Caribbean Jack

It seems you can’t keep Dad away from a good cruise.  He really needed this respite break and some of the family was happy to join him.  So Jackie, Jeff, Vickie and Doug set out from Charleston Harbor on Carnival’s Ecstasy for 5 days in October to enjoy the sand and sun.

Rat Pack ready for the Cruise

Sail away day is the BEST day of a cruise … you grab your colorful favorite drink and the party starts right away as you leave your troubles behind.  This was our first trip out of Charleston and the weather was just perfect to head past Fort Sumter and into the Atlantic.

Here’s to getting aboard first!

Charleston Harbor

Charleston Harbor and Ft. Sumter

Happy Jack

After a day at sea we arrived off the shore of Princess Cays.  Took an early tender and our snorkel gear to see what we could find.  Since the drink package did not include anything on the island, we all figured to spend just the morning ashore and be back on ship for lunch, drinks and dinner.  The snorkeling beach, however, was quite a surprise.  It was one of the best small reefs we have encountered in the Caribbean.

Princess Cays and the snorkeling spot

A small sandy entry point gave access to a sloping reef that was loaded with fan and pipe coral, sponges and all sorts of reef fish.  Several flounder were spotted, along with plenty of the other colorful reef fish: blue tang, parrot fish, sergeant major, angels … and a good size barracuda.  What a good morning of snorkeling (oops, no pictures).

After a Fine Meal

Dinner each night was in the main dining room and was good service with darn good food.  Dad certainly enjoyed the selection.  After dinner the guys tried their luck at the casino and the ladies did the shows.  Doug and Jeff tried a new strategy at the craps table that started out really well, but ended up working against them.  Overall, I think we all played as much as we wanted to and pretty much broke even.

Cheers!

Back to the “Cheers” program and our handy list of gotta-try drinks.  Some of us were fretting that the prepaid drink program’s limit of 15 drinks per day was going to be a concern — but we must be lightweights, because only one of us hit the limit on one night (and we agreed it was because the day started with a bloody Mary!)

Cruise Oct 2017 (67)

Rough day at the office…

Cruise Oct 2017 (65) b

Popular spot for us on the pool deck

Our favorite bar was the RedFrog Rum Bar, poolside, but we also frequented the lobby bar, the BlueIguana Tequilla Bar, Alchemy Bar (for some wild martini productions) and the casino bar (but that was tricky — had to make your bets last until the drink arrived!)  So, despite our history of craft brewery visits and beer festivals, we were quite happy to try lots of fruity and colorful concoctions.

Freeport shops

The other island visit on this trip was a stop at Freeport, but we all decided to stay aboard ship and just watch the crowds wander the shopping plaza adjacent to the ship – and to giggle at the late arrivals who almost didn’t make the ship’s departure.   It didn’t appear that the recent hurricanes had a significant affect on the two ports we visited.  Jeff and Doug decided that with so many folks off the ship, it was time to try the Twister water slide.  Pretty wet and wild affair, and we hung in there for several runs.

Waterslide awaits

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Yikes!

Oh yes we did!

Overall, a good cruise and a nice ship with friendly staff and good food and drink.

Mango Magic

The point of this cruise was to make sure Dad had plenty of sunshine, good food and companionship — and that he did.

Pretty sure this was one good week for him!

Sleepy Jack

 

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Snake River Whitewater Photos

As you read in the post about Grand Tetons, we did a rafting excursion on part of the Snake River outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Had one of our Best Days Ever! thanks to the folks at Jackson Hole Whitewater rafting — and you can see by the crazy expressions on our faces, this was a very exciting, Class 3/ Class 4 whitewater adventure.

Now that we are back home, I connected with the folks who took photos along the way at the Big Kahuna whitewater dunk (Float-O-Graphs) and bought my package of photos.

Doug was “riding the bull” for this section of the river, where you straddled the front of the raft.  Jackie was further back, furiously paddling to keep us moving along, but as you see, she gets equally swamped and ends up bounced into the middle of the raft.

Feel free to chuckle loudly at the “OMG” expressions you see – and watch that foot, as Doug practically disappears.

Enjoy.

 

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The Long Road Back

Vacations are wonderful, until it is time to head home.  That’s the point in our trip for us, making the long drive back east from our fabulous trip to so many great state and national parks …. Glacier, Tetons, Yellowstone, Bighorn, Custer, Badlands … my, it was a lot.  This may sound more like the “lightning round” of game shows, with many stops in many states, but we had a lot of ground to cover.

Tetons Last Day

Wyoming

We left those impressive mountains of Grand Tetons while the air was clearing just a bit and we saw them one last time.  The drive southeast took us along the Hoback River through a very scenic canyon and then into the cute western town of Pinedale.  The streets were wide, the shops all fishing and hunting themed and … woah, was that a brewery we just passed?  What luck, it was lunchtime!  We eased alongside the sidewalk, parked the van and walked back to Wind River Brewing for a delicious lunch of brats, reuben sandwiches and a flight of beer.  One stand-out was their Mango Wheat, which they unfortunately did not have in cans to-go.  Darn.

Wind River Brewing

Wind River Flight

On the nice 2-lane road south again we suddenly saw signs that said “pavement ends” .. what?? Well, one of the area road maintenance strategies is to remove the asphalt from the entire road for miles at a time (5 to 7), leaving a gravel washboard.  This was one of those instances as “whomp” we left the pavement and rattled more slowly along the gravel.  This is no fun in a motorhome towing a car – everything rattles.  After several of these no-pavement stretches we hit Interstate 80 at Rock Springs and kept driving east to reach Rawlins, Wyoming, stopping at a KOA to hook into wifi, cable TV and to check on the progress of hurricane Irma.  

