Wyoming, Montana & Utah – September 2020

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Emerald Pools Trail, Zion National Park, Utah

 

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Hiking in Wyoming, Montana and Utah – quite an exhausting, exhilarating and epic tour of four National Parks and one Utah mountain range in two weeks!

Whilst smoke from the devastating California, Oregon and Idaho fires was threatening to blow through the entire western US states during our trip, we breathed a sigh of relief flying into Jackson, Wyoming. As we glided past the peaks of the Grand Teton National Park the blue sky was crystal clear. The mountain air was crisp and we wasted no time in heading back to one of our favorite haunts from our previous trip six years ago – Schwabacher Landing – where the reflections of the Tetons in the beaver-dammed river waters were as pristine as ever.

Jet-lag kicked in on our first morning and stayed with us for most of the vacation – which was fortunate given the number of sunrise starts Geoff had in mind. 5am is not usually my finest hour but the benefit of being kicked out of bed before sunrise was the opportunity to experience some amazing places in all of their (if not my) early morning glory.

Picnic packed, bear spray in hand and camera fully charged we set off from String Lake on the approximately 7 mile String to Leigh Lake Loop trail. The mist was rising over the lakes and the crystal clear glassy waters reflected perfect mirror images of the surrounding mountains. Blissful solitude in the forested glades – not another human in sight nor sound – absolute silence if not for the slightly deranged, sporadic clapping of the official photographer as she was determined to see off any black or grizzly bears who might have fancied a slice of raw human leg on their toast for breakfast. My efforts must have been quite effective as the closest we came to seeing a grizzly was the sizable piles of grizzly scat deposited on the trails over which we had to sporadically straddle. Geoff was most disappointed!

Grand Teton National Park is insanely beautiful but we hadn’t accounted for the unexpected below-freezing early mornings (with consequent frostbite in our fingers and noses) and the gradual rise to 85°F by the mid-afternoons. By the second morning when we tackled the 6 mile loop at Bradley and Taggart Lake trails there was a real risk that Geoff might succumb to hypothermia so we had to make emergency purchases of padded jackets, gloves, a hat and a new larger rucksack to hold all of the above from JD High Country Outfitters in town. This was a not inconsiderable expense and one made in the full knowledge that our purchases would all be enormously useful when we return home to sunny, warm Florida … but needs must … 😉

By the afternoon, hiking the Jenny Lake loop trail to Hidden Falls, we were shedding layers like a snake sheds skin and ultimately we had to pass on hiking the full 5 mile loop because it was boiling hot. Leaping into the probably frigid waters of the lake was beginning to look appealing so we took the Jenny Lake ferry back from Inspiration Point to the West Shore Boat Dock – exhausted and overheated after hiking a good 12-14 miles in total.

Thankfully, we were fully kitted out in our new “winter weather” gear by the time we tackled the icy Two Ocean Lake Trail – the least spectacular of the trails – but the sunrise colors were lovely. We would have preferred to repeat Cascade Canyon Trail which was phenomenally gorgeous when we hiked it 6 years ago but we were foiled by the change in start time of the ferries to 10am – way too late in the day to start a 14 mile hike.

The final hike of the first leg of our epic National Parks vacation was at Phelps Lake in the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve – another 7 mile loop trail. The fall colors were just starting to emerge in the forest and when we clambered up high onto Jumping Rock we had a perfect mirror-reflection view of Death Canyon and Albright Peak. Happily, despite all of my manic clapping and tuneless singing to scare off the bears – we finally saw Mrs Yogi Bear … and eventually a Baby Yogi Bear who scuttled off into the undergrowth.

Late afternoon, we spotted Mrs Moose hanging out grazing by the side of the road on Moose-Wilson Road. Fabulous!

If we’d had even an ounce more energy after all of the dawn starts and tiring hikes, we might have driven up to Oxbow Bend late afternoon to see the Teton’s most famous grizzly – #399 Mommy bear and her four cubs – who apparently hang out every evening at the river watched over (I’m sure!) by half a million tourists. Seems ridiculous with hindsight that we didn’t make the journey but it’s yet another reason to head back to Grand Teton National Park as soon as possible.

