Over the past 6 years I've had quite a bit of flying experience for work, with 8 cross country flights and many shorter trips, I am usually able to get through a security line without a hassle. This trip was different because the TSA officers were having to debate whether or not the pointy end of my trekking poles would allow me to hijack an airplane. After a few minutes, they finally decided my ability to use it as a make-shift spear was minimal and they let me through.
The gear has been tested, the bags packed, and now I'm finally heading to Wyoming and Montana with my wife. We have the next 10 days ahead of us, starting Wednesday Sept. 23 and returning Saturday Oct. 3, split between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks as well as Big Sky Montana. Plans are a fickle thing, and only the first 5 days do we know for sure where we're staying, and the last half we'll figure it out as we go.
Landing in Jackson after leaving Charlotte is a shock to the senses. You're at 6200' of elevation, higher than most peaks east of the Mississippi. In front of you, 7000' higher, rear the Tetons like a wall marking the end of the world. Aspens have changed colors and are shocking plumes of orange and yellow down the mountain side. Air is thinner, and stepping out of the pressurized cabin onto the runway I feel my lungs start working harder. Sky is bigger, with a deeper-than-Carolina-blue that stretches across the giant bowl of the valley. Views clearer, with every crack in the rock, tree in transition from green to gold, and snow drift hiding in the shadows of massive peaks coming in clearly from miles away. Adderall in a natural prescription is the only way I can describe it, with your senses becoming hyper aware that you need to see better because it is a sin to miss any of this beauty.
Pulling out of the airport, the first sign is "Welcome to Grand Tetons National Park", and I feel very cheated. Every magnificent photo taken of the Tetons, with the sweeping plains beneath the jutting spires, could have been taken sitting right outside of the airport. I had this idea that seeing amazing vistas requires hard work, but here you can't go to a place that doesn't have a gorgeous view. We drove north into the park knowing that we wouldn't have time to do any hiking but at the same time we had to look around.
Even though we're approaching the off-season, tourists (like us) are everywhere even in the middle of the week on a Wednesday. An antique car club has to be in town this week because as I park the car, a Model T and a particularly nice 1948 Studebaker Commander are pulled to the side taking pictures with the mountains in the background. After checking to see what has already closed for the season (half of the campgrounds and one of the lodges), we get back on the road and drive to Jenny Lake just to see what a high altitude mountain lake really looks like. As we leave the crystal clear waters, we circle out onto the main road and watch through our telephoto lens small herds of buffalo and pronghorn antelopes in the massive valley.
As it starts getting dark, we head into Jackson Hole proper to pick up a few supplies we couldn't take on the plane. Jackson is a ski town selling itself as an authentic cowboy experience; the closest thing I can compare it to is an extremely upperclass Cherokee NC. Our first stop in Jackson was to pick up bear mace and stove fuel from High Country Outfitters; they were chosen because they also rented fishing equipment and there was the possibility I'd later want to embarrass myself by trying to fly fish. The clerk was extremely happy and helpful, and I think the reason why is because we are the only people who've come into the store for the past day who are going to leave pavement and hit the back country.
Well, we were, but the first few days we were going to take it easy. We crashed at an AirBnB room over the border in Idaho that night and woke up the next morning breathing heavily because you can't get below 6000' feet of elevation anywhere you go. We packed our day packs and headed into the Tetons, planning to hike up to Leigh Lake and then circle around String Lake on our way back. Within 30' of the trailhead, several mule deer have already walked across the trail, apparently unconcerned that we were there at all. The hike was easy for the first mile, flat and sandy with still waters reflecting the mountains above. While they never showed themselves, elk bugling could be heard in the distance which was the most fitting soundtrack imaginable. 2 miles more brought us into the aspen groves that hovered on the edge of the treeline, giving up close views of the only bits of fall color in a sea of evergreens.
Finishing the 4 mile loop brought us back to the parking lot in time for lunch where we made the horrible mistake of eating a "Mountain Chili" dehydrated meal; trust me when I say never eat anything that has the words "chili" and "dehydrated" in it. Not sure of what else to do with the rest of our day, we jump in the car and keep going north, seeing the rest of the sights in the Tetons visible from the road including Jackson Lake and Lodge, Oxbow Bend, as well as stopping for huckleberry ice cream which is now an addiction that will be impossible to fuel in South Carolina. Exhausted from our first full day, we head back to Idaho to crash again, knowing the next day we have a long drive to our next destination of Big Sky Montana.
Driving options aren't as numerous as they are back home. To get to Big Sky, we could either head up through Idaho (lots of potato farms) or drive up through Yellowstone and see all the things our first National Park is known for. Obviously, we head towards the southern entrance of Yellowstone, and immediately after entering I realize that this isn't what I always imagined. A giant figure 8 road links the enormous park together, and even though we are here in the least busy season there's traffic. And road work. And in the bottom half of the figure 8, mostly trees, rolling hills, and boiling water.
We decided to start by seeing the most famous sight in the park, Old Faithful. After driving for nearly an hour to get there, I pulled into an enormous parking lot reminiscent of Carowinds. Amidst a 20 acre field of concrete, gift shops, and sweaty Asian tourists, we finally find the circle of benches around the hill of the geyser. We arrived 20 minutes before the next eruption so we patiently stood and waited. In my opinion, it wasn't worth the 20 minutes of waiting in a crowd of people. We headed into the Old Faithful Lodge which is just 100 yards from the geyser, and it was arguably a much more impressive sight, with its enormous roof and log construction.
Wanting to get away from the mass of people, we get back on the road and decide we'll go up, cut across the middle, circle the top half of the 8, and then leave out the west gate and head north to Big Sky. Let me summarize the next 6 hours of driving: a lone wolf runs across the road ahead of us, herds of Buffalo are everywhere, people are even more numerous than the Buffalo, and the North East corner has the best scenery of the entire park. By the end, we realize we've made a mistake in trying to do most of the park like this in a single day. We were planning on coming back over the weekend and exploring further but decide against it because if there's this many people on a Friday, how bad is it going to be on a Saturday? There's still some play in our schedule so coming back may wait till the middle of the next week.
Once we get past the tourist trap that is West Yellowstone, we start heading into Montana and get the dramatic scenery and solitude that I was looking for. The highway follows the Gallatin River which looks like the definition of a trout stream. We pull into the resort at Big Sky (where my dad won me 3 nights stay if you read my earlier article), and at 8000' of elevation any acclimation we had built up vanished. 12 hours in the car has taken its toll and I fall asleep quickly.
Waking up below a 12,000 foot peak wreathed in snow is a good way to start your morning. Grabbing the packs we drive 10 minutes to the Beehive Basin trailhead, where we plan to make the 5 mile round trip hike to a secluded high altitude lake. As we pull in, a mother moose and calf are grazing in the field just across the creek checking off another animal on the "must see before I die" list.
Climbing up the trail, which is listed as "moderate" in all the guides, I would agree that the trail isn't too steep, is well maintained, and isn't near as tough as many trails I've hiked in the Carolinas. However, the guides don't take into account that even moderately fit people from a place only 600' above sea level can't suck down enough air to not feel like they're dying. By 9000' we felt like we had run a marathon and by the end at 9400' I had serious questions about whether I had just discovered an asthma condition. The views were beautiful but nothing was better than the sweet taste of oxygen as we hiked down to the car in less than half the time it took us to climb. Exhausted, we spent the rest of the day running errands really: washing clothes, getting groceries, and finding out where we could rent fishing gear to try and catch dinner the next night.
This is where Part 1 ends. Part 2 next month.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.