From South Dakota we crossed the border into Wyoming, where we spent another week. We planned to visit four places there: two that we’d never seen before, and two that we were keen to see again. Wyoming has some wonderful scenery, but really bad weather prevented us from appreciating some of it fully.
Our first Wyoming location was the Devils Tower, a tall solitary column of rock standing out starkly against the surrounding flat land. The photos may look familiar: even if you’ve never been to Wyoming, you may have had a close encounter with the Devils Tower… We went there first on a Friday evening: the weather was cloudy, and thunderstorms were threatened, but we decided to visit then in case it was even worse next day.
On Saturday morning, the weather was much the same. We walked the trail around the base of the Tower (1.3 miles), and then did the longer ‘Red Beds’ trail, which enables you to get a more distant perspective, as well as seeing some of the impressive red (and yellow) rocks in the surrounding area.
From Devils Tower we drove west. In order to reach our next destination, we had to cross the Bighorn Mountains, which was a real challenge. We took the route which signs assured us involved the lowest grades, but the roads were very steep and winding. What we hadn’t reckoned with was the weather. In those parts, the second half of May counts as winter, and some roads were closed. Ours, though open, was terrifying. Temperatures plummeted to below zero; we experienced storms of sleet, and the road was coated with snow and ice. No gritting here! Large lumps of snow sprayed up and hit the car, making a scary noise. We were greatly relieved when (after about 30 miles) we reached flatter roads and a slightly warmer climate.
Unfortunately, the weather was still bad next day, when we visited Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. No snow this time, but persistent clouds, rain on and off, and very strong winds. We managed to do a couple of short trails, and stopped at a few viewpoints, but photos of the magnificent scenery would look so much better with blue skies and sun.
We have now visited Yellowstone National Park three times. It is the world’s first national park, and the first one that we visited, back in 1976. Although we have visited many other national parks since, Yellowstone remains Ian’s top favourite, and one of Sandie’s. We returned to it, with our three children, on a camping trip in 1993, and were keen to visit it again, 20 years later.
Accommodation at Yellowstone usually has to be booked months in advance, but we were lucky to get cancellations in three different locations. One, to our delight, was at the historic Old Faithful Inn. In 1976 we were awestruck by the unique design of the Inn (built entirely of wood), and decided that we would stay there one day, when we were rich. We are still not rich, but a night at the Inn was Ian’s birthday treat (although our room was in the modern wing, probably just as well in view of the limited facilities in the old rooms).
Both of our previous visits were in August, and we had not understood quite how different Yellowstone would be in May. We were stunned on the day that we arrived. For a start, it was so cold that we were reluctant to get out of the car. Lots of snow lay on the hills, which added to the beauty of the place when the sun managed to shine. But there were also piles of snow beside the roads, and some roads were still closed. Some trails were also closed; one was open, but we were warned we would be knee-deep in snow if we hiked it.
It wasn’t just the weather that restricted our activities. It seems that spring/early summer is the main period for bear activity, and several of the trails were closed for that reason. Even those trails that remained open had warnings attached about the precautions that needed to be taken, and the fact that safety could not be assured. It was not encouraging, and reminded us of our first trip to Australia, back in 2002/3, when we travelled up the east coast. There were stunningly beautiful beaches, and tempting azure seas, but we could not swim because of the risk of jellyfish. Likewise, the Yellowstone environment is perfect for hiking, but the limitations imposed by bear activity are frustrating, to say the least.
However, things improved considerably the next day. Although the weather was never warm, it was bright and sunny much of the time. And we realised that with so many sights to see (most involving short walks) there would not be time for longer hikes, even if bears were not a problem!
We would have liked to see a bear – from a safe distance, of course – but were disappointed in this. However, we did see plenty of wildlife, particularly bison. To begin with, this was exciting, but we soon got blasé about these great animals, and indeed sometimes frustrated by their presence. They were everywhere; we spotted a couple right outside our hotel! On more then one occasion, they caused traffic jams by walking along the road. Another time, one was standing right beside our boardwalk, and as you are not allowed to leave the path in a geothermal area, we had no alternative but to go back and walk the loop the other way round until we were close to ‘bison territory’. On a different walk, a large snake slithered right under the boardwalk; we couldn’t identify it, but we think it was harmless…
Yellowstone (the size of Wales) has different areas with different kinds of scenery, including a lake, hot springs and a canyon with waterfalls. (We did a steep hike involving 340 stairs to get a particularly good view of the Lower Falls.) But it is most noted for all the geysers and other geothermal features. Some of these seemed different from our previous visits, and we kept wondering: had they really changed? Or had our memories failed over 20 years? We were relieved to discover that genuine change does occur, and there was evidence to confirm that some things were different 20 years ago. Maybe we’re not going mad after all.
Technology also has moved on since our last visit to Yellowstone. We can now take many more photos, since digital photography (once you have the equipment) is virtually free, in contrast to the films we had to buy back then. (Sandie’s current record is 445 shots in one day.) But what seemed strange this time was the lack of wifi and (in most areas) mobile phone coverage. Of course, we didn’t have those things in 1993 either, but we were not used to them then, so we did not feel cut off by lack of communication, as we did this time.
From Yellowstone we drove south through Grand Teton National Park. That afternoon there was no sun, and although the majestic snow-capped mountains look impressive in any weather, they look so much better with a background of blue sky! We stayed in the town of Jackson (just south of the park) and actually had two nights in the same motel, for the first time since we left Chicago.
On our last full day in Wyoming, the weather decided to co-operate. It was certainly not wild; on the contrary, the day dawned perfect, with all the blue sky and sun we could have wished for, and unusually it held good all day. We made the most of it by spending a very full day in Grand Teton. We drove a loop around the park, stopping at numerous viewpoints. And three times we made longer stops to do walks in different areas, one of which involved first crossing Jenny Lake by boat. This gave us plenty of opportunities to appreciate (and photograph!) the wonderful scenery.
The next morning we went to Teton Village (just outside the park) and took the aerial tramway (cable car) to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain: altitude 10,450 ft. There was so much snow at the top that it was impossible to do any hiking, but there were splendid views of the Tetons. It made a good climax to our visit, because afterwards we said farewell to Wyoming and headed west into Idaho.