Day 8: Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park
I won’t lie- grizzly bears scare the crap out of me. Aside from people, they are the only thing that makes me nervous about camping or hiking. Anything else in nature that has the least inclination to root through your tent or car is manageable, but in my mind coming across a grizzly pretty much equals death or serious pain. So that was heavy on my mind going to sleep in Grand Teton, especially since we had just seen a good-sized adult about half a mile away on our way to the campsite. That night the bear mace I used to keep on hand for DC crazies was clutched under my sleeping bag, prepared to serve its actual purpose.
I feel asleep rather quickly, rationalizing that we had obsessively stored anything appealing in the locked storage of the truck, and that nothing in the tent (other than us) could be misconstrued as food. I told myself how unlikely it was that a bear would even come through, and if it did, that it would choose to actually tear open our new Big Agnes and carry me off. With this mantra in mind I was out like a light around 10pm.
Unfortunately, however, the worst thing for my psyche occurred later that night; for no apparent reason I snapped awake around 2:30am. I had managed to do this same thing almost every night during our “Buckwild” camping orientation for Bucknell, and it pretty much guarantees you’ll be awake and terrified for a solid hour or two. Convinced that something nefarious had woken me up with such a start, I laid stock-still in my bag staring into the blackness and straining to hear every sound outside the tent. Anyone who spends any time camping knows that’s a lot of creepy noises with no discernable source at that time of night. I sat there for a good hour literally so freaked out by every scrape and thump that my pulse was thundering in my ears. It didn’t help that someone nearby was snoring in such a loud and violent way that sounded just like a grizzly’s snuffling and growling. This is why you should NOT watch endless animal attack accounts on Animal Planet before camping.
The site of my night terrors.
Luckily, through a few breathing and pressure-point exercises, I fell asleep before too long and didn’t wake up again until 6:30am to a pattering of morning rain and the gang of robins that lived around our campsite. I was surprisingly well-rested and comfy in my Lafuma, and was of course thrilled to have survived the night. Jay and I bundled up and stuck our boots on to begin cooking breakfast and breaking camp. While Jay broke down the tent we fired up the camp stove and heated up some oatmeal and hot cocoa. After eating and getting all our gear we headed out for a hike in Grand Teton before leaving for the day. To our pleasure it was still only about 7:30am by the time we headed out.
After some indecision we settled on a 4-mile hike down to Phelps Lake in the southern part of the park, which included an overlook view and a descent to the isolated lake beach. Unfortunately we reached a point in the road where the park prohibited large vehicles (such as a moving truck), so we took out our bikes, packed some backpacks and cycled out to the trailhead. Although scenic, the road out did have a hill that kicked my butt despite how small it was. This should have been the first indication of how out of shape I was, but I chalked this up to the fact that I’ve never been good at biking hills.
After stowing our bikes away behind some pines we set off into the woods. Our hike started off pretty easily with a gradual incline up to the lake overlook, which was gorgeous in a way that only a lake in the middle of a park could be. Phelps was long and oval, the water a teal color attributable only to healthy and mineral-rich bodies of water. Surrounded by thick evergreens and aspens, the lake was also overshadowed by Death Canyon, a large convergence of two mountains with a thin waterfall in between. Perfect!
We began the long switchback route down to the lake, which took some time as we kept stopping to take pictures of the mountains, the lake, a fat marmot on a rock, etc. The path wound down through open rocks and scrub brush, then a stand of aspens, and finally a thick grove of evergreens as we approached the lake. Phelps had a beautiful little beach line around one edge where we paused for a snack and some more pictures. Jay spotted a huge rock on the shoreline a few hundred yards away, and realized it was the jumping rock Danni had advised us to look out for. During her stint in Yellowstone as an “expert” kayak instructor, she had come down to Grand Teton and raved about this 20-foot rock jump at this exact lake. How convenient that we had come across it!
