National Parks Part 2 – The Hints Keep A Comin’

Okay, so you’ve decided to visit Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Now what?

Hint #1:  Jackson Hole and the Tetons
If you are flying in, it’s a good idea to spend your first night (or more) in Jackson Hole.  By the time you arrive and pick up your car, you will probably be tired.  Jackson Hole is great place to catch your breath, rest up and enjoy the scenery.  It is also much easier to get lodging, and because we were visiting outside of ski season, the hotel rates were quite reasonable.

So, what does Jackson Hole have to offer?  Museums, scenery, shopping, and great restaurants!  We particularly liked Gather, which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The food was delicious, creatively presented and reasonably priced.  Chicken with pancakes and berries plus flourless chocolate cake were just two of our choices.

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chicken with pancakes

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flourless chocolate cake

If you have a sweet tooth (and as you can tell from the photo above, I do), then you will definitely want to stop at Moo.  In addition to great ice cream, they also offer truffle animals that are almost too good to eat.

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Did I mention shopping?  Every man needs at least one of these hanging in his closet.

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Nature lovers can’t miss with a hike in the Rockefeller Preserve.  Follow this linkfor trail maps, hours and rules for visiting.

Be forewarned.  To get there, you have to travel on some unpaved roads.   And some of the trails are a bit rocky, but the scenery is magnificent and oh so peaceful.

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We spent our first two nights in Teton Village,  then headed for Yellowstone early in the morning, stopping for breakfast in Jackson Hole.  If you follow my advice from my last post and stay in Jackson Hole at Springhill Suites, you would be able to enjoy a free breakfast (they start serving EARLY) and would get to Yellowstone even earlier than we did.  If, however, you choose to experience the Teton Village, check out the Mangy Moose for breakfast, and Osteria or Spur for lunch or dinner.

Hint #2 Take a Tour
Be sure to reserve your tours WELL in advance, especially if you are visiting during peak season!  If you visit Yellowstone during non-peak season, some activities might not be offered.  For example, none of the boating activities were available on Yellowstone Lake, but there was still more than enough to do.  The Event Plannerwill tell you what is available, when.

We booked two tours–the “Circle of Fire, and “Wake Up to Wildlife”.    The Circle of Fire tour lasted all day, and was a very good value at $86 per adult.   Every seat on this large tour bus is a good seat, with excellent views wherever you sit.

We paid $100 per adult for Wake Up to Wildlife.   We did NOT book in advance, so we ended up taking this tour on the day we were checking out of our hotel–not ideal, but it was all that was available.

The “historic” yellow buses used for Wake Up to Wildlife can only seat 13 people, ( three rows of 4, plus 1 beside the driver.)  The tour is supposed to start at 6:15 AM and last until around 11:30.

Both tours charge half price for children under the age of 11; both tours pick up and drop off at several park hotels, and for both tours, the bus driver is also your tour guide.  Both of ours were retirees who thoroughly enjoyed their jobs.  Their love for the park, its history, animals and lore was obvious.  While driving, they kept us entertained with stories, jokes and oh so much valuable information.

Hint #3 The Wildlife
You don’t need to take a tour to see wildlife.  It didn’t take long for us to encounter our first of MANY bison and elk.   These animals are very comfortable strutting their stuff along the roads, in the roads, pretty much where ever they want.  That does have an impact on travel time and traffic, so keep that in mind, relax and enjoy the show.

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The park literature does a great job reminding visitors that these are wild and potentially dangerous animals, so we kept a safe distance, but we DID observe others who got dangerously close.

We didn’t see any bears, and although we theoretically DID spot some wolves, an osprey, pronghorns, some mountain goats and a badger community,  most were way too distant to see without binoculars.

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Can you spot the mountain goat in this photo?  Neither could I, but I was TOLD there was one to the left of that snowy patch, near the bottom.

On the Wake Up to Wildlife tour, our guide supplied the scope, and some of “wolf watchers” we encountered along the way were kind enough to share their equipment with us.  But even with powerful scopes, I never was able to see the wolves.

