A TAUCK TOUR OF YELLOWSTONE & THE GRAND TETONS, August 22-30, 2017
(Photos not otherwise credited are by the author. Click on the photos to enlarge them and read the captions, and scroll through a series using your keyboard arrows. Feel free to comment or correct any errors).
I had marveled at magazine photos of the majestic Grand Teton range and the geysers of Yellowstone so I don’t know why I put off a visit for so long. Well, leading 150 tour groups to 20 destinations outside the U.S. didn’t leave a lot of time for domestic travel. But at last I saw an ad for a Tauck small-group tour that wasn’t sold out a year in advance and the timing was perfect for my annual September escape from Cuernavaca when the rainy season hits it peak and the raucus church fair behind my home is enough to make one irreligious.
TUES. AUG. 22. MEX-JAC
Getting to Jackson WY from Mexico City was easier than I expected with a 6 am American Airlines flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, a 90-minute layover, and an early afternoon arrival in Jackson, the only airport inside a national park. No jetways here; one has to walk down the stairs from the plane and some distance into the terminal no matter the weather, but what a picturesque arrival. The Tetons tower over the tarmac in a stunning display of nature’s glory. Tauck includes hotel transfers but the greeter failed to keep her sign visible and I wandered the lobby for almost half an hour before finding her. Others arriving knew they were missing one passenger before they could depart but never suspected I was the missing one because, unlike the outdoorsy casual wear of the others, I wore dress slacks and a blazer, easier to wear than to pack things I would need later in New York during my month away. I was annoyed that I had held up the group, but we made it to the hotel by 3 pm.
SPRING CREEK RANCH, our first hotel, is about twenty minutes outside the city of Jackson Hole. Originally we were scheduled for a deluxe hotel in Jackson Hole but the solar eclipse on August 21 inspired greed on the part of many hoteliers who cancelled discounted groups in order to gouge eclipse watchers with solar prices and our group was bumped. At first I was taken aback by the ranch when I was told my cabin was half a mile from reception, but at least it was only 50 yards from the restaurant. Eventually a van took me and my luggage to the rustic but spacious cabin with a back porch looking out on a stunning view of the Tetons. The view made up for not being in the city, but service was not up to expectations. I could live with there being no bottled water in the cabin, but there wasn’t even a drinking glass for the tap water. After two calls to reception I was told I should walk to the restaurant and ask for a glass. A neighbor had extra flimsy plastic glasses to spare and spared me the hike.
The first event of the tour was a welcome reception in the Granary Restaurant whose bar-staff must have the most beautiful view in the world from a large window capturing the majestic Tetons. After meeting our tour director, Zack Pennington, we enjoyed our beverages on the outdoor deck where we could drink in the scenery and meet our fellow travelers, a delightful group of 24. After the meet-and-greet we were ushered to the downstairs dining room, again with the same inspiring view of the mountains distracting one from the huge, delicious steaks on our plates and the generous pourings of wine. Having had a wake-up at 4:30 am, I retired early to rest before the next day’s active program.
WED. AUG. 23: Rafting on the Snake River and a visit to a working cattle ranch.
After a too-early but delicious full breakfast, we departed at 7:30 am for a rafting outfit that provided wet suits for those who chose the adventurous white-water experience. I had a harrowing, white-knuckle experience doing that in Costa Rica years ago where even one guide was thrown overboard, so I opted instead for the alternative scenic float. Two rafts carrying four Tauck clients and a mix of interlopers drifted down the Snake River with lovely scenery and interesting wildlife for almost two hours. I saw a golden eagle for the first time, several in fact, as well as ospreys and other shore birds. Our guide with the oar, Adam, was an articulate and personable young man with a wealth of knowledge of the area and one of the best local guides I have enjoyed anywhere. After finishing the float, the van took us back to the office of Mad River Boat Trips where the more daring group arrived shortly after, all apparently happy with their adventure.
Next our director Zack guided the motor coach through a scenic tour of downtown Jackson Hole, as expected, packed with restaurants, motels, and souvenir shops. We were on our own for lunch and a few of us found a quiet spot and good food at the Silver Dollar Café. After browsing some store windows we walked back to the visitor’s center where the bus awaited us.
Our next stop was the Snake River Ranch about half an hour from the city. It is a still-functioning cattle ranch currently stocked with 3800 steers one could see grazing in the distant pastures. Our host Barbara explained how her grandfather acquired the property in 1939 and how she had to adapt to the 21st century and its modern high-tech operations, including having to buy steers at auction online. We toured the ancient facilities and enjoyed the talk before returning to the bus that took us to a remote part of the property where a horse-back riding concession provided saddled mounts for the group. It took probably 40 minutes before everyone was mounted and headed off at a slow pace into the woods. Again, previous horse-related trauma led me to skip the equine adventure which many found boring. Just two of us boarded a horse-drawn buggy that carried us to a covered-wagon concession where we enjoyed beer, wine, soft drinks, and delicious snacks while listening to a cowboy guitarist sing western songs.
After a large lunch followed by this cowboy repast, I had no need for dinner, and it was fortunate since the hotel restaurant was completely sold out. The hotel offers shuttle service into Jackson Hole but I had no desire to go back there and no appetite, so I enjoyed a restful evening online with my Surface Book, downloading photos and taking notes in my journal to prevent forgetting the details later. Johnnyy Walker kept me company,.
THURS. AUG. 24: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK & THE LAMAR VALLEY
After an excellent served breakfast in the Granary Restaurant, at 8:30 am we departed Spring Creek Ranch for Yellowstone, on a scenic drive through Teton National Park with great views of the mountains and Jackson Lake. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center for restrooms and Zack gave everyone a park passport so they could get a stamp at each of many visitor centers we would stop at. My memories are better recorded in my photo-essays allowing me to relive trips without any more paper to clog the desk. We encountered a long backlog of cars waiting to enter Yellowstone park and more delays due construction, and we made another rest stop at the Jackson Lake marina with another inspiring view of the mountains.
We arrived at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel in Lake Village before our stomachs rumbled. The historic hotel was one of the first in the park, built in 1891 though remodeled over the years. The served lunch was superb and I got to know better three fellow travelers.
By shortly after 2 pm we departed to see more of the park, passing through the Hayden Valley Caldera. According to Wikipedia: Volcanic eruptions sometimes empty their stores of magma so swiftly that they cause the overlying land to collapse into the emptied magma chamber, forming a geographic depression called a caldera. This one is 34 by 35 miles across. So most of the park sits atop an active volcano that experienced super-eruptions 2.1 and 1.3 million years ago, the last eruption about 640 thousand years ago. While hotly debated, most geologists do not believe the crater is overdue for another massive seismic event. There are numerous spots where one can see the mud bubbling to the surface.
From there we moved on to another rest stop at the Canyon Lodge visitor’s center. Zack and the driver took our luggage to the nearby Canyon Lodge while we had time to stamp passports, watch an excellent film, browse the bookstore, or view the exhibits. When the bus returned in half an hour, we boarded to find our room keys on the seat with information on Washburn Lodge, the part of the complex where we stayed. Tauck’s practice of taking luggage before the passengers arrive works wonders since we could go straight to our rooms while other arrivals lined up for more than 30 meters to check-in. There was hardly time to refresh before heading to our 6:15 dinner in the Mission 66 Grill in the commercial section of the lodge property, reached by a ten-minute circuitious walk through a woods or a frequent shuttle. The restaurant was mobbed, as were many venues during this high-season tour, and service was painfully slow, but as usual we could order anything we desired from the menu. The prime rib was surprisingly tough and unflavorful for being near cattle country and we skipped appetizers after being told they would delay the dinner service. Fortunately the companionship was excellent and the spirits sufficient to infuse some patience to the wait.
FRI. AUG. 25: Searching for wildlife in the Lamar Valley
Another too-early departure led me to skip the walk or shuttle to the crowded restaurant and I opted for the fast-food café in the lobby of the hotel. We departed at 7:30 am allegedly because one sees more wildlife early. We made a brief stop for another pleasant photo-op at the Tower Fall, where the Tower Creek drops 132 feet (40 meters).
Then we moved on to rendezvous with our local guide for the day, Ted Gatlin, who works for the Yellowstone Forever Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides guides, lectures, nature hikes, and book sales to help fund the park. Ted specialized in the wildlife and knew the places we were likely to see it. We traveled through the North Ridge area of the Lamar Valley, stopping on two occasions to photograph large herds of bison. The park boasts the largest free-running buffalo herds in the world. (The ones that appear on dinner plates as steaks or bison-burgers are raised on commercial ranches outside the park).At Baronet Peak we stopped to look for mountain goats, hard to see on the rugged grey cliff-side where they appear as white dots. But Zack and Ted mounted large telescopes on tripods and we took turns viewing several of the species.
Being at the north end of the park we were close to the Montana border and crossed out of the park to Cook City MT for lunch, my first visit to that state. More a village than a city, there were several good choices for lunch on our own and a small local-history museum of some interest. We had time for a leisurely lunch where I joined several of the group at a colorful café with outdoor tables. I had my first bison burger (dryer than a hamburger) and a Miner’s Gold draught beer, before a short walk about and back on the bus for another interesting event.
We stopped near Cook City at the cabin home of Dan and Cindy Hartman in Silver Gate MT just outside the park. Dan is a famous wild-life photographer and videographer who has shot film for major documentaries on PBS and BBC among others, and he even shot the cover photo on an issue of National Geographic (a photo of it is on his gallery wall, perhaps hard to see in the photos below). Dan had excellent film and slides of some of his most famous shots and regaled us with tales, some quite harrowing, of how he managed to get them. He had copies of his wonderful photos for sale, framed and unframed, with an offer of free shipping. Alas for him, the age of these visitors is such that most of us are downsizing and getting rid of decorations, not buying new ones. For a view of his superb photos, see
WILDLIFEALONGTHEROCKIES.HOMESTEAD.COM or YELLOWSTONEREPORTS.COM.
Zack took our reservations for the Mission 66 Grill in the Washburn Lodge and I got to know others of our great group, this time in a less-crowded restaurant with faster service. What a long but exciting day, filled with interesting activities, leaving one just a little time for downloading photos and a few pages in a novel before bedtime.
SAT. AUG. 26: MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS & FOUNTAIN PAINT POTS
After another brief breakfast at the hotel café, I had to finally go online to check mail and post a few photos on facebook for family and friends following my journey. (If I don’t post photos and brief-descriptions almost daily, I would likely mix up some venues and photos when I get around to writing the blog post many days after the tour ends). And I read about the horrors of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston. The web service was extremely slow despite charging $4.95 an hour. Tauck includes internet charges in hotel bills, and in this case reimbursed us in cash, another generous service. The porters came into the room for luggage while we had breakfast, no outside the door stuff with Tauck.
Fortunately this was a more relaxed 8:30 am departure starting with a walk along the rim of the North Fork of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I had never read about it and was surprised to learn it is over 20 miles long (32 km) and 1200 feet deep (366 meters) in some parts, “ forever growing longer and deeper” according to the park flyer. The canyon was shaped by water erosion, not glaciation, and it features many hydrothermal features. The most beautiful section is where the Yellowstone River plunges 308 feet over the lower falls and casts a rainbow on sunny days. The uncaptioned photos below are a sampler of the many jaw-dropping vistas.
And on we went, next back to the North Range of the park, to Mammoth Hot Springs. The springs are adjacent to the old Army post that once supervised the park and the headquarters are now a Visitor’s Center with interesting displays. I expected to see water bubbling up from the ground but instead it poured over the top of a thermal hill, cascading down over multi-colored rocks carved by the thermal erosion. There were a number of other impressive steaming pools and eruptions pictured below.
Before our next thermal site we stopped for a picnic lunch in a lovely grove beside a creek, dining on a plentiful box lunch from the hotel.
After an hour’s rest we moved on to Fountain Paint Pots. Numerous vapor holes and geysers spumed on both sides of a wide boardwalk circling the park.Yellowstone park boasts some ten thousand thermal features so we saw just a small part of them. The deep blue color of the pool below is caused by microrganisms that live at temperatures of 170 degrees.
Then on to our next stop at the Old Faithful Village. The Old Faithful Inn there is famous and historic but I’m glad were lodged in the more modern Snow Lodge nearby.I chose to check the internet before dinner and missed an eruption of Old Faithful that some saw from the terrace bar of the adjacent Inn. There would be several other opportunities. The high-season crowds overwhelmed the restaurant at the Snow Lodge, but a group of seven managed to snag a table within an hour while other more impatient diners went to less elegant fast-food venues. Everyone was a bit tired after such a busy day.
Sun. Aug. 27: OLD FAITHFUL
While tempted to sleep-in, Zack offered a 7 am pre-breakfast walk around the geyser basin and Old Faithful, accompanied by a guide provided by the Xanterra company that has the concession for the hotels, restaurants, and services in the park. Myra shared a wealth of information about the numerous geysers with predictions as to timing of thermal events. There were over fifty thermal features in one area of about five acres. Warnings abounded about not straying off the boardwalks since one could easily step on soil that looks firm but may be just a half-inch thick and the unwary could plunge into a steaming hole and make an ash of one’s self.
We finished the walk at 8:30 and I was ready to hit the breakfast room when Myra said the indicators pointed to an eruption of the Beehive geyser at any minute. We rushed back another two hundred yards and waited just about five minutes before an enormous plume of steam poured out of the Beehive, even higher than Old Faithful. Then I hastened to the dining room to devour a delightful served breakfast that I prefer to the huge buffet with too many unhealthy temptations. Then I hastened to the next scheduled eruption of Old Faithful just after 11 am. It was impressive of course, and I loved listening to the scores of children gasping and cheering and a huge final applause, as if the geyser needed any human incentives.
The delay at Old Faithful made me 15 minutes late Ruth Quinn’s morning tour of the Yellowstone Inn that opened on June 1, 1904. The hotel reeks of interesting historical anecdotes that Ruth brought to life. We saw one of the original rooms, number 1, still lacking a private bath. The Inn has a nice cafeteria with sandwiches, pastries, chips, beer, and soft drinks. After my late breakfast I was satisfied with a small snack and a Yellowstone beer that I carried out to the terrace overlooking Old Faithful but it had already erupted earlier than predicted, not quite as faithful as boasted. I enjoyed a chat with a woman park visitor from Hilton NY, just twenty minutes from my college town, and whose daughter studied at SUNY Brockport. I didn’t tell her how much she missed by doing the park in a camper with her husband and another couple but no guide.
Finally a relaxing free afternoon and I had seen enough geysers to justify a restful siesta for the first time in several days. At 5 pm the group gathered in a hotel meeting room for a lecture by Leslie Quinn, the husband of the morning hotel tour guide. Both work for Xanterra and have spent something like 37 summers in the park. Leslie had great photographs of various sites in the park through several decades comparing the before and after views of today’s features. The lecture was followed by a group dinner in the spacious dining room of the Old Faithful Inn. I enjoyed a good time at a table for six, and got back to the room in time for a bit of a neglected novel before bedtime.
MON. AUG. 28: GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
We had already spent some time under the gaze of the Tetons, but today we headed back to the park for our last two nights, and thankfully a leisurely departure at 8:30 am. On our way out of Yellowstone, we made several photo stops, the first at the Kepler Cascade where the waters of the Firehold River over precipitous rocks in a bubbling performance . Then on to Lake Isis on the Continental Divide at 8262 feet. We crossed the divide several times during our excursions through the park. The waters that flow east of the divide connect with different streams that flow into one of three branches of the Missouri River, then on to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic. The waters that flow west join the Snake River (our rafting venue) and eventually flow into Idaho, the Columbia River, and the Pacific. It’s amazing to see so much rushing water throughout the parks and wonder how there can be such droughts in other parts of the west.
