Wyoming is big. Very big. It is actually damn huge. And empty. I was going to visit only the north western corner of Wyoming which is of course the world famous Yellowstone National Park. But to get there from the Salt Lake City I was crossing all its length from the south to north. It is a long and lonely drive. Views on the way are less dramatic than in Utah as there are not so many impressive geological formation. It is rather gently rolling landscape and settlements (it is difficult to really call them towns) are few and far between. In a way, that’s how I always imagined a road trip in the USA. And probably because of that I absolutely loved Wyoming. It was like being in a movie set. Empty, wide road, good music, big sky. Perfection. The only problem was that it all made me drive a little bit to fast. Fortunately the local sheriff was a nice guy so I only got polite warning. Apparently I was the fourth European tourist he stopped that day. It is probably something in those wild landscapes and open spaces which gives us some sort of, hmm… freedom.? I know, it sounds pathetic but I think that what it is. A bit of extra kick.
Eventually after all day drive I arrived to Jackson. It is a very unusual town. An urban (however small) oasis in a generally rural and conservative state where mining and ranching are the main industries. Jackson felt more like a Californian town. In fact, quite a lot of its population are formed by ex-pats from either the west or east coast. And you can see and feel it. Nice coffee shops, galleries, outdoor shops, trendy boutiques and restaurants, all this make you feel like somewhere in the northern California or Oregon. But don’t be fooled. When you enter, for example, an outdoor shop, next to the sleeping bags you can find the gun section. And I mean some really big guns.
As interesting as it is, Jackson always will be mainly gateway to the two great national parks. Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I entered Grand Teton on a glorious sunny morning. The most impressive feature of it is the Grand Teton Range. The steep rugged mountains, raising 7000 feet straight from the flat valley floor, makes amazing and lasting impression. You can find pictures of them in virtually every guidebook, calendar or coffee table book about the USA. And, to be honest, I understand why. I even took the same shots you can find in all these publications. I just couldn’t resist, even if I knew it was a total lack of imagination.
The most popular attraction of the park is Jenny Lake. There is nice and easy circular trail around it, but I hiked just part of it and then climbed a bit higher to one of the side valleys and to Inspiration Point. From there you can admire great view of Jenny Lake and all the Jackson valley. It was very nice hike but at some point I had to go back. There was just to much snow to continue higher. If you are too lazy to hike around the lake you can take the miniature ferry (or rather boat) across it.
However spectacular, Grand Teton is just small brother of the real big attraction. The Yellowstone. Probably everyone knows something about it. Geysers, bisons, waterfalls, these are all images we see when we think of Yellowstone. It is all true, but what struck me first was how big and wild the park actually is. Grand Teton and Yellowstone border each other but driving between them involves a good two hours to get to some sort of facilities. In the meantime I crossed the continental divide twice, seen lake covered with ice (in June) and a lot of snow on the side of the road (some of the viewpoints were still closed due to the high snow banks blocking them).
There are plenty of accommodation options in the park. Campgrounds, lodges, hotels, you name it. Being on a budget I went for camping of course. Seeing all the snow at the higher elevations I opted for the Madison Junction Campground which is one of the lower ones in Yellowstone. It is also conveniently located not too far from the major attractions like Geyser Basin and Canyon Area. It is a huge campground, with over 350 sites, but all nicely dispersed in the forest (which protects from wind) and just yards from the Madison River. It didn’t feel crowded at all and you could even see wildlife right outside of your tent. No, I didn’t see any bears but one evening there was small herd of bison roaming between the tents. Just have to be careful when going to the loo. Unfortunately, nights were cold. Even using sleeping bag liner, which I bought after experiencing cold night at Bryce NP, didn’t help much. So I was up and running fairly early in the morning. On the up side, morning is the best time to see the wildlife. This is the time when you can experience “the bison jams”. Bison simply walk on the road and you just have to patiently drive behind them or very slowly and carefully overtake them. Possibly when they decide to eat some grass on the side of the road.
On my first full day in Yellowstone I went to see the biggest attraction of the whole park, the geysers. Two third of the world geysers are in Yellowstone and the biggest concentration of them is in the upper geyser basin where the famous Old Faithful is located. It is called Old Faithful because it erupts fairly regularly and the park service posts predicted eruption times at the visitor center. It is also real magnet for the crowds. Actually, crowd is probably even better indicator of the coming eruption than the park service notices. If you see the crowd growing, with all the benches occupied, it means the eruption is coming. Sometimes it looks more like Oxford Street on a sale day than national park. Fortunately there are plenty of geyser in a walking distance from the Old Faithful. For some of them park service also posts the predicted eruption times but they are not as reliable as the big daddy. Anyway, if you have all day to explore the area you will probably see some spectacular eruptions without the crowds. Apart from the geysers there are plenty of other geothermal wonders. Hot springs, multicoloured thermal pools, mud volcanoes, it all creates very interesting landscapes. They are especially concentrated in few areas inside the park which are called basins. Some of these basins look absolutely amazing, especially in the cold mornings when they are full of steam rising from the thermal features. You can feel like you are on some alien planet.
But geology is not the only attraction in Yellowstone. There is also plenty of wildlife. I mentioned bison walking down the road or roaming between the tents. But it is only tip of the iceberg (although very visible) There are also bears, elks, dear, wolves plus many species of birds and smaller mammals. The best place to watch wildlife in the park is the world famous Lamar Valley which is often called American Serengeti due to the abundance of the big mammals. One of the most famous residents of Yellowstone are wolves, reintroduced to the park few years ago. And the biggest concentration of them is in the valley. It is in the northernmost part of the national park next to the Montana border. Marshes on the flat valley floor offer great grazing grounds for elk, bison and dear, and they are the main prey for the wolves. Unfortunately to see them one have to get up about 3am and have good lenses or binoculars. Good knowledge of local terrain and a lot of good luck helps as well. I didn’t have any of the above so I haven’t seen wolves. But I’ve seen even more bison plus some elk and dear. Now I can imagine how American West looked like before the arrival of white settlers.
The last part of Yellowstone where I spent some time was the area around Canyon. It doesn’t offer geothermal attractions of the Old Faithful area and wildlife is far less common than in Lamar Valley but there is one spectacular site worth visiting: the Yellowstone River Canyon. It is a deep, narrow, steep, V-shaped valley which river cut through the soft volcanic rock. To add attractiveness there are two impressive waterfalls (the best in spring when snows are melting) and rocky canyon walls have spectacular bright colours (yellow, red, orange) which are created by minerals from the hot springs. It is definitely worth going down into the canyon using one of the short but steep trails which lead to the viewpoints just above or below the waterfalls.
Driving between different areas of the park involves crossing some very high mountain passes. Always check before visiting if all the roads you want to drive are open. Especially on the road from Lamar Valley to Canyon and from Grand Teton National Park to Old Faithful area, I have seen high snow banks on the side of the road even in the middle of June. The first of these roads is also very steep and curvy. Think twice when you drive the RV. And if you want to camp take warmer sleeping bag than you think you need. You will need it.
Wyoming in general, and Yellowstone region especially, are well worth visiting. They offer some typical American experiences: great outdoor, wild west, cowboys, wildlife, open space and the big sky. I could say it is my favourite US region. But I would be lying. There is still Pacific North West. That’s where I was heading next. But more about it the next time.