We set off around the water’s edge and scrambled up this mammoth outcrop, and sure enough the water below it seemed very deep indeed. Without hesitation Jay whipped out a bathing suit he had packed (apparently he had known the rock would be here), changed, took one look over the edge and leaped off. We found out later that lake waters in the park are considered a hypothermia risk, however Jay found this plunge truly invigorating and decided to go again. I felt a little resentful that I was not filled in on the jumping rock plan and so did not bring a suit, meaning I would have to hike 2 miles uphill in wet underwear… not happening. As a result, I did not jump the rock (despite the flack I will get from Danni after posting this). I’d like to think I would have done it if I had a suit to change out of, but I can’t make a secret of my slight fear or heights when it comes to jumping off/over things. So… bears and heights. Sue me.
After Jay got over his disappointment at my lameness we decided to head back and try to beat a thick, charcoal cloud that had floated over the peaks towards us. As we trudged uphill a good shower came down, which more than anything was refreshing considering the heat. I also found myself incredibly winded shortly into our uphill climb back to the overlook. This feeling intensified as we went, to the point where I was panting like a sprinter behind Jay as he ambled at a relaxed walk. I felt pretty perturbed by how poor I felt, barely able to keep up at a normal walking pace—wheezing, pouring sweat, and feeling like I might keel over at any moment. I usually pride myself on being able to take hills on foot, so I didn’t understand why I was near fainting while Jay walked slowly ahead and looked back with growing concern. I barely made it back to the overlook and needed a serious water break. I still have no idea what caused this total exhaustion—whether it was the altitude, or not exercising for the last week, being sick a few days before, or all of the above. But I really did not enjoy that part of the hike and felt pretty discouraged.
Walking back downhill to the trailhead I immediately felt like a million bucks— go figure. We enjoyed the mountain vistas, little brooks and ground squirrels darting around as we descended again, happy to have gotten a good sweat after a week in the car. A couple passing us on the way up informed us that a moose was on the trail not too far ahead, so we proceeded with caution. A few yards ahead we spotted her—a massive, bulbous-nosed creature about ten feet off the trail, just munching contentedly away. Although Jay and I tried to be vigilant about distance, we were remarkably close and she barely acknowledged our existence. We took a few pictures and headed out again, letting other hikers know as we passed.
We got another wildlife photo-op after picking our bikes back up and heading down the road to the truck. As we rolled by we realized a grizzly cub—several months old, judging by its size and gold-tipped coat- was snacking away on something about 30 feet off the roadside. I was immediately on alert: where was mom? I had watched enough “When Animals Attack” to know that this exact scenario usually led to something grim. As Jay prepared to take pictures I urged him to hurry up so we could take off down the road. He laughed at my sense of urgency, but I kept imagining momma bear coming out of the woods behind us and finding Jay and I between her and the little guy. No thanks. I could see Jay did agree to some extent as he took a few quick shots and mounted his bike again so we could flee down the road. He didn’t get a great picture, but at least he still has his face.
Check out our pictures from Grand Teton National Park
It was now well into the afternoon so we packed the truck up and made some sandwiches out of our camping supplies. We had decided to drive straight to Yellowstone that afternoon and find a camping spot for the night, and as more weather systems drifted overhead we hurried out to reach the next park before twilight. Our journey back up through Grand Teton was punctuated by several stops to view wildlife by the side of the road, and by the time we actually left the park it was beginning to get dark and spitting rain. I also felt my legs stiffening in a grotesque way and was quickly becoming sleepy, hungry, and grizzly-like.
It was at this point that we started flipping through our printed pages on Yellowstone campsites and reservations. Apparently we could have (and should have) called the park around 8am to reserve a site, or at least arrived in the park at 11 or so to claim one. As we entered, we realized most of the camping areas would be totally full by now. A stop at the closest visitor’s center confirmed that every site was completely full other than Lewis Lake, the southernmost stop in Yellowstone that we had passed because Danni warned us off of it pretty strongly. The rangers urged us to get there ASAP or risk missing out on that too.
Now, you can make fun of us, but at this point the sky had turned a pretty dire shade of gray and the winds were a-blowing. We were exhausted, famished, and not excited at the prospect of driving back down south to a site known for its mosquitoes—if we got in at all. So after one night in the woods we broke down and called Travelodge. Lame? Yes. But I was SO happy at the prospect of a leisurely drive through the rest of Yellowstone and not worrying about a tent or bugs.