Departing Yellowstone we soon entered Grand Teton National Park with a rest stop at the Visitor’s Center at Grant Village. (Ulysses signed the legislation creating the park in 1872). I got a good shot of an elk grazing along the median of the parking lot. By noon we had arrived at Dornan’s restaurant, a famous dining venue that locals rave about. I don’t like to stand in line for my food order, but I did enjoy the view of the Tetons from the outdoor terrace. Afterward we had some time to visit shops or walk down to the shore of the Snake River before heading off to the Grand Teton Visitor’s Center where many in the group got their park passports stamped.
Just a short ride from the center is the former home of Olaus and Mardy Murie, long-time park advocates who did much to save the parks in Alaska before moving to the Tetons. Mardy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton for her tireless advocacy on behalf of national parks. Road Scholar (Elderhostel) conducts programs on the Murie property that was donated to the Teton Science School. “Docent Dan” gave us a history of the Murie’s work while we sat on the front porch of their former home.
After that we headed to our next hotel, with a stop for photos at Jenny Lake prior to arriving at our final hotel stay. It’s hard to believe how many photo stops we made, each more spectacular than the last.
Our last hotel for this tour was the Jackson Lake Lodge, the most beautiful of the four. The hotel is a national historic landmark with 385 cottage-style rooms owned by the National Park Service and managed by a concession. Despite its size, the cottages are spread out in a way that one never feels crowded except for rush-hour in the restaurants. Group leader Zack and driver Vic had taken our luggage there while we were in the Visitor’s Center and we just stopped briefly while Zack ran into reception to bring us our keys. So we escaped a long check-in line and went straight to our cottages for a rest. The Lodge is about 100 yards from the cottages where the group stayed. Zack took reservations for the beautiful Mural Room in the lodge and I joined a nice group for dinner there at 6:30. As usual we could order anything we wanted from the menu. The windows of the dining room look out on Jackson Lake in the foreground and the Grand Tetons in the background, a delightful way to dine.
Tues. Aug. 29. OUR LAST FULL DAY; BIKING IN THE PARK
It was nice to linger in bed until 8 am for a change and take a later breakfast since we had a morning free until an 11:45 departure for lunch and a bike ride. Many in the group arose early to see sunrise on the lake and some wildlife. I had a leisurely served breakfast, caught up on important mail, and uploaded some photos before joining the bus for our drive to the Hatchet Resort for a nice lunch. Then the bus stopped for a photo-op at the Snake River overlook where Ansel Adams took his iconic photo of the Tetons in 1942 which allegedly helped assure passage of a congressional bill helping finance the park.
Not far from the overlook, we met the bike rental company waiting to distribute our mountain bikes and instruct us on seat adjustment, gears, and the like. We didn’t do any rough trails and stayed on quiet park-service paved roads for the most part. Besides the glorious Tetons that towered over us as we rode, the most picturesque part of the ride was Mormon Row Road. When you see photos of a barn in the foreground of a Tetons shot, they are most often taken here. During the depression, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had purchased 130 Mormon ranches which he subsequently donated to form a large part of Grand Teton National Park.
Our last excursion ended back at the Lodge by 4:30, enough time to relax, fill out the evaluation, and get to the farewell reception by 6 pm. We enjoyed a nice selection of beverages and canapes on the outdoor terrace with the fading light on the Tetons. Then we moved into a private dining room for an excellent dinner with several choices and wines included. It was a festive end to our 8 days of touring with warm good-byes to our new friends.
I departed early due to a 4:15 am wake-up and 5 am transfer to the Jackson airport for a 6:30 flight to Rochester NY with a layover in Chicago. Tauck did an excellent job covering so much of Yellowstone and the Tetons and providing us with one of the best tour leaders I have had the pleasure to learn from. Having organized and escorted 150 tour groups, I sure know excellence when I see it. Congratulations to Zack Pennington for your superb work, and thanks to my fellow travelers for making this such a friendly and enjoyable tour. You wonderful people helped make this such a memorable experience.
On a sad note, the current budget calls for a 1.5 BILLION-DOLLAR cut to the National Parks and they are already 20 years behind on needed infrastructure repairs and improvements. If you love our parks, complain to your elected representatives.
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