Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Trip to YellowStone and Grand Teton National Parks

Few tips for visiting Yellowstone

I usually write detailed blogs, but I realized that someone who is looking to know the main things might not be interested in reading the whole blog. So here are a few tips 

  •  Your stay should be either within the park, or close to the park entrance. We stayed in west Yellowstone and it saved us a lot of drive time in the morning and evening and you have more time to see the attractions in the park. We do recommend the Holiday Inn. 
  •  To save time, do buy your snacks and breakfast items ahead and carry it with you, that way you don't spend a lot of time on an elaborate breakfast in the hotel. 
  • All of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone is open in summer, but I am glad we made the trip in the beginning of June  than in July because it gets pretty warm towards noon in the park. But I am sure July - Aug should be good times too, just that its just going to be a lot warmer.
  • If you can go during a non-US holiday, you will save a lot of time because you will avoid the crowds
  •  The park is huge, so if you are a first timer and you want to see all the sites, you need a minimum two full days. One day to cover the upper loop and one for the lower loop. And for Teton, you can enjoy it for a full day. 
  • If you love hiking and other activities and want to take time, first purchase a trail map, and make sure of the safe trails.The map you get at the entrance do not specify all the trails, and there are no boards on the main road mentioning trail entrances. Also, for you to spend time and enjoy the various trails along with the sites you do require a minimum 5 days in Yellowstone  and 2 days in Grand Teton. 
  •  If you are traveling with children, please note that there will be delays multiple times, and be flexible with time. Also many trails are not stroller friendly, so you can only walk until when your child can. 
  •  The park in general is kid friendly and has good infrastructure of restrooms, food and all facilities for campers. 
  • Among the various attractions in the park, I think the ones you should not miss are the upper and lower falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the walk around the north rim trail. I am sure the south rim trail is amazing as well. The other attractions you should not miss are the fountain paint pots, the prismatic spring and Norris geyser. 
Blogging our trip details

I have heard of Yellowstone since the time I landed in US. Sree has already been there on a quick tour with a friend before our marriage, and mentioned it's a must see place. When my parents came down to US in 2011, I did send them on a national park trip around the US which covered Yellowstone and they did enjoy it too. So it's just me who have not seen among us, and I have been thinking of a good time to go. Finally I realized there is no good time, and decided just 2 weeks before to go on this trip. We looked for tickets during Memorial Day and got nothing, it's expected and booked for a 5 day trip right after the Memorial Day weekend.

Day 1 : Flying to Salt Lake City

If you want to only visit the national parks, then you can actually fly to airports nearer to Yellowstone like Jackson or Idaho falls, and that might save you drive time, but we did want to do a small road trip from salt lake to west Yellowstone and hence decided on landing in salt lake and driving down.

On Tuesday, May 31st, our vacation started when I finished my last meeting at work and headed down to meet Sree at his work and then go from there to the airport. Hemal drove us to the SFO airport and we had a nice ride with some amazing funny conversations as usual. 

Reaching SFO, we realized we need to go to the international check in area for Alaska airlines. We checked in and had some food to eat and cleared security. 
We then went to our gate and waited to board. Our seats were all separate. We almost forgot to check if that was the case. When we did finally check, we realised that our seats were all in different rows. The friendly gate agent was helpful and got us seats in the same row. Thanks Alaska airlines friendly gate agent :). Now we were able to get seats together.

Tara was so excited to get the window seat and to see the planes. She was pretty cool throughout the flight and behaved well. It was funny to see her talking to the plane outside.

In the plane

It was a short flight of about 1.5 hrs and we landed in Salt Lake City. Sree wanted to see if we can get the rental immediately, but Advantage was off the airport and it was closed. So we took a cab to our hotel which was Best Western near the airport. Our cab driver was from Kenya and we had some interesting conversations about Kenya, the food there which is very much like Indian food. He did mention they have their version of chapathi and biriyani in Kenya. 
After we checked in, we got into the room and in some time realized that the AC in the room was not working. And hence, we called the reception and they told us we can use another room for just sleeping and we moved to a king suite and slept soundly for the night!

Day 2: Driving to Yellowstone

Next day morning, Sree woke up early and got ready to get the car. The rental place opens at 7 AM. He got an Uber and reached the rental by 8 AM. It was not busy. After some initial confusion, he finally got a car. We did upgrade the car from a small SUV to a 4Runner. It was a big car, and frankly it was a pain to put tara in and out of the car seat in the car. The car is very tall and thats part of the problem. Anyways, other than that the car was OK.