We were pretty deadly on butterflies it seems …

Rawlins KOA

Rawlins, WY

Nothing remarkable, but clearer skies with the smoke of western wildfires left behind.  Next day as we got set to continue east, we noticed that we lost a hubcap on the car somewhere along the washboard gravel roads, dangit!  

Depot in Cheyenne

Accomplice Brewing

Checking in at Accomplice

Approaching Cheyenne, we checked online to find a cool brewery was in town, and since it was lunchtime again, we headed downtown to find Accomplice Brewing in the old train depot.  What a cool area that is being redeveloped.  Cheyenne seems to like their cowboy boots, many of which are decorated around town.  

Great way to serve yourself!

Something special at this brewery was a pour your own feature.  In the tap area you choose the style of glass you want (pilsner, sampler, snifter, pint) and then choose from 14 beers.  You get a plastic magcard to record your samplings, place it against the screen above the tap and it tells you how many ounces you are pouring and what the final cost of your pour is.  You settle up when you leave.

 

Since it was lunch, we ordered a plate of pork nachos (on house kettle chips) that hit the spot, with a couple of pretzels and beer cheese to go with it.  Nice bit of heat to accompany the various brews on tap.  We liked the sours, saisons and hefeweisen.  

Nebraska

Back in the camper again and heading down the road, we crossed into Nebraska, a new state for us, and made it to Ogallala to stop for the night. Driving through southern Wyoming and into Nebraska was pretty much a lot of sagebrush scrub flatlands, becoming a bit more cornfields and crops in Nebraska, but still pretty wide open plains and not a lot of trees.  Ogallala’s campground was in the middle of a cornfield and you could smell the corn on that warm night.

Kansas

Salina KOA

From mid-Nebraska we turned south after following the Platte River and stayed the night in Salina, Kansas.  Lots more cropland, as the land flattened out and you could see hay, corn and soybeans being harvested.  The next day we were approaching Wichita round about lunchtime and lucky for us there were several breweries in town.  Well, you could hardly pass up the chance to stop for gas and then have lunch at one of them, so we found ourselves a nice big parking lot near the Old Town section of Wichita and headed for River City Brewing.  We were very impressed with this part of town, which had brick-cobbled streets and many old warehouse apartment conversions and plenty of restaurants and shops.

River City Brewing

Ordered a flight of beer at RCB and Jackie got a thin crust pizza that was delicious (she shared some) and Doug ordered mac ‘n cheese with Kansas City sausage and barbecue sauce on top – really good food.  Nice spot and easy access for us.  Back at the camper, Kodi and Merlin were quite content and off we went to find a spot for the night further south.  I found myself humming Glen Campbell songs along the way …

Oklahoma

We crossed into Oklahoma, another new state for us, and found an odd city park along a lake just off Interstate 35 north of Oklahoma City.  The city of Perry had this grassy bluff of 10 pull-through campsites, full utilities, on a pay-at-the-box basis.  What fun – just four of us there for the night, listening to cows in the distance and looking up into a dark night sky.  Oklahoma has very few trees, too.  Mostly grasslands and cropland, but you sure can see the horizon easily.

Arkansas

Lake Dardanelle

Ok then, more driving yet to go.  Up and out in the morning, we passed around Oklahoma City and drove east into Arkansas, making our way east on Interstate 40 to Russellville and another cool discovery: Lake Dardanelle.  It is an impoundment of the Arkansas River and the state park that offered camping was quite nice.  Maybe 4 of us in camp that night.  Our goal was to make it to Hot Springs National Park the next day to stay in their campground, but it was not reservable, so we wanted to get their early.  It was not a long trip, only an hour and a half, but it was a “scenic” route, which we know means curvy, hilly and slow going.  But we got there, got a nice spot and unhitched the car (back-in sites) so we could also go into town.

Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs can give you the impression that it has seen better days, and indeed it has: around the turn of the century.  The hot baths that sprung up because of the hot mineral springs are all now part of the national park as bathhouse row and you can tour a few of them.  

A few still operate as bathhouses and spas, and one, to our delight, was a brewery.  I think maybe we have the strangest luck, finding these beer joints nearly everywhere.  We had to patronize Superior Brewing, ordering a flight of 4 beers each and texting family about it, when Alex hit us back to say they had been there last Christmas.  Nearly the same seats at the bar, too.

Superior Brewing inside the bathhouse

A flight from Superior

So we walked around town, noticing that the downtown businesses were trying for a turnaround, several of them pretty decent shops and such.  We stopped to splash our hands in one of the open spring pools, only to learn that “ouch” that water is hot!  Unlike Yellowstone’s steam vents, geysers and hot springs, nearly all of the hot springs in the park and town were capped off years ago by the government.  But a few are free spigots for you to fill your jug – just be aware it is HOT spring water.

Louisiana and Mississippi

Still more miles to go, so we set off again the next day toward our destination of Grayton Beach, Florida.  We were still a couple days off, so our next stopping point was south through Arkansas, into Louisiana and over to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Arkansas really flattens out as you go south and east toward the Mississippi River, with lots of cropland that was being harvested.  The overnight at Vicksburg was a Good Sam campground connected to the riverside casino.  Basic spot with utilities, but we did avail ourselves of the free shuttle to the casino to get something to eat (unfortunately, a less than average meal) and watch the sun set over the river.  That was worth it, not so much the smoky casino.

