Sunday, June 29, 2014

Yellowstone: End notes

So I have finally finished my trilogy on Yellowstone. I just wanted to end this series with a few notes - additional information for anyone who wishes to visit the park.

Base camp:

We planned our trip only a month in advance. By then, it was too late to stay in the park. Sad! While searching for alternative locations, we came across Cody, WY, Jackson Hole, WY, and Billings, MT. Initially, we booked our lodging at Cody because it's closer to the park, it's relatively cheap, and the air fare is nearly half the price of Jackson Hole.

But we changed our mind at the last minute because air fare from San Francisco to Salt Lake City has dropped to $244 per pax. Even though that would mean a 5-hour drive from SLC airport to Jackson Hole, and we would commute two hours into the park instead of one each day, we chose this cheaper option.

It helps that we all love to drive!

And we enjoyed our stay at the quaint little town of Jackson Hole. It's a popular ski area in winter; in summer, it's abuzz with bikers, kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts. It was pleasantly vibrant during our short sojourn, and dinner choices were aplenty.


We stayed at Elk Refuge Inn. We didn't see any elks during our stay at the Inn, but we did see a lone moose at the refuge on our second night. The Inn comes with free muffins and coffee in the morning. For $160 a night, the room and its surroundings are pretty decent.

Our alternative choice was Motel 6, which is closer to downtown Jackson. We also considered Snake River Park KOA and Cabin Village just for the fun of it, but we realised the location is further from town.

There are plenty of other accommodation at Jackson Hole, depending on your budget. It's a pity we couldn't stay at the bigger lodges. They looked really pretty on the outside!

Grand Teton: The Bonus

Saving the best for last. Because we stayed at Jackson Hole, we drove through Grand Teton National Park every day. Grand Teton is the beautiful cousin of Yellowstone. We felt obliged to focus on Yellowstone; yet, it's hard to ignore the grandeur of Grand Teton.

On the morning of departure, we finally set aside time to explore the park. We only managed to visit Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center and Jenny Lake. The visitor centre offers so much information on the area's geology and wildlife that we spent longer than expected there.

We also discovered that there are boat rides at Jenny Lake. It's such a pity that we didn't have time to go on a scenic cruise. The views are breath-taking.


It's hard to say how long one should set aside for Yellowstone and its surrounding area. There's so much to explore, and plans are always changing because of the unpredictable weather. We had planned to do both north and south loops. The plan was aborted in the end because we didn't want to rush through the points of interest.

Looking back, I would say plan at least a week, so that you can truly take your time to appreciate the park. Staying inside the park would also help cut down a lot on travelling time.

Lastly, go with an open mind! Check out the visitor centres and join the ranger talks. Remember to put aside your camera from time to time, and just enjoy what nature has to give!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Yellowstone: More than just Old Faithful (3)

Continuing from Day 2...

We had such an action-packed day with wildlife the day before that we decided to take it slow and enjoy our last day at Yellowstone. We abandoned our plan to visit Mammoth Hot Springs up north (because that would mean a near 4-hour drive from Jackson Hole!), focusing on the rest of the south loop instead.

Our first stop was West Thumb Geyser Basin, an area which could be easily overlooked by visitors wanting to check out other more popular places. We had a toilet break there the day before, and was only planning to make a quick stop on Day 3.

Turns out, we were so taken by the beauty of the place that we stayed longer than expected. The basin's proximity to Yellowstone Lake meant that we had spectacular views of the lake and the Absaroka Range.

It also meant we could see temporarily submerged cones and geysers. The lake's water level is higher in spring/early summer due to melting snow, hence the vents near the shore would be covered. 

On the day of visit, we even saw three kayakers paddling close to the vents of Lakeshore Geyser. It must be quite an extraordinary experience, going so close to an underwater geyser! 

Our next stop was Norris Geyser Basin. The area is huge with two different components - the Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. Admittedly, after three days of geysers, we weren't impressed with just any geyser. We needed to see unique ones! 

