Yellowstone, Grand Tetons National Park: Be ready for all climates and conditions
By April Pekary
"Should we leave for warmer places?" I wondered. My husband shrugged as we looked at the Yellowstone forecast for the next 5 days-snow and cold- not the most desirable weather for tent camping with seven kids.
We were now in the second week of our five-week adventure. On May 22, we departed from East Palo Alto with a 15-passenger van loaded down with nine passengers, including two young neighbors, two big car top carriers full of fishing and camping gear, and clothing for all seasons. The goal was to camp for two weeks in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks , both in Wyoming, and then head east to Kansas and Oklahoma to visit relatives.
That first morning, we left at about 6:30 A.M. (target departure time was 5 A.M., so we did really well) and drove all day. At noon, we stopped at a park for a picnic lunch in a small Nevada town. As a family of avid soccer players, everyone piled out and started a game, a perfect leg stretcher after hours in the car. I broke out the small cooler containing our meat, cheese and eggs for the whole trip, and selected some lunch items.
After a wonderful break, we all hopped in the car, ready to go. About five hours later, we were in the middle of scenic Utah and stopped for a picnic dinner at a really neat rock/sand formation off the road.
As everyone slid around on the sand, I cheerfully reached for the cooler...where was it? Somehow, we had left that full cooler at the park in Nevada! As we shared crackers and trail mix for dinner, we decided that the kids next writing assignment was to make up a story about what happened to the cooler and the people who found it.
We drove to just past Salt Lake City and camped. The next morning, as the kids finished another soccer game, we scrambled in the car and I started it rolling - Pow! It sounded like the car had backfired. With a bit of trepidation, my husband peeked under the car. The kids had left the soccer ball under the tire! Now it was flat as the desert we had passed through the day before. But at least the car was all right.
GRAND TETONS AT LAST
As we headed north through beautiful country in Idaho and into Wyoming (stopping at ever-present Walmart for meat, cheese, and of course, a new soccer ball), it began to snow and became very cold.
"Maybe late May isn’t really spring yet in these mountains," I commented, not believing there could actually be snow at our campground. We drove on in to Grand Tetons National Park and picked a site at Jenny Lake campground. It was snowing lightly.
We set up our tent and cooked some supper. I went to gaze at the nearby lake, nestled against the jagged, snowy Tetons. They are indeed "grand", and in the twilight, glowed beautifully on the other side of the lake. Jenny Lake is definitely the place to tent camp in the Grand Tetons.
During our 3-night stay all seven kids completed the free Jr. Ranger program for children ages 5 to 12, which gave us activities to make our trips to the Teton’s 2 (warm!) visitor centers much more interesting for the children, and they earned a badge for their efforts.
Down the road from the Moose Visitor Center is Menor’s Ferry , an old cabin-turned-store from the frontier days, where you can explore the original buildings and ferry from the 1800’s. We bought sassafras and huckleberry sodas from the store and were served hot ginger snaps cooked in the big Franklin stove.
The next day, between fishing attempts, we hiked the Hidden Falls trail , a beautiful trek around Jenny Lake and up into the mountains to Inspiration Point . We called it our Four Seasons hike, because the weather ran the gamut and back from freezing rain and snow to beautiful summer sunshine that had us pulling off our many layers of clothing. The kids’ interest in hiking was aided when we began to offer them a quarter for every type of bird they could sight and find in the field guide.
The next day we moved on to Yellowstone , where we were greeted with some of the most interesting and unique scenery in the world...and a forecast for nightly snow. We bravely decided to set up camp at Madison campground in the pouring rain and take things a day at a time. It was worth it! The geysers, steam holes, pools, and other geological art forms are amazing and beautiful.
We stopped at nearly every marked area along the road, and discovered that each item has its own unique personality. We tried not to expect to see geysers erupt, except of course for Old Faithful , and then we were pleasantly thrilled when we did see an eruption. Though the children were not as fascinated by the details of all this as the adults were, they still enjoyed the sights and walks on the boardwalks enough to allow the adults to view as much as they wanted.
