Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks Road Trip Report

One of my goals this ski season was to go to Jackson hole but that didn’t happen and after that when an Alaska ski mountaineering trip wasn’t feasible, I felt the need to get out and take a break.

A visit to Grand Tetons sounded like perfect gateway and when I found out about Teton crest trail the trip was on.

I booked my flights to Salt Lake city and from there the plan was to drive out to Tetons. I planed out the entire hike and had a day or two to visit Yellowstone but the entire trip didn’t go to according to plan.

I knew that this year Tetons had received crazy amount of snow, 2nd highest on record, so couple of weeks prior to my trip I called the ranger station and asked about it. They told me there was lots of snow and hiking over the passes wasn’t a good idea. Since I was by myself I gave up on the idea of hiking the trail.

I still wanted to do some backpacking and then suddenly a brilliant idea hit me. Why not drive all the way from LA so I could lug all my gear including skis. I contacted couple of guiding companies and they only offered private 1 on 1, which was pricey, but I kept that option open.

Packed and Ready

So now that I was set on driving I decided to leave early Friday from work around noon so that I could beat la traffic but unfortunately its LA so I was faced with traffic. I had forgotten to pack my windbreaker and since thunderstorms were predicted I didn’t want to take a chance. I remembered about it only 20 minutes into the drive so it was worth it going back for it and it delayed me an hour.

I hadn’t planned on where I was going to spend the night, all I knew that I wanted to be as close to Tetons as possible since I wanted to get there early enough to grab a campsite and get my backcountry permit for next day.

I wasn’t planning on driving through the night so I decided to spent night at Fillmore rest stop. I asked the nightly rate for Bestwestern but 80 seemed too pricey so I ended up sleeping in my car.

Next day morning woke up at 7 and started the drive. After regular stops along the way and enjoying the scenery I reached Grand Tetons at around 4pm. My initial plan was to get permit for north fork on cascade canyon trail but the south fork was right there so I got permit for two nights. I also wanted to get permit for Sunrise Lake but the ranger suggested that the route was tough and it wouldn’t be a wise idea with all the snow

I decided not to get the permit for now since I could always come back and get it. I wanted to get to jenny lake campground and grab a site before it was full. I managed to get one and after establishing the site and eating diner at around 6 I thought that I could easily crash and be done for the day.

I managed to go to bed but after n hour half of sleep I was wide-awake. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until mid night now and I heard the guys in the next camp talk about how clear the weather was. So I got up and decided to drive around for some night photography. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressed by any of the shots.

It rained at night and next day morning it was quite cloudy. I was unsure about my plans to go and do the backpack so I decided to talk to the rangers about the weather. My main fear was whiteout conditions on the trail but ranger said that there was 20% chance of snow and the weather has been like this for few days and it should clear up later in the day.

I said f**k it, I will take my chances and so I wrapped up the camp and after purchasing bear spray I headed out into cascade canyon and plan was to camp on the north fork trail go to lake solitude and then the next day go to south fork trail and possibly try to go over the pass into Alaska basin. Now that I think about it I can’t help but laugh at the futility of my ambitious plan.

This backpacking hike deserves its own blog post so here it is. Backpacking North Fork Trail

I went to the visitor center to inform the ranger about my change in plans and I asked them what would have happened if I stayed another night at north fork instead of south fork and the ranger said that it would have been fine given that it was still early in the season. It’s just that during peak times they ask folks in the backcountry to stick to their itinerary. I came back to camp and decided that it won’t be a bad idea to have pizza and beer instead of my pre cooked meal so I went to Dornans but they had some event there so I had to drop that idea.

My plan for the next day was to take it easy and do some other hikes in the park.

I woke up from sleep early around 7am but then I remembered that I was on vacation so there was no reason for me to get ready so early and I went back to bed. I was up around 9 and then after enjoying my tea and breakfast I headed over to Spring Lake.

My plan was to do a loop around the lake which was about 4 miles and I was expecting that the trail would be similar to the one on the Jenny Lake loop so finding it wouldn’t be a issue but I was so wrong. I got to the trailhead and pulled in next to a skier. I chatted with him for a bit and he was out skiing alone, only if I had known about him earlier. He took the Ski mountaineering clinic with Exum guides and was staying in Jackson for a month. I didn’t find out about this Ski mountaineering clinic earlier otherwise I would have tried for it.

For some reason I decided not to wear my gaiters, which turned out to be a big mistake, more on that later. Initially the trail was easy to find but then after 10 minutes I saw a group of 3 on a hill, I followed their tracks and caught up to them but they were lost too. They wanted to hike into the palisade canyon, part of the trail for that was common with the one I wanted to follow. I consulted the map and it was obvious that the trail went around the lake and they still hadn’t crossed it so I didn’t follow them and decided to go along my own path. I let them know about it and it wasn’t until 15 minutes I saw them follow me.

I took a break hoping that they would soon catch up to me and then lead the path so I could easily follow in their footsteps but watching them cross the snow it soon became apparent to me that they had no idea what they were doing. They caught up to me and I advised them not to go ahead with their plan of hiking into the palisade canyon, they seemed to agree and retreated. I was left to myself and for a moment I thought that maybe I should retreat too but I had my mind set on doing the loop around the lake and I pushed on. During this break I removed some snow from my shoes and not wearing gaiters was starting to bite me in the ass.

