After a few days at altitude slowly dehydrating me and making me feel like garbage each morning, waking up today was really easy. First light came, and my bladder reminded me of how much water I’d been drinking to rehydrate after yesterday’s visit to the hospital in Jackson. My bladder woke me up around 1:30am too. Oh the price we pay to stay healthy while roughing it…
Once I’d returned from the restroom and was able to consider less urgent matters, I noticed our tent was covered with water droplets. I complained to Becky about how wet everything was still…and she informed me that it had rained again overnight. Grrr!!! That explains it! (I must have slept better than I thought!)
Since we had to pack up this morning, this was disappointing. It became downright frustrating when I realized that water was inside the tent again too, and that all of our damp towels left out to dry overnight were now quite soaked instead. I did not expect rain to be this much of a problem out West where summers (I thought) were mostly dry.
Most of all I was beyond irritated with our tent. Every time it rained, water got inside. I really expect any tent I own to do two major things: 1.) keep me warm, which this tent was not great at, and 2.) keep me dry…major fail. I came to find out later that you’re supposed to seal these things at least once a year. (You’d think they’d put that in the setup instructions!) And maybe it’s unrealistic on my part to expect a three-season tent to be all that warm.
Anyway, expectations aside, our Coleman Rosewood 4-person tent is a great starter tent. But this road trip did expose some weaknesses. It didn’t ventilate exceptionally well in the heat, but it also didn’t hold onto heat overnight. Also, the poles are made of fiberglass, and break easily even under extraordinary care—they’re also not easy or even possible to repair, and replacements cost almost as much as the tent. It also has a high profile which gets flattened by strong winds like we experienced in De Smet, South Dakota. Maybe we’ll look into an upgrade for next year…
So with a soaked tent and soaked towels, packing up was going to be a drag. I picked up the driest towel I could find and started wiping. I still saw water droplets. Our entire rainfly was also wet on the inside…condensation from our breath in the cold air. We could probably pack everything up now and dry it off in Craig, but I wasn’t fond of having a damp tent in the car all day long. Tonight’s rain potential had also inched up from 0% to 10%. Awesome. Ten percent seems to be all it takes this summer.
The best course of action seemed to be to leave the tent up to dry here for a few hours. This meant an extra hour of driving from Colter Bay to Jenny Lake and back from our hike, and tacking on an extra 30 minutes to our drive down to Craig. And checkout time is at 11am. Bummer.
Off to Jenny Lake
By around 7am we had everything but the tent packed up, and we were on our way to Jenny Lake for one last hike before leaving Grand Teton National Park. Yesterday the plan was to take the shuttle boat across and hike up into Cascade Canyon. Since we had a 6-7-hour drive ahead of us, we’d do an abbreviated version of that this morning. The shuttles run 10 minutes apart, so I guessed it must take just under 10 minutes to cross the lake. With a 30 minute drive back to Colter Bay and another 30 minutes to dry off and pack up our tent, I estimated that we needed to be on a boat back a little before 10 o’clock. This would give us about two hours to hike—not a ton of time, but hopefully enough!
Along the way, I saw a sign for North Jenny Lake and a scenic drive. I remembered seeing this one-way road along the lakeshore on the map. Being impulsive and curious, I decided to check it out. It was a pretty little drive with a few pullouts and OK views along the lake, but it wasn’t anything seriously impressive like I’d hoped. My mind was wandering anyway…I kept thinking about whether we shouldn’t see about a late checkout to give us a little more time on the trails.
Parking at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center was a breeze when we arrived at 7:50! Coming in yesterday just before 11am put us at the peak of the crowds. Of course, it was time for me to hit the restroom again. Becky also wanted to comb the gift shop one more time to find a “Jenny Lake” souvenir for her best friend, Jenny, back home. This would easily take us up to 8 o’clock, which is when the camp office at Colter Bay opens. Before we get on the shuttle and leave cellular range, I could call and ask for a late checkout.
Unfortunately, Becky came up empty again. They only had stickers and fridge magnets, and everything else had sold out. We did, however, get OKed for a noon checkout! Awesome! Now we’ll definitely have time for a good hike.
Taking the Shuttle Boat
Round-trip fare for the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake was $15 per person. This seemed pretty steep for a short trip, but when you figure in the remoteness and the short four-month tourist season here, it’s more understandable. It would definitely save us time, too, as it shaved a six-mile hike to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls down to only two miles round-trip. What really sweetened the deal was that they also sold Jenny Lake water bottles at the docks—so we had more water, and Becky finally had the gift she wanted for her bestie!