As predicted, it snowed every night and a bit during the days. So what do you do to keep warm at Yellowstone? Well, DON'T jump into one of those delicious-looking hot tub type pools. You will die. At the bookstore we picked up "Death in Yellowstone," which fascinated the children with its tales of tragedy, and also, I think, kept them a little more cautious throughout the trip. We recommend it.
To keep warm, we drove around looking at wildlife, mostly buffalo and elk , hiked briskly along the geyser-lined boardwalks, and of course, attended Junior Ranger programs at the Old Faithful visitor center . Their program on wolves was especially interesting.
When we became really desperate for warmth, we found a large lounge area on the third floor of the quaint Old Faithful Inn , which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004. There was a huge table for playing cards, and free showers/bathrooms down the hall, since the hotel was built before every guest room would have its own bathroom. We also did laundry in the Snow Lodge across the parking lot, and one night enjoyed a wonderful meal in the Snow Lodge restaurant . Since our budget for this trip was quite meager, we were relieved at the budget prices listed on thchildren’s menu and got out of there without breaking the bank.
NOT SO GREAT
The one disappointing part of Yellowstone was the Mammoth Hot Springs . As the formations have changed, the hot springs have somewhat dried up and are not worth a drive to the northern end of the park.
On the one sunny day of our 6 days there, we spent the day hiking along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone . There are two beautiful waterfalls and constant views into the colorful canyon below. It was another great place for taking family photos.
A SNOWY ADVENTURE
The night before fishing season opened, our excited fishermen, along with many others in the full campground, hunkered down for a good sleep so they could catch their first fish at dawn. At about four in the morning, we awoke to the sound of our tent collapsing with the weight of heavy snow! I jumped up and began lifting up and banging the roof of the domed tent, while my husband put on his boots to go outside. What a relief when I finally got enough snow off the roof. But then it slowly rose up to it’s original shape!
After that, we had to get up about every 30 minutes and knock snow off the tent (from the inside) to keep it from collapsing. When the sun rose, the snow stopped, and we pulled ourselves out of the warm tent to survey the damage. Our supply tent had been crushed during the night and looked like a squashed spider.
TOUGHING IT OUT
Many neighboring campers also had collapsed tents, the ones they had been sleeping in! The next day, most were busy packing up to go home, or at least to another place to spend their vacation. But we stayed. It made us feel pretty tough, like pioneers, to have weathered the snow in a tent and not given up. In fact, what should have been an awful experience turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, giving us an entertaining story to relate to friends and relatives. That was a lesson we took away from beautiful Yellowstone.
Do not aspire to the "perfect" trip (or life), but take every mishap as it comes with a sense of humor, a sense of adventure, and a sense that God is taking care of you. Sometimes the trials become the events you enjoy most with hindsight, as you see how you were brought through with perseverance.
WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO BRING…
* Layered clothing - The weather can change rapidly. Two weeks before our arrival it was 80 degrees, yet it snowed on us every day!
* Pencils or pens you'll need for filling out Jr. Ranger forms.
* Extra fuel for camp stoves. We ran out and the Yellowstone stores didn't have any. We had to go into Montana to get some!
*Camera, film, extra memory cards, whatever! Yellowstone is a wonderful place to take unique pictures.
*Books to read aloud at night to the kids. We enjoyed reading "Death in Yellowstone -Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park," by Lee H. Whittlesey It was especially effective for keeping the kids safety minded around the hot pools and canyon cliffs. We also liked "Lost in the Yellowstone," the journal of Truman Everts, who was lost there for thirty-seven days in 1870. Both of these books may be purchased in park bookstores.
READ IN ADVANCE, INFORMATION ON…
*Geysers, mudpots, hot springs, and fumeroles. Yellowstone has half of the earth's geothermal features, and two-thirds of the earth's geysers!
*Pioneers to Wyoming, early settlers of the area. It was a hard life, with an extremely short growing season.
*National Park System, since Yellowstone was the very first one.
*Grand Tetons: http://www.nps.gov/grte/home.htm
April Pekary and her family of East Palo Alto are seasoned travelers. This is her first article for BAFT.
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