The author in front of the Yellowstone sign.

Roadtrip Day 11: Grand Teton & Yellowstone S-N

Monday, 25 September, 2023
Driggs in the Morning
Traffic through Jackson Hole, WY
Views & a Hike in Grand Teton National Park
More of Geothermal Yellowstone
More of Yellowstone Wildlife

Learning from yesterday’s lesson that there’s entirely too much to see in Yellowstone (not to mention Grand Teton), I woke up before dawn so that I could do my morning routine and get some writing in prior to getting back on the road relatively early. Linsay’s dogs both kept me company (probably since their son was still asleep so the dogs were bored) as I managed to get into a flow and finish writing about the fourth day of my trip and publish it. Linsay is a teacher, so we said our heartfelt goodbyes and she and her son left not long after sunrise. Aidan and I breakfasted and chatted some more and then it was time for a final round of hugs as I adventured onward.

Photo of downtown Driggs, Idaho.
Downtown Driggs, Idaho.

Even though Aidan had been kind enough to feed me coffee, I still had to stop and check out the local coffee shop scene in Driggs. This was turning into not just a brewery and national park tour of the country, but a coffee shop tour as well. Rise Coffee House was quite bustling when I stopped in around 9am, and I loaded up not only with a scrumptious latte, but a number of baked goods and snack drinks for the road as well.

As I left town heading South to circle back into Wyoming from another direction, I had to admire Driggs. I’ll admit that in my ignorant bias I had pictured any given small town in Idaho as something a lot more rinkydink and I’d been quite curious what would lead my friend to settle there. Thankfully, my narrow coastal urban outlook was rapidly eroding on this trip, as I came to appreciate that nearly everywhere in the country, no matter what state or town you were in, was just as varied as everywhere else, with new construction and old shacks, hopping food & drink scenes and quiet working farms. “Small Town America” really is just as much a microcosm of these patchwork United States as any big city is. And so, Driggs—glorious scenic views of the Tetons backdropping rolling farmland; trendy bars and restaurants and shops in a small and walkable downtown; and tight neighborhoods and communities of all walks and stripes of life.

Photo of Teton Pass looking toward Jackson Hole.
Teton Pass looking toward Jackson Hole.

I love skiing but I haven’t done much out West yet, so I honestly didn’t know that Jackson Hole was right next to Grand Teton National Park, or that Driggs was so close to either. In fact, all three are next to each other, but to get from the Idaho side into Wyoming you have to cross Teton Pass on Rt-22. It must be a horrendous commute in the winter, but it’s a gorgeous drive on a sunny, warm autumn day. I pulled over at several points on the pass to admire the view and read some of the folksy history outlined on the signage (one welcome sign reads “Howdy Stranger! Yonder is Jackson Hole, the last of the Old West”).

In fact, I inadvertently got to admire the beautiful views quite a bit more than I expected, since I hit an impenetrable wall of stop-and-go traffic heading down into Jackson. I wondered if this was just the typical morning commute traffic from Idaho into Wyoming, but once I finally made it to the end (about 40 minutes to progress a few kilometers—spending more time parked with the e-brake on than I did rolling down the mountain) I saw that it was due to construction. This should be excellent news for all the travelers of the future when the apparent lane expansion they’re doing is done, but it really sucked that morning.

Photo of one of the Jackson Hole Antler Arches.
One of the Jackson Antler Arches.

Jackson is another nice-looking town, but in a much more superficial way than Driggs was—super resorty and most likely overpriced. It was immediately clear that it’s largely there as a tourist stop during the summer and a ski resort town in the winter. All the façades were done up in nice dark stained and dark painted wood, there’s an overabundance of restaurants with Asian and European sounding names, there are statues of meese scattered throughout the town, and I think every national brand of outdoor clothing and gear has a storefront there. One cool thing I snapped a quick pic of though were some badass-looking antler arches in the town center, which are apparently made of tens of thousands of naturally-shed elk antlers collected by locals at the nearby National Elk Refuge.

Rt-191 heads straight North from Jackson through Grand Teton National Park into Yellowstone. There are numerous viewpoints along the highway, and I think I stopped at all of them to take in the spectacular Teton mountain range from every angle. With the midday sunlight shining through the clear blue sky from the South, and the mountain range itself rising up starkly from the gently rolling patchwork of forest and meadow below, every slight change in perspective and parallax highlighted new details on the peaks. I found myself fantasizing about flying; wishing I could bound across the Snake River Valley in great leaps so that I could experience every possible aspect of the scene. I also wished I could teleport to a trailhead in the foothills so I could scramble up the mountains themselves. Alas, I was limited to merely rolling onwards in my trusty car.

