Yellowstone/Teton trip report, August 2005

Aug 26th, 2005, 04:35 PM
  #1  
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Yellowstone/Teton trip report, August 2005

First of all, I’d just like to say thanks once again, to all the Fodorites who helped us plan our very first visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. As usual, your suggestions and recommendations helped make a fabulous vacation even better, so hopefully this report will be helpful to others as well.

Day One - This vacation started as a business trip, so our first day was a 500+ mile drive from Spokane, WA down to Billings, which served as the launching point for our trip into Yellowstone. On the suggestion of Fodorites and others, we’d planned to take the Beartooth Highway to the Northeast entrance, but with the road temporarily closed due to mudslides, we ended up detouring to the Chief Joseph Hwy instead. The Chief Joseph is truly a beautiful drive and traffic was relatively light despite it being the height of high season. If the Beartooth is more scenic than the Chief Joseph, I truly hope I have the opportunity to experience the Beartooth someday–it must be breathtaking. Having lived most of my life east of the Mississippi, the vast open spaces in this part of the country never cease to amaze–for me they are like salve to the soul.

We decided to make a last stop in Cooke City for lunch before entering the park. Cooke City is an interesting little town and the setting is beautiful. We’d considered staying there before I learned of the road construction closure between Tower and Canyon (FYI, as of August 19th, I believe this is now open). It seemed like a great way to ensure plenty of time for wildlife viewing in the Lamar Valley--we were hoping to see something of the resident wolf packs, in particular--but in the end we chose to stay our first two nights in Gardiner instead. In retrospect, it was the right decision given the road closure but, as I’d feared, this first afternoon ended up as our only day on the Northeast Entrance road and we didn’t see any wolves. On future trips (and without the Tower/Canyon construction) I might consider a stay in Cooke City but be forewarned that the hotel and restaurant options are pretty meager. We weren’t expecting fine dining but the food at the Soda Butte Lodge was--to put it bluntly--pretty bad, and the service was worse. If you’re mulling a stay in this area, I’d consider your food and lodging requirements carefully.

After lunch, we headed down the Northeast Entrance road. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Lamar Valley is beautiful. This drive was probably my favorite in the park. I was amazed at how little traffic there was for Yellowstone in mid-August. I’m assuming the road closures were at least partially to blame, but it really seems as though the East and Northeast entrance roads are ignored by the vast majority of park visitors–lucky for us, but what a shame for them! Of course, the entrance roads don’t have the same number of park attractions you find along the figure eight, but the scenery is beautiful and, with the exception of the Hayden Valley, we saw more wildlife near the entrances than anywhere else in the park. Highlights along the Northeast entrance drive were a huge herd of bison and–believe it or not–the only pronghorns we saw the whole trip. We continued our drive along the Northern edge of the park from Tower to Mammoth, where we discovered the area’s resident elk herd peacefully grazing on the lawn of one of the buildings, while hordes of tourists gathered round snapping pictures (yes, us too). It’s a wonder more visitors haven’t been injured with as close as some people were getting. Just because an animal chooses to graze on your front lawn, doesn’t mean he’s tame!

more to come...
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 26th, 2005, 05:01 PM
  #2  
maj
 
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Enjoying your trip report. Looking forward to the next installment.

We were planning a trip for late August mainly to see the Beartooth Highway (only part of Yellowstone we haven't been to yet), but with the road closures we decided to put it off until it is open again. We were planning to fly into Billings, but really didn't know where to stay so I am very interested in your impressions of that part of the park. Is there anywhere else to stay besides Cooke City? Where you able to go from Billings down the Chief Joseph Highway to Cooke City all before lunchtime? Were there places to stop and/or hikes along the way?
maj is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 07:49 AM
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Hi maj--We overnighted at the Hampton Inn in Billings (primarily because we could stay free on Hilton points) and thought it was was very nice, although the city of Billings didn't look too interesting. Red Lodge seemed like a great little Western town with lots of eating options, although I'm not sure what they have to offer in the way of accomodations. Of course, Red Lodge would be too far away to commute into the park every day, but it definitely has more character than Billings if you're just looking for a place to stay that first night. In Cooke City, I've heard the Alpine Motel and the new Super 8 aren't bad but I think both are pretty basic and, as I mentioned earlier, Cooke City doesn't seem to have much in the way of acceptable eating options. There is also a tiny town called Silver Gate that's even closer to the park entrance than Cooke City, but it didn't look to me like there was much there either.

We arrived in Cooke City from Billings at around 3:00 (so our lunch there was a very late one) but we also got a late start in the morning. If you were to leave Billings by 8:00am or so, I'd think you could make it by lunchtime even with stops for pictures along the way. There were lots of pull-offs along the Chief Joseph Highway. I'm sure there are also probably some great hikes in this area but, unfortunately, I'm not knowledgable about that. You might try posting your question over on the Yellowstone Park board, which we found very useful in our planning (http://www.yellowstone-natl-park.com/wwwboard/chat2.htm).

Hope this helps!
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 08:13 AM
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Hi Julie, i'm enjoying your report as we were just there again last month. And i totally agree with you about the wide open spaces being like salve to the Easterner's soul. Well said, and how true!

We too were amazed at the daredevils in the parks this year, seeing people walking into the herds of buffalo, and we also saw some brainiacs climbing way beyond the railings at the Grand Canyon. YIKES.

Looking forward to the rest of your report!
ellen_griswold is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 08:27 AM
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Thanks Ellen--I'm glad to hear someone is actually reading this! It's getting to be much longer than I'd anticipated.

OK, here's part two...

Our first overnight was in Gardiner. Early on in our planning we’d made a decision not to stay in the park. This was due in part to forces beyond our control since we hadn’t decided on Yellowstone as a destination till February and the best choices for lodging in the park commonly book up a year in advance, but I’m guessing--with a little patience--we could’ve gotten a cancellation, so it was also a conscious choice. While we love to hike, we aren’t campers, and reviews of the park lodging seemed mixed at best. We’re also not fans of communal bathrooms, and the relative cost of a private bath seemed considerably less in the gateway towns. With all this in mind, we scheduled our first two nights in Gardiner, followed by three nights in West Yellowstone and another three in Jackson. The plan was to spend the first part of our trip concentrating on the Northern loop, followed by 3 days for the Southern loop, and another 2 days in the Tetons. Overall, I’d say this worked well, although I’m sure we missed out on some great park experiences by not staying there overnight. I also wish we’d had an additional day at the end to explore the city of Jackson, which is, by far, the nicest (and largest) of the gateway cities.

In Gardiner (or, more accurately, about 10 minutes north of town) we stayed at a small B&B called Cabin by the River, which cost $125/night. This was easily our favorite lodging choice of the trip. The name pretty much says it all--you actually stay in a small, single-family cabin situated on the banks of the Yellowstone River. There is a small bedroom with queen bed and bath on the first floor, in addition to a kitchen/living/dining area (with satellite TV for anyone else with a tube-addicted spouse like myself) and a lovely front porch--complete with breakfast table and porch swing--facing the river. The second floor loft has an additional two twin beds. We loved falling asleep to the sound of the river and the cabin itself was clean, modern and comfortable. Each morning, the proprietor brought our breakfast to us in a basket. I’ve included the URL for their website if anyone is interested: http://www.bedandbreakfast.com/monta...the-river.html
Dinner that evening was at the Yellowstone Mine in the Best Western, which was fine, but nothing special.

Day Two - We chose to begin our next day by exploring Mammoth Springs, which was more interesting and quite a bit larger than I’d anticipated. Although we started at the Lower Terrace and followed the boardwalks to the Upper Terrace area, I figured out later that we easily could have avoided the sweaty climb to the top by exploring the Lower Terrace first and then driving a bit further down the road to a parking area for the Upper. If possible, I’d recommend saving this tour for early in the morning or later in the afternoon, as there is little or no shade and the direct sun can get quite hot, even with temps only in the 70's. We saw quite a few elk resting on the terraces, which was a hoot, but according the guidebook I gather they do it all the time. The full tour took us about 90 minutes.

