The name 30-60-30 was suggested at one point during the later part of this trip. After all, the trip was meant to be a celebration of two 30th birthdays, and one 60th, all taking place in the order noted above. It had been in the works for a while, and it was taking place in spite of fractured elbows that had gotten in the way of another 60th birthday celebration trip. That particular one had gotten cancelled a couple of weeks earlier. This one was a get-together with the kids, and a visit to the National Parks of Yellowstone and the nearby Grand Tetons, after which the two of us were to set off on adventures of our own, extending the trip to visit the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and then also spend some time in Salt Lake City. During this trip, we were to travel through the states of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
It has been a few days since we finished the trip. I have been unsure about how to put this one into the record books. Should it be summarized in one blog? Should it be broken up into a day by day, blow by blow, description? How should I use the hundreds of pictures that I took related to this story? What should I emphasize and where will particular pictures fit in? I have decided on a “hybrid” approach. Only time will tell how this will turn out.
Traveling in this part of the country is mostly about the outdoors. Besides the parks that visitors come to see, this part of the country is occupied by large ranches and farms where cultivation of crops and the raising of animals takes place. The properties are huge, and it takes specialized equipment and vehicles to manage the large spaces. Some ranches have animals grazing in them as far as the eye can see – primarily cows and horses. In many places the landscape is dotted with massive irrigation systems that can water significant chunks of farmland in short time. And then there are the open and rugged lands that are more sparsely occupied.
Yellowstone National Park was a pleasant surprise for me. I was expecting the geyser Old Faithful to be the primary attraction, after which I expected to be done with the park, but I found out that the land that this huge park occupies is truly a wonderland. The Yellowstone Caldera is a massive ancient volcano basin where the volcanic activity has brought the heat and fury of the inner earth very close to its surface. The super-hot magma lies close enough to the crust to have a visible impact all over the park. Steam rises into the air everywhere. There are very few places in the world like this.Hot springs,geysers, fumaroles,mud pits, and all other combinations of phenomena that result from steam, hot water and hot mud rising out of the earth result. The throwing up, churning and/or bubbling of the water, or mud, is continuous as the underground forces are released. The air is filled with fumes with different smells. It is an amazing place.
The cold temperatures that we experienced in the park lent an additional beauty to the scene. Then there is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.This is very much a geologically active area. In one location, steam has erupted from the pavement in a parking lot. You are warned everywhere in the park to keep to the boardwalk. The crust is thin. You do not want to fall into a hole that opens up beneath you. Neither would you want to be there when subterranean forces burst out of the ground.
Yellowstone covers a huge area, and it takes a few days to get around to the different locations. So, if you visit, plan to spend enough time, perhaps a few days. It is one of those places well worth having on your bucket list.
The Grand Tetons are a different experience. The massive, rugged, and majestic massif that rises in a straight line up out of the flat plateau dominate the scene. Geologically, the Teton mountains rise along a fault line. Over a period of millions of years, the land on one side of the fault line was uplifted because the land on the two sides of the fault line pushed against each other. This process ended up raising and exposing really old rock in a relatively new mountain range. Imagine the nature of the forces that are powerful enough to actually create majestic mountains! Geology is fascinating.
The experience of the Grand Teton National Park is mainly about its beauty and the outdoor activities that are possible.
In many sections of both the parks the roads ran along, or crossed, mountain rivers and streams. The main rivers that I noted were the Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, that flowed to the north through the parks, and the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, that flowed to the south through the parks. There are a few large and very pretty lakes whose bright and clear blue color catches your attention immediately on a sunny day.
We arrived at the parks at a time when the weather was much colder than it usually is at this time of the year. We had to be bundled up in layers to stay warm, and there was snow and ice to be tackled on some of the trails. The kids were instrumental in making sure we could navigate some of the more slippery trails without incident and additional damage to elbows. There was some tricky driving involved on a couple of occasions. Driving up and down the winding mountain road through the Teton Pass in the falling snow on a dark night after a long day of driving from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole was an interesting challenge. Waking up to below zero degrees (Fahrenheit!) temperatures in Island Park in Idaho one morning was a unique experience. We spent two very cold nights in a nice (but somewhat cold) cabin there. Fortunately, it warmed up somewhat – to closer to freezing temperatures – during the day as we drove into the park.
There are many kinds of animals to be seen in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, but we encountered only a few of them, including those in the pictures below.We did spend a lot of time looking for moose, and also hoping that we would not run across bears when we were by ourselves. Only the bears cooperated. A couple of people in the car managed to catch sight of a moose one day, but there was no place to stop for the rest of the folks in the car to get a view. We came back to the same area of the park a few times without success.
The kids left us after our explorations of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. It was quality time that was well spent, and without their assistance we could not have been able to experience all that we did. After their departure, the two of us headed out further west in our rental car.
Our destination was the Sawtooth National Recreation area. Along the way, we stopped at the Craters of the Moon National Monument. This is a really strange place with bizarre landscape. The remains of ancient lava flows and their aftereffects dominate the area, making the place look like it is of another world.Apparently astronauts come here occasionally to train. There are some caves that have formed in this area, and I managed to crawl in and out of one of these and do some exploration (spelunking?!) without hurting myself. The area of the Craters of the Moon is active from a volcanic perspective. The National Park Service site states “The time between eruptive periods in the Craters of the Moon Lava Field averages 2,000 years and it has been more than 2,000 years since the last eruption.”
The drive past this park took us through the area occupied by the Idaho National Laboratory, a place that I had not known about before. Apparently, this is one of the historical centers of nuclear research in the country. It is still active. There are a few nuclear reactors still in the area, and nuclear waste is also stored here. I suppose the location makes sense considering how sparsely populated this part of Idaho is, and how far it is from major population centers.
We spent the night in a small town called Bellevue in the Sun Valley area of Idaho before heading for the Sawtooth Mountains that lay further to the north. As with our drives earlier on in the trip, this one was spectacular. This was in spite of the fact that the weather did not cooperate too much in the early part of the day. We had to drive through intermittent events of rain and snow fall.Just beyond a mountain pass over Galena mountain, we arrived at the headwaters of the Salmon river, also called the “The River of No Return”. We drove onward to the town of Stanley. The place looked like it was out of a Western Movie, but a more modern version. It felt like the major form of transