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September 23, 2009 > A journey amidst stunning natural beauty

A journey amidst stunning natural beauty

By Joe Samagond

What would you say to a vacation that took you away from television, phones and the Internet? It gave me pause but turned out to be the most relaxing vacation my family has had in a long time. For the first time, we did not feel the need for a vacation to recover from the one we just took.

This summer our family spent two weeks in Wyoming - Jackson Hole, the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A beautiful natural landscape filled with amazing terrain, geysers, hot springs and other natural thermal areas which surprise and amaze every step of the way. Welcome to this incredible land, welcome to the Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone is an endless feast for the senses. Over 1,000 miles of trails are here, excellent for horseback riding and hiking. Numerous streams and lakes offer excellent opportunities for fishing and boating. And of course, there's the view. Even those who don't leave their car can drive along the Grand Loop which curves within the area for a good 140 miles. But why limit yourself?

There are so many unique options and places to see; we stayed in four different places during our visit. A trip to Jackson City covers the Teton National Park; inside Yellowstone, we visited the Old Faithful area, Canyon area and finally the Lake area.

Our trip started in Jackson. We flew into Jackson Hole Airport, the only airport inside a National Park (Grand Teton.) During our stay, we drove about 1000 miles, and covered several border towns in Idaho and Montana. We were treated to a full range of weather - hot (above 100F), cold (40s - in the middle of the day), rain (quick, short thunderstorms), hailstorms and snow in the mountains.

Jackson is a good spot to use as a base while exploring the Grand Teton area. Often described as the "Crown Jewel" of the Rockies, it is a quaint Northwestern town. Its downtown dotted with upscale cafˇ's, shops and art galleries.

Grand Teton is about 10 miles north of Jackson. The park is named after the Grand Teton, which, at 13,770 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Teton Range. The mountain ranges in this park are simply breathtaking and we spent time thoroughly exploring this park - the Jenny Lake area is spectacular. Jenny Lake, formed by melting glaciers, is a beautiful blue mountain lake set in the heart of Grand Teton National Park. It is open to motorboats and as it turned out, our 14 year-old son proved to be the best navigator in the family. All of us enjoyed a picnic lunch on the water.

Cascade Mountains, Gross Ventre and Moran Junction (Northeast) are three other areas that have lots of hiking trails, most of them easy two mile loops, that lead quickly to high elevations with stunning views. Antelope Flats, is well known for it's Bison herds. This is where we had our fist run-in with the mighty Bison; Oxbow Bend is another spot that will not disappoint wildlife enthusiasts.

A float ride down Snake River is a must do. We went on one at dusk (best time for wildlife viewing) that is guided and it did not disappoint. It is a fast moving river and in over three hours we were treated to spectacular views and sightings of a red fox, bull moose, a couple of bald headed eagles and osprey.

Established in 1872 by President Grant, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park. It soars to 8000 feet above sea level and has several different personalities. Yellowstone has a different sense of beauty than Grand Teton - comprising of lakes, canyons, rivers, geysers and mountain ranges. There is a single road (Grand Loop Rd.) that provides access throughout the park. Even though it is a one lane road, people are considerate and you can move along pretty quickly (there are many turnouts for slower vehicles). Even though you will see many tourists in the lodge areas, once out in the park, you will find yourself alone very quickly, especially on hiking trails and non-paved roads.

Toward the west/northwest are the geysers. This is the Old Faithful, Norris and Mammoth Hot springs areas, an ecosystem resulting from the fact that Yellowstone is actually the mouth of a volcano ("caldera") which erupts on an average every 600,000 years. Sixty percent of the world's geysers are apparently in this part of Yellowstone Park. It is in an interesting ecosystem - hot springs, fumaroles (hot air vents), boiling mud and pools of sulphuric acid. The water in most of these springs are at boiling point (199 degrees F for that elevation). A different species of organisms that not only survive but thrive in high temperatures (thermophiles) give the water a spectrum of colors (orange, green, etc). We were told that hot springs with clear blue water are, deceptively, the hottest!

To the west lies the western entrance to the park - via West Yellowstone in Montana. The Continental Divide of North America runs diagonally through the southwestern part of the park. Here you can see Isa Lake that feeds both oceans. The northeast side is the Tower-Roosevelt area and also includes the northern and northeastern entrance to the parks.

The northern entrance via Gardiner is one of the few places one can get into the water - where the Boiling River and Gardiner River meet. The combination of the hot and cold water creates a spa like intersection for one to enjoy. (Elsewhere in the park, the water is either too hot (from the magma) or too cold (from the glaciers). The Tower Falls tumbles 132 feet in this area before flowing into Yellowstone River. Cooke City, Montana is at the northeast entrance and offers access to remote areas of Montana with small towns of only a few hundred people at the most. It also leads to the Beartooth highway, called the "most beautiful road" in America, because it rises to great elevations and beautiful views.

Lodge Pole Pine is the predominant vegetation in the area. Fires and natural reseeding is the only way the forest controls itself and there are major earthquakes every few years that contribute (there are also several hundred small earthquakes every week).

Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are former lakebeds and offer great views because they fall hundreds of feet below the road. This offers spectacular viewing of the landscape that will just take your breath away. These areas are also prime wildlife viewing spots, especially at dawn or at dusk. Alas, our venture at dawn (to much grumbling) had no success.

In the eastern/southeastern part is the Lake area. The Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America and is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera. Yellowstone also has a rich wildlife and we spotted elk, moose, bison, goat, trumpeter swans, and yes - Grizzly bear (twice!). Here you will find the beautiful Fishing Bridge (fishing has been banned here to protect the cutthroat trout that the bears depend on). We had a great motor boating experience on this lake as well. Once again the teenager was at the wheel and he guided us in some very rough and treacherous waters. (It turns out we were the last boat allowed to go out that evening because the weather took a turn (very strong winds) for the worse and they were waiting for us to return to shut down for the day! We were also glad to be back!).

The park has one of the world's largest petrified forests, trees which were long ago buried by ash and soil and transformed from wood to mineral materials. There are 290 waterfalls of at least 15 feet in the park, the highest being the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River at 308 feet (twice the height of Niagara Falls!). This area also has the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The views here again are just incredible and this is where you will see the "yellow" stone (mostly due to rust - iron oxide) that some say is the park's namesake.

While 14 days was probably a couple of days more than we needed, it ultimately contributed to a relaxing vacation at a very good pace. We never felt rushed and drove very reasonable distances every day. More importantly we were able to spend some quality time as a family in an area of stunning beauty amidst nature. We are recharged and ready for the Fall.

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