Moving on from Mammoth, we worked our way South toward the Norris Geyser Basin, stopping at various points along the way to explore and take pictures. We primarily used the “Yellowstone Treasures” guidebook by Janet Chapple, to guide our time in the park. It’s not a book for lodging or dining recommendations, but her mile by mile descriptions of sights and attractions along the park roads, including historical information and tips on where to spot various types of wildlife, were an invaluable resource. The Norris Geyser Basin was also a lot larger than we’d expected and we spent several hours there walking the full length of the boardwalks. Be sure to bring water and sunscreen if you plan to do this. Although the parking area was quite crowded, the crowds thinned out considerably along the boardwalks. We didn’t see any major geysers erupting in this area (although we waited 20 minutes or so at Echinus, as it looked like it might) but it was interesting nonetheless.

Afterwards, we backtracked North to Mammoth and East back to Tower since we hadn’t had much time in this area the previous day. In particular, we wanted to explore the area from Tower South to the road closure at Chittenden. Tower Fall is a beautiful area and definitely worth a stop for pictures (and ice cream!). Continuing our way toward Canyon in the early evening hours, we saw many people parking along the turnouts with spotting scopes trained over the Antelope Valley region, but no wildlife. Chittenden Road was an interesting drive as well, and offered great panoramic views of the Mt. Washburn area at the top. Returning to Gardiner that evening, we stopped for a late dinner at the Park St. Grill and Café, which was very good (although extremely slow). Be sure to make reservations if you go.

To be continued...
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 10:55 AM
  #6  
maj
 
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Thanks -- that does really help. Still reading and enjoying your report. And no it is not too long. The details are great. Makes me anxious to get back out there.
maj is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 11:17 AM
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Julie - we must have been reading the same posts in preparation for our trips as we just returned from Yellowstone 4 days ago - also ate at Park Street Grill - our service was better than yours, but we did wait an eternity for our check. But we ate earlier in the evening.
gail is offline  
Aug 27th, 2005, 11:56 AM
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Great report, Julie. Thanks for taking the time to post. RE: lodging choices in Red Lodge, see www.blueskycabins.com as a possible.
cmcfong is offline  
Aug 28th, 2005, 08:45 AM
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Day Three - This day was one we’d planned specifically for hiking. Although we seriously considered the Beaver Ponds and Yellowstone Picnic Area trails, we finally settled on the Hellroaring Creek hike, which is only about 4 miles round trip but includes a steep 600 ft climb on the return and crosses a high suspension bridge over the Yellowstone River. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best choice for a midday hike, as the latter half traverses an open meadow with little or no shade, but it was nice nonetheless. Along the way, we passed another couple coming the opposite direction who warned that they'd seen “an enormous grizzly” ambling away from them along the banks of Hellroaring Creek. Although this definitely made us a bit nervous, we continued down the path, doubling our efforts to make noise, and making sure our bear spray was at the ready. We had no bear sightings of our own to report, so apparently, he had moved on by the time we arrived at the creek, although we did see several bleached out elk skeletons along the way. Not sure if the former had anything to do with the latter, lol! If you hike, it’s a good idea to read the trail notes from other hikers (specifically, for info on bear sightings) and sign in at the trailhead before you leave. As mentioned, we also carried bear spray, and kept it handy at all times while hiking.

After our hike we moved on to West Yellowstone for the night. On our way, along West entrance road, we spotted a bald eagle in the treetops and four trumpeter swans swimming peacefully down the river. In West Yellowstone we checked into the Holiday Inn Sunspree, which we’d reserved for $92/night. Overall, we were quite pleased with our room, which was relatively large and included a King bed, sofa, and mini-fridge. That evening, we ate at the Wild West Pizzeria, which was very casual, but good.

Day Four - We decided this would be our day to focus on the Old Faithful area so we headed East to Madison and South toward the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins, taking the relatively short, loop walks in both the Fountain Paintpot and Midway areas. Grand Prismatic Spring is a definite must-see in the Midway Basin (although we enjoyed our more distant view of it even more several days later on the Fairy Falls hike). From there we moved on to Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. My biggest regret here, is that we weren’t able to see any of the major geysers erupt other than Old Faithful. None seemed to have less than a 2 hour wait for the next eruption at the time we walked by. Be aware that the full walk around the Upper Geyser Basin is quite long, and there is no shade. Again, bring water and sunscreen! That night we returned to West Yellowstone, where we dined at the Timberline Café. Timberline was fine but again, nothing fancy and even though we arrived late at 8:30, there was a 20 minute wait.

Day Five - Probably the best day of our trip! Our itinerary for this day saw us headed to the Canyon area. Along the way, we stopped for a brief tour of Artist’s Paintpots (roughly a mile walk) which, as mudpots go, we found more beautiful and interesting than Fountain. From there we moved on to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which, of course, was spectacular. We started down the North Rim Drive and did walks to Grand View, Lookout Point and the Brink of the Lower Falls. Be prepared for some strenuous walks here! The latter two areas have steep paths and/or stairs down to the falls and coming back up is quite a workout if you aren’t in shape. Each trail is probably a mile or so round-trip, but the views are fabulous. By the time we made it back to the car around 3:30pm, we were ready for something different, so we decided to head for the Hayden Valley and East Entrance Road, saving the South Rim drive sometime later.

We were told that the Hayden Valley is a great place to see wildlife in the park, and it didn’t disappoint. This was the only area, other than Lamar, that we saw Bison herds on our trip. As we drove through Hayden on this particular day, one group of Bison decided to amble across the road, causing quite a traffic back-up. As we continued on towards Fishing Bridge and the East Entrance, we pulled over briefly at the Mud Volcano area, which is a quick and interesting stop. Our decision to see the East Entrance road was motivated primarily by an interest in the scenery and wildlife as opposed to specific park attractions–of which there aren’t many. Be aware that there is currently a construction project along this stretch, which begins just west of Eleanor Lake. It’s possible to continue on from here, with 30-minute delays, but we decided to turn around instead and head back toward the center of the park. As expected, the scenery in this area was beautiful, cementing my earlier impressions that the Eastern portion of Yellowstone is the most scenic area of the park (although the Western half is certainly nothing to sneeze at!).

As we headed back in the direction of Fishing Bridge, we came across a small group of cars pulled off to the side of the road. Assuming it was yet another elk jam, we prepared to drive on, when I caught a glimpse of something very large, brown and furry in the distance. Grizzlies! Not far off the side of the road, a mother and two cubs were frolicking in the field next to a small pond. Our first bear sighting! We watched, transfixed, as the bear family ran, dug for roots and chased each other, seemingly oblivious to the small group of people looking on, when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something else moving just to our left. There, standing not more than 50 feet away, was a coyote, silently surveying the scene in front of him. He too was watching the bears, who appeared not to have noticed him, and after a few minutes, he laid down in the tall grass. My husband and I looked at each other in total awe at what we were experiencing. Nearly an hour and two rolls of film later, the bears disappeared in the distance, the coyote vanished on the other side of the ridge, and we continued on to Fishing Bridge. The sun was beginning to set and a rainbow appeared over the hills in the distance. It couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to yet another magical day in Yellowstone.

more to come...
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2005, 09:22 PM
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Join Date: Aug 2005
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Hi Julie,
Looking forward to the next installment...I'm going to this area in a couple of weeks, and am trying to soak up everyone's advice. Grizzlies that close......THAT would scare me. I guess I'll have to stay closer to the people-crowded areas

Anyway, enjoying your post -- will look again tomorrow.
sparker is offline  
Aug 31st, 2005, 02:02 AM
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Julie,
We are leaving in 3 weeks for GT & YNP, and have been enjoying your posts. Thanks for the awesome reports you have given us some great insight for our trip. Looking forward to the next segment.
Cherie
cjswanson is offline  
Aug 31st, 2005, 03:47 AM
  #12  
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Day Six - We decided on another day hike for our last day in Yellowstone, so after checking out of our hotel, we headed for the Fairy Falls trail. This is another hike without much shade, so if it’s a particularly hot, sunny day, you might want to choose something different. Luckily for us, it was somewhat overcast so we were quite comfortable and I even wore my windbreaker for the last mile or so heading home. The initial part of this trail heads parallel to the Midway Geyser Basin, making it the perfect opportunity for a great shot of Grand Prismatic. We scrambled up a small ridge just to the right of the trail and got several terrific shots of the spring, which is even more fabulous from a distance and with a bit of elevation. After a mile or so, the trail turns left into an area of small pines and burned out trees. This area seems to have been heavily impacted by the fires in back in 1988. The falls lie anther mile or two down the trail, which is a great spot for a picnic lunch. We continued on another half mile or so to the Imperial Geyser, which seems to erupt almost continuously. Having experienced the crowds in the Old Faithful area, it was pretty neat having this little geyser all to ourselves.

Heading back to the car, we continued south to West Thumb, Lake Yellowstone and the South Entrance road. The West Thumb geyser area is beautiful–I wish we’d had more time to spend here, but it was getting late and we had to move on. After several more stops to take pictures–especially of the many falls in this area–we exited the park (goodbye Yellowstone!) and headed into the Tetons. Our reservation that evening was at the Ranch Inn in Jackson, where we selected a Tower room for $155/night. Jackson was definitely the priciest place we stayed, although it was also the nicest, and seemed to have an endless selection of fabulous restaurants (unlike West Yellowstone). Our room at the Ranch Inn was fine. Again, we had a king bed with sofa and mini-fridge. The room also had a small balcony overlooking the fire station and the ski slopes behind it. The room felt a bit dark with its dark red carpeting and the bed was a bit too soft and jouncy for my tastes, but overall this wasn’t a bad place to stay. We had dinner that night at the Rendezvous Bistro, which was excellent. Definitely make reservations if you plan to go.

Day Seven - The Tetons are gorgeous and we spent the morning exploring the park roads and taking pictures. For the best shots, I’d strongly recommend going in the morning before the sun moves over to the mountain side of the horizon and gets in your way. Later that day, we had reservations for a Snake river float trip with Triangle X. This was a nice and relaxing trip (about $45/pp) but somehow not quite as scenic or interesting as we’d thought it might be. Triangle X does a fine job and our guide seemed very knowledgeable. Along the way, we were lucky to see a mother moose and calf standing just along the riverbank. We also saw several eagles and a herd of elk. If you want to see wildlife on this trip, I’d definitely recommend doing it in the early morning or evening, as we did. Again, the views of the Tetons are probably best in the morning. We made our reservations the day before, which offered no problems in terms of availability.

That night we dined at Sweetwater restaurant, which was right next door to our hotel and had a lovely outdoor patio. Again, the food was excellent and reservations are strongly recommended if you don’t want to wait.

Day Eight - Our final day in the parks! We wished we had added on another day to see and explore the city of Jackson. On this day, we’d decided to hike again, but first we opted to take a drive up Signal Mountain Road. This drive has some very nice scenic overlooks of the Tetons and along our way up we saw our second bear. A mere 2 or 3 feet from the side of the road was a cinnamon black bear contentedly munching on some berries. A significant crowd had gathered along the sides of the road and a Teton ranger was also there trying to ride herd on the onlookers. Again, I was shocked at how close some people came until the ranger intervened and made them back up. Afterwards, we continued on to Jenny Lake, where we started our hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. As the guidebooks point out, this is a very popular hike, so I’d recommend starting early or late. You can opt to hike around the lake for 2 miles or to take a boat ride, which (I think) costs around $7 a person. We were feeling fat from all the great Jackson food, so we opted to walk both ways. It’s another mile or so (much of it uphill) from where the boats drop you off to the falls and the point. When you reach the falls area be sure to keep an eye out for pine martens (similar to a marmot or weasel, but cuter). We saw several playing in the rocks above the falls.

Returning to the hotel that evening, we decided to have dinner at Nora’s Fish Creek Inn in nearby Wilson, which turned out to be another great choice.