The lake was very calm. Winds here seemed to be calm overnight and intensify with the sun throughout the day. Becky said she heard that Jenny Lake is hundreds of feet deep, which would keep the lake from getting too rough for very long. This made for a smooth ride across. The overnight storm had also left behind some beautiful low clouds between us and Mt. Moran.
I was a little torn between hiking to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls. The driver taking us across shared that Hidden Falls was an easier trail but had no view, while Inspiration Point has an elevation change of 600 feet over the course of a mile and an extraordinary view at the end. We probably could have done both, but the trail in between was closed.
I asked the driver how long it took to get to Inspiration Point, and he way very vague. It was pretty difficult to judge someone’s physical condition and acclimation to the altitude. He said it takes him about 30 minutes, and that most people should expect it to take at least 45 minutes. This sounded like it would work for our timeframe, which at this point was a little over 2 hours.
Hiking Up to Inspiration Point
There were 15-20 people on the ride across, with about half of us proceeding up to Inspiration Point. When we landed we realized that we’d forgotten our bear spray and our Lifestraw Go. We weren’t too worried about water, since we had plenty with us, but this probably would have been a great opportunity to try out the Lifestraw. Oh well…
The number of people passing us by on the way up quickly allayed any concerns I had about a bear encounter. Bears avoid people whenever they can, so finding any along a trail this popular is extremely unlikely. It was still fun to tease Becky about it though. I told her that I’m glad we aren’t in good enough shape to lead the way up…chances are the bears will eat someone ahead of us and we’ll hear the screaming in time to backtrack hahaha!
The trail was a pretty good slog going up for about half of the way. Someone near this point told us that the trail levels off at about two thirds of the way, and then slopes down for a bit to Inspiration Point. We found ample opportunities to refill a water bottle, with several rushing streams crossing on or near the path. Our supply with the two bottles turned out to be more than adequate for us though. Had we hiked very far into Cascade Canyon yesterday, I think we definitely would have wanted our Lifestraw bottle.
Making It to the Top
The hike up through the trees and thick brush was pretty, but there were no spots where you could see Jenny Lake until you reached Inspiration Point. The trees all around give way to rocks, and a spectacular view opens up. It was easy to see across the lake and beyond. Some rocks offered great views of Grand Teton as well. In the end, we took about 35-40 minutes getting to the top, which isn’t bad considering neither of us were in tip-top physical shape or used to the altitude like some of the other hikers who shot right up ahead of us.
I was bummed we couldn’t take the trail to Hidden Falls, but the view at Inspiration Point was more than worthwhile. There were plenty of vantage points to explore here. Something I noticed, however, were these big white bags—almost the size of a washing machine—dozens of which dotted the valley below. There was a bag up at the top too, so I took a look inside. They were filled with…bunches of rocks…? This was very strange to me, and I planned on asking a ranger about it.
We encountered wildlife up here as well. While I was engrossed in shooting a panorama, Becky saw a ground squirrel running around at my feet. She also caught video of a couple of them wrestling each other on top of a rock. At first we thought they were chipmunks, but they were a little bigger and had slightly different striping on their backs. Lots of the little guys live in these mountains, so you’re virtually guaranteed to see them scurrying and foraging around at Inspiration Point.
Daylight was burning, so we started down to catch the boat. About three quarters of the way down, we came across a group of people, including several park rangers. I asked one what was up with the white bags of rocks all over the valley. He quipped, “Let me tell you what’s up with the white bags, but first, I have a team of mules coming through here, so if you could step about five feet off the trail, I’d appreciate it.”
Just then I saw the team of mules coming up the switchback, huffing right along with packs on their backs. Becky and I moved out of the way while the ranger explained that they were repairing and improving the closed trail between Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls. They have a lot of rock work to do, so they used helicopters to fly the white bags up the mountainside, and the mules carry up the equipment they need. How cool is it that they used helicopters and mules to fix the trail!
We arrived at the boat dock with about 15 minutes to spare before we had to leave. Becky and I were the only two riding on the the boat back to the visitor center. It was a bittersweet moment motoring away from the mountains, wondering what might have been yesterday if we’d actually gotten to hike into Cascade Canyon instead of going to the hospital in Jackson. It really was satisfying to get such a wonderful hike and boat ride in though.
