Waking Up to Rain… Lovely
After spending a lot of time cleaning and drying off our tent when we packed up at Canyon Village the day before, I woke up at 5am this morning in Grant Village to the sound of rain on our tent.
I was already plenty anxious about getting an early start and moving down to Grand Teton National Park today. I was especially nervous about moving because all of the campgrounds at Teton are first-come, first-served so we had no reservation. I wanted to be completely packed, go see Old Faithful, and then beeline directly to our next campground as early as possible. Having to dry a wet tent all over again could jeopardize getting our next campsite. Boy was I annoyed.
As the rain continued to fall and I continued to stew, I expressed my irritation to Becky. She told me that all that negative energy and anxiety did absolutely nothing to help us, and that it robbed me of enjoying things. “Roll with the punches,” she said. I realized she was absolutely right.
So even though the rain hadn’t stopped, I took my wife’s sage words to heart—I stopped stewing and started thinking. I suggested that we get up right now, go see Old Faithful erupt, and then hopefully come back after the rain to a dryer tent to pack up.
Becky dug the idea so we got up at about the same time the rain stopped. We shuffled off to the restrooms and got on the road at about 6:30am for the 35-minute drive to Old Faithful.
Old Faithful is by far the most famous and most popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park. The otherwise two-lane Grand Loop Road actually widens to four lanes with a freeway-style trumpet interchange that takes you into Old Faithful Village. It’s so strange to see such urban infrastructure inside such a wild and vast national park, but it makes sense to keep traffic moving in order to minimize air pollution in this pristine place.
Besides the geyser, Old Faithful Village itself is quite extensive. There are a few stores, restaurants, and lodges here, including the historic Old Faithful Inn. The visitor center sits only one or two hundred yards from the geyser everyone wants to see. We arrived here at about 7am and checked for the next predicted eruption time. Unfortunately, the visitor center doesn’t open until 8am, and the time posted in the window was from just after close the night before.
So we were here, but we had no idea when the next eruption would be…but I didn’t panic, since there weren’t any people gathered as if it was about to blow. Finally, I found a sign that said I could find geyser eruption predictions at @GeyserNPS on Twitter. I pulled out my phone and hoped for good cell service… Huzzah! The feed predicted the next eruption at 8:12am, plus or minus ten minutes. I also found out I could call a number for other geyser predictions.
To say that Yellowstone has geysers is an understatement. When we drove around the park yesterday, we realized that there are not just a few geysers, but that there are a few geyser basins that each have several geysers! Old Faithful is only one of many steaming holes in the ground that erupt hot water every so often in what is called the Upper Geyser Basin. So since we had plenty of time before we needed to stake out a particular spot, I called the prediction number to find out if any other geysers were expected to erupt nearby. It turned out that Daisy Geyser may be a possibility, so I made sure we picked a vantage point where we could see both in case they went off at the same time—how cool would that be!
A fun fact about Old Faithful is that it is not the largest, tallest, or hottest geyser. It is, however, the most dependable big tall geyser in the park. It has been erupting about every 90 minutes for years, with varying heights of a few dozen feet to 200 feet. While you can’t quite set your watch to it, its dependable vertical spectacle is how Old Faithful earned its name and its spot as the top attraction in the park.
Old Faithful erupted for us right on time at 8:05am. I’d read that Old Faithful often “plays” a bit with smaller eruptions, but there was no play involved here. About a minute or two before water burst forth, the geyser bellowed much more steam. The water pushed higher and higher, and then stayed at peak height for about a minute and slowly died down into a tiny fountain. Finally the water stopped and the geyser returned to just a steaming hole in the ground.
We didn’t see Daisy erupt, but Old Faithful was very cool all by itself. It was time to get back to pack up camp and move on in time to get a campsite in Grand Teton. My first choice of campground was Jenny Lake, which was a good two hours away. I knew that was a longshot, but my backup campground at Colter Bay wasn’t much closer, and I was nervous both could fill by noon.
Packing Up at Grant Village
We got back to our campsite in Grant Village around 9am. Packing up our bedding was easy, but drying off the tent again took some time. Thankfully the rain didn’t make so much of a mess as we had at Canyon, so all we really had to do was dry things off. I think it helped that this campground was level instead of on a slope, so the water didn’t carry debris to our tent. We decided not to dry the tarp until we got to our new site in Teton simply because of our time constraint.
With all the extra work drying the tent, we got a late start out of the campground, checking out at 10:30am. Even though time was of the essence, it was pretty late in the morning and neither of us had time to eat. We decided to try the general store before we set out. The choices weren’t great, mostly cold cut sandwiches with lots of preservatives—but we managed to find something dairy-free for Becky among the turkey sandwiches, which were less objectionable than the ham, chicken, and tuna choices.
