stay too long there! We flew into Billings Montana and drove into Yellowstone via Beartooth Hwy. Loved the drive and the scenery! We basically had the whole highway to ourselves. Loved this entrance into Yellowstone the most. Will never forget arriving into Lamar Valley, so peaceful and beautiful!
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 08:06 AM
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Hang20, when I first visited YNP, I was driving from Sheridan, Wyoming, and rather than going through Cody and the East Entrance, I went up through Red Lodge and came in through the Northeast Entrance, so that I could see the Beartooth Highway. I think that was probably worth it (although I must say I've never seen most of the East Entrance Road). Besides Beartooth Highway itself, the Bighorn Scenic Byway was a great drive too, it was great to get my first glimpses of the park in Lamar Valley, where I was promptly greeted by a herd of bison crossing the road. If your itinerary doesn't permit using the Northeast Entrance as your way to actually enter or leave the Park, then you could certainly consider working it in as a day trip. That's what I did this time -- we flew in and out of Jackson Hole, and did Beartooth just as a recreational diversion. I think it's not worth doing that if you have, say, three days to spend at Yellowstone, but it is if you have six or seven days. You could return via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway if you want. It's a lot less interesting than Beartooth, but it's an alternative if you don't want to come back the way you came. If the kids are sick of crowds and traffic, then ironically driving to Red Lodge and back could be a good way to escape those things, because there won't be much traffic on the Beartooth Highway. I like the town of Red Lodge, too. Your kids might enjoy the Montana Candy Emporium: http://montanacandyemporium.com/ If you do plan a side trip, make sure it's a clear day. We actually started out through Lamar Valley one day, and turned back around the Montana border because it was starting to get overcast.

As for cafeterias in the park, I usually make extensive use of the cafeteria at Old Faithful Lodge, which is optimally located for a relatively quick meal near the Upper Geyser Basin. I like the food at the Lake Lodge Cafeteria, although you're unlikely to be there for any other reason. There are also decent sandwiches at the deli at Grant, and they make at least a little bit of an effort to offer some healthy options. I would recommend strenuously avoiding the grill at Mammoth, where I've seen only gross-looking greasy stuff. And it also looks like one probably shouldn't order anything other than ice cream at the place at Tower.

I suspect that the construction at OFI won't greatly affect your plan to stay there. I didn't see any of the guest rooms, but walking through the lobby, I didn't detect any change in the usual flow of traffic. I could hear the beeping of the construction trucks backing up from all the way over by the Lodge, and I would guess that the construction noise would be annoying if you planned to sleep late or stay in your room during the day, but most people don't usually do those things while at YNP. You could consider calling Xanterra or OFI directly and asking what times the construction work starts and stops each day, and how it might affect your stay. But I don't think it will be a big deal, and anyway it's probably too late to book alternative lodging, at least within the park.

Christinemorris, you can find lots of info on these forums and elsewhere online about costs in Yellowstone. One recommendation that almost everyone will give you is that you should try to sleep at one of the lodging options within the park, if there's any way you can afford to do that. There are many lodging options in the park, ranging from campsites and rustic cabins to mid-level hotels. You'll have your choice of all of them if you book early, but do so as soon as possible, because they'll be all booked up, I would think by sometime next January.

Yellowstone is a large park, and it can take a few hours just to drive from one destination to another. But there are ways to get to Yellowstone without a car. There are various bus tours that operate out of the towns around Yellowstone (e.g. Jackson and West Yellowstone). Some give guided tours, and others just drop you off at the various places and let you walk around for yourself. There's also a Yellowstone shuttle bus that drives around the lower loop. Personally, I think it's far, far preferable to have my own car. You'll probably have one anyway to get yourself to the margins of the park, and I don't see a great reason for leaving it somewhere and taking a bus tour, unless you have a very strong aversion to driving.
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Old Jul 10th, 2012, 04:40 PM
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Thank you for the tips. Any idea how well the GPS works in the park?

Any suggestions for a place to stock up with groceries, supplies in Jackson? We fly in there too. What about in the park? Thanks!
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Old Jul 10th, 2012, 04:53 PM
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Jackson Hole airport is Between Jackson and GTNP.

Anyway, a good little place to stop at is Dornan's Grocery/Deli/Coffee. They have a restaurant there too. Pizza and pasta, if I am remembering correctly.
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Old Jul 10th, 2012, 04:59 PM
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actually, I think the airport is in GTNP. But to me it's about halfway. If you can sit on the right side of the plane you will get a good view on your landing. I think this is the way they normally land(depends on wind I would think).