We started from salt lake city by 10 AM. Our first stop was walgreens and got some essentials (and munchings for the trip). We decided not to take the direct route (I-15) from salt lake city. Instead we took Highway 89 North to Logan, and then to Garden City, Crossed over to Idaho, and reached Montpier. There we decided that the original plan to drive all the way to South entrance of Grand Teton before taking 20 to West Yellowstone, is not going to work. We then took Highway 30 to soda springs and Mccammon and joined I-15. Overall we drove about 150 miles extra and 3 hours of extra drive. But it was worth it, the drive through cache national forest was very nice. It was also interesting to drive through the country side of Utah and Idaho.

We had lunch at Logan in HuHot Mangolian BBQ. Thanks to the server lady who told Sree the sauce combination for making the perfect Mangolian bbq plate (4 parts teriaki, 2 parts bbq sauce, 1 part garlic sauce, and a little bit of sesame oil). This came out great and Tara approved it. Will need to try to make my own version of this at home. After lunch we had coffee in a french creperie. It had a river flowing in its back and Sree took pictures of Tara there. They also made great design on the coffee. Sree found it a bit difficult to drink the coffee and hence destroy the design. The coffee was excellent. There was also an antique place and Sree got a train watch from there. We are sure we overpaid, but hey it made a cool train sound. That's our adventures in Logan.  I wonder why so many people live there through. What is the industry there?

In front of the Antique Shop

Random shot in the cafe
The drive through the rest of the place was a bit quite. I slept  a bit and Tara slept through the drive. We reached West Yellowstone by 9 and the only restaurant that was open was the one in Holiday Inn. We got the room and then went to have dinner. Dinner in the restaurant was OK. Tara did not eat much. When we finally got into our room, Sree smelled cigarette smoke. We called up the receiption and they got us a king suite (we had queen suite). The king suite had a jacuzzi in the room. It was a bit strange to see it in the room, but after the long drive a soak in the jacuzzi was wonderful. I did not want to jump in. Tara was more than happy to jump in and so was Sree. So that was a pleasant surprise after a long day. After that we hit the bed.

The jacuzzi right next to our bed!

Day 3: First day in Yellowstone:

We woke up late at 8.30 as we were pretty tired after the long trip from Salt Lake City. We got ready and got out by 10 AM. There is no free breakfast, so we decided to go to a store and get stuff to eat in the car. We also had to fuel up and we got stuff to eat from the convenience store in the gas station. They had ripe banana, Tara loves banana, so her food was secured. Then we started our drive. The entrance to Yellowstone park was just 100 m from the gas station. We got the pass for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton ($50) and then started our trip. The scenery was very nice. We saw bison along the road. and people fly fishing. The madison river was in parallel to the road.

Madison River behind us

Yellowstone is made of two loops, the north loop, and the south loop. We decided to do south loop for today and do the north loop on our second day at Yellowstone.

Complete Map of Yellowstone

Distance Map

 Our first stop was Fountain paint pots. It was surreal to see the place. . At one place we could smell strong sulphur. 
Then next we stopped at Grand Prismatic spring. That's another interesting place. The spring had lots of colors due to microorganisms living in the hot spring.
On the way, we also stopped over at the black sand basin and I just walked around the area observing it.

one of the geysers in Fountain Paint Pots

A portion of the Grand Prismatic Spring

Next, we reached Old faithful. We reached just in time to see the geyser. It lasted only 30 seconds. Sree missed it as he had to find parking(he has seen it earier). I was not very impressed. Anyways, after that we had lunch in the cafeteria there (its clean nad well arranged, the restroom area was also good). We got some souvenirs from the gift shop and then started our drive to see the upper and lower falls in the canyon. It was a long drive and on the way we stopped at the Yellowstone lake to take some pics. By the time we reached the falls, it was raining. But it was totally worth the visit. Upper falls was great, but lower falls and the Artist point was the best. It's a place  to see and no one should miss this view in Yellowstone.

Upper Falls

Lower Falls

Then we decided to drive back as it was getting late. Tomorrow is going to be a long day as we plan to see Grand Teton. We reached west Yellowstone by 7.30 PM. Got some groceries from the local store, Got dinner to go from a mexican food truck ( La Palmitas Mexican Food) which took forever as they were very crowded (the food was very good) and then reached our room. We did our now customary 10 minute soak in the jacuzzi (Tara will not let us sleep otherwise) and then I am now writing the blog. We hit the bed at 10.30. Tomorrow we plan to wake up early and start to Teton by 7. Its a 2.5 hour drive from here through Yellowstone and that's going to take a long time. More later.

Day 4- Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton distance map

complete map of Grand Teton

We woke up extremely early today. We wanted to leave by 7, and Tara was also woken up. We carried breakfast along with us. We were able to get out on time though all of us were a bit sleep deprived. 

We then drove to Grand Teton through the Yellowstone national park. So you have to go from the west entrance to the south entrance and it was around 70 miles, it takes around 2 hrs to cover this. 
Again great scenery!

As we reached Grand Teton, I wanted to take a picture in front of the national park board, but a group of enthusiastic folks was already there and it was funny to see them taking pictures in all combinations. Finally got our picture and we drove inside Grand Teton. As we drove in, we could see the Teton range and they looked spectacular. We stopped over at multiple lookout points to embrace the view. We did stop at Leeks Marina. It was 9 in the morning and the whole place was so quiet with just the sound of water. It was very relaxing and we spent around 10 minutes here. We then reached the Colter Bay visitor center and drove to swim beach. This was a nice picnic area with a great view of the Tetons and we spent some time with Tara here and had some breakfast.

Leeks Marina

swim beach picnic area

We stopped over at the visitor center and got a better map of Teton and proceeded further to Jackson Lodge. Reaching there , Sree for a coffee and the upper deck had the most magnificent view of the Teton range where we could see all the mountains in one stretch. Many happy faces clicking pictures here. We did soend around 30 minutes here and then drove down further again. Impressed with Jackson Lodge. The lodge has around 30 rooms with this great view and they also have additional quarters. 

We then proceed to Oxobend in the hope to see some wildlife  but did not see any. But again a nice view.

view from Oxobend

We then proceeded to Signal Mountain Lodge. I went in there and ordered some lunch as Togo and in 10 minutes we got it and our aim was to go to Jenny lake visitor center and have lunch there.
The lunch was not so great. I had got pasta for Tara and it had no flavors. There was a squirrel which was running around that fascinated Tara quiet a bit. 
There is some construction happening in Jenny lake visitor center, but they still had all bare minimum facilities available. 

We then went to the visitor center and enquired about the different trails around. For all trails, you need to take the boat shuttle or walk all the way around. They mentioned that the trails are not stroller friendly and sometimes you might have to carry the child and walk. Also, the easy route to inspiration point is closed and only the hard and longer route is open this time due to some work happening in that area. 

But we still decided to go check it out, and as we went to the boat dock, we saw that there is a scenic boat ride around the lake in a minute and decided to take that. The captain was very informative and during the ride, he told us a lot about the Teton range. He mentioned he loves the mountains and all mountains are accessible for climbers. He himself had climbed them. You do need climbing experience, but you do not need climbing gear to climb these. There was a guy who broke the record by climbing 6 mountains in 6 hours 45 minutes. He climbed Teevana mountain which is next to Teton in just 45 minutes up and down. That was ridiculous. This is 12,000 feet above ground we are talking about. We also saw small streams from these mountains and they looked beautiful. 
This was a one hour boat ride and it was nice. 

We came out, and decided to walk around the trail and not to take a shuttle again as it was already 3 pm and the shuttle will stop at 4. Our little hiker Tara was so excited to explore the trail that she refused to even hold our hands while walking and was enjoying the trail in her own way. We walked for sometime and we saw a nice clearing with a great view of the lake, we spent some time here on the way back. We walked around .6 miles I believe and we could see Tara getting exhausted and hence we decided to walk back.

Jenny Lake Trail Map

Around the Jenny lake trail

We reached back and it was almost 4:15. Then we bought some drinks from the store and started to Moose junction. It was just a drive with the Teton looming in front of us. We started back from here around 5, and we had to cross Teton national park and Yellowstone National park to get to west Yellowstone. 

It took an easy 3 hours and Tara slept soundly. We saw bisons on our way and reached west Yellowstone by 8. 

We had dinner at Slippery Otter Pub. The soup was delicious. Sree's burger was good too. We then walked over to find homemade ice cream and Sree and Tara each got one. Tara enjoyed her ice cream.

We reached back to our room and the jacuzzi custom was done and we also get the bed after that. 

Day 5 : Second day at Yellowstone

So we had covered the south loop two days back, and our plan was to cover the north loop today. So we started with the usual route until Madison junction and turned left to Norris. This was a new road we were taking and was very scenic as usual. We did stop at few lookout points and also stopped at the Gibbon Falls. Good view. We then stopped at Artist's paint pots which was again a collection of colorful geysers, I liked the trail between the lodge pole pines that take you to the geysers and it was nice. We could take the stroller the most part, but then later had to pick Tara up and walk a few steps, but it was not bad. The view again was great.