I was concerned that some campgrounds in Teton had already filled. Since Jenny Lake was our top choice but also the farthest, I wanted to rule it out if I could so we didn’t waste precious time driving past a campground that still had sites only to go back. Before we completely left Grant Village and cellular reception, I called to see if Jenny Lake was indeed full. The number listed for the campground rings to a call center, though, and apparently they aren’t informed when the campground fills…so I had to wait several minutes on hold…ugh. Finally, they told me that Jenny Lake Campground filled at 10:12am. I told Becky to start driving, because now I knew Colter Bay was our best bet.
While Jenny Lake was our ideal choice, Colter Bay seemed like a good second. It was only 15 miles north of Jenny Lake with about 400 campsites and an additional 100-site RV park. We’d still be centrally located with a nearby general store and laundry facilities, which we definitely needed at this point. The number of campsites available hopefully meant we could get there before it filled up. If it did fill…well, I didn’t know what we’d have to do, so I didn’t even think about it.
Driving South to Grand Teton National Park
A few miles out of Grant Village, you cross the Continental Divide into the Pacific Basin. This was our fifth time crossing it this morning, and our seventh in the last 24 hours, simply because you cross it twice just driving between Grant Village and Old Faithful.
The drive south was much prettier than I expected too! The road descends over 1,000 feet in elevation from the Continental Divide to the South Entrance, mostly following the shore of Lewis Lake and the Lewis River. Along the way are two more waterfalls, Lewis Falls and Moose Falls. The road levels off as you enter John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, which is a relatively small preserve of land that connects Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. From here, the road parallels the eastern shores of Jackson Lake and the Snake River, which 1,000 miles further downstream becomes the largest tributary of the mighty Columbia River in Southeast Washington.
It’s worth noting that it’s super convenient to pass between Yellowstone and Teton. They’ve eliminated the gate check and separate entrance fees between the two parks, so once you’ve entered one, you’re automatically admitted to the other. One useful feature at the entrance gates to both parks is the campground status sign…the only bummer for us was that the sign reported not only that Jenny Lake was full, but also that Colter Bay and the one in between, Signal Mountain, were full too. This got me worried! But since the entrance gate is no longer manned, I also wondered if the signs were updated all that often… Either way, our only choice was to press on and find out.
Two things struck me when we caught our first sight of Jackson Lake and our view across it widened. First, the steam rising from the hot springs and fumeroles we had grown accustomed to seeing everywhere for the last three days in Yellowstone were noticeably absent—the terrain in Grand Teton National Park seemed “normal” again. The other thing that struck me was our first sight of Mount Moran and Grand Teton! The eastern side of the Teton Range lies mostly in a rain shadow, which means less erosion and leaves spectacularly rocky rugged mountains. It felt nothing like Yellowstone whatsoever! It was a sort of beauty that we had not yet seen on this trip.
Finding a Campsite?
But the issue of finding a campsite still weighted heavily on my mind. We had already passed our first opportunity to score a site, which was Flagg Ranch—way back in John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. I really didn’t like this option, though, since it was about 30 miles north of everything we wanted to do here. I really hoped that campground status sign was wrong and Colter Bay still had sites.
The good news was that being within sight of Jackson Lake meant we were only about 10 miles away from finding out. At last we arrived, right around 12:30pm. We pulled into the campground office and asked if they had any tent sites…the moment of truth!
“Sure, how many nights do you want?”
YESSS!!! What a relief! I’d already discussed with Becky that we had two options on how long we’d be here—if we stayed here for two nights, then we got one at Rocky Mountain National Park, or we could spend one night here and spend two at Rocky Mountain. I guess Becky really liked it here already, because she promptly answered two nights.
This sounded good to me! Seeing as it was only 12:30, we had almost an entire day left, along with another whole day tomorrow. Just knowing we had our campsite made it so much easier to relax.
The first order of business now was to start setting up. Our site at Colter Bay Campground was simply wonderful! We had a site on the N loop, which is tent-only and farthest from the entrance. We were on the quietest end of the campground with no neighbors behind us and more importantly none of the noise or light that comes with being among the RVs. Besides that, our site had a leveled tent pad with a finely-crushed gravel surface, meaning easy setup and less mess if we get rained on again!
The high midday sun and crystal blue skies positively bathed the tent pad in bright warm sunlight. I took advantage of this to spread our tarp out to dry since we’d skipped doing so earlier to save time. While the first side dried, Becky and I just sat and rested. Becky read her book while I worked on my writing.
After brushing the tarp off, I flipped it over for the other side to dry. I also set our mattress out because I noticed earlier that it had gotten damp on top. Becky hung out the towel we’d used to dry the tent off this morning.