Even with the very good zoom on my camera, this photo of badger butts was as good as I could get–so you can imagine what the deleted ones looked like!p1190766-e1529274095714.jpgI had better luck outside of our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, where several of these little guys were cavorting across the street.P1030127

My opinion, based on my ONE experience, was that we would have been better served to skip “Wake Up to Wildlife” and explore on our own.  (Others who have experienced the tour are encouraged to weigh in).  Here’s why: on our own, we could have stopped when we wanted, for as long as we wanted.  The bus was unable to stop  when animals were sighted along the way, so, for example,  we SAW many “red dogs” (the locals’ name for baby bison) during our tour, we weren’t able to stop and watch them, or get a good shot.

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photo taken from the yellow bus on Wake Up to Wildlife

Because of its size, the bus was limited to parking in specific areas.

On our own, we could have left when we wanted and returned when we chose.  Despite being in the lobby on time (at 6:15 AM!!!), the tour bus didn’t leave the parking lot till 6:40 AM.  If you think that made me grumpy, you’d be right.   Oh yeah, one more thing:  There is no coffee making paraphernalia at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and nothing is open at 6:15.  You DO get a bottle of cranberry juice and a muffin, but that’s it until your return at around 11:30.  We knew that, so stocked up at the nearby General Store the day before.

There WERE positives:  The bus driver’s stories and his telescope for viewing animals.

Hint #4  Yellowstone is MUCH more than Old Faithful
I was completely blown away by the incredible geological features of this amazing park.  The Circle of Fire Tour takes you to the main highlights, such as Geyser Basin at West Thumb.   This area, bordering Yellowstone Lake is fascinating.  Check out the colors from the mineral deposits!P1190635

When the Park first opened, visitor were able to board a ferry in West Thumb that would take them across the lake to our hotel.  While we were there, no boats were sailing or chugging across the lake, probably because the ice wasn’t completely gone until May 21 (according to our guide).  Even though the ice was about 30 inches thick, it is hard to understand how the lake can remain frozen with all the smokin’ hot activity close by. Okay, I am going to TRY to insert a video of the boiling mud.  Hope it works.

We stopped at a couple of waterfalls as we made our way to Old Faithful, arriving at the complex with about an hour and a half before the geyser was expected to erupt, just enough time to get lunch, before the show.

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I decided to avoid the crowd, take a seat under the trees, and watch from the distance.

The only place where we encountered crowds during our tour was at Old Faithful.

If I had to choose a favorite spot, it would be very difficult, but I guess I’d choose the Fountain Paint Pots.   I just loved the stark landscape.

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The male bisons travel solo.  I’m wondering how he manages to saunter over this hot area?

I could keep going with photos from the Circle of Fire Tour, but you get the idea.  The geological features are jaw dropping!  And it is great to have the guide explain what is going on.

Hint #6 Getting hungry?
The choices pretty much boil down to amusement park quality food, fine dining or “do it yourself”  from purchases at the General Stores.  We tried all three and for us, it was easy to determine that fine dining was the way to go.  Because we are used to New Jersey and New York restaurant prices, the food did not seem all that expensive to us.
I would NOT recommend eating in the Yellowstone cafeteria!  The food resembles airplane food, except at least airplane food is not served and consumed in the midst of chaos.  To be fair, it WAS fast.  In retrospect, I wish we gone with the slower, but probably better, restaurant at Old Faithful Inn.

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The entryway of the Old Faithful Inn

If you want to have dinner at the Lake Hotel, (and I hope you do), you will need to make reservations well in advance.  I made reservations for both nights we stayed there, figuring we could cancel if we didn’t like the food.  We liked it so much, we ended up having all our meal there.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, you can’t make a reservation; it is first come, so beware if you see a bus loads of tourists pulling into the parking lot.

An unexpected bonus?  All of the waitstaff were knowledgeable about the park and were happy to share information with us.  Their tips led us to some wonderful spots we might not have found on our own.

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Our waiter told us where to go to catch the perfect sunset on the lake.  We had the place all to ourselves.

Tip #7 Don’t miss theTravertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs
The view from the top of the terraces is pretty spectacular.

P1030110.jpgAlthough you CAN drive and there is a parking lot at the top,  it is so much more fun to walk up and down.  It is roughly the equivalent of  26 flights of stairs (according to my fitbit), but there is plenty to see along the way.  You can stop, gawk, and catch your breath.

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We celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary at the Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons.  Where else could your butter be shaped like a moose?

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Although I could go on and on about the glories of Yellowstone, I think you just have to experience it for yourself.

Next adventure?  Iceland.  Hope you’ll come along!

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!