Alabama

This next day we drove around Jackson toward Hattiesburg and further south around Mobile and Mobile Bay to camp at a spot off Interstate 10 just west of Pensacola, Florida..  It was so hot and humid as we pulled in, all we wanted was to connect to electricity and get the AC going.  It seems that the engine AC lost charge and was only spewing warm air out of the dash for the past two days, and we were now definitely back in the humid south.  As Jackie is trying to connect the electric, a whopper of a thunderstorm was brewing and crackling around us.  All connected, but nothing happened.   Seems the circuit breaker in camp was not working.  Asked the owner to move us, he had to check it out for 10 minutes (uhh, not working, right?) and then we got the ok to move sites.  BAM! The thunder struck, Jackie quickly connected, we leveled up and huddled inside while the rain came down and the temperature inside dropped, finally.

Florida

Still wet and humid the next day, we made our final drive along I-10 into the Florida panhandle and Grayton Beach State Park.  Quick as we could, we disconnected the car, made camp and headed to the beach for a swim.  Gorgeous water, beautiful beach — we cooled off and shed the dusty west.  Dan and Terri from home were vacationing here this week and the plan was to meet up and revisit some of our favorite breweries here.  First night we had a delicious meal at Café 30A, told tales of our bold adventure and watched the sun set over the gulf.  

Dan, Terri, Jackie and I at Craft Bar in Grayton Beach

Another night we drove to Grayton Beer company and enjoyed some of their brews while munching on sub sandwiches.  Plans for Idyll Hounds the next night were to be followed by a visit to a local music spot for open mic night.  Dan and Terri wanted a chance to play a set and have some fun.  Well, the AC repairs nixed plans a bit …

Since the AC in the engine section of the RV seemed to quit the moment we hit Mississippi and the hot, humid weather, I called a mechanic to pay a visit and make repairs.  Steve, the Mobile Mechanic arrived and pronounced the AC compressor bad, in fact bad enough that we would not have made it home without a breakdown. You may recall that just last October we had that replaced, so I will be arguing the warranty with the shop back home.  Two days later we had a new compressor and were ready to roll again.  Thanks, Steve.

Idyll Hounds

Our brewery visit plans were almost ruined, but all was not lost.  We did manage our Idyll Hounds visit and then went on to Craft Bar to try a few other regional beers and have some good eats.  What fun with our really good brew peeps from home!!  Thanks, Terri and Dan.

Grayton Beach State Park is beautiful and you can’t beat the white sand beaches and clear water for swimming.  This part of the gulf and Florida missed the fury of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and, combined with the sunny weather, was just delightful.  

Soon it was time to make one final hitch connection for the car, pull up the leveling jacks, bring in the slides and head for home.  As we drove through Alabama on our way to Georgia, we marveled at this long journey and how far we had come: north from home across the heartland to the Rocky Mountains and nearly over the Canadian border;  back down through the central plains along the Mississippi River to the gulf shores.  We saw so many special places, spectacular scenery, amazing wildlife and had so many unique experiences that surely we will be thinking of this trip for months to come.  

Sixteen states, 5,700 miles, one dented-up Rav-4, one missing hubcap, three grizzly bears, one cracked windshield, seven moose, two bald eagles, six wolves, one AC compressor, three black bears, two weak house batteries, herds of buffalo, several geysers and a lot of hiking … are we the winners of the Amazing Race yet?

Thanks for joining us along the way.  I hope it will help you plan your own adventures and bring you as much fun as we had.  Let us know what you liked!  

Until next time, when the adventure continues …

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Grand Tetons Moose Hunting

Smoky in the Tetons

Getting from Yellowstone National Park to Grand Tetons National Park is not really a long drive at all.  It took us maybe an hour and a half, through the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway (a link made possible by the family’s donation of land).  That meant we actually got here earlier than the Coulter Bay campground wanted us.  No problem, we simply unhooked the car, fixed lunch and walked to the camp store and visitor center.

Coulter Bay Camp check-in

Coulter Bay campsite

Once in our pull-thru campsite we actually then took off 30 miles for Jackson, or Jackson Hole (it seems to go by both) to restock on groceries at a beautiful Albertson’s market.  The town seems to be trying for a wintertime mecca along the lines of Vail and the Colorado ski towns.

Some of downtown Jackson Hole

One of several elk antler arches

Lots of timber, rock and steel in construction, and a bit pricey around town.  Naturally we had to stop in at the local brewery for lunch and a flight.  Snake River Brewing was a great spot to hang out.

a Snake River Brewing

Snake River Brewing

Jackson’s town square was really cute, with several arches made of elk antlers.  Since it sits next to the National Elk Refuge, it plays up the animals.

Visitor Center at National Elk Refuge

The NER visitor center was pretty cool, featuring a herd of elk inside (stuffed), but we didn’t see any on the long drive through the sagebrush flats.  One lonely bison, not the large herd we were warned about.  A few small groups of pronghorn, that’s all.  Once back in camp we reviewed the park literature and maps and plotted out the next 4 days.

Since the Tetons were all but invisible in the smoke of wildfires, we decided the first day should be a local hike around the Coulter Bay area.  This is a different sort of National Park, because the whole backdrop of the park is the Tetons – they rise up out of the sagebrush flats and tower over the Snake River, Jackson and Jenny Lakes below.  You almost don’t interact with the mountains; you just gaze at them and hike to their base.  And if you can’t see them, it diminishes the experience.

Beaver lodge on Heron Pond

Beaver dam … but no beavers active

So our hike took us to Heron Pond and Swan Lake, which were marshy beaver ponds that looked like prime spots for moose.  Our goal here in the Tetons is to find moose!  The hike was a bit like walking on bowling balls, since the rounded stones are pretty much everywhere, and we did see two beaver lodges and a beaver dam, but no beaver and no moose.  Had a nice lunch next to the pond though and then made our way back.

Around Jackson Lake

Jackson Lake shoreline

Whitewater

Next day was to be a big adventure for sure.  We had booked a small-boat whitewater rafting excursion on the Snake River and were ready for action.  With quick-dry clothing and water sandals on, we joined the others on the school bus and rode the half hour to the drop-off point.  We were using Jackson Hole Whitewater Rafting, although there are many other outfitters in town, and the total group was 4 rafts, both small and large.  We snapped into our lifejackets, grabbed a paddle, paired up with a family of six (raft of 8), joined our river guide Sky, and set off into the river.  Air temp was 80 or so, water was probably 65 degrees.  Clear and swift.  As we moved along, Sky gave us instructions, we practiced our paddling moves and got into position.  Doug and Adam, were the two lead paddlers in the front, Jackie a few spots back.  But everyone paddled when told.

And what work it was.  Splashing and bouncing our way through some rapids, we paddled, spun around, hit the waves and cheered as we made it through.  Soon we got some total dunks and did a high-five with paddles.  Ah, but it gets better.  Someone could volunteer to “ride the bull” at the very front, one leg in, one leg out, holding tight on a strap.  Stuart volunteered first and got some good dunks.  About halfway down the 9 mile trip Doug took the front spot and got totally drenched in the Big Kahuna rapids.  In truth, the entire raft got doused, Jackie was bounced to the center of the raft and we all were very wet, but excited.  Photos were cleverly captured at that spot and they reveal a wild ride and crazy expressions from the crew.  What a rush. I highly recommend it.

Moose Hunt

Discovery Center at Grand Teton NP

Thursday was to be an early morning drive to a spot just off the south end of the park where beaver pond marshes were known to have moose.  Up at 5:30 a.m. we were off to find those critters for sure. Just past Jackson Lake dam we spotted a beautiful bull elk on the shoulder of the road with a beautiful rack, a female just a bit further – a good sign that we were finally going to see wildlife today.

On the road along the marshes we noticed a Wildlife Management pickup and a ranger in the roadway, which meant something was nearby.  Yes, there was a bull moose not far off, sloshing his way through the marsh.  We tried to stop for a look, but he waved us on.  When we got the chance, we turned back around for another look, but he was moving farther off and out of sight.  Darn.

Moose at last!

We found a small parking area, pulled in and followed another group to the bank of a large wetland.  We were probably 50 feet above the marsh, so it was a good chance to scan for moose.  Nothing.  Heading back to the parking lot, we met one of the other couples who had also been scanning the area for moose and they said “you just missed the female and calf …”  Really??

Actually, they were still moving along the water’s edge, so we hustled and huffed our way further along to watch them.  What fun, as they moved along, in and out of the water, eating the willow shoots and other greens.  Junior would stop and look up at the crowd on the hill every once in a while, mom paid little attention.  Good day for moose.

Drove back on Moose-Wilson road and were rewarded by a great view (and pic) of the bull moose.  Awesome!

We made our way north back into the park, stopped at another beautiful visitor’s center and then to Jenny Lake.  The plan was to follow a short hike to the other side of the lake to see Hidden Falls, have lunch and hike back.  All the maps had this listed as about a 2.5 mile hike one way, so we were pretty confident it was do-able.  It did give us a good look at the mountain peaks, even though still hazy.

Partway along a ranger told us there were moose at Moose Ponds, a short diversion.  So of course we had to go, and we got a great look at another female in the pond, munching on something underwater.  Her calf was nearby, but we couldn’t see it.

At Moose Ponds, naturally

Back on the main trail it was a definite uphill climb.  As I recall, we had gone up almost 700 feet.

A narrow slice across a boulder field was downhill for a bit, with a great view of the lake below, but we knew it would be uphill on the return.  Just before the falls we stopped to have lunch and catch our breath.

Little further along, and downhill, we found the falls.

Hidden Falls

Nice, but it was quite the hike to reach.  You can shorten the journey by paying for a boat ride across the lake, which we opted not to do (after all, we were tough hikers).  But on the way back we were reconsidering the wisdom of that decision.

In fact, it got downright tedious and exhausting as we kept going uphill … until it finally began to slope down toward Moose Pond and finally the parking lot.  Checking our fitbits and also Jackie’s phone step tracker, the hike came in at over 10 miles!!  Not what we had expected.  But we made it, just a bit sore and weary from the effort.

Arriving in camp we were delayed by a mule deer doe and two youngsters, as they crossed the road in front of us.  They do have a peculiar “bouncy” way of running.  So it really was a good day for critters.  Dinner was a quick bite at the lodge restaurant, a couple glasses of wine in the Winnebago to recover and off to bed.

Kodi at the Tetons

That meant the last full day would be restful.  We did some laundry, checked the weather and news online, called Dad to review Hurricane Irma evacuation plans and then made some plans for our next destination.  It was probably best, since the sky is once again hazy and smoke-filled.  You can’t even see the mountains across Lake Jackson, which is right along the campground.  They say there is a chance of thunderstorms tonight, but it seems doubtful.  Crazy that it is so dry in the upper west and so wet from hurricanes in the south and southeast.

Sunset at the lake

Finally clear on last morning

Tomorrow we break camp and head southeast ourselves, hoping to pass Rock Springs toward Cheyenne.  From there it will be one nighters across Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi until we reach Grayton Beach on the panhandle of Florida.  Probably won’t be another post until we are in Florida, but I do appreciate that you are following along on the journey.

Stick with us, there is more to come (and one day soon, some video from my gopro)!

 

 

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Truly Wild in Yellowstone National Park

Smoky sunset at Townsend

Magpies at dusk

Two nights in Townsend at the Canyon Ferry Lake area along the Missouri River was a needed break to take care of some housekeeping in the motorhome and just a break from our hike-a-minute schedule. But we were anxious for Yellowstone National Park and trekked out of town easily and through Bozeman (too early to stop at the breweries, darnit) toward Livingstone and through really thick smoke from wildfires. You could see the shrouded mountains of the Gallatin Range as we passed through to Gardiner at the entrance to Yellowstone.