Leaving Jackson Hole
Even if we had gotten our hike in yesterday, it still would have rained last night, and we still would have had to deal with our wet tent. Now, since we’d already spent some time perusing Jackson, all we had to do on our way through was refuel the car and re-ice the cooler. Packing up our campsite went easily, and by 1:15, we were at Wendy’s to grab a quick lunch on our way out of town.
The Hoback River and the High Desert
I took the first shift of driving today. We followed US-191 out of Jackson, all the way to Interstate 80 in Rock Springs. The first leg of the drive passes through Bridger-Teton National Forest along the Snake River. Then US-189/191 breaks off from US-26/89 and winds its way upward through a canyon along the Hoback River. For over 30 miles, the scenery of Hoback Canyon and the Hoback Basin is wonderful. Then the highway comes into flatter country and eventually emerges to cross the high desert for about 100 miles before reaching I-80.
Once we were far enough from Hoback Canyon, we could see the Continental Divide in the distance, as it followed the crest of the Wind River mountain range to our northeast. We could also see the smaller Wyoming Range in the distance to our west. The sky stretched out forever with beautiful cumulus clouds that grew thicker as we proceeded south. Eventually the ground became shrouded in a mysterious-feeling yellow overcast.
We’d been on the road for several hours by now, probably about halfway to Craig. While there were buildings many miles from the highway, there were no buildings right next to it—no towns, no trees, and no services. After almost an hour of this, we finally came to the crossroads of Farson, and we both needed a bathroom break. I was about to pull into the gas station there when we saw a sign on a mercantile across the street that said “Gift Shop, Pizza, and Ice Cream”…this sounded like lots more fun, so I pulled in there instead.
Farson Mercantile is just your basic general store with a grill and a little dining area. Everyone was super friendly there, as we’ve found most people are throughout the West. They had an extensive selection of ice cream, including huckleberry flavor. I didn’t even realize huckleberries were actual berries until a girl at the gift shop back in Colter Bay Village explained that they only grow in the West, and they only grow wild. Of course I couldn’t resist trying the ice cream. Their portions are ginormous, so I only got a single scoop, which was just as much as I could handle. I can’t quite describe the taste—it has the texture of blueberries, but far less tart and with a very full, sweet taste. It really didn’t taste to me like anything else I’d ever tasted…not even chicken. But it was so tasty—and I could go for some more right now hahaha!
As we got back on the road, I saw signs about the Pony Express and the Oregon Trail routes crossing through here. This would be a totally foreign, perhaps magical landscape for an Easterner to travel by covered wagon, while also an oppressively hot and dry one too. The mountains were no longer in view, and the ground by now was mostly barren except for the sea of sagebrush. The grasses that grew were totally brown, so it wouldn’t have been easy to graze animals here either. It was incredible that so many crossed all of this to settle the West before the railroads arrived! Those people had to be either very courageous or very desperate souls to do it.
Rock Springs and Interstate 80
We eventually came within sight of a railroad, and not much farther we came into Rock Springs. This city of over 20,000 people was the largest we’d seen in our entire trek across Wyoming. We saw a lot of industry here, with most of it tied to the railroad. Rock Springs is one of several towns across Wyoming that owes its existence to the first transcontinental railroad line, which was built back in the 1860s.
I meant for us to get gas in Rock Springs before getting on I-80. I like to use an app called GasBuddy, which keeps up well with current gas prices. I usually scroll ahead along our route to find the best prices, but this was difficult in Wyoming because solid cellular Internet service is hard to come by. Worse yet, Wyoming is no place to run out of gas. It’s easy to drive 50 miles in any given direction and not pass a gas station. Even along I-80, customers are hard to come by, and therefore so is gas—we passed several stations that were abandoned many years ago. Wyoming seriously made even the most remote parts of South Dakota seem heavily populated. After checking fuel prices, how much farther we had to go, and our fuel range, I determined that we did indeed have enough gas to get to Craig, and that the best prices along the way were there too.
So we followed I-80 for about 80 miles. This section of the road makes you feel like you’re riding through a living diorama of the Old West. You follow the highway through a relatively flat area that winds its way along through desert prairie and smaller hills, with nothing but the Union Pacific Railroad and a bunch of rocks to keep you company. It felt like being in an old movie or cartoon, with the modern car you’re driving in and all the other modern cars and semi trucks on the freeway with you being the only reminder that it actually is still the 21st Century.
Wyo-789 & CO-13 to Craig
When we exited I-80 to head south on Wyo-789, we left very remote country to pass through unbelievably remote country. Even compared to the drive between Boulder to Rock Springs, this was the most desolate area we’d driven through on our entire trip! From I-80 all the way to Baggs, Wyoming, just a couple miles from the Colorado border—for over 50 miles—we saw more antelope along the road than moving cars, parked cars, buildings, or people combined. Now there were a lot of antelope along this stretch, and hopefully one or two of my pictures worked out—but Becky and I are pretty sure we could count on one hand the number of oncoming cars we saw on this road. We did spot a few signs of oil and gas exploration, but there was much more pronghorn activity than human activity nonetheless.
Along various parts of the way were these creekbeds, some maybe 6-12 feet deep, winding across the landscape. Some had water in them, and some were dry. Again it looked like something I’d seen in movies, books, and pictures of the Old West. It was such a foreign landscape to this Easterner!
There were finally signs of life when we got to Baggs and passed into Colorado, but not many. Not far past the border is a very odd random rock formation. We stopped at the historical marker nearby and read that they were the Fortification Rocks. They were the site where Indians would lie in wait for opponents in battle. Now they’re mostly home only to rattlesnakes.
Finally, we made it to Craig. Even though it wasn’t that big of a place, it felt like a metropolis after crossing the vast high desert. We pulled into the first gas station we saw on the edge of town just as our low fuel light kicked on. We were both happy to stop, and glad to be so near our destination. Unfortunately our excitement was subdued by the winds picking up with the smell of impending rain in the air. I checked the forecast for Craig back in Rock Springs and saw that the 10% chance of rain this morning was now at 60%. So here we were at our destination just in time for what looked like more rain. You. Gotta. Be. Kidding.
We drove to the center of town and then headed east on US-40 toward our campground. Craig looked to have a population of 10,000, but it was quite sleepy tonight. It had some nice storefronts downtown, but it definitely didn’t strike me as a trendy tourist location (being real is better anyway). We arrived at the campground on the edge of town and it began to rain. I was just so done with rain and wet tents…and with the wind on top of that. Neither one of us really wanted to bother with camping out, even after the storm passed. It looked like we were done with the tent a night early for this trip.
Negotiating the Rain
The campground was mostly a giant gravel parking area with posts marking out small campsites. I had no idea where the tent sites were, but I could tell this was not going to be anything like camping in the parks. I could see why they were the only campground in town, as the campground wasn’t even half full. I was told over the phone that it could fill, but that seemed like a stretch now, especially for a Tuesday. I regretted putting in a reservation last night. They already had my money, and now I couldn’t think of a good reason for them to give it back except that they’re nice people.
Well, they weren’t that nice. They offered me a cabin for a full $30 more—and this cabin wasn’t much bigger than our tent’s square footage and we’d still have to cross wet muck to get to the showers. I retreated to the car and told Becky what was up and called some motels. There were at least two offering $49 rates, while some others were $65. I took Becky back in, armed with this information, and we tried to at least get them to come down on a cabin. I was too irritated and tired to negotiate successfully though, so we got stonewalled. They claimed that any $49 rooms in town weren’t going to be good and that their cabin was going to be way better.
Becky and I wondered how bad it could be…so we let them keep our $28 and we set out for one of the motels. The whole ordeal had me really worked up. I’d gone to all the trouble to book that campsite, and now we were just walking away with nothing but the bill. And now we were looking for a room and I did not know the town at all. I was driving Becky crazy with all of this, but she finally talked me down. As much as I’d love to be a master negotiator, the truth is that Becky is way better at it…so I was just going to let her take the reigns in that department for the rest of the night.
We made it all the way to the west end of town and pulled into Walmart. We were low on cash and none of our bank’s ATMs were around. So we just bought some Altoids and paid with a PIN on our debit card, since we can get cash back. This is a major money-saving hack—buying a trinket at a grocery or drug store to get cash back is way cheaper than most ATM fees! It can also come in handy when you’re hoping for a lower price on a mom & pop motel.
Back out we went to find a motel…and there were several out here by Walmart. We didn’t bother with the big brand-name hotels, although the Hampton Inn sounded nice. We tried the Travelers Inn, where I thought I recalled a lady quoting the $49 rate. Well we went in and a man wearing a t-shirt stood behind the counter. He told us the rate was $65. Becky offered to pay $49 cash, and the man said that he couldn’t come down.
Just then, a lady walked out from the back and Becky asked, “Well, do you want to go try one of those other hotels that was $49?” I said yes, and we both turned to walk out the door when the lady burst out, “I’ll do 49!”