Best bakery and lunch in Jackson – Persephone (be prepared to line up down the street), Genevieve next door was reasonable. Figs in the upscale Hotel Jackson was quite good but The Kitchen was better. The scruffy family-owned hole-in-the-wall Thai Plate (very popular with even scruffier rufty-tufty hikers) was better still!

… and then off to West Yellowstone, Montana via the smoke-filled plains of Idaho to check in to The Adventure Inn. Anyone who has been to West Yellowstone (the western gateway to Yellowstone National Park) will be acutely aware that options on both accommodation and dining are far from either luxurious or upscale. The town itself holds all of the appeal of a tiny Las Vegas (cheap, touristy and functional) which is odd given its proximity to one of the most incredible wilderness areas in the USA. The Adventure Inn is a “boutique hotel” of a tiny handful of rooms at the back of a building housing a car body workshop. Still … no complaints – the room was attractively rustic/trendy, new and quiet.

With all of the myriad of bison, coyotes and elk, the bubbling mud pots, fumaroles, geysers, iridescent steaming springs and other incredible natural geological wonders, we would have slept in the car at the side of the road if that had been our only alternative. Luckily it wasn’t – and neither did we have to rough it in one of the less salubrious motels.

By the end of our 2 days in the park we were absolutely exhausted chasing hither and thither looking for wild animals. It seems that a 6am start was even a bit too early for the wildlife 😉 … but the misty pink sunrise over Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley was spectacular. We only had the energy for one hike to Mystic Falls from Biscuit Basin which turned out to be the longest short hike (3.5 – 4 miles) of the vacation in 85°F. We walked alongside the Little Firehole River and straight up the side of the canyon towards the 70 foot falls and further on up to Biscuit Basin Overlook. It didn’t matter which way we passed people – coming in either direction around the loop to the falls – hikers were huffing and puffing and expiring at the dusty trailside.

Yellowstone sits upon an active “super volcano”; some springs reach temperatures of 450°F and some are so acidic from sulfuric acid that they will dissolve humans in minutes (and, sadly, have done so). And yet we still saw tourists squat down to ground level on the boardwalks and stick their fingers into the multi-colored glowing waters filled with thermophiles (extreme heat-loving microbes) and other delights which, frankly, I wouldn’t want to stick my digits into. Unbelievable … 🙄

For reference, the most dazzling springs and geysers were Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin (in Upper Geyser Basin – overall the most beautiful of the basins); Silex Spring and the constantly erupting Clepsydra Geyser in Lower Geyser Basin; Fishing Cone and Abyss Pool in the lakeside thermal area of West Thumb Geyser Basin; and enormous rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin (albeit we were breathing in lungfuls of steam as the wind wasn’t playing ball). At Midway you can also watch the Excelsior Geyser pool pour 4,500 gallons of steaming 199°F water per minute directly into the Firehole River. Perfect to warm up your bones on a chilly morning!

In some ways COVID-19 has had its benefits for domestic travelers. No tour buses, no massive groups of noisy tourists clogging up the trails and boardwalks and relatively little traffic on the park roads. That doesn’t prevent, however, lengthy tailbacks courtesy of the resident roaving bison herds which meander aimlessly across the roads at precisely their own unhurried speed. Goodness knows what it must be like in a normal year if you get stuck behind tour buses and bison. Still, I got a bit of a surprise when we stopped at the roadside to photograph a gigantic bison grazing in the undergrowth. He had been lazily chewing for a while (and there were plenty of other human targets between myself and said Mr B not to be too concerned at his proximity) when he suddenly launched up onto the tarmac at the roadside pull-in and made a beeline straight for me. I beat a very hasty retreat back to the open car door and battened down the hatches with seconds to spare as he wandered straight across the road in front of us barely inches from the front bumper. Who knew that a big, fat, lumbering bison could shift its butt so quickly?! 😉

The final stop was Mammoth Hot Springs in the north of the park – enormous white travertine terraces formed from limestone – which was similarly spectacular. We weren’t bothered about seeing Old Faithful with the crowds and parts of the loop road were closed so we couldn’t see Yellowstone Falls or Artist Point and so on … maybe next time!

Life holds some unexpected coincidences. We discovered (thanks to my Facebook posts) that we were in Yellowstone at the same time as an old friend whom we hadn’t seen in a few years so we caught up for dinner at Bullwinkle’s Saloon and Eatery which apparently had never heard of COVID-19 as none of the staff wore masks (this would become a theme for much of the rest of the trip). We were already primed that it would likely be one of the less inspiring eateries during our vacation (sorry Mike 😉). It was great to see Mike again but if you don’t eat half a side of dead cow with your bucket of fries then you are definitely in the wrong place.

Unexpectedly, our second dinner at Madison Crossing Lounge came with masks and vegetarian options – quite the bonus!! We were bad vegans, however, and felt obliged to sample the Huckleberry ice-cream – a delicacy only available in the Yellowstone environs. Huckleberries grow wild, cannot be cultivated and have to be handpicked. They taste like super-intense blueberries and were delicious. A better vegan might have tried the Huckleberry lip balm instead 😉

Leaving the dubious charms of the town of West Yellowstone behind us we made the lengthy trip back south through smoky Idaho via Jackson (lunch at Persephone Bakery was calling again!) en route to Park City, Utah. We passed through the Hoback Valley south of Jackson which was absolutely beautiful – the hillsides either side of the Snake River dotted with a patchwork of fall color.

The plan in Park City was to stay in bed past 6am, stick our feet up in front of the fireplace at Sunrise Lodge (in The Canyons ski resort) and relax for the weekend before heading down to Bryce Canyon for more action-packed hiking. Good restaurants (Chimayo, an old favorite), Chinese massage salons and upscale gallery shopping – it was all planned out – until we woke up at dawn again and I found Geoff making up a picnic and packing up the rucksack for another early morning hike in the woods. The fall colors were positively glowing at Lambs Canyon so I couldn’t really complain – except for the sudden downpour which left us drenched – hot and sweaty from the uphill climb and simultaneously freezing from the rain. To top it all, we were covered from head to foot in mud. The route was hazardous with enormous trees which had fallen in a previous storm and hadn’t been cleared from the trail. In order to make it to the top of the canyon we had to scramble over tangled tree limbs and branches, tree trunks far too wide to simply swing your legs over, tightrope walk on slippery moss-covered logs and … the highlight … we had to crawl in the mud on our hands and knees under a huge tree trunk which was too large to tackle in any other way. Totally undignified … I’m sure we’re getting too old for a trail through an assault course!

Our second full “day of rest” turned out to be a hike to which I guided us in error. In my mind, I was aiming for Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch mountain range but I took us to Little Cottonwood Canyon – big mistake!! Little Cottonwood Trail running down by the creek was tedious to say the least – the experience rescued only partially by lunch on a granite boulder in the river at Lisa Falls overlooking the pink and orange-leafed dappled mountains in the distance. I couldn’t understand where I had gone wrong until we were leaving and I saw a road sign for Big Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Drive – then it all came flooding back from the last time we had visited Park City in 2014. So I insisted that we drive the long and winding scenic route up to Guardsman Pass instead of hiking it – not all of our trips go entirely according to plan …

Leaving Park City bright and early we headed further south towards Bryce Canyon National Park where the sudden dearth of half-decent restaurants became more of an immediate issue. The lengthy 4.5 – 5 hour drive took us through the slightly overhyped town of Panguitch where we felt sure to find something semi-nutritious to eat for lunch. It transpired not – so we continued on through the fabulous canyons of Red Canyon on scenic route 12 on our way to check in to Stone Canyon Inn in the tiny and inappropriately named enclave of Tropic. By the time we arrived we would have contemplated week-old rat stew and so we took a chance on the western style Rustler’s Restaurant which we knew for certain would be a long way from our usual requirements. It lived precisely up to our expectations although we did see our first real cowboys of the vacation so it wasn’t a total disaster! Needless to say the food is bordering upon absolutely dismal in this area. We stayed at beautiful Stone Canyon Inn in one of the contemporary-rustic bungalows and due to the lack of other options ate at their Stone Hearth Grille each evening. This is the only up-scale dining establishment for about 300 miles. It wasn’t fantastic but neither did they deep-fry their vegetables so it was an improvement over everywhere else 😉

Arrival afternoon in Bryce was stormy and cloudy – neither fabulous conditions for photography nor hiking but I dragged Geoff through the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop trails where we huddled in the canyon under the Wall Street overhangs as the rain poured down. Not to be deterred by a less than perfect weather forecast for our stay in Bryce (every day either side of our visit for months on end was sunny and bright) we dragged ourselves out of our cozy bed in the pitch black and into the freezing cold desert night to ensure that we bagged a spot at Sunrise Point. I was determined to see sunrise over the Bryce amphitheater. It was so cold that I sent hypothermic Geoff back to wait in the car for the sun to peek above the horizon. There were a few other couples wrapped in blankets and a couple of people with cameras but it wasn’t as busy as I had thought it would be. There was frenzied excitement when the sun started to appear over the horizon, a few quick snaps on the cellphones of the sun itself and then a mass exodus until Geoff and I were standing pretty much alone to watch the sun warm the the tops of the hoodoos until they positively glowed. Watching sunrise over the hoodoos of Bryce was fabulous – shame everyone else missed it!

As it was still very early and the sky was clear blue and crystal clear, I pushed Geoff downhill into the canyon to the same two trails so that we could see Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop trails in their true sun-touched glory. Before the morning had really started we had already hiked 4 miles including a section of the Rim Trail.

Still the best was yet to come. The highlight of our entire vacation was the 8 mile mind-bogglingly beautiful Fairyland Loop. The descent into the canyon was around 1500 feet which meant obviously that the subsequent climb was also 1500 feet – in addition to the other relentless ups and downs which kept our blood pumping for the full 8 miles. No surprise that we were the relative oldies on the trail other than a couple of very wrinkled die-hard veteran hikers who strode past everyone. We were lucky – we managed 7 out of the 8 mile loop in sun and puffy white clouds. We had been watching the storm clouds gathering way off in the distance for a while and at mile 7 we were drenched again but we didn’t care! The Fairyland Loop was one of the most beautiful and diverse hikes we have ever done.

Bryce Canyon is an incredible place – another truly stunning American wild west wonderland. The famous orange rock of the park has been carved over millennia by ice and rain creating towering tall, thin spires and pillars (known as hoodoos) in shades of orange, pink and cream. Some are short and squat and others tower up to 150 feet high (Thor’s Hammer).

On the way out of Tropic en route to Zion National Park, we stopped at Mossy Cave which was, as promised, a dark, damp cave covered in moss. Thankfully, we caught the early morning light on the orange hoodoos in the canyon and on the river which made it worth the minimal effort to visit.

Fourth and final national park – Zion! Only an hour and a half from Bryce but a good 30°F hotter which was quite a shock to the system when we arrived early afternoon. Our two days in Zion both pushed 95°F – it was super dry and super hot.

First hike of the afternoon followed a stop for “ho’made pie” at the iconic Thunderbird restaurant (with attached gas station 😉). Another culinary surprise! If anyone suggests that the quality of food available to tourists in southwest Utah is varied, inspiring and healthy, they would be lying. Having said that, we were bunking down in a cabin at Zion Mountain Ranch (a working bison ranch with exotic chickens running amuck and horses in the paddock etc. etc.) on route 9 towards Mount Carmel. Their restaurant, Cordwoods, was a blessed relief. They served vegetables grown on their farm and there were even some limited vegetarian and vegan options. Mostly, however, you were expected to devour a hefty slab of deceased bison with your asparagus spears and roast potatoes – and that is exactly what the cowboys ordered!

The strangest thing about the local populace in southwest Utah was their absolute denial of the existence of COVID-19. Aside from in Zion (on the public shuttle bus and the poor national park rangers working outside in 100°F) absolutely no-one wore face masks. Not at check-in, not at the stores and not in any of the restaurants. It was strangely unnerving to suddenly be able to see human faces in their entirety. No wonder the contraction rates for COVID-19 are now climbing in Utah.