 

Town of Gardiner

Victorian Inn

Time for a beer and elk tacos

Very cute town and a perfect stop for lunch on a patio overlooking the Yellowstone River. We noshed on elk tacos washed down with some local brews (remember, that is one of our trip objectives… sampling the local beer). Stopped at the Yellowstone Forever shop for some advice and Jackie was convinced that we needed to have bear spray while in the park. We found out where to rent canisters and holsters, so we were now prepared to enter the park.

Roosevelt Arch – northern entrance

Trying to recreate the picture from 1969

And what a huge park it is. A pretty big change even from Glacier. Driving distances between key sights are in the 30 – 50 mile range and the landscape is quite varied, going from the soft rolling hills of the north that are mostly dry sagebrush scrub and alpine grasslands interspersed with bands of spruce (and the remains of previous wildfires) to the vast stretches of lodgepole pine in the middle of the park. The Van did its best winding upward to Mt. Washburn (10,243 ft.) and back down toward Yellowstone Lake and our campground at Fishing Bridge. Everything starts at about 7,500 ft elevation here, so the altitude still takes getting used to. Campground is pretty darn big, with campsites staged tail-to-tail to maximize the number of units in the space, but it works for us just fine. Complete hookups means we can run the heater if it gets cold or the AC if it gets hot (both of which it does).

Campsite at Yellowstone

So what is there to do in this vast, strange land? Over the course of six days we did the typical tourist things with a few surprises. We find you just can’t be too quick to judge an area until you stay a few days while things change and evolve, both from a weather perspective and the appearance of wildlife.

Living on a Volcano
You learn quickly that the central part of Yellowstone is a collapsed and covered volcano’s caldera. The hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, steam vents and mud pots all come from the hot magma below. Air and water are heated and vent to the surface with all sorts of minerals. Some of the water is so clear and beautiful you want to take a dip. Not a good idea: it’s 180o to 190o. Other pools have rings of color surrounding them. Cyanobacteria and algae living in the water help give them their colors. We tried to see all the hot spots, from the steam and plop, plop of Mud Volcano to the roar of Dragon’s Mouth to the colorful hot springs like Grand Prism and the geysers like Old Faithful, Steamboat and Castle. Lots of stinky, sulfurous steam around. There are even steam vents and pools of boiling water along the shores of Lake Yellowstone. In the early morning you see steam rising from all sorts of places in the landscape – very eerie.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

Wildlife
Some of the first driving we did across and around the park we were disappointed not to see anything. The lodgepole pine forests were pretty much one-note, many areas that had burned over in the past had a lot of downed logs and new green trees coming in, but no wildlife that we could see. However, once we crossed into the Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River, things changed. There were several herds of bison along the river and trumpeter swans floating in the water. We later spotted one elk cow in the woods just off the road, lots of other single bison, and a lone bald eagle perched near Lake Yellowstone.

Killdeer

Gray Jay

Bald eagle

Trumpeter swan

Elk with a keeping careful watch

But we wanted wolves and bears! We spoke to some of the park rangers and were told of three areas to check out: one was in the spruce/fir area near Mt. Washburn where black bear were spotted getting cones from the trees, one was the Lamar River valley in the far northeast and the other was a bison carcass in the Hayden Valley that was attracting bears.

The traffic jam

The crowd on the hill, early

The “carcass”

The main attaction – the grizzly

We had planned all along to go to the Lamar Valley to spot wolves, so that was our main destination one evening. On the way we passed through the Hayden Valley and soon saw a massive traffic jam on the road. Cars were lined up on both shoulders of the road and there was quite a crowd on the hillside – that had to mean something good. We quickly grabbed our camera, binoculars and spotting scope and rushed to join everyone. Sure enough, there was a very large, dark grizzly moving away from the dead bison. I would guess he was 300 yards off. Ravens and even a bald eagle were swarmed over the carcass and the grizzly moved ever closer to our hillside spot, perhaps as close as 150 yards downhill. We snapped some pictures and marveled at the sight. He soon drifted to an area out of sight and where everyone was banned from following.

Folks with good spotting scopes were noticing some grey wolves across the river popping their heads up every so often. One of the rangers explained there was a pack here with two gray females, three black males and a gray/brown male. The older gray female had given birth to five pups this year, so they were pretty excited for the pack. We watched for a while then decided to head on up to the Lamar Valley as planned.

Bighorn sheep

Scoping the Lamar Valley for wolves

Once in the valley we tried to spot some action or some clusters of cars that might be watching something, but it was pretty empty except for some fisherman and a couple of bighorn sheep. Doug suggested a bluff that overlooked the river so we set up the scope and scanned around for about a half hour. All we found were some herds of bison and figured we ought to go back to where we knew there were wolves near the “carcass” (as it is now known) and go with a sure thing. Back we went.

Watching for wolves

Bald eagle leaving the scene

It was even more crowded than before, with easily over a hundred folks on the hillside: scopes, chairs, stools, kids … crazy scene. We found a spot to plant the scope, watched both the carcass and the other side of the river for some action. No bear, but the bald eagle suddenly took wing, a white pelican flew down to the river, sandhill cranes flew over and into the valley and we began to spot the wolves popping up from the grass again.

Best I could do with 300mm lens at dusk

Then we were treated to a spectacular event. As it became darker the six wolves became more active and moved toward the riverbank. The alpha female led the way as they moved in and out of the grasses and along the river. They would stop, group up, jump around and wrestle, lick snouts and then stop to survey the scene. Not sure how deep the river was at that spot, but it was pretty wide. Down the bank they moved as we watched through our new scope (great close-ups), binoculars and long lens of the camera. Doug tried to get some shots, but the combination of low light and distance made it tough to get crisp pictures, as you can see. Naturally, the attachment for the scope that connects the phone camera to the lens was… back in the car. No time to run back.