With our newfound time we made a visit to Old Faithful and its surrounding pits of boiling water and rotten-egg fumes. We stopped frequently to check out the animals everyone had pulled over for, and did not exit the park until well after dark. At this point we had been running since 6am, were tired, stiff, and starving. I had never been so excited to sleep in a cheap motel. After a steep and windy descent out of the park (and Wyoming), we rolled into the first town outside of the park—Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner sits right outside the famed Roosevelt arch and it’s very clear most of its economy depends on Yellowstone. The main road is lined with bar/restaurants, gas stations, and every motel chain imaginable. We finally rolled in to Travelodge around 10pm.
I felt bedraggled, was limping pathetically and wanted nothing more than a hot shower and hot food. Feeling even more hungry than we were tired, Jay and I putted back out into town with a slim chance of finding anything open so late in the middle of Montana. Desperate, we pulled over at a nearby fried food stand—Helen’s Corral Drive-In. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more thankful for drive-through food. The three young people running Helen’s had stayed open past their 8pm close time due to demand, and were clearly itching to go out and enjoy their Saturday night. Greedily we put in our orders for chicken strips and fries right before their cutoff, and I was in the throes of euphoria to receive what felt like a five pound Styrofoam box of chicken tenders and crinkle-cut fries to take back to our motel. Maybe it was my extreme exhaustion, but I felt Helen’s should have ended up on TV with Brew Burger. After our delightfully hot and filling meal I took a 20-minute shower, got in bed, and slept quite literally like a log until 9am the next morning. It was glorious.
And yes, it was the longest day ever.
Jay’s Take on Death Canyon
Having missed out on hike in Boulder’s Flatirons, Kim was excited to get out in the wilderness for some fun and exercise. This must have been why she seemed amenable to the trail with such a sinister name. Death Canyon was the rated the most strenuous day hike in Grand Teton NP that didn’t include the disclaimer, “An ice axe may be necessary until August.”
We drove from Colter Bay down to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, the newest and southernmost section of the park. I recalled an e-mail from our friend Danni in which she suggested a trail in this area that featured a great jumping rock. She had spent last summer as a kayaking instructor on Yellowstone Lake, so she knew all the best spots. The problem was, I couldn’t recall exactly which trail she said to take.
The trail was teaming with wildlife, including ground squirrels, warblers, orioles, finches, marmots, small snakes, and even a pika. The air was thin, dry, and warm, and the scent of pine was invigorating. We hiked down to the shore of Phelp’s Lake and sat on the shore for a snack break. I scanned the lake’s perimeter, miffed that the sandy shoreline offered no opportunity for cliff jumping. I surmised that I had picked the wrong lake when my eyes caught sight of a shining gray monolith on the eastern shore. It jutted 30 feet from the water. My hope was restored.
When we reached the rock, I immediately chanced into my bathing suit, then raced atop the massive platform and peered over the edge. The lake was somehow about twenty feet deep just below the jump-off point, despite being shallow just about everywhere else. I single trout meandered past the rock, just below the surface. For the first time, I turned my attention back to the direction of our hike and was awestruck by the view. Kim and I could see directly into Death Canyon, displayed prominently between mountain peaks.
Childhood experiences with jumping rocks at summer camp and with rope swings, taught me that stalling only fed my feelings of panic and doubt. For a moment I was a boy again. My heart pumping, muscles tense, I thought of how much peer pressure from other boys helped in these situations. Now a 25-year-old man, I felt slightly silly for feeling compelled to jump. I didn’t need to prove my manliness to anyone, especially since Kim was giving the distinct impression she would not be jumping. I thought of when I swam nonchalantly in 50-degree water in Maine on a boyhood summer vacation, then thought of how I was much less tolerant of the cold as an adult. Enough, I thought, back in the present. I clapped my hands together and leapt.
I felt suspended in air for longer than 30 feet, then plunged into the glacial lake water. My wide-splayed arms burned, but I began swimming for shore as soon as I surfaced. A second jump was in order.
Danni, if you’re reading, thanks for the suggestion. It made my day.