Montana, Wyoming, and Utah National Parks – Aug/Sep 2018

As part of our continuing mission of “let’s see all the national parks” (must use Robert’s volunteer park pass, after all!), in August and September we visited three more biggies: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park, finishing off in Wyoming with a national monument (Fossil Butte) and in Utah, a national historic site (Golden Spike).

If you want to skip the narrative and just look at photos, click here.

Neither of us had been to Glacier before; we’d visited Yellowstone back in 1989, about a year after the massive 1988 fires in the park. We visited Grand Teton on that same trip, but didn’t see much at that time – or else simply don’t remember!

This time we flew up to Kalispell, did a one-way rental of a 4WD (drop off in Salt Lake City), and started out in Glacier. This was a driving/scenery/birding trip – no cycling this time around. The Howe Ridge fire in Glacier closed off the (spectacular) Going-to-the-Sun road that goes along the east side of Lake McDonald, the section from Apgar up to Logan Pass, so we drove the long way around to the east to eventually make it up to Logan Pass. Still beautifully scenic and worth the drive! But we’ll have to go back some day I think to drive the other road. We stayed in a cute cabin in Hungry Horse south of the park, and also managed to visit nearby Whitefish, which we both liked very much.

From Glacier it was a long day of driving south through pretty much all of Montana to Gardiner, near the state line with Wyoming and the northern (and original) entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our cabin there was actually 5 miles or so away up a pretty decent dirt road in the old mining town of Jardine. The place was fairly new and had a bit of a moth problem that was a little annoying (weatherstripping, anyone?), but the location was wonderful, away from the touristy Gardiner, and very quiet.

We had a couple of days in the park, exploring more of the northern and eastern sights (Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Roosevelt, Canyon Village (with the views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone), and making it down to the Fishing Bridge area. That was on the Sunday before Labor Day, and predictably it was a zoo. On Labor Day itself we thought it best to avoid the geyser areas and instead drove east through the Lamar Valley in the park, out to the northeast entrance a few miles from Cooke City. The Lamar Valley was the best for seeing larger family groups of bison as well as a grizzly chowing down on…something. (Pronghorn?)

Day after Labor Day we headed south through the park, past a road construction delay and to the geysers, first the Norris Geyser Basin, and later to (of course) Old Faithful. Old Faithful is more or less faithful, it goes off every 90 minutes +/- 10 minutes. Lucky us, as we walked into the visitor center there after lunch (10 minutes early, by chance) we could see it starting to go, so ran out and watched the show. Pretty fun. Woe to the guy we walked past 10 minutes later who missed the “+/- 10 minute” bit and complained that it wasn’t on schedule – ha!

We continued south through the park and on to Grand Teton NP, staying in Jackson WY. We went to Teton Village (via more road construction) and rode the tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain (10,450 ft), and later the smaller gondola. The intent was to look for the black rosy finch up there at the edges of snow fields, but there wasn’t much snow within any good walking distance, so we pretty much just enjoyed the scenery. We saw more of GTNP this time, including great views of the mountains, Jenny Lake, and the Jackson Lake Lodge. We were also able to do some very nice birding just outside of Jackson at the Flat Creek Wetlands.

From Jackson it was another long drive to the north end of Salt Lake, en route stopping at the Fossil Butte National Monument. (National monuments are often forgotten – one needs to seek them out!) Fossil Butte preserves a portion of Fossil Lake, where they say: “The quality of fossil preservation is extraordinary, nearly unparalleled in the fossil record. The quiet-water, fine-grained lake sediments, and water conditions that excluded scavengers combined to preserve articulated skeletons (all bones are in place rather than scattered).” Wonderful visitor center there, well worth the stop.

Our last full day of the trip was mostly spent birding, first at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area (where we lucked into a short bird walk with one of the rangers), and the Bear Creek Migratory Bird Refuge. The afternoon was then free so we drove out to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory UT, where the Central (later Southern) Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met on May 10, 1869. Great to see the replica locomotives and go through the very nice visitor center…seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

The next day we dropped off our extremely, er, grimy 4WD and flew home from SLC.

A few general thoughts overall…

We remembered Yellowstone being very burnt back in 1989, after the massive 1988 fires. It was fairly obvious in places what had burned, as the tree stands now are of a uniform height and look like about 30 years of growth. 🙂 Lots of lodgepole pine and douglas fir.

The few days after Labor Day really aren’t too bad for visiting the parks, and even LD itself, as most folks with kids have left. But there still are plenty of visitors without kids and many international visitors.

The biggest problem with going in “high season” is the cost, with Jackson being the worst – ridiculously high prices in “summer” for a place that would barely rate 1 or 2 stars in any hotel rating system. Mostly we mitigated the cost by having a kitchen and doing a lot of our own cooking, but that gets old fast!

People driving in the parks really need to pay attention to the “don’t stop in the middle of the road” rule….sheesh. Not to mention the “don’t approach the animals” rule. We saw a few potential Darwin Award winners, especially in Yellowstone.

Again, to see the rest of the photos (including birds/wildlife, and Buddy Bison!) click here.

© Liza and Robert Weissler 2023, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.