The wolves, maybe a half mile off

Lead female separated from the pack by a wide margin and we almost lost her. Then someone spotted movement farther off and we thought we had three sandy colored coyotes moving in. We had a good look at them as they headed toward the wolves when we realized they were the young wolf pups coming to join mom. We watched a very playful reunion, tails flipping, pups wrestling … clearly she had given them some signal to join in.
The pack never did cross the river as it got darker and harder to see them. We packed up and considered ourselves very lucky to have seen this pack behavior.

Two mornings later we got up early to check the “carcass” on our way to a hike on Mt. Washburn and found another crowd lined along the bluff. Set up the scope, WITH the phone attachment this time, and got some shots of the grizzly sleeping and then moving along the riverbank. Over the hill and across the river folks said there was a pack of wolves that we could not see; but we did hear the pack howl and yelp for a good few minutes. Awesome. Things went quiet and we headed further on to the Mt. Washburn trailhead at Dunraven Pass.

The bear spray

This was going to be a challenging hike, uphill as much as 1,400 feet, and we really didn’t intend to go the full 3.5 miles. But the trail was wide and the day was sunny and warm, so we decided to go 1.5 miles, catch the amazing view, and then head back. On our way back a lone woman came huffing up the trail toward us, flushed and holding her can of bear spray. “A black bear just crossed the trail back there, you better have your spray ready.” Well, we had one can with us (Jackie’s was back in the car, Doug wouldn’t go back for it earlier, tsk, tsk). Ok, the can is almost out of the hip holster as we approach the area.

Black bear in the brush

Well, the picture was taken in a hurry …

Cautiously down the trail we went, scanning the woods for movement. Yes! There… not 50 feet from us was a dark brown lump moving in the brush. We got a good look at him as he dug and scrounged around, not really noticing us. Tough to get a good photo, what with all the trees in the way, but we had a good look at him and quietly pointed him out to another pair of hikers walking by. He ambled further down the hillside and out of sight and we continued on down the trail, totally satisfied with our decision to try this hike today. Of course everyone we passed hiking up the trail asked “did you see the bear?” and we relayed what we knew. Not sure how word of the encounter got downhill so fast.

Sometimes it is good planning that puts you where the action is and sometimes it’s just luck and a good sense of your surroundings. We had seen plenty of fresh scat on the trail, heard a ruckus of squirrels in the trees in about the same area and pretty much knew there was a chance of finding one of these bears. Maybe our training as wildlife biologists helped.

The “carcass” was a bonus for everyone who got to enjoy the bears that came and the wolves and scavengers who tried to join the action. We did hear that two bears got into a fight at the spot and one wolf had managed to sneak a bite while the bear was feeding, so if you stayed around long enough, it would have been a good sight.

Oh, and on the last night in camp, Doug was sitting out and saw a fox dash along the woodline along the campground, maybe only 50 feet away. How cool.

Hikes
Our impression of Yellowstone is that it is much more of a driving park than a hiking park, compared to Glacier or Badlands or Zion. Each of the different natural attractions is separated by quite a distance of boreal forest, alpine meadows or sagebrush scrub. There are plenty of spots to hike, they just tend to be long hikes of several miles, not something we were prepared to do on a daily basis. We hiked part of the aforementioned Mt. Washburn trail for 1.5 miles in and about 1,000 ft. up in elevation (to 9,700 ft., huff, huff) and got to see our black bear, plus plenty of Clark’s nuthatches, ravens and hawks.

Clark’s nuthatch is jay sized

Ravens are big.

Other hikes were on the boardwalks around the thermal areas, such as Norris geyser basin, Old Faithful and the Upper geyser basin and mud volcano area. Just because it is boardwalk, don’t think it doesn’t have some climbing – it does.

Natural bridge

We hiked in to see Natural Bridge and thought the surrounding woods were perfect for elk, but nothing was seen. A really nice morning hike through Pelican Valley only turned up a single bison, but we were darned sure there were bears around. It was probably our off-key singing that kept them away (and noisy hiking is so not what we do).

Waterways
Yellowstone Lake is the huge center of the caldera, feeding the magnificent Yellowstone River as it meanders through the Hayden Valley. Soon it carves through the rock, creating a beautiful waterfall and what is known as Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. There are several good vistas to see the falls and canyon and it all appears different from each view. One of the “must see” stops in the park, even if you have to wait a while for a parking spot.

 

Lodges and facilities

Old Faithful Inn


Yellowstone is another one of our great national parks that has this combination of CCC buildings of massive stone and timber, ‘60’s era “Jetsons” modernism and new environmentally sensitive lodgings and visitors centers. We lunched in the dining room of the Yellowstone Inn, marveling at the timber construction and real-wood touches.

Visitor’s Center was fantastic

We also had delicious flatbreads at the Canyon Lodge – part of their ‘60’s era modernization. The campground, however, needs some attention. Our loop was a pot-hole filled roadway of gravel and mud and the sites were tail-to-tail tight packed, but not as well-maintained as a KOA (but priced that way). And vault toilets throughout the park are few and far between, usually well used.

So our trip to Yellowstone National Park definitely was all we expected and more.  It is far larger than you imagine and it really remains very wild. It faces many challenges, from wildfires (which are really essential), from overuse in the more popular areas, from a public that doesn’t understand that wild animals need their space and from inadequate funding (all National Parks suffer lack of funding). But there are also lots of successes for the park, such as grey wolf re-introduction and grizzly management.
We didn’t feel a single earthquake and the volcano didn’t erupt, so I call that a success.

