Planning to Visit Yellowstone? Here Are Some Helpful Hints

Okay, first off, full disclosure.  We have only been to Yellowstone and the Tetons once, so I don’t pretend to be an authority, but having just gone through the experience, I don’t take for granted what more experienced National Parks travelers might.

Also, I am not, and never have been, a camper, not even in an RV, and don’t get me started on tents!  So, if after all that truth telling, you are still with me, here’s what we learned from OUR experience.

Tip #1 Researching your Trip
I discovered this wonderful brochure late in the planning process.  It has maps, showing  where the various lodging options are located, plus information about restaurants, park activities, and many, many other helpful hints.  Don’t be put off if you are traveling in 2019 and the 2018 brochure is the only one available.  Trust me. The information doesn’t change much from year to year.  Of course, the usual travel books are available at the library, but I found this brochure provided the information that I most needed in a brief and user friendly format.

And while you are at it, be sure to download the FREE Yellowstone App from whichever place you go to for your apps.  For me, it is the Apple store,  and on their site, the app looks like this.

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Once you get the app, go to “settings” (The little gear on the bottom of the screen), and choose “Download Offline Content”.  This is important because there are many areas within the park where internet access is nonexistent, but because YOU were smart enough to download, you can access the maps and important information about the sights that are nearby.

Tip #2 When to Book Your Stay
It is important to plan your trip WAY in advance, particularly if you want to stay inside the park during the summer months.  Reservations open in March for winter bookings; spring, summer and fall reservations are accepted starting May 1,  for the following year.  

We made our Yellowstone lodging reservations for May 25- 29 in early December.  I had mistakenly thought that by choosing a time when the season was just starting and while the kids were still in school, the competition for rooms would not be as keen.  Wrong!  If we had waited much longer, we would have been out of luck.  So who else was visiting Yellowstone at the start of the season?  While there, we heard German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Hindi being spoken, and saw buses from Australian and Chinese tour companies in the parking lots.  It was nice to see people from other parts of the world enjoying the beauty that this country has to offer.   Just don’t wait too long to book your hotel or cabin.

Be sure that you book through Xanterra, the official park concessionaire.  I mistakenly thought the company I found via my internet search, entitled US Park Lodging, was the vendor through which one made hotel reservations within the park.  Wrong.    I should have contacted Xanterra, and my mistake increased the cost of our lodging by 10%.  A non-refundable 10%.  And if we need to make changes to our reservation, we need to do so through Xanterra–NOT US Park Lodging.  So, YOU have now been warned.

Tip #3 Getting There
We flew into the Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) airport, but other choices include Cody, Wyoming(COD),  Bozeman, Montana (BZN)  or Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA).  Cody and Jackson are the closest — a little more than 50 miles from park entrances, while Bozeman and Idaho Falls are almost double that distance.

Although United airlines offered a non-stop flight to Bozeman, we opted for a connecting flight to Jackson.  The distance and the fact that we had never visited Jackson Hole or the Tetons were the deciding factors.

It took some playing around on the United Airlines website, but the difference in prices ($654 versus $1037 Round Trip) was worth the effort to determine which arrival and departure dates were the most economical and convenient.   (We did our airline reservations before our lodging reservations).

Of course there are some who choose to drive from home to the park, and we met a few of those adventurous souls!

Tip #4 Where to Stay
For our first two nights, we stayed at the Snake River Lodge and Spa in Teton Village, because we wanted to experience as much of what the area had to offer as possible during our first visit to Jackson Hole.

If you are a skier, this is the place to be because the ski lift is a brief stroll away.  If you are trying to save money, this is definitely NOT the place to stay.  On top of the not inexpensive room rate, the hotels in Teton Village charge resort fees and village sales taxes, in addition to the regular taxes charged.

On the plus side:  Because our son was staying with us, we opted for a suite, which was very nice, with bedroom, pull out couch and balcony.

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The view from our balcony at the Snake River Lodge.  Yes, we had a bit of rain during our stay.  

Still, we preferred Springhill Suites by Marriott, in Jackson Hole.  We stayed there for the last two nights of our trip.  It is only 15-20 minutes from the airport, it offers free a great free breakfast, you can walk to lots of wonderful restaurants in the “downtown” area, it also offers rooms with a couch (our couch had a trundle bed), and it was significantly less expensive (58% of the cost of Snake River Lodge).  Not only that, but it is right across the street from a FREE parking garage!

For our four days in Yellowstone, we decided to split our time between the northern and southern parts of this huge park– two nights at the Lake Hotel and two nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.   That worked out really well for us, because it allowed us to easily visit everything we wanted to see.

If you look at the map below, you’ll see that the roads in Yellowstone make two big loops.  yellowstone mapAs you would expect, the Lake Hotel is located across from Yellowstone Lake.  This very beautiful, peaceful property, was recently renovated. P1190626

It has all the amenities you would want: coffee and tea making paraphernalia in the room,  a hair dryer that is NOT attached to the wall, the bottles of goodies (shampoo, conditioner and body lotion.)  It also has a gift shop, a restaurant and a snack bar.