Also, this is a somewhat unusual landing. The runway is very short, and they kinda just drop in and you will feel reverse thrust a bit more here. The airport is pretty small. I think most of the airlines only have a single gate.
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Old Jul 10th, 2012, 07:25 PM
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Indeed, Jackson Hole airport is technically inside of GTNP, and it's the only airport in the U.S. that's inside a national park. But as spirobulldog said, it's between Jackson and the part of the GTNP that most people visit, so for practical purposes, it's between the town and the park. It has only one runway, designated 1/19. I've paid attention to the planes every time I've been in the area, and I guess the wind must consistently come from the south, because I've only seen planes taking off and landing to the south. So choose a seat on the right side of the plane if you want the best view, either arriving or departing.

I've never stopped at Dornan's. Lots of people seem to like it. If you could get everything you need there, you could avoid driving out of your way back into Jackson. But really, Jackson isn't so far away.

On my road trips, I like to stop at a Wal-Mart for supplies, but there isn't one in Jackson. There's a K-mart, which I find to be quite inferior to Wal-Mart for the stuff I buy, but that's the best I could find. For groceries, there's a big Albertson's supermarket, and also a Loaf 'n Jug. I also like Jackson Whole Grocer, which is a big market that specializes in natural and healthy foods. Sort of like Whole Foods. And a number of their trademarks seem suspiciously similar to Whole Foods' too, but apparently they're not affiliated. Whole Grocer has various kinds of prepared foods, and a smoothie bar. All of the above-mentioned stores are on US-89, heading West out of the the center of town, where space isn't at such a premium. There's also a UPS Store and a genuine FedEx Store there.

Closer to the heart of the town, I like to stop at Pearl Street Market. It's not a place for stocking up on economically priced supplies. It's a high-end gourmet deli kind of a shop that makes fantastic $10 sandwiches, and sells all sorts of snacks (chips, cookies, etc) that taste twice as good as the usual kind, and cost twice as much.
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Old Jul 10th, 2012, 09:49 PM
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Thanks so much for mentioning Jackson Whole Grocer. We just browsed their site and are eager to go in September!
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Old Jul 14th, 2012, 04:00 AM
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Thanks Hawksbill. The grocery/supply and resturant list will give us a great start. We usually get random coolers, drinks, snacks at WalMart too and we knew there wasn't one in Jackson Hole.

In the end we decided not to but we had talked about shipping our equipment out to the UPS store or our first night hotel to avoid airline fees. Our hotel said to ship via UPS or FedEx as both would bring it to the hotel but USPS would make you pick it up there. This may help someone else in the future.

I will write a trip report after our trip!
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Old Jul 14th, 2012, 04:24 AM
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Dornan's would have pretty much everything you would need. It is probably a bit more expensive than K-Mart or Albertsons-but maybe not and I had always rather shop with a local when I can. Think of it as something between a Grocery Store and C-Store. They also have cabins/rooms at Dornan's. I've never stayed there though. The Pizza/Pasta place is decent and is upstairs.
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Old Jul 14th, 2012, 04:31 AM
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I forgot to mention. I wouldn't rely to much on GPS for everything. The park roads are pretty basic with a few side roads.
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Old Jul 14th, 2012, 02:01 PM
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It's true, there's really just the one main road in Yellowstone, and basically two main roads in GTNP. But I still find GPS navigation to be helpful in these places (like everywhere else in the world). For example, you can use it to figure out how long it's going to take you to drive back to the Old Faithful, so you can decide whether to eat dinner before leaving or after you get there. You can estimate which of two possible routes through Yellowstone are likely to get you somewhere more quickly. You can mark places of interest, and get warnings when you're, say, half a mile away, so that you can slow down and avoid missing them. When you drive through towns, of course you can use your GPS box to find a drugstore, or the UPS store, a gas station, or whatever. If you're stuck behind an RV on a highway somewhere, you can look ahead on the GPS and know when you're approaching a straight stretch of road, so that you can inch forward and prepare to pass. And in general, I've found that I subconsciously keep half an eye on the road ahead on the GPS, so that I can slow down a bit when a curve is coming. Oh, and in Jackson, there are some opportunities to take alternate routes and avoid a few blocks of traffic, if you're so inclined.

I wouldn't go and buy a GPS just for this trip or anything, but if you have one, certainly bring it. And anyway, Hang20, enjoy the trip!
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