We next head on to Grand Tetons National Park in our quest to see all the wonders and wildlife we can, this time in search of more moose and elk. Thanks for following along on our adventures – we hope you enjoy the stories and the pictures.

Note: we just read that the fires in Glacier NP have spread, forcing some campgrounds and lodges to close and causing the loss of one of the chalets. Fires continue to burn in Missoula and surrounding areas, causing smoky skies even around us in Yellowstone. Lucky we had some clear days in both parks.

 

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Glacier National Park: Peaks and Pinnacles

Smoky Giants

I know they call this the Crown of the Continent, but it seems more like the land of the giants to me.  All these hulking, huge mountain peaks hiding behind one another and around each bend, some seeming to grow straight out of clear blue lakes.  It just seems unreal. (Be sure to read the previous posts from Bighorn and on the way to Glacier… I added some pictures).

We are here for several days, so let me recap what has happened (the daily journal approach seems best for this):

Logan Pass parking lot

Day one we drove the Going to the Sun Road – a bucket list trip after Needles Highway – to Logan Pass (6,600 ft. elevation).  Amazing, white-knuckled drive along St. Mary Lake and among these glacial peaks.  Full parking lot at the top, but we squeaked into a spot and had a look around.  A trail to Hidden Lake looked promising, but we were running out of time.  Plenty of cars to avoid along the road, plus free shuttle buses and wonderful antique open-top red buses. We searched the hillsides for wildlife, but came up empty.  Views were pretty awesome, though.

Day two we planned to hit the Hidden Lake trail early, but once again ran down the house batteries overnight, even with the fridge on LP.  This time I jumped the generator from the car battery and we were back in business.  Since you have limited times you can run the generator, we are working out a charging schedule and turning the fridge off overnight.  So we drove up to Logan Pass a little behind schedule in the mid-80’s heat (seriously?) only to find the lot full and cars circling like it was the mall at Christmas.  Ok, well we could continue on down the other side a bit, right?  Even more of a cliff-hugging trip down, plus a stretch down to one lane due to road repairs and … well, we did a U-turn halfway down to Lake McDonald and the source of the wildfire and trekked back up the mountain and back to camp.  Actually, we gassed up and went back to camp to rework the plan.

Word from the rangers was that Many Glacier was the place to find moose, and early evening was best.  After an early dinner, a generator charge of the batteries and some time with the pets, we gathered up binoculars, cameras, spotting scope and water and drove the 20+ miles to Many Glacier.  That entrance road was in pretty bad shape, with lots of potholes and bumps, but halfway along we noticed quite the crowd of cars off the road.  Jumped out to find that “someone thought they saw a grizzly” on the shoulder, but nada.

Black bear

The other black bear

Continuing on, we stopped with another crowd that DID spot some bear: two black bears were making their way down the mountain and we all had a good look from what was a very safe distance.  At the end of the road was the trailhead to Fishcamp Lake, a nice, easy wooded trail to the lake and … well it seemed like everyone was getting ready for fireworks on the fourth.  Quite the crowd for such a remote spot, maybe 40 of us lined up along the shore with our spotting scopes and long lenses on tripods, all scanning for moose.

Moose watching

Someone said there was a bear way up on the hillside, but we couldn’t see it.  Three white-tailed deer came down to the water’s edge as the warm-up act of the night.  Much attention and then suddenly a female and calf moose came bounding across the lake at a narrow crossing and into the trees. “Did you see that?” “Get the picture?”  Uh, well not really.  By the time I knew they were there and got the camera up and on, all I got was a butt shot.  Darn.

We waited around for another 45 minutes and decided to call it a night before it got too dark.  Walking the trail away from the lake we saw a couple who were clearly watching something … moose!  Mother and calf were trying to make their way back to the water from behind everyone.  Whoops! We hear a male calling on the other side of the trail and stomp, stomp he mashed his way through the trees down to the lake.  We walked back to the lake to tell everyone about the mother and calf but then got the perfect view of the male in the lake, knee deep.  All three eventually were in the lake as the sun set.  Ok, then.  The day was a success after all!

The moose, finally.

We hurried to the car and down to another impressive sight: Many Glacier Hotel.  Sitting on the edge of the lake, this turn-of-the-century hotel has undergone a big renovation.  I was particularly interested in the newly restored double-helix wooden stairway.  We gazed out at the lake and mountains from the hotel deck and felt like it was indeed a magical day.

Double helix stairway

Many Glacier hotel lobby

Many Glacier Hotel

The view from Many Glacier Hotel

Back to camp, with our slightly dysfunctional headlights and our eyes peeled for any critters who dared get in our way, and we called it a night (after running the generator briefly during quiet time).

On the way to Hidden Lake

Day 3 our plan was to revisit Logan Pass, get a parking spot and hike the Hidden Lake Trail.  Got all our gear, threw in raincoats because rain was predicted, and up we went.  Gradually the weather got worse and the rain started and by the time we found our parking spot the temperature was mid 40’s (from upper 70’s in camp) and we felt underdressed in shorts and tees.  We donned our raincoats, grabbed binoculars, gopro and hiking sticks and set out in the cold rain.

Hidden Lake Trail

The trail up to the overlook.

Gradually the rain stopped, but the wind was chilly.  The climb was not strenuous and the trail had a lot of boardwalk and stairs, but it was still all uphill.  Tons of people joined us, but it was so beautiful it really didn’t matter.  The hillsides were filled with wildflowers, yellow, white, magenta, red and blue against red and grey rocks and green moss.  Clouds swirled up and over the pass and around the tips of the glacial peaks.  Onward we went, kind of wondering what the end actually was.  We knew it when we got there, as the pictures will show.  A beautiful crescent lake at the bottom of the mountains, just over the pass.  What a sight.

Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake Trail meadows

Hidden Lake Trail meadows

As we made our way back we were entertained by the Columbian ground squirrels who were feeding on the trailside grasses and a few really fat chipmunks (have to look up the species).  Catching our breath as Jackie scanned the hillsides for mountain goats, we spotted a hoary marmot lumbering along the hillside.  Good views of this blonde and black critter who would stop to whistle a shrill warning once in a while.  Yay, another good day for spotting wildlife.

Hoary marmot

Hoary marmot

Ground squirrel with a lot to say

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush, pink variety

Early evening is planned to bear-watch at Two Dog Flats.  After a camp meal of grilled strip steak, baked potato and grilled zucchini we drove to the flats and stopped next to another couple of cars to see what was out and about.  No bear, but some elk were moving down the hillside.  Two nice bull elk with big racks and several females with youngsters.  Someone shouted from a passing car that grizzlies were spotted at the next overlook, so we all moved to that spot to see.  Sure enough we spotted a grizzly and her cub moving through the field, pausing at bushes for a bit and then disappearing into the trees.

Grizzlies

Back in camp we fixed an adult beverage and sat out to watch the sunset.  Suddenly I noticed a quiet flapping and an owl appeared in the treeline alongside camp.  Hear some chirps and then two more moved in.  All we could see were their silhouettes against the sky, but you definitely saw ear tufts, identifying them as great horned owls.  What a wonderful end to the day.

Day 4 brought beautiful clear skies, so we quickly got up, ran the generator, dressed and headed up to Logan Pass to see what we have missed in the fog of smoke.  Amazing giant mountains surrounded us as we meandered along the blue St. Mary Lake and up the 3,000 feet to Logan Pass.  An early start and already the lot was full.  Doug drove down the road to an overlook parking area and caught up with Jackie at the visitor’s center.  We started out on a new trail, the Highline Trail, which runs 20 miles to the US/Canadian border.  Since we forgot our passports we decided not to make the entire trek, but did hike along a breathtaking cliff cut that was waaaay above the roadway below.

 

Jackie spotted a mountain goat on the mountainside across from us, so we set up the spotting scope and got a good look at him walking along the rocky outcrop. The picture of him was at the extreme end of my 300mm lens, with photoshop magnification.  This guy was a speck on the mountain.

Back to the visitor’s center and up the Hidden Lake trail we went, to see the marmots again and catch some better pictures.  Hard to describe how colorful the alpine meadow was – all purple and yellow and green.  Wait, some folks spotted some bighorn sheep and we all stopped to gaze and take pictures.  One male was headed up along the trail, so Doug headed him off and got some pictures that were almost fake.  It was as if the sheep knew and posed for the shot.

This good enough?

Bighorn Sheep, posing

In that same meadow we watched several marmots feeding on the grasses, along with many more ground squirrels.  Much clearer day, so we saw so much more of the glacial mountains.  I have run out of adjectives to describe the sight.  So glad we are here.

After dinner we drove back to Two Dog Flats to watch for bear or elk, but nothing showed so back to camp.  Funny that last season Jackie bought two strings of white solar Christmas lights.  We found a good use for them, strung around inside the camper so we have light at night without our electricity.  Magical?

Day 5 was another cold morning as we hustled to run the generator a bit and the plan was to hike a few smaller trails and maybe head to the west entrance of the park.  We stopped at St. Mary Falls trailhead for what was variously listed as 0.8 to 0.9 and 1.5 miles long.  It did seem far to the falls, which were a gorgeous rush of clear water cascading over the rocks.  Back to the start of the trail and our fitbits said over 3 miles, so who knows?  Speaking of fitbits, mine has said as many as 225 floors in a day!

St. Mary Falls

Since it was the nicest day yet, warming up to 72, we headed up and over Logan Pass on down toward Lake McDonald and Apgar.

Glacier saturday (39)

Lake McDonald

We had lunch on the patio of Ernie’s at the lake edge and enjoyed some local beer with burgers.

Huckleberry Wheat and Scotch Ale

Finished it off with huckleberry ice cream.  Yum, but a little groggy for the next short hike on the way back: Trail of the Cedars.  Nice boardwalk trail through some huge Pacific red cedar trees along a clear stream.

Trail of the Cedars

Second hike on the way back to camp was Sunrift Gorge, a sort of slot canyon in the rock with a gushing stream.  Really cool, but we were kinda worn out.

Sunrift Gorge

Along St. Mary Lake

Took a short nap in camp, showered and ran the generator once again to power everything up.  Doug sat out at sunset watching the treeline and saw a bald eagle flying by – seriously, this is amazing!  Found out they evacuated all tents from the campground due to grizzly activity in camp.  Ok, then, skip the stargazing late at night!  Got things ready to head out tomorrow towards Yellowstone, staying for two nights along the way in Townsend near Helena.  We almost thought Tuesday to Sunday would be too long in camp, but it turned out to be just right.

Leaving Glacier on a beautiful Sunday morning was tough.  We backtracked a bit through the dry grasslands and hay fields with the now visible mountain range to the west until we hit Wolf Creek and we wound through the mountains of Lewis and Clark National Forest.  It was at this point that the smoke from the fires returned, plus the heat.  By the time we made camp at Townsend KOA along the Missouri River it was 90 degrees.  At least we had electricity, water, hot showers and laundry to spend a day cleaning and taking care of a few details.

Fine dining at the Flamingo Grill

 

In camp with our pink take-out from the grill.

Dinner was fine dining at the adjoining Flamingo Grill.  We debated eating in the pink school bus, but opted for takeout back to the motorhome.

On to Yellowstone in two days.

Stick with us as the adventure continues (by the way, we are now AdventureswithDougandJackie.com).