On Saturday morning, Alex and I packed up our camping gear and set off for Yellowstone National Park. We went in through the north entrance, and our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs. To me, it looked exactly like the inside of a cave–except it was more colorful, and there was actually sunlight so I could see things. The formations from hot springs for much more quickly than the formations in caves. They form so quickly in fact, that when they overtake forested areas some of the trees get encased in this flowstone-like material.
After our visit to the Hot Springs, we proceeded to hike to a few waterfalls and rivers. Many of the rivers had white banks characteristic of hot spring and volcanic activity.
Before long, we found ourselves at Norris Geyser Basin, which had a walking loop that went through most of the basin. The best description of a geyser basin I can give is that it is a huge flat expanse of white thin crust that if you walk on you might fall through and die, and throughout this expanse there are holes which either vent steam or bubble up scalding hot water as either hot springs or geysers. Many of of the hot springs were brilliant blue from sunlight scattering off of fine particles suspended in the water, and some had brightly colored thermophilic bacteria living around the edges of the hot springs giving them even more colors.
After our trip through Norris, headed south towards Old Faithful. On the way, we stopped at a few more geysers, including “Fountain Geyser” which was fairly constantly spewing steam and hot water 30-50 feet into the air. We stopped and stared for awhile, mesmerized by the geyser.
When we arrived at Old Faithful, we had just missed an eruption by 10 minutes. Since we had about 80 minutes to kill, we cooked a delicious dinner out back of Alex’s Subaru in the parking lot. When the time came we wandered over to Old Faithful, where there were hundreds of people sitting around waiting for it to go off. The eruption was in fact pretty cool. The geyser bubbled and gurgled for a minute or two and then suddenly erupted to about 100 feet high. After the eruption we walked around the basin a bit and then headed over to Yellowstone lake, where we were camping that night. On the way there, we saw a grizzly bear in the woods on the side of the road.
The wood at the campsite was quite wet, but we eventually got a fire going and sat back to relax after a long day. We had driven hundreds of miles, hiked somewhere around 10, and seen tons of cool sights. Horray for power tourism!
We woke up Sunday morning with a mission: see the mud volcano and then get to the Tetons. Step one went pretty well. We hiked around the mud volcano loop, saw a bunch of bison chilling by some of the hot springs, and then headed back to the car. At the car, I was diligently applying sunscreen while Alex sat on the roof watching some bison on the hillside, when he said, “Liz, you better get up here with me.” I turned around and saw the entire herd walking through the parking lot. I jumped up on the roof of the car and sat perfectly still while the herd passed around the car on both sides.
After the bison left us, we jumped in the car and headed down to Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons are awesome. The valley they tower above is almost perfectly flat, and there are no foothills. The mountains rise up to 7000 feet above the valley floor to a maximum height of almost 14,000 feet for the Grand Teton. When you enter the park from the north the first view of the Tetons you get is from the other side of Jackson Lake, and it looks like the mountains are rising straight out of the water.
We went for a short day hike around up to a lake, but had to head back after a short time by the lake due to an impending thunderstorm. We went into Jackson to find some food and wander around a bit, but it was way to touristy so we quickly headed back to the park to get a campsite. We once again made a campfire, and this time we met a fellow camper and hung around talking for awhile before hitting the sack.
I figured since we were in the Tetons, we should do some serious hiking. After talking to the rock climbing ranger at the Jenny Lake Ranger station, we decided to do the approach for the Exum Ridge climb on the Grand Teton. We started at the Lupine Meadows trail head (elevation 6700′) around 10:30 or 11 am, and started hiking up to Garnet Canyon. On the way up we mentioned our planned hike to a passing backpacker and he said, “That’s an awfully long hike not to summit.” Near the end of the main trail (about 4 miles in), we had a great view of the Lower and Middle Tetons. By the time we reached the end of the main trail, it was about 1 pm and we were at an elevation of 8900′.
When we saw the Middle Teton, we decided that we really wanted to hike up to Middle Teton glacier, which is in the saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons. Alex and I were wearing shorts, t-shirts, and were carrying light day packs with some food and water. Every other hiker we saw from this point on was wearing technical mountaineering clothes, had trekking poles or ice axes, and a pack full of camping and climbing supplies. “Whatever you can do, you can do better in shorts and a t-shirt,” says Alex.
After another 2.5 hours of exhausting travel up steep rocky slopes, losing the trail a few times, and crossing glaciers, we made it to Moraine high camp, which is at about 10,800′. We were less than a mile from the Lower Saddle, which is the end of the first day’s approach and offers awesome views of the surrounding area. By this time however, it was almost 4 pm and a lightening storm was starting to roll in. We decided to bail after 4100′ of elevation gain and 7 miles of hiking. On the way down, we looked behind us and saw a few groups we had passed on the way up climbing up the fixed line to the top of the Lower Saddle and their campsite for the night.
The entire descent took less than 2.5 hours, but it was raining the whole time and lightening was striking in the valley below us. By the time we got back to the car, we were completely exhausted and our legs felt like rubber. At least it was warm out. After eating a bunch of food, we drove up to Colter Bay for a hot shower, and then crashed in a campsite in Lizard Creek.
A few things of note: If you are planning on doing this hike, start early in the morning. Storms tend to roll into the valley in the afternoons. Also, once you leave the main trail, stay close to the river until you reach the steep ascent. You can avoid a lot of painful scrambling that way. The hike to Moraine took us about 5 hours, but that was with a light day pack, practically running up some of the trails, and already being acclimated to 7000′. It was probably another hour to the Lower Saddle from where we stopped. Coming from sea-level and carrying full backpacking and climbing gear, I would guess it would have taken us about 8 hours to get to the Lower Saddle. I’ll have to remember all this for when I decide to summit next summer.
I woke up not-so-early in the morning and felt a little stiff, but not horrible. When I stood up, I realized just how sore my legs were. I don’t think I was quite in shape for a 14 mile hike with that much elevation. Alex and I packed up camp, and we hit the road for Yellowstone. We had a few stops we wanted to make on the way back up through the park to Bozeman. I think the coolest thing we saw was the Grand Prismatic Spring, which is a 200 foot wide hot spring with colorful bacteria living along the edges. The effect is beautiful.
When we got back to Bozeman, we went to a party for one of Alex’s coworkers who was leaving for Japan. In the course of conversation we realized that at least half of the people Alex works with have summited the Grand Teton. I guess this means that Alex will have to summit the Grand at some point too.
To see more pictures of this trip, visit my photo gallery. There is an album for Yellowstone and another for the Grand Tetons.