One of the more interesting geysers at the Norris area is Steamboat Geyser, touted as the world's tallest active geyser. It is highly unpredictable, and obviously, it did not erupt while we were there. Insert sad face.

But we were able to hear a first-hand account of its last eruption on 31 July 2013 from ranger Cindy, where it shot water and steam up to 300-foot high. That's close to a 30-storey building. Who would have thought there's so much power hidden in this harmless looking geyser?

Our third and last stop was the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, an area as lovely as its namesake. This is an easy 0.5-mile loop on the boardwalk. Pastel colour lovers would dig this place; even the bacterial mats are of a soft-hued orange.

What I loved most about this place was the Red Spouter, a muddy hot spring that seemed like a geyser as it angrily spews reddish water a few feet high. Its colour is distinct.

As a farewell token, I was also sprayed by the nearby Clepsydra Geyser. This geyser, whose name means "water clock" in Greek, erupts almost without pause. I was caught by surprise as the change in wind direction brought down water on the bystanders on the deck.

Is this the rite of passage for a true Yellowstonian?

And then, it was time to bid Yellowstone goodbye. I have fulfilled a childhood dream of visiting this world famous park. 

Would it be strange if I say the trip was educational as well as emotional? It's like, you just spent three quality days with someone who has always been around, whom you have never taken the time to understand, and suddenly you felt closer to that person?

I felt a marked connection to the Earth we live in.

That's what Yellowstone did for me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Yellowstone: More than just Old Faithful (2)

Continuing from the first day...

We decided to wake up really early the next day to join the ranger tour at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I honestly wasn't expecting much, because I have seen the real Grand Canyon at Arizona. What could beat that?

On our way to the meeting point, we ran into a little 'problem'. A few bisons decided that the road belonged to them and refused to move. They hogged the road for a good five minutes, before one of them finally decided to give way.

These animals, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, are enormous and are known to have gored visitors at Yellowstone. Although they appeared docile, it's best to give them plenty of space because they charge pretty fast!

In spite of the bison delay, we managed to reach the South Rim Trail in time for the ranger tour. I must say, I was wrong; the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is magnificent in its own right. I can hear the Upper and Lower Falls even from a distance.

The ranger took us on a short south rim trail, but we continued on to various view points on both the south and north rims. My favourite has got to be Artist Point on the south, and Grand View on the north. Endless opportunities to appreciate the grandeur of the canyon. I especially love the winding valley.

Then rainbows, rainbows, and more rainbows! Big, beautiful arcs over the water!

Although the ranger tour was short, it gave us a lot of interesting information. I asked about the large piles of poop littered around the trail, and found out that animals like bisons and elks like to use the trails carved out for park visitors, too. Wolves, on the other hand, prefer the power lines.

The day before we arrived, the rangers also had to close off one north rim trail. A grizzly bear had hidden the carcass of an elk calf close to the trail and was feasting on the insides (poor baby!). It would be coming back for the rest of the kill, so it would be extremely dangerous for visitors to walk on that trail.

So the next time you see a 'no entry' sign on a trail, stay clear for safety's sake!

After exploring the Grand Canyon, we headed back south to check out the Mud Volcano Trail. It is a small area compared to the Old Faithful Area Trail. I was more impressed with the Dragon's Mouth Spring, which makes hissing sound as the vapour spouts out. It sounded like a giant's respiration.

It was also the perfect day for animal viewing! Other than a bison-filled morning, we spotted an adult elk grazing at the side of the road. It was a pity that we didn't see more animals at Hayden Valley.  

As we were about to leave the park for the day, we noticed a commotion by the side of the road with lots of people and 2-3 ranger vehicles. Instinctively, I knew it was bear. I stopped the car, grabbed my camera and jumped out. True enough, we saw a grizzly sleeping in the middle of a field. We had a good view of it through the telephoto lens of another visitor.

The guy was talking and showing us other bear photos he had taken. We were admiring his photos when suddenly, out of the corner of my eyes, I saw movement. The grizzly has woken up.

"Oh, it's moving!" I said excitedly, straining my eyes to see the fuzzy brown patch over the field.