From here we again stopped when we wanted to grasp the view more and reached Norris Geyser Basin. This was this huge area with many geysers. The trail around the geysers were stroller friendly, but Tara wanted to walk around looking at wild flowers and she refused to sit in the stroller. So we all walked the entire loop. Saw porcelain springs, and then off to some of the other geysers. They had a variety of colors - yellow, green, blue. This was a long loop on hot sun, but I was impressed that Tara walked the whole way, and still had more energy. It was tiring for me and Sree so I am sure it was tiring for her small legs

one of the geysers in Noris Geyser Basin

After Norris, we started off to Mammoth springs. We did stop over sheepeater cliff on the way. We did not get out as Tara was fast asleep, but could see that there was a trail to some point there. In a flash card I had on the attractions of Yellowstone, Mammoth springs was ranked 3 or 4th. So my expectations from it was huge. I am not sure, may be it was so hot and the fact that the springs did not have much water, I was not so impressed with it. Me and Sree took turns to go around the place and see it as Tara was sleeping in the car. 
We covered the lower terrace portion.

Mammoth Springs

After this we were really hungry. We stopped at Mammoth recreation area and got into a hotel there and had lunch. 
The food was decent, though I hated the Mediterranean appetizer that we ordered. 
Everything else was good. After about an hour at lunch, we drove down to Lamar Valley in the hope of seeing wildlife. This was the most fun for me. Earlier in the day, we had seen a sandhill crane. As we rode down the valley, we saw deer, then a lot of bisons. We have been seeing a lot of bisons on  this trip, and Sree even named one 'Facebook bison' because there is one or two who always appear on the road, and people stop over to take pics which obviously end up in Facebook:). Then I saw a crowd of people and enquired what they have spotted and it was a fox, he was sleeping , and we were all trying to capture shots of him. Then as we rode further, I saw people with binoculars and one kind lady gave me a chance to look through and in the distance, I saw a white and black wolf, both sleeping. More bisons along the way. In the hope of spotting a bear I made Sree drive a lot, and finally turned back. We then crossed anther group, who spotted three white owls and again I got a chance to look through their lens .
Then I did see one elk I believe, and we drove down further towards tower falls and there was a big group and when asked they said they have spotted bears! A mom and two cubs and they were up on a tree. I looked through someone's binoculars and sree got a chance too. Ofcourse they were too far for a good picture through my camera.
I was happy. Finally a bear.

On our way down to Canyon Village, I believe we did stop at a lookout and that is of the Tower Falls.
Beautiful view again
view from Tower Falls

We then drove down to brim of lower falls thinking that is the trail we want to do, but that trail was going down to the falls and was not stroller friendly, and it was too steep for Tara to walk. So we went to the north rim trail and had a nice walk along the rim of the canyon. It was really beautiful, and we enjoyed the time we spent here. The most magnificent spot is the 'Grand View'. After 'Grand View', we continued walking through an unpaved trail to Inspiration point. It was beautiful, but we were the only ones on the trail and it felt kind of weird. We walked further, but it looked like it was very far off. So we returned back to our car , and then drove down there and it was quite a distance! But I should say, I am glad we kind of turned back because later on the trail was not at all stroller friendly and we would have had a tough time with Tara. Also it was long, and when we return back it would be really dark and kinda scary. The Inspiration point was not that inspirational as I expected. The Grand View was so much better.

Canyon Trail Map

Grand View of the Canyon

After this we drove back to West Yellowstone and on our way back, we saw a Moose too. It was a lonely one, and was in perfect position for a photograph. I got down, took one and hopped back in.

As we left, we did talk about returning back to this place few years down the line just to walk through some of the nice trails here and explore more of the park. During that trip, seeing the attractions will not be priority, it would just be enjoying the various sites the park has to offer. 

For dinner , we went to Slippery Otter  Pub and had their tomato soup which I have come to love. We also got ice cream for the three of us from the ice cream shop and went back to the hotel.

Last day of Jacuzzi fun for Tara today, after which we packed everything and went to bed early. 

Day 6: Back to SFO

Today we checked out around 5:30 am and started our drive back to Salt Lake City by around 5:45 am. It was a 4.5 hr drive and we did make two stops for break. Tara was enjoying the drive as well and she also slept a bit. I mean, it was nice to drive down these endless roads. 

We reached Salt Lake City and drive down to temple square here. We wanted to see the Morman church. The church looks beautiful. Beautiful architecture from outside. We also saw a model of the inside of the church and it was so impressive. This was built in the 1840s and took 40 yrs to construct. We then walked over to another building and we saw a spectacular statue of Jesus Christ. We spent some time gazing at it and then walked back to our car. 

We then filled up fuel and drove to Advantage to return the car. That was smooth and we took the shuttle to the airport. We were on time, checked in, cleared security, and grabbed some lunch. I am so done with American food and I am actually craving for some good curd rice , sambhar etc. 

Our flight was on time and we boarded. We arrived 20 minutes earlier and Hemal was already there. And guess what? Varsha and Hemal had bought us food from Madras cafe, exactly the food we were craving for - curd rice, sambhar rice, idly, pulidhare:). A good end to a wonderful trip!