As mentioned earlier I thought that finding the trail would be easier but turned out that I was wrong. From the map it seemed that the trail took me higher and away from the lake but I didn’t want to do that, staying closer to the shores of the lake seemed like a better idea to me so I could easily make my own trail. So with that in mind I went through the woods and after a while came across bear footprints, oh fun. I had forgotten to carry my bear spray so I panicked a little and seemed like I was following the tracks of the bear.

Making my own trail

I tried to remain calm and moved away from the tracks while banging my poles at the same time to make some noise. The last thing I wanted to do is to startle a bear without any bear spray. I hurried and tried to get to an open area to find some resemblance of trail but there was none so I stuck to my original plan of staying along the borders of the lake. As I continued along I came across what seemed like marshes and I really wanted to turn around at this point since I was for sure way too far from the trail but then turning back meant that I had to go through the bear tracks and I didn’t feel like it.

Got some nice views from Marshes

It seemed that there was a way through the marshes so I carried on trying to find the bridge, which would let me cross the lake and complete the loop. As soon as I got into an area with lot of trees I started banging my poles and make some noise. I was post holing once in a while but luckily for me it wasn’t too annoying. After almost hour and half and crossing around 5-6 small streams through the marshes I finally got to the bridge and it was a huge relief.

The Bridge

After another extended break I carried on and this time luckily I had tracks to follow and they led me right way. I was post-holing lot more on this part of the trail and at this point I was really frustrated and wanted the hike to be over so that I could get out of the snow but I still had over a mile to hike. I carried on and all of sudden came across an area where the snow was different and there was a layer of ice underneath. I had to be really cautious and tried not to posthole but unfortunately my left leg went in and there was a surge of ice cold water into my shoes. It was so annoying but I didn’t have a choice and after another half hour I finally made it back to the car. As soon as I got there I immediately changed out of my shoes. It had started to rain and I wanted to get out of the parking lot and go on the scenic route but a French couple wanted ride back to Jenny Lake since they didn’t have necessary stuff to hike in the rain. My car was fully packed so I couldn’t give ride to both of them so one of them came with me and I dropped her at their car at Jenny lake.

My plans for the scenic drive were abandoned so I decided to do the Taggart Lake hike, which was about 3.5 miles RT and for sure seemed to be free of snow. I decided to go to windy point, have lunch while enjoying the view from there and dry my shoes at the same time. It was very relaxing and finally I got to see clear view of the Grand Tetons. I put on a fresh pair of socks and started Taggart Lake hike but 10 minutes into it I realized that I forgot my camera so I had to go back to get it.

Clear View of Grand Teton

It was a nice hike and was great to be on trail devoid of any snow. Since there was no cloud over the Grand Tetons I was hoping to take some reflection shots when I got to the lake. There was some snow on the trail as I got closer to the lake but I had faced worse throughout so this was piece of cake. As I reached the lake it was disappointing to see that the lake was still frozen, there went my idea of taking some reflection shots.

Frozen Taggart Lake

There were some really dark clouds moving in and I didn’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm even though I had all my gear with me. I decided to really hurry and almost started running on the way out, sure enough I hiked little over 1.5 miles in under 45 minutes. As soon as I got to the car it started pouring and I was so happy that I had made it back just in time. I went back to Dornan’s and decided to have pizza and beer, which was great. By the time I was done with it the storm passed by and I went back to the campground.

The Manager of campground, Suzy had invited everyone to her site for campfire so headed over there and met all the folks, which had their own stories to share. There were couple of guys backcountry skiing and I thought about joining them for their tour tomorrow. I didn’t want to impose and if some random person would ask me to join a tour it would be awkward so I didn’t bother. One of the guys there from New Zealand was hitch hiking across the states and had already got over 100 rides.

We stayed there till quiet hours talking about stuff and then it was time for bed. My plan was to spend 2 nights at Yellowstone and I thought that it would be little too much but it turned out that it was less.

I hadn’t booked any campsites in Yellowstone so my main priority was to secure a campsite but at the same time I wanted to take it easy not hurry up and get going. I left grand Tetons around 10.30 and reached Yellowstone entrance at around 1pm. I thought about going further up inside the park but decided against it and went to Madison where I managed to get campsite for two days.

It was now time to explore Yellowstone, I decided to drive north to Mammoth area and cover that. Mammoth hot springs was really awesome, the geysers and springs have some really interesting colors to them. After spending couple of hours there and taking lots of picture I drove east to Tower Falls.

Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs

One of my Favorite pictures of the trip

On the way to the falls I came across an Elk, Pronghorn Deer and a Black bear. The place where the bear was foraging was quite busy so I didn’t stop to take pictures. I wasn’t too impressed by Tower falls and unfortunately the road to Canyon area from there was closed so I ended up driving back the same way.

Elk

I ate dinner at Mammoth but once I got to campsite I was hungry again so I made dinner before bed. My plan was to explore the rest of the park tomorrow. I wanted to get up early and get going as soon as possible since it seemed like there was lot to explore and I wasn’t wrong.