I almost forgot to mention another awesome feature of our Colter Bay campsite—the bear box! You see, back in the old days, the National Park Service understood that people enjoyed close encounters with large animals like bears, and never really discouraged visitors from interacting with them. Of course the easiest way to have a close bear encounter was to offer a handful of food. This was lots of fun for visitors until the bears realized that people could do so much more! Bears didn’t just want a handful of food, they wanted the rest of the box in your back seat (bad for your car), the scraps in the trash and the stash in your tent (bad for getting a good night’s sleep), or maybe they’d take your handful of food and make a hand sandwich (bad for your hand). Either way, bears were getting bolder and more aggressive towards people to score a meal. Besides that, when any animals get dependent on people food, it dulls their ability to find it in the wilderness on their own.
So the National Park Service and the scientific community determined that humans feeding any wildlife whatsoever had to cease, both to restore the natural order of things and to keep park visitors safe. Bears quite literally were the biggest problem. The good news is that as long as bears aren’t taught to associate human interaction with tasty treats, they naturally tend to avoid humans so long as humans avoid their territory. Therefore every effort is made to prevent bears from ever again developing a taste for people food. All trash receptacles are chained or bolted down with bear-proof lids as bears are not bashful about dumpster diving for scraps. Park visitors are constantly reminded to lock down unattended food at all times, whether in a hard-sided car or RV, or in a hard-sided container like the steel bear boxes found throughout campgrounds in bear country.
Now while there were bear boxes at both of our campgrounds in Yellowstone, they were nothing like the ones in Colter Bay. Normally several campsites share a bear box, which is economical—but it’s not like you get much space or have much security from other people. In contrast, every tent site at Colter Bay has a huge steel cabinet big enough to fit a large cooler and plenty more inside. While we kept our cooler and food in the car most of the time, we did use our bear box to keep some of our gear closer to our outdoor “living room” while still out of the elements.
Found Some Wood
While everything was still drying, we decided to go grab some wood together behind our campsite. There were plenty of downed trees back there. Since most of the wood we gathered at Yellowstone was less dry than we would have liked, I looked for logs that weren’t resting completely on the ground. I found one and we set to cutting it down into fire ring-friendly pieces with our trusty sierra saw. Since our first day of cutting wood in Yellowstone, I decided it would be good to cut the logs down into smaller pieces than I had initially. This meant more work, but it made the fire more manageable once it got going, and it resulted in easier cooking.
Now that I was getting pretty fast with the sierra saw, I really enjoyed gathering and cutting firewood. Unfortunately I found myself winded pretty easily due to the altitude. Another problem was that I felt light-headed after exertion, sometimes with a mild headache. I decided to slow down some while I was working, and take more frequent breaks.
While I cut the wood down to size, Becky set up our tent and bedding. When we were finished, I suggested we grab our chairs and walk over to Jackson Lake. Becky loved the idea so off we went.
Sitting By Jackson Lake
On the map I saw that from our campsite on the N loop, we could cross the adjacent O loop and Jackson Lake would be just west through the trees. I suspected there would be a trail somewhere, and indeed there was. As we walked, I noticed that the winds had picked up a little. I mentioned to Becky that the wind here sounds strange…it had a different pitch like the sound of when you twirl an object at the end of a string. I suspected this was because the wind was whipping through needles rather than rustling leaves like back home. Even though it was broad daylight with blue skies, we both thought it sounded a little eerie!
After a short walk through the woods, we were standing next to Jackson Lake, although there wasn’t a good place to step down from the small bluff to get to the water. We walked south along the shoreline a few hundred feet and found a way down. It was a rocky beach, but the perfect weather and incredible views of Mount Moran and Grand Teton were all that mattered. Becky waded into the water and found it quite warm in spite of it all coming from melted mountain snow.
We had the entire beach to ourselves for about an hour. After that, several people came along. Some sat down and some swam in the lake. We decided it was time to move on. We walked downshore to a picnic area and then to the gift shop and general store in Colter Bay Village.
Colter Bay Village
The general store here had much more in the way of healthy fresh and organic options than what we found at Canyon or Grant Villages in Yellowstone. Steaks in Yellowstone were not only frozen, but also chock full of preservatives so they’d last through a nuclear winter or two. Here at Colter Bay, none of the meat was frozen and some was even grassfed or organic. Becky picked up chicken breasts and I got a ribeye steak. We each bought a pack of sausages for our breakfast or lunch tomorrow.
We walked the better part of a mile back to our campsite. Along the way we took note of how the whole layout of Grand Teton National Park had a completely different, more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly feel than Yellowstone or any of the the other parks we’d visited so far. There were sidewalks and a trail running off of the road more than halfway down from the store to our site. We also saw bicycle trails running through the parts of the park we’d seen so far. This place was more our style compared to car-centric Yellowstone.
We arrived back at our campsite, restocked the ice in the cooler, and added our food. It was still fairly early in the day, about 4 or 5 o’clock—and we already had our tent set up and we were starting a fire for dinner!
Our fire ring here was exactly like the ones we had in Yellowstone, with a grill that can be raised and lowered over the fire. It was perfect for broiling big cuts of meat. Becky got a good fast sear on her chicken, cooking it all the way through while keeping it juicy inside. I did well with my steak too, trying to hit medium-rare. It was an especially thick cut though, so it turned out to be mostly rare—but it was still warm and delicious, so I didn’t mind.
The new log I’d cut earlier burned brilliantly! I wanted to get more wood so I’d have it ready for tomorrow. Near where we found the tree earlier, I found another and cut the best pieces off and brought it back to our site. I cut it down into lengths that would fit under our bear box to keep dry in case it rained. I piled the rest of my logs from earlier under the picnic table to keep them dry too.
After splitting some narrow pieces of wood down into kindling earlier, I thought I’d take on the challenge of splitting the fattest log I had into smaller pieces. Though I haven’t split much wood in my life, I felt like I was finally getting the knack of it. Previously I just swung my hatchet like a hammer onto a nail, allowing gravity to do most of the work. By now I’d figured out how to get better results much faster by taking a longer swing with a lot more oomph. The smaller pieces of wood always burned much better, which helped a lot when starting a fire. I wanted to apply all of this to a fatter chunk of wood.
This did not prove to work out. I swung that axe dozens of times trying to split that log. After half an hour on this one piece, I had only managed to mutilate the top and the bottom a bit. It was only about five inches in diameter, but my tools or technique were somehow lacking. I was pretty tired at this point, and the only thing splitting was my headache. I set the log aside and decided to rest. I figured the altitude was getting to me again.
Since it was only about 7 or 7:30, I suggested to Becky that we do something. I thought Signal Mountain might be a good place to see the sunset, since you can drive all the way to the summit. We put our stuff away and headed out to the south.
Along our way we stopped at a pulloff called the Willow Flats Overlook. I never realized how incredible mountains could look when they’re backlit! The golden light from the setting sun shrouded much of Grand Teton and Mount Moran in shadows, grazing all of the trees, sagebrush, and grass of Willow Flats with a dazzlingly gorgeous glow!!!
While we admired and photographed the view, we met Thomas. He was a mover from Brooklyn, New York and noticed the New York license plate. We explained that we were actually from Cleveland and that we rented the car for our first Western road trip together. Thomas said he was doing exactly the same thing! Instead of using his own truck to move a customer to Arizona, he used a one-way rental and then rented a car so he could meander his way home through national parks. He’d already been to the Grand Canyon and parks in Utah. It was fun to meet someone else who was doing this for the first time too! We all lamented that more of our friends don’t do this sort of thing instead of Florida.
Thomas had to get going though, as he hoped to get a campsite at Colter Bay. We told him the campground would probably fill because there was quite a line when we left. We invited him to visit us at our campsite if he was able to get in. When we returned later, though, a sign said the campground was full and we never ran across our fellow road-tripper again.
We continued ourselves down the road to Signal Mountain. We passed Jackson Lake Dam, which is when I first realized that Jackson Lake was not an entirely natural lake. Next we passed Signal Mountain Campground, and then we found the road that goes to the summit of Signal Mountain.
The sun was very close to setting when we started up. As we approached the last leg of the switchback before the summit, Becky stopped the car for a doe standing on the edge of the road. I got a picture of her, and then Becky pulled up a bit—and saw two fawns nursing from her! Mom jumped off into the woods, leaving the two fawns behind with adorable confused looks of, “What happened to our dinner?”
When we arrived at the top, I found the name Signal Mountain was quite literal in nature, with a cellular tower nestled among the trees. The overlook faced east, and we could see for miles across the Snake River and to the mountains beyond. I could see why the region was called Jackson “Hole”—in spite of there being mountains in every direction, we were also surrounded by this expanse of flat land—as if there was a hole where there were none but a few small protrusions like Signal Mountain.
On my way to the overlook, I almost bumped into a couple of guys who were heading back. One wore a “Cleveland Basketball” t-shirt and noticed my Cleveland Cavaliers hoodie. We both did double-takes and asked each other where he was from. Wouldn’t you know they’re from Mentor, in Cleveland’s East Suburbs.
Becky and I enjoyed the view for a few minutes, and then headed back so we could get off the switchback before total darkness set in. We were both super excited about this park, and looking forward to seeing Jenny Lake tomorrow. We planned to hike one of the trails recommended by a volunteer working at the Colter Bay Visitor Center. We were settled in for bed around 10pm. The night was dark and peaceful, save for the mild headache I had. I didn’t really know what to do about it though, except maybe just get some rest and hope it would be gone in the morning.