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Friday, September 16, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - Montana and Yellowstone 2002, Part 2

A friend from work had just been royally screwed by the company that runs the national park lodging. He'd just come home his mother's funeral in Croatia physically and emotionally exhausted and called up the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley and reserved their best room. His family would go with him and have some much needed R&R in the desert park.

When he arrived, he had found that they had overbooked and substituted him at a nearby motel...with no break in the price. Luxury room pricing for a lousy little motel room. Understandably, he has no pleasant thoughts about how he was treated.

I bring this up because he related his story to me right before I left for our trip to Yellowstone National Park and had made reservations specifically for an accessible room with a roll-in shower. I was apprehensive about what would greet me at arrival...

We left from Big Timber, Montana right after breakfast. From here, it's a 23 mile drive on Interstate 90 to the town of Livingston. A 75 mile drive south on highway 89 takes us to Gardiner, Montana and the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park on the north side of the park.

We pass under the circa 1903 Roosevelt Arch and head to the small entrance station. There are about 10 cars in front of us and the line is moving very slow. After not moving for about 10 minutes, a ranger starts walking along the cars asking people to roll down their windows. When he gets to us, we find he is sending those who have passes around the entrance station. Since we have a Golden Access Pass, we happily comply.

If you're disabled and don't have one, get a Golden Access Pass the very next time you go to a national park or monument. This free pass allows you and everyone in your vehicle to enter national parks at no charge. In addition to saving you a ton of money (Yellowstone's entrance fee is $20), you might just get to skip ahead as we did.

Our plan is this...we have two nights here in Yellowstone park. Our first day, we want to get to the Old Faithful geyser area and explore it. The next day we want to seek out the park's wildlife and see any other sights we can find.

We intend to make a beeline to Old Faithful after getting in. It's a 51 mile drive from the entrance station. Two and a half hours later we arrive. Several things delay us along the way: people stopping in the middle of the road to photograph animals (at one point, a lone moose was surrounded by about 30 people with cameras like paparazzi), cars driving 10 miles an hour in a 45 mile per hour zone, and when that was passed, about 20 miles of single-lane road construction with a 15 mile per hour limit.

Finally, at 2:30pm we pull into a parking spot about 200 yards away from Old Faithful itself (parking hint: there are three handicapped spots right in front of the Old Faithful Inn that no one knows is there). The thunderstorms that were predicted for the afternoon are threatening and a light rain starts to fall. On the bright side, the next predicted eruption of Old Faithful is only five minutes away, so we won't have to wait in the rain for very long.

About a minute after we find a good viewing spot on the paved trail, the geyser goes off with a huge fountain of steaming water lasting about 7 minutes. It's quite a show. Now the rain is starting to come down harder so we beat a hasty retreat to the adjacent Old Faithful Inn just as the lightning and thunder start.

Inside, the inn is a spectacular sight. The lodge, built in 1906, has a big lobby that soars several stories. Thin logs seemingly support the whole thing but in reality, a steel, load-bearing rods placed in the logs actually do the work. A multi-storied rock hewn fireplace with a custom pendulum clock anchors the area where you can relax in comfortable morris chairs while reading a book or newspaper. (Another hint: past the public Men's room and Ladies room, there is a large, unisex and very accessible bathroom for wheelers.)

We haven't had lunch yet so we head to the dining room. There's no wait for a table and the service is very good. My hamburger was a bit bland but my wife and Tim had french dip sandwiches that were very good. It was also pretty reasonable at about $7 per person.

Its still raining and there are several really well stocked gift shops in the inn and the surrounding area. We take our time hunting for souvenirs before finally heading down the road to Grant Village where we have reservations for the next couple of nights.

Back at Old Faithful, the old inn and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge were extremely nice and architecturally stunning (if possible, try to get an accessible room in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the best accessible rooms in the park). Here at Grant Village, the lodge is lackluster...looking like worn-out 1970's condos...needing a coat of paint badly. (I tried for the Snow Lodge, but they were already booked when I called in May to make reservations. The room prices are identical at both locations.)

Whoever designed this lodge needs a kick in the rear with handicapped parking that could not be any farther from the accessible room. We had to walk, lugging our luggage, all the way through the building. It was a miserable journey.

On the bright side, the bathroom was great. Roomy, with grab bars on the toilet, a roll-under sink, a sliding accordion door, of all....a roll-in shower with bath chair. The bathroom made up for the run down condition of the place and the extra small beds. I do have to admit that when making reservations, the agents did not promise any more than what we got and, knowing that the beds would be small, we brought along a twin-sized air mattress so that we'd all have plenty of I don't feel that I had been taken advantage of.

There is little in the way of any amenities in the room. No TV, no radio, no A/C. There is a small heater and a telephone and the toiletries were just a touch above par for most motels. Certainly, the room is not where you'd want to spend a lot of your time and maybe that's for the best...forcing you out to see the beautiful park.