Two afternoon hikes in 95°F wasn’t as much fun as it sounds 😉🙃 We staggered up Canyon Overlook Trail to a spectacular viewpoint over the entire canyon valley gasping for water. This trail is on the east side of the impressive Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The trail was only a mile long with an elevation gain of a mere 100 feet but it fair nearly killed us in 95°F! In addition, because I had a lengthy list of potential hikes and only a day and a half to do them all, we parked up at the Visitor Centre and commenced the Pa’rus Trail which turned out to be the most boring walk of the vacation since the mess up at Little Cottonwood Creek in Park City. It was a boiling hot, paved 3.5 mile return bike trail to Canyon Junction. The only upsides were the views of the mountains looming all around us, stumbling upon 2 deer down by the river, the shoulder-high yellow rabbitbrush flowers buzzing with bees and butterflies and the occasional bridge crossings so that we could see the Virgin River up close.

Zion isn’t the easiest or most accessible national park to visit. Much of it is currently closed for various reasons – COVID-19 amongst them. One famously impressive hike through The Narrows (hiking directly through the river bed) has been closed for a while due to the presence of cyanobacteria in the water. Deadly to children and animals – it can make anyone sick – but that didn’t prevent some intrepid hikers from cooling off in the middle of it … seems like the same dimwits who stuck their fingers into the boiling hot springs in Yellowstone had followed us to Zion … 🙄

For the non-hikers in Zion, one of the greatest scenic drives in America is through the 1.1 mile long Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel and down into the gorge with the canyon dropping thousands of feet below the snaking switchback mountain pass road – the mountains towering up to 4000 feet all around.

Current regulations severely restrict numbers of people coming into the park. To visit Zion you really have to be organized ahead of time. Aside from being able to drive down the mind-blowingly awe-inspiring winding mountainside road into the base of the canyon and (if you are very lucky – or an early riser) you might grab a car parking space at the Visitor Centre and be able to tackle one of the very few trails which start from there – you cannot access the bulk of the park at all without taking the shuttle bus. For this you need to pre-purchase a timed shuttle bus ticket. These are like gold dust since COVID-19. Tickets are released for online purchase in bulk on specific days (noted on the National Park’s website). I went online at the actual minute of release of the tickets for the period of our visit (maybe 4-6 weeks ahead of time). I got 2 tickets for the 7-8am shuttle transfer (and woe-betide you miss your slot) for the date of our full day in the park and then logged on again to see if I could get the same tickets for the following day. They had all been sold within a 3 minute period.

Obviously, with a 7am shuttle bus ticket I was turfed out of bed again in the freezing cold darkness for another pre-sunrise start. We took the shuttle to The Grotto from the Visitor Centre in the dark aiming for the Emerald Pools trail but weren’t prepared for quite how fantastic the sunrise light would be as it caught the tops of the mountains around us as we hiked up to Upper Emerald Pool 😀 There is much hype about the pools (lower, middle and upper) but the fabulous surrounding scenery itself by far dwarfed the moderately uninspiring pools themselves. On the way down we toyed with the idea of calling it a day before 40°F became 95°F again within the space of a few hours but we were tempted by the hike to Scouts Lookout. This turned out to be a particularly strenuous 4 mile hike owing to the 1000 feet elevation gain and steep vertical switchbacks in the last ½ mile of the climb to the lookout. Once you have passed through Refrigerator Canyon you reach Walter’s Wiggles – 21 switchbacks – which were enough to bring even the younger hikers to their knees. For the truly crazy you can hike further to Angel’s Landing across a chain-linked section of mountain spine which had been closed due to COVID-19 but re-opened the day of our hike. Not for the faint-hearted … and not for us!

Although there were occasions when we felt certain that this vacation would surely kill us with the relentless pre-dawn starts, the moderately strenuous hiking and the challenges of the daily temperature variations, it was one of the most spectacular vacations of our 21 years living in the USA – even if we’ll both now need replacement knees 😉

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