The hotels within the park all practice “sustainability”.  You can opt to forgo room service for a $5 per night credit to your room charge.  We decided to do that, and donate the savings to Yellowstone Forever.  I have to tell you, we really LIKED not having our room made up.  It was easy to make the bed (we do that at home) and hang up our towels–and we were guaranteed that the maid would not be cleaning our room when we wanted to return to it.

But more about the wonderful Lake Hotel:  The lounge is has a great view of the lake, and the piano music every night makes your before (and after) dinner drinks even more enjoyable.

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The hotel has lots of interesting architectural features, like this beautiful fireplace.  Be forewarned, though, this stay is not going to be a cheap.  Our two nights here were the most expensive of our trip.  If you are looking to conserve your vacation funds, choose a different option, but be sure to come here for dinner or lunch.

We also loved the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, but for different reasons.  This hotel had NOT been recently redone.  For example, the toilet seats are way lower than you might expect.  Be sure to LOOK before you sit!  There are no coffee or tea making supplies in the room, BUT there IS a hair dryer that is not attached to the wall.  (Can you tell I HATE the “on the wall” hair dryers?)  The shower is small and the shower head was located for people of below average height, but the hot water was plentiful and the beds were comfortable.P1030126

The location is fantastic.  Even the elk agree–They would hang out right under the hotel windows.

The park rangers put up orange cones to remind the visitors that the elk are wild animals, and they should keep their distance.  Not everyone heeds the warning, and some visitors have gotten injured because they got too close.

I also loved the photos in our room that depicted the early days of the park.

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You can’t sit on these terraces any more.  They are way too delicate and the ground is unstable/

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It used to take DAYS to get through the park.  The coaches averaged 6 miles per hour and there WERE stage coach robberies, back then, just like in those Saturday morning westerns of long ago.

Tip #5  Getting Around the Camp
We rented our car from Enterprise, which was one of three vendors that are on site at the airport.  Other car companies are located in Jackson Hole, about 15 minutes away.  Although renting from an airport based company increased our cost slightly, because of airport taxes, we thought it was worth the convenience, especially because we had an early morning flight home.  Service was good, it was easy, and they upgraded us to the BIGGEST SUV I had ever seen in my life.  (Our son picked up the car, it was not chosen by this Prius driver!)  Presumably the other car companies offer shuttle service, but we didn’t see any while we were at the airport, so perhaps you need to call into town for that service.

So, that’s all I’ve got for the preparation phase.  Next post will be about tours, dining and the actual park experiences

As I mentioned in my opening, this was our first trip to the area, so this Yellowstone newbie welcomes comments from any and all who have different hints/experiences/observations to share.  Talk to us!

 

A Unique Flying Experience

After thoughtfully packing my carry on, I discovered that my trusty Eagle Creek, which had happily fit into MANY overhead compartments, mysteriously grew. It no longer fit into that silver box by the boarding gate door.

According to United’s website, the approved size is 9″ by 14″ by 22 “. Did these dimensions change? When I get home, the measuring tape is coming out.

I’m thinking a small duffel might be the way to go when I absolutely MUST do carry on.

It actually was no big deal. I would have had to gate check from Denver to Jackson Hole anyway. But I AM going to see if I can get the bag on for our flight home.

But THAT certainly was not my unique flying experience. You ready?

Once on board our flight from Denver to Jackson Hole, we learned that there would be a delay because of thunder storms in Wyoming. After about a half an hour wait, the crew told us the plane would have to be lightened. It seems that the Jackson Hole runway is “short”. Short, plus wet, plus heavy equals danger because, we learned, the pilot might not be able to get the plane to stop when it should. Oh dear.

How much weight? The equivalent of 18 passengers (about 20%) would need to disembark before the plane could take off. What? How will they decide who has to get off? Will they bring in a scale and have each of us step on? In all my years of flying, I never had anything quite like this happen.

Turns out, the crew had a better idea. Volunteers would be compensated with a $500 voucher for a future flight, plus a meal voucher (no value mentioned).

Well, we did a quick analysis of the situation. Although we were meeting our son at the airport, HIS flight might also be delayed, and even if it wasn’t, I could email him our confirmation for the car and the hotel, so he wouldn’t be stuck waiting at a tiny airport with nothing to do. We didn’t have any pressing work or family obligations, so why not help out those who did? And hell ya, that $500 voucher put a smile on our faces as we walked out of the plane, as did all the “thank you’s” from the passengers and crew.

So how did it all work out for us? Amazingly well. There was no weigh in, but enough tall and well proportioned men volunteered so that the 16 of us who DID, were deemed heavy enough. And we were a very congenial group, smiling as we waited in line to get all of the paperwork sorted out.

We were truly impressed by the professionalism of the United team in Denver. They were able to locate a plane with crew and get them to Denver amazingly fast…within two and a half hours. Wow! The 16 of us had the plane to ourselves. And because Mike and I were the last volunteers to get our paperwork processed, we were made the solo passengers in first class because we were so patient (or brain dead… I forget which).

Anyway, kudos to United for treating us so well for a weather related problem. And yes, my checked bag was waiting for me when we arrived.