Despite the gorgeous views I’d already seen, I technically hadn’t even entered Grand Teton National Park yet. I finally did that just past the town of Moran as I continued up Rt-191…And promptly hit another section of stopped traffic for the day! This blockage had a very different tenor, though, as people were parking and exiting their cars with palpable excitement. I couldn’t see what everyone was so giddy about, so rolled down my window to ask a passer-by, and was answered with one word: “Grizzly!”

Well I couldn’t pass that up—I’d much rather meet my National Parks bear quota from a distance in a crowd full of people than one-on-one in the middle of a hike. I eventually found a tight spot to pull over into then got out to join the mob. The size of the crowd was such that I worried that someone might demonstrate their stupidity by trying to get closer, but thankfully I saw there were several rangers mixed in with the crowd, keeping an eye on things. The bear itself was quite far away—more than the recommended “football field” (I swear, Americans will use every possible measure of distance aside from the logical “100 meters”), so it took me a bit of time to finally notice it, and a fairly high level of zoom to photograph it. Nevertheless, it was still a fun experience to see the giant bear foraging and to check off another big mammal sighting on this trip.

Photo of a feeding chipmunk in a bush.
Mandatory chipmunk pic.

Linsay and Aidan had specifically recommended I head up to the Colter Bay Visitor Center in the Northern part of Grand Teton for some nice shorter trails. I got there just before 1pm and wandered around the visitor center for a bit (snapping a pic of a chipmunk in a bush while I was at it), then asked the rangers on duty for some good hikes in the 5km range. At first I wanted to ask for longer recommendations since the day was perfect and the landscape idyllic, but I was perpetually on edge about the next destination and conscious of time, and still had another pass through Yellowstone to do that day. The ranger suggested I check out the Heron Pond-Swan Lake Loop since the Swan Lake portion had only just reopened after a period of trail repairs and rewilding the shoreline.

It was difficult to find the trailhead since they were doing quite a bit of construction at one end of the parking lot, but I eventually got there thanks to the topographic maps feature of my Garmin watch—not the first time that actually saved me from getting lost when I had no cell service [and it wouldn’t be the last]. Getting up the first few inclines still winded me (the elevation at Jackson Lake is 6772 ft (2064 m), but I already felt better than I had the day before in Yellowstone. Heartened by this, I eventually broke into a jog, and kept it up for most of the 5km loop.

It was truly the ideal landscape to trailrun! A gently rolling landscape that made you feel like a BMX racer on a track, racing the downhills to build up some speed for the slight inclines, with the urge to make little jumps at the top of each rise just to catch a little bit of extra air. Dappled sunlight filtered through arrow-straight pine trees highlighted magical patches of grass and young growth. Birds chirped and squirrels chittered all along the path.

At one spot on Heron Pond I came across a group of equestrians from a local women’s group. We chatted for a bit and they were kind enough to take some pictures of me with a much wider field of view than selfies could ever accomplish. The blues and greens of water, life, mountains, and sky were painting-worthy at every point along the shorelines. Even though I never got close to Grant Teton, its omnipresence in the background made it readily apparent why this National Park was created in the first place.

The trail network South of Colter Bay is quite extensive, so I once again relied on my Garmin to tell me where to turn back—especially since the trail I was to return on still had some logs blocking it. I trusted what the Park ranger had said and forged ahead despite the obstacles and diminished visibility of the path. I could easily have spent the rest of the day jogging the trails, but I had already arranged a stay with another friend in Montana later that evening so I had to limit my Grand Teton forest frolics. Swan Lake was clearly less traveled, and the trail takes you right to the water’s edge, which is peaceful expanse of lilypads surrounded by the everpresent pine forests. It reminded me a bit of parts of Bantam Lake back where I grew up in Connecticut, and I wished I could manifest a kayak to just quietly explore the lake. I caught a few glances of distant herons but saw no swans. I did cheerfully greet every singly squirrel and chipmunk I startled along my jog, though.

Selfie with the author's protein powder at the trunk of his car.
My daily driving & hiking lunch.

Back at my car by 2:20pm, I was flushed with exertion and endorphins after logging a joyful 52 minute 5k. Exposure therapy with putting distance in at elevation seemed to be working quite well so far! But I was starving, so went straight to the trunk of my car to mix up some lunch before I left Grand Teton. Now’s as good a time as any to share that my typical lunch throughout my roadtrip so far was just some Vega “all-in-one shake” protein powder shaken up with water and a spoonful of psyllium husks for extra fiber. I occasionally supplemented with some handy Clif bars, leftover hotel bananas, or coffee shop pastries, but lunches were shaping up to always be lighter meals on the go, whether in the car or on my feet. I didn’t mind light lunches since I knew I could stand to lose a few pounds of beer gut on this roadtrip.

Photo of John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway.
John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway wilderness.

Just North of Grand Teton National Park lies the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway. Only dating to 1972, it was land set aside specifically to form an unbroken connected of protected wilderness between Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Much of what I saw was just burned-out forest—apparently there was a large fire in the area in 1988 that was just now beginning to come back to life. I hadn’t realized how long it took forests to recover from major fires, but according to experts, the resulting mixture of meadow and trees is much healthier than the overgrown forest that had been there previously.

Back in Yellowstone by 3pm, I finally snagged a photo with the entrance sign (see this post’s cover photo at top) and then stopped at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Just like the Mud Volcano region I’d explored the day before, this series of raised trails revealed a wealth of additional geothermal features. It was fascinating to think about the wide variety of the features despite their physical proximity, not just in appearance and behavior, but also in chemical composition, acidity, and temperature. The beautiful deep blues and greens of some of the pools and springs were most captivating, but the fields of smoking mud pots and colorful mats of cyanobacteria were also a visual treat (although moreso in person than as captured in photos).

As I write this now, 6 months later, I’ve been doing additional research to try to get the names of things correct, and it’s surprisingly difficult to nail down which pool or spring or geyser is which since they all change over time, sometimes quite drastically. Colors shift as temperatures rise or all and bacterial mats grow or die. The Lakeshore Geyser used to be a major attraction with its regular eruptions, but I barely noticed it as I walked by—it just looked like two, small, gently boiling funnels by the lakeshore. And the fields of mud pots are constantly shifting as the pots grow, collapse, shift, and flow over time. Geological timescales may be enormous, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t frenetic activity taking place at the edges all the time.

From West Thumb I stuck with Rt-191, which took me along the Southwestern leg of the figure-8 Grand Loop Road. I made brief pitstops as I crossed the Continental Divide (which actually happens 3 times along Rt-191 in the Southwest corner of the park), but there wasn’t much to really mark the crossings aside from more of the same utterly gorgeous forests and hills. I guess I’d been wishing the Continental Divide was like a giant, Game of Thrones-ish Wall, but in reality it’s just barely a bump in the road. Still amazing to contemplate, though, that on one side of that line, a drop of water will end up in the Gulf of Mexico via the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, and on the other side of that line a drop will end up in the Pacific via the Snake and Columbia Rivers. A part of me briefly thought about peeing on both sides of the Divide, but it was only a thought….

Photo of Old Faithful erupting with crowds of observers.
Old Faithful and its crowds.

At one of the pullovers where I had service, I checked online to see what the Old Faithful eruption schedule was. Frankly, I’d originally planned to skip it and see some of the many other cool sights along the way instead since the eruptions can be as far apart as 94 minutes, but I realized I’d kick myself if I happened to miss a well-timed one. Turns out, there was one scheduled within 20 minutes of when I passed by, so I decided to wait it out and see what the fuss was about.

First of all, the infrastructure around Old Faithful is enormous. It took me over 10 minutes to walk from where I parked to get to the luxurious Old Faithful Lodge, and the lot wasn’t even a quarter full. The Lodge itself offers restaurants, shops, clean restrooms (I peed there instead of on the Continental Divide), and all the other amenities you might need. There’s even a separate Post Office building. Then there’s the observation boardwalk for the geyser itself—it could easily accommodate many thousands of people. As I waited for it to blow, I took more pictures of the crowds filling up the benches than of the natural surroundings (which were still quite stunning on their own). Thoughts of the first time I’d seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre percolated up in my mind—the painting itself is kinda small and meh, but the jostling mass of curious humanity with their cameras stretched above their heads trying to snap that perfect shot were much more interesting to me. Old Faithful felt the same. When it did finally erupt it was pretty nice, but the frisson and audible collective sigh of appreciation from the people was even more interesting.

The day was already getting long when Old Faithful erupted for me (around 5pm), so as soon I snapped a few pictures of the geyser I started jogging back to my car to avoid the inevitable traffic as everyone else started to leave the park. There are quite a few geothermal basins to explore in that area, but I skipped most and chose the Fountain Paint Pot Trail in the Lower Geyser Basin area as my next stop, just because I liked the name.

Yet again, this short trail offered a smorgasbord of fascinating, active, deadly beauty. More boiling blue pools, belching and bubbling fumaroles, a surging and steaming “Red Spouter” of mud, quite a few constantly active geysers, and large carpets of bacterial mats punctuated by acid-bleached tree stumps. I’d gotten used to a constant slight sulfurous odor in the air throughout Yellowstone, but there was a variety of smells here as well, with some even veering into sweet and acrid territory.

Photo of grazing bison.
Grazing bison in the evening sunlight.

As the shadows grew longer, I started getting antsy to get into Montana, so I passed by a ton of other roadside sights as I continued North—my mind was starting to get numb to the exotic geothermal sights anyway, at this point.

What could still grab my attention, though, was the wildlife.

Photo of ravens in front of Roaring Mountain.
Ravens and the Roaring Mountain.

I stopped at one patch of meadow to say hi to a healthy family of bison grazing in the golden grasses of the evening light. I paid tribute to a pair of regal ravens surveilling their domain in front of Roaring Mountain.

Photo of grazing elk.
Grazing elk.

Closer to the Northern border of Wyoming as I went through a mountain pass I saw some people with gigantic binoculars pointing, so pulled over to find out what was up. Turned out to be elk, finally! They typically do come out at dusk and dawn, and sure enough now that the sun was setting I could spy quite a few in the forested hills below us. My fellow tourists were a very nice couple, and they let me use one of their lenses to shoot some telephoto pictures of my own after some careful alignment with my phone’s camera.

As the tone of the light changed and both warmed where it was sun-kissed and cooled where it was mountain-shaded, and the entire landscape hit new notes of serene beauty. The temperature was noticeably changing at the same time, though, so I didn’t gawk in wonder for too long, as the heat of my comfortable car was the greater temptress after the long day.

Ok, I lied, I did briefly pass through one more geothermal feature—the Upper Terrace Drive of Mammoth Hot Springs. The sun had firmly set by the point I got to Mammoth Hot Springs, but there was still enough light for me to appreciate the massive travertine features along the short, one-way Upper Terrace Drive, all from the comfort of my car. While the lack of light took away some of the majesty, a nearly full rising moon made up for in magical ambiance, so I drove as slowly as I could without annoying the people behind me so I could savor the sights.

Photo of an angry elk on Albright Ave in Mammoth Hot Springs.
One angry elk.

Passing through “downtown” Mammoth Hot Springs I was treated to a bit of excitement thanks to the utter stupidity of one tourist. I was in a line of traffic moving slowly because there were elk slowly crossing the road one at a time, and I suddenly heard some yelling and saw people pointing. A woman who looked to be in her out of shape 60’s had just gone up to one of the elk to try to pet it. It thankfully didn’t kill or maim her (as it easily could have, given it was as tall as she was), but made a fascinating snarling sound and swung its head at her. She dodged and walked away, leaving the elk nonplussed and angry and most of the nearby people shaking their heads.

There’s a visitor center right there on the main street, so a park ranger was standing there the whole time observing, and I heard one of the woman’s friends raise her voice, asking the ranger to do something. I was highly amused and happy to hear the ranger inform the complainer that there was nothing they could do—the elk was fully in control and there were warnings all over the place never to approach them, and rangers are trained to not endanger themselves just to save the stupid. If only more of society worked that way!

Unfortunately the whole incident happened quite quickly so I wasn’t able to capture it, but I did get a shot of the elk standing there looking pissed as I drove by. Good times.

I was treated to one more cool sighting before I left the park and it became too dark to see anything anyway—two elk bulls fighting! Just before I exited the North Entrance station as I pulled around a corner, there was a line of cars pulled over, so I slowed to a crawl and managed to capture a few lucky shots through my open passenger side window. The two bulls were really going at it, with heavy thuds and grunts as they swung their antlered heads at each other. Nearby, other elk were grazing under the rising moon, paying no attention to the ongoing contest. It was definitely a treat to witness such wildlife at the end of such a long day.

The rest of my drive that day—a further hour and a half North to Belgrade, Montana, was fairly uneventful. It was pitch black most of the way, although I saw hints of the landscape lit by the occasional ranch or farmhouse or small town and I wished I could admire the landscape. In any case my mind was saturated by what I had been able to see on such an eventful Monday, and I was fairly hungry as well, having never stopped to eat any dinner, so I was in zombie mode for the nighttime drive.

I finally reached my former work colleague and friend Ryan’s house a bit before 9pm. He was supremely gracious, and had some scrumptious leftover ingredients for beef fajitas ready for a late dinner for me, along with a healthy dollop of scotch. We watched some football and caught up on what I’d seen so far on my trip as I ate, then it was time to call it a night. We’d head into Bozeman for brunch together tomorrow.

Day 11 Distance: 287 mi (462 km)
Total Trip Distance: 2,993 mi (4,817 km)

Next Up: A shorter day with brunch and walking in Bozeman, then a leisurely drive up to Cut Bank, Montana.