There are several levels of dining available to you at Grant Village. A coffee shop in the general store has fast food with table service, a restaurant overlooking Yellowstone lake offers moderately priced pizza and pasta, and the Grant Village dining room is the upscale, reservations-only location serving full-service meals.

We opted for the dining room. Service here was just a bit slow but the food was delicious. I had a pork chops while my wife had salmon and Tim had a chicken dinner. A very tasty cream of asparagus soup started the whole thing off. Another waiter in the restaurant is also doing a tour of the major league ball parks and wanted to compare notes. After dinner, we spent another half hour with the friendly guy talking baseball and stadiums. Pricing here is comparable maybe to a Cracker Barrel.

The next morning, we awoke to a bright and sunny day. With no TV or radio, we did not have a weather report so we crossed our fingers that it would stay this way. It did.

After a marvelous breakfast at the general store coffee shop, we headed back to the Old Faithful area to hike the geyser basin that we'd been rained out on the day before.

The Upper Geyser Basin (home to Old Faithful) has a wonderfully accessible three mile plus trail that gets you up close and personal to the largest concentration of thermal phenomena in the world.

We started off at Old Faithful and walked up the paved trail. Along the way, we saw such famous sights as the Castle Geyser and the Riverside Geyser which regularly shoots a 75 foot stream of water over the Firehole River. At the end of the paved trail is the second most famous feature of Yellowstone Park, the Morning Glory pool.

A boardwalk allows you to get right on top of the Morning Glory pool, a hot spring with crystal-clear water shaped and colored as such that it looks like a morning glory. Visitors over the years have not been kind to the pool...many have thrown money and other assorted trash into it, clogging up it's vent and allowing bacteria to grow in it. An orange rim around the spring attests to this.

To combat the pollution, back in the 1970's the park service relocated the road away from the springs and geysers and set back the boardwalk around the pool. It's helped, but the park service still pulls much trash out of the Morning Glory pool during its annual cleanup.

On the way back, we take the boardwalk and see the geyser field. There are mud pots, hot springs, and geysers galore along the accessible boardwalk. The old wooden boardwalk is gradually being replaced by recycled plastic boardwalk as it wears out. The plastic sections are very smooth for wheelers.

It's great to see a TV-jaded kid like Tim really get into the geyser field. He's really impressed when he gets within 10 feet of the ever erupting Sawmill Geyser. A big bison named George lounges in a small meadow nearby...George gored somebody last week, we're told, when they tried to push him into a shot with Old Faithful. Some people never learn...

At the end of the trail, there is one steep section (that can be detoured - check with a ranger before hiking to find the smoothest path for you) after crossing the bridge over the Firehole River. On the other side, we end up on the backside of Old Faithful where we stop and wait about thirty minutes for the next eruption. It's big and spectacular. It's also a fitting end to our visit of the Upper Geyser Basin.

We have lunch at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge dining room. Here's another hint for you: the fast food place in the lodge is only about a dollar or two cheaper for lunch than the dining room but it's very crowded and you wait a long time for service. For just a couple of dollars more, the dining room is a much better place to eat and unwind with full table service and no wait.

Back in the van, we make the 40 mile trek to Hayden Valley where we're told we're almost guaranteed to see wildlife. But first, as we leave the Old Faithful area we see a large herd of elk nibbling the grass of a nearby meadow.

Hayden Valley does not disappoint. Large herds of bison roam everywhere. Too far away for a good camera shot, they do show up good with binoculars. As I scan the valley and the Yellowstone River bisecting it, I see something odd. I move down about 1/4 mile to get a better view and look through the binoculars again to make sure. Is it....? Yes, it's a bald eagle resting on a branch over the river looking for a juicy trout. Looking around, I see it's partner soaring high over the valley. It's the first and only bald eagle I've ever seen in the wild.

We return to Grant's Village and after dinner in the coffee shop, head down to the amphitheater for the evening campfire ranger presentation.

Mosquitoes are everywhere. Thankfully, my wife brought along some high-powered DEET that we slather on. We don't smell too good, but the bugs don't bite. Others at the campfire are fiercely swatting as the extra high-powered Yellowstone mosquitoes dive bomb them.

The ranger tells us that mosquitoes are not among the park's protected wildlife, so feel free to swat, smash, and kill. They are a renewable resource she assures us...

The evening's presentation is a slide show showing how conservation and scientific techniques started in Yellowstone have caught on around the world. It was interesting, but I missed the old sing-alongs around the campfire of my youth. Couldn't we just have a couple of songs to go with the slide show? Oh well, it was still fun and educational to boot.

That was the last night of the trip. The next morning we exited through West Yellowstone, Montana where we saw a coyote and some more elk and bison before exiting. One thing we did not see was Yellowstone's most famous animal resident...a bear. When we arrive home a week later, there are three black bear sightings in our neighborhood. Is it now more common to see bears in our neighborhood that in our national parks?

Copyright 2002 - Darryl Musick

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