The man said that she was the owner, so she can do that. The lady said it didn’t have to be cash, so Becky plopped down our credit card and we got keys for our room! I was sure glad I let Becky do the negotiating!
In Search of Dinner
We quickly piled our stuff in the room and hopped back in the car to find someplace to eat. We didn’t want to spend on anything lavish, but we didn’t want fast food either. It was pushing close to 9 o’clock, so some of our options would close if we didn’t get there soon. I thought we’d check out an Italian place in the center of town first. We stopped and looked at the menu, but it seemed a bit pricey for us, so we drove around a bit more.
US-40 runs along the two main streets in Downtown Craig. I say two streets, because they are one-way streets…and even though Craig isn’t a particularly big place, the one-ways tripped me up in my tired state. At one stop sign a car pulled up next to us and the lady inside rolled down the window and shouted, “Hey!” I thought, “Oh no, she’s annoyed with my confused driving!” I ignored her and kept going… Then she pulled up next to me again at a red light. With some reservation, I thought I’d hear what she had to say…
“Are you looking for an Italian restaurant?” she asked. “I saw you at the one Downtown and just wanted to let you know there’s another one down this way, and then there’s a whole bunch of restaurants down this way too.”
Whew! Most people on the road try to offer me advice about my driving, not local restaurants. After my experience at the campground, I was glad to see that this lady was so friendly and helpful to random strangers passing through town, even on a dreary night. It definitely removed any lingering bad taste in my mouth about Craig.
Finally we ended up at the Centennial Mall as the clock approached 9pm. This mall was very small, it had no trendy stores, and it was so devoid of loitering teenagers that you could here the fluorescent lights buzzing inside. Vallartas Mexican Restaurant was straight back and was very nicely decorated inside. It was only 15 minutes before closing time, but the server said with a big smile that they’d take care of us.
We decided to make it easy for them by sitting at the bar instead of a table. The only other customers there were two young men who had probably been friends since they were toddlers. We ordered our food and skipped the alcohol to conserve cash. It looked like the two guys probably went to school with our server as well…it all reminded me of growing up in a small town myself, where everyone knows everyone else. It was interesting being on the outside of all of that looking in, and all in a completely different region of the country.
We finished our dinner and had our bills paid before our two young friends had finished their beers. Becky was ready to bee-line for the car, but I just had to see the rest of this mall!
There wasn’t a whole lot there, but I did find a photography studio with a huge display of framed prints. However, it was dark and closed for the night. Since I’ve done my share of portrait photography, I’m always curious when I come across other studios. There are two major things I look for when I evaluate whether a portrait photographer is skilled or a hack: 1.) Do the eyes look natural? And 2.) Can you see the subject’s nose?
I began to evaluate what I saw aloud. I saw many that included football paraphernalia and said, “We’re definitely in Broncos country here…I’m old enough to still not be a fan of the Broncos!”
Then, over the low buzzing of the fluorescent lights came a man’s voice, “I’m not either, I’m more of a Saints fan.”
! This caught me completely off-guard. Becky and I looked at each other in surprise and then looked around for the source of the voice. I finally spotted a well-lit little corner office at the edge of the store, where a man was working intensely at a computer.
“Oh! I didn’t realize anyone was here!” I said. “So you’re actually from New Orleans?” I asked.
He wasn’t, but he said his cousin used to play for the Saints—Bobby Hebert. I hadn’t noticed the name over the door—David Hebert Photography. I remembered him battling the San Francisco 49ers for dominance back in the 1990s. “That’s cool, I remember him,” I said, walking toward his office. “I’m glad you’re a good photographer because I have this tendency to critique others’ work, and say what I think out loud!”
We talked shop for a bit and admired each others’ work on his computer. He’s a very talented portrait and wedding photographer, and told me he planned to move soon to Salt Lake City. We exchanged cards and headed back to our motel.
We had a big day today. We had a great two-hour hike, a smooth six hours or so on the road, and a small tangle to find a place to get out of the weather. In spite of any meteorological or financial setbacks, we had a clean, dry place to sleep tonight so we could be well-rested tomorrow. We’d get an early start heading east on US-40 to Rocky Mountain National Park, where we’d drive across on the Trail Ridge Road. After that, we’d make our way to a home-cooked meal at my Aunt’s house in Denver, followed by our first real bed in nearly two weeks at my cousin’s. I felt a sense of accomplishment and relief for making it this far, and I was really excited to see my Colorado family too!