Next day I got going by 8.30 and first headed over to Norris Geyser Basin area which was nice but nothing spectacular, only if Steamboat Geyser would have erupted. It was time to go over to the Canyon area but there were quite a few trails in the area that were closed which was disappointing.

I went to the lower falls lookout and then when I went to Grand view lookout I learned about Osprey nests in the area so I started looking for them but wasn’t able to find any. I headed over to the south rim and over there the views of Lower Falls were really nice. I came across a pair of photographers who seemed to find an Osprey nest on the North side of the canyon but they weren’t sure if there were any birds in the nest. I thought to myself that I could get a closer look at the nest from the North side now that I knew exactly where to look, so I went back to the north side and sure enough there was the nest.

Osprey Nest

I saw two birds in the nest though I couldn’t make out if there were any eggs. I saw one of them take off for hunting I presume, it was an awesome sight to see. Now the only thing left on my wish list was to see a Grizzly bear and my wish was granted as I drove out to West Basin Geyser area. There was a Grizzly foraging in the meadows and a huge crowd had gathered to watch it. He was about 100 ft. away or so and it seemed like he wanted to come closer and cross the road but maybe was intimidated by the number of people.

Grizzly Bear

My Yellowstone mammal wish list was complete and I was super happy. I headed over to the West Basin Geyser area and some of the springs were really colorful, there was one in particular where I wasn’t happy with the pictures I took because of the angle of the sun. I thought about returning next day but I didn’t. Now the only thing left was Old Faithful area.

As soon as I got to Old Faithful there was a crowd of people gathered so I found a good spot and set up my camera. The geyser didn’t erupt for another half an hour but when it did, it surely put on a show. I then went around checking out the area and I hadn’t realized that there would be so much to look at. There were couple of Bison just relaxing in the basin area and they let us get really close to them. I didn’t try my luck and maintained my distance however there was a guy with his tripod who only few feet away from it. I had my camera on them since I was certain that the Bison was going to charge but luckily for everyone it just crossed the walkway and carried on.

Old Faithful

Bison close to people

No Harm done but could have been Ugly

I moved to other part of the basin and sure enough one of the geysers where I was earlier erupted, I didn’t get chance to catch it up close. It seemed like I wasn’t going to be able cover the entire area since it was getting pretty late and I was hungry too. So I went around for a bit taking pictures and then waited around Castle Geyser in hope that it would erupt. It had already erupted twice in the day so I didn’t linger for long and then after having Dinner at the cafe it was time to head back to camp.

Castle Geyser

My plan next day was to visit couple of more Geyser areas and then drive back to Jackson and spend the night there. I wanted to do some photography passing through the towns and Bear Lake, which I planned to do it on Saturday. I was hoping to reach LA on Sunday night after some gambling in Vegas but as with this trip nothing worked according to the plan.

I thought about spending another night at Yellowstone but seemed like getting a campsite would be a problem and it was started to get crowded so I wanted to get away from it. I wrapped up my campsite and visited Midway Geyser Basin, which was awesome, specially the chromatic pool. It was awesome to see the different colored mist rising from the pool. I then went over to Black Sand basin, which was going to be my final stop in the park, and I would be on my way.

Chromatic Pool

As I got there, in the distance I saw what seemed like Osprey hunting some birds, I tried to switch to my zoom lens but it flew away before I could. After going around the basin area, I decided to wait for a bit to see if the Osprey came back and sure enough it did. I thought it would go for the birds but they were nowhere to be seen so the Osprey was over the river. I wanted to move closer to it but as I was moving the Osprey made a dive for it and plucked out a fish. It was once in a lifetime experience and it circled over us for few minutes with fish still in its claw and then flew away. I was completely thrilled and it felt so good to see the hunt in action.

Osprey with Fish

Osprey Flyover

On the way to Grand Tetons there was a brief stop over to watch a Mama Grizzly bear with two cubs but they were way to far from road so I didn’t linger for long. I got back to Jackson around 3pm and thought that it didn’t make sense spending the night there so I carried on and thought maybe Logan might be a better option. As I got to Logan it seemed that I could go further and I ended up spending the night at Fillmore in my car, which was the same place as way up. Saturday I stopped over in Vegas to play some poker and then reached LA Saturday night.

Mama Grizzly and cubs

It was an awesome trip even though it didn’t go according to plan. I wanted to backpack Teton Crest trail but couldn’t and enjoyed Yellowstone more which was going to be an after thought on this trip. I took over 600 pictures on this trip, most of them were in Yellowstone and it took me better part of Saturday and Sunday to process them all.

Next time I go to Yellowstone I want to spend at least a week photographing everything and regarding Teton Crest Trail I am considering of going back in Mid September and hiking it.

1 person, 2 national parks, 6 state lines, 9 days , 12+ mammal species, 25+ miles of hiking, 600+ pictures, 2400+ miles and a lifetime of memories. Road trips are so much fun.

The trip pictures can be viewed and bought at http://www.desidiverphotography.com/Hiking/Yellowstone-Road-Trip/

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