Additional positives: we were pretty hungry, so getting off the plane allowed us to get something to eat. Okay, it was airport food, it was expensive, the $10 voucher per person covered less than half the cost of our burgers and beverage, but if you are hungry enough, you don’t care.

As for our son, he arrived on time, picked up the car, checked in to our hotel and returned to fetch us when we landed.

One more plus (?). Enterprise upgraded us from the Toyota Camry to the biggest SUV I have EVER seen. This Prius driver would definitely have refused the upgrade, but turns out it WAS good to have on some of the park roads.

This Nissan Armada Platinum was well named. It FELT like we were riding in a warship!

Off to a great start for our visit with our son.

Six Things I Learned From My Packing Challenge

It is time to start packing for another adventure.  Anyone wondering whether I am now a firm believer in One Carry On (OCO) packing?

The short answer is–it depends.  My one month packing experiment taught me a thing or two and  I am happy to share everything I learned.

  1. Climate matters.  Big time. OCO is much easier when the weather is consistently warm because those clothes are SMALLER and lighter weight.
    It gets challenging when the weather at the destination is changeable.  Sometimes warm, sometimes cold, like our upcoming spring trip to Yellowstone.  Yes, yes, I know. Dress in layers.   Still, when the weather is expected to fluctuate between 33 and 75 degrees, with the possibility of thunderstorms and even snow, it becomes tricky.  I can wear my waterproof hiking boots on the plane.  My parka?  I don’t think so.
  2. Self knowledge is powerful.  I learned I really hate doing laundry in hotel bathrooms.  It wasn’t bad during my two weeks in Portugal, because I was in the same hotel the entire time and had my own room.  So, draping my underwear from every available surface didn’t inconvenience anyone else.  When I met up with my husband in Spain, however, and shared space, I was glad that I had used the laundry service in Beja, arriving with everything clean, so the need to do laundry was limited.
    Another insight?  At home, I wash clothes far more than I need to.  Because I have access to a washer and dryer, I wear something once, then toss it into the laundry basket.  Why? It isn’t as if I spend my days mud wrestling or cleaning sewage ditches.   Okay, work out clothes and underwear are “one wear” items, but my black travel pants?  I discovered I could easily wear them two or three times with no ill effects.  Better for my clothes, and much better for the environment.  I’m now doing “multiple wears” at home.
  3. Traveling solo is different from traveling with a group.  If I am on my own, as I was getting from Portugal to Spain–by bus, plane and taxi, then OCO makes sense.  The hassle of doing laundry is much less than the hassle of lugging a bigger bag when moving from one mode of transportation to another.  If I am on a group tour, or traveling with family, then once again, it depends.  Why carry on, if you have to wait for others held up at baggage claim?  On our group tours, our bags magically move from outside our hotel doors to the van or bus.  So easy.  On family trips, I have my personal baggage handler, who never expects a tip.  Still, if we are only spending two or three nights per hotel, it is so much easier if your wardrobe choices are limited.
  4. The airline may make the decision for you. Just because you PLAN to carry on, doesn’t mean the airline will ALLOW you to do so.  If the flight is too full, the airline may force you to gate check your bag.  Bonus discovery–if you gate check, your bag is one of the last ones on the plane and one of the first ones rotating around that baggage carousel.  Not a bad deal.  I’m not sure how it works with connecting flights.  THAT could be problematic, especially on international flights, if your bag is not checked all the way through.
  5. Planned activities are an important factor.  Will I need a “dress up” outfit?  If so, then I will need the appropriate footwear.  Sneakers or Keens just don’t look right with a dressy outfit.  Normally I limit my footwear to two pairs (one worn on the plane, the other packed-and jammed full of small “stuff”).  If I need something dressy, sandals are a good option, don’t take up space and can sometimes be good for walking.  And yes, I either use the hotel’s shower cap or a plastic bag from the fruits and vegetable section of the grocery store to protect my clothes from my shoes.
    Will we be using a pool or going to the beach?  Fortunately flip flops don’t take up much room, and bathing suit coverups can sometimes do double duty.
  6. Packing skills can make or break OCO.   There are those who swear by packing cubes.  I’m not one of them.  I find that zip lock bags work better for me.  I can see what’s inside, the bags weigh next to nothing, and they can be smooshed to fit into odd spaces.
    A combo of rolled and flat methods allow me to maximize space, with small things tucked into any available space.
    For long trips, I find compression bags helpful (except I seem to keep losing the little closure thingy.)  Sometimes kneeling on my zip lock bag achieves the same effect.
    I LOVE my hanging toiletry bag, especially when traveling with my guy.  The hanging bag allows me to let him have the space by the sink, which is usually too small for two.  BUT if I am doing OCO, I will give up my beloved hanging toiletry bag, and revert to zip locks in a plastic grocery bag, which I can hang over the bathroom door knob.  (Most of the time I use cloth grocery bags, but for the few occasions when I end up with plastic, I save them for this purpose.)

So, there you have it.  Before each trip the pros and cons are balanced.  Sometimes one carry on makes sense–and other times, my large duffle does the trick.   How about you?   any packing insights you want to share?