Day Nine - We were feeling sad as we checked out of our hotel and headed to Salt Lake for our return flight home. As most people know, it’s considerably cheaper to fly out of Salt Lake City than Jackson Hole and the drive really isn’t bad. It took us only about 4 hours and that was traveling predominantly on 2-lane highway. Many people ask about the best (scenic) route to take between Jackson and Salt Lake, so I thought I’d post what we did, which was very nice. As recommended by another Fodorite, we took 89 South from Jackson through Alpine, Afton, Smoot, and on to the tiny town of Border. At Border, we turned onto Hwy 30 going Southeast, and continued on to Sage Junction where we met Hwy 89 again and curved back to the west and south, over the State line into Utah. From here, the road continues through Randolph to Woodruff, where you meet Hwy 39 and head southwest through the mountains to Huntsville. Follow “Trapper’s Loop” south from Huntsville and watch for signs to Mountain Green, where you meet up with 84 West and I-15 South to Salt Lake shortly thereafter.

Will try to post a few final thoughts and recommendations later.
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 31st, 2005, 08:44 AM
  #13  
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This report turned out to be so long, I thought I'd summarize a couple key things in case anyone wants to cut right to the chase.

Lodging:
Hampton Inn, Billings (points stay) - GOOD
Cabin by the River, Gardiner ($125/nt) - GREAT
Holiday Inn, West Yellowstone ($92/nt) - GOOD
Ranch Inn, Jackson ($155/nt) - OK

Restaurants:
Soda Butte Lodge, Cooke City - AWFUL
Yellowstone Mine, Gardiner - GOOD
Park St Grill & Cafe, Gardiner - GREAT (except the service)
Wild West Pizzeria, West Yellowstone - GOOD
Timberline Cafe, West Yellowstone - GOOD
Rendezvous Bistro, Jackson - GREAT
Sweetwater, Jackson - GREAT
Nora's Fish Creek Grill, Jackson (actually Wilson) - GREAT

Weather (in August):
The elevation makes it much cooler in Yellowstone than even nearby cities like Billings, but the sun is also more direct and can be hot. We had highs in the mid to upper 70's and lows as low as 35 at night. It can also get quite cool in the daytime if a storm moves through.

Don't forget to pack/buy:
Sunscreen!!
Binoculars
Telephoto lens (if you hope to get any decent wildlife pictures)
Windbreaker
Fleece (yes, there are times when you'll need this even in mid-summer)

If you'll be hiking, also remember:
Bear Spray (can't take this on the plane though)
Backpack
Sturdy hiking shoes

Other:
We bought a disposable styrofoam cooler at the grocery store, and stocked it with drinks, snacks, etc., which we ate for lunch every day. This worked great and saved us both time and money.

Happy travels!
Julie304 is offline  
Aug 31st, 2005, 11:05 AM
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Wow julie, how wonderful to see so many bears, a coyote and also a mom and baby moose! Just being in the fabulous parks is a thrill but to see so much wildlife is like the icing on the cake. Thanks again for sharing your trip.
ellen_griswold is offline  
Sep 8th, 2005, 10:29 AM
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ttt for dmpalena
wtm003 is offline  
Jun 27th, 2007, 05:40 AM
  #16  
maj
 
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Julie304

Just wanted to let you know since you wrote that you were glad someone was actually reading this -- I have bookmarked it and am reading it again. We're finally planning to go late this summer. Thanks again for the details.
maj is offline  
Jun 30th, 2007, 05:31 AM
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Julie-- I read with interest your posted report on the trip. Thanks for taking the time to inform other travelers.

I loved staying in Cooke City at the Alpine Motel. I am not clear about the definition of "basic", they have clean beds, spacious rooms, nice heating, very quiet surroundings, cable TV. For me they are a great value and the fact they are booked solid most of the summer means a lot of people find them a good choice as well. We found the Prospect restaurant food to be excellent (we still talked about their delicious pork chops with mashed potatoes and their wonderful hamburgers!!). This is the restaurant next to the U.S. Post Office (mid main street). The coffe and breakfast at the bakery across the street are really good as well.

The best thing about staying in Cooke City is the chance to be in YNP Lamar Valley within 5 minutes. My best memories are waking up early and heading out; we were never dissapointed with the wildlife sightings; breathaking scenery as well.

Grand Tetons is also a beautiful sight, but nothing paralell to YNP (my humble opinion....).
Viajero2 is offline  
Aug 7th, 2007, 08:12 AM
  #18  
hax
 
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Great report. We're thinking of going next summer. Thanks!
hax is offline  
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