"Yeah... I think he is coming towards us," the guy said nonchalantly.

"Really?" I had thought it was heading in the opposite direction.

I was still thinking, how cute, we can see a grizzly up close.

Then I remembered the elk calf.

"Say, do you think this is a safe distance?"

The guy paused for a while. "Well... not really."

He started to pack his camera quickly.

I panicked and yelled, "MOM, LET'S GET BACK TO THE CAR NOW! MOM!"

Everything happened so fast in the next minute. I recalled backing away as quickly as I could without running, making sure that Mom was following me. I recalled waving wildly at Dad who was about to drive away because he had wanted to move the car for a better view. I recalled the rangers shouting at everyone with a loud hailer, to please get back inside our cars now.

By the time we jumped back inside our car, the grizzly has gotten much closer. At the same time, mom spotted a deer emerging at the other side of the road - the poor deer must be the reason for the bear's movement!

We got blocked by trees momentarily and lost sight of the grizzly. Just as we were wondering where it was, it reappeared at the side of the road. For a moment, we looked back and forth between the bear and the deer, the latter obviously in shock. Will it end up like the elk calf?

The moment was lost as a white lorry cut our lane, breaking the bear's attention. The bear then trotted across the road, and both bear and deer disappeared into the bushes.

What a drama!

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Yellowstone: More than just Old Faithful

Yellowstone needs no introduction. It has got to be the most fascinating place on earth, given the on-going geologic activities. I have been wanting to go since learning about it in geography class.

And now that I am staying in the US, I no longer think that Wyoming is as remote as Mars. The perks of being on this side of the globe!

So the Fearless Three (Dad, Mom and I) decided to do a budget trip to Yellowstone. Dad has just retired, Mom has retired, and yours truly is unemployed. We decided to take on the long road trip challenge.

We would fly from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, Utah, making a transit at Phoenix, Arizona. Then we would drive five hours up north to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The route would cut through Idaho. Five states in a day. Beat that!

Needless to say, we were exhausted by the time we arrived at Elk Refuge Inn at Jackson Hole. It wasn't as grand as the villa we have stayed on our Fairmont trip, but it's a decent lodge and our loft came with a small kitchenette, two beds, a toilet and a dining area.

(Note: We would have loved to stay within Yellowstone but there were no more vacancies when I called. A word of advice - book way in advance!)

The next morning, we drove two hours into Yellowstone via the Grand Teton National Park. As we drove in from the south, we were shocked to find snow all around. We even saw blocks of ice floating on Lewis Lake. It was hilarious because we were totally dressed for summer!

And then we finally arrived at the Old Faithful! We reached just in time. The world famous geyser was about to erupt; there was a commotion and people were running as we parked. We ran alongside the crowd to witness the first eruption. I was expecting a wall of water to spurt out, and hence was a little disappointed that it was small and didn't last long.

We were in the Old Faithful Visitor Centre, planning to go to our next destination when a hailstorm announcement came. Talk about sudden climate change. A moment ago it was all well and sunny; the next moment we were trapped indoors. I had to brave the storm to get our jackets because it was freezing.

The storm took more than an hour to pass. It was near the timing of the next eruption, so we decided to wait in the rain for the Old Faithful one more time. This time, she was really late. 10 minutes... 15 minutes... then VROOM! A gushing wall of vapour and water!

This is what we are talking about!

After witnessing the spectacular eruption, we decided to hang around the Upper Geyser Basin and do the 2.8-mile round trip to the Morning Glory Pool. It was awesome walking on the boardwalk, enjoying the sights of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles boiling and spewing vapour all around us.

Mother Earth is breathing and we are standing right on her nostrils!

We also said hello to the thermophiles. These organisms thrive in extremely high temperatures, and they give pools like this their pretty colour. Isn't it awesome?

Before leaving the Upper Basin and ending our first day at Yellowstone, the Riverside Geyser gave us a grand performance, shooting a tall column of water up in the skies for over 15 minutes. This gave us enough time to snap as many photos as we could, and then enjoy the geyser just as it is.

Pretty rainbow there, hein?

To be continued...