I spent a week in Yellowstone National Park in early September 2009. It was my first visit to this natural wonder upon wonder. These are my reflections on the wonders and lessons of Yellowstone.Lesson 1: Getting There
One can read dozens of books, watch several DVDs and go bleary-eyed looking at Yellowstone web sites (I did all of the above). But nothing can prepare the novice for the wonders inside Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. The first lesson we learned was how to get to and from the park. Or, perhaps, how not to get there.
Our trip coincided with a parents’ weekend visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to visit our son, Cadet Third Class Matthew. We figured we could make the drive northwest on Labor Day (at the conclusion of parents’ weekend) and do the return trip to the Denver airport a week later. Thankfully my wife thinks long-distance driving is fun and she was up for the 20 plus hours of round-trip driving. But even she agrees that flying to Salt Lake City, Bozeman or even West Yellowstone is worth the extra Benjamins – no matter how many – to shorten the drive time to the park. It turns out that one spends an awful lot of time in the car in Yellowstone, and driving 10 plus hours to get there just makes one dread the return drive so much that it’s hard to enjoy all the driving through the park.
Monotonous does not begin to describe the drive across Wyoming. Neither antelope nor windmill farms did much to liven up the flat, endless highway. Snow fences are the tallest, most significant structures in many Wyoming counties. (Most counties number them to keep track…) Driving past small oil operations with their accompanying double-wide residences prompted imagined conversations between husband and wife. “Got a good job today, honey.” “Great, where will you be working.” “Outside Wamsutter.” “Wamsutter?” “Yep, it’s not far from Rawlins.” “Rawlins? Where will we live?” “Outside Wamsutter.” “Where?” “On the company grounds.” “Huh. Why?” “Well, there’s no other homes within 40 miles and not too many paved roads either. But it’ll be great. You’ll love the neighbors.”
The drive improved greatly as we headed north and drove along the Hoback River. This is a river I had never heard of and I was immediately mesmerized as it emerged from the Gros Ventre Range and wound through the ranches and mountains before reaching the Snake south of Jackson. I will return just to fish the Hoback.
We stopped in Jackson to play the role of tourist. Pictures were taken at the antler arch in the town square. Art galleries were admired -- before and after suffering from sticker shock. T-shirts were laughed at. The only purchases were a few post cards. We’re cheap.
Whether you drive long distances or fly somewhere closer in your trip to Yellowstone, you should take the time to visit Grand Tetons National Park. There is a reason that the Lonely Planet features a picture of the Tetons on the cover of its guide to the two parks. While we hadn’t yet witnessed the wonders of Yellowstone, we couldn’t imagine that they could top the visual impact of the Tetons towering over Jenny Lake. They didn’t. For sheer visual stunner, the Tetons are off the charts and are worth the hour plus drive south of Yellowstone – even if it’s extended by 30 minutes because of construction…
We arrived Tuesday afternoon at the Park’s southern entrance. We cruised through (with our pass bought in the Tetons) and the park began to teach us even more lessons.
Next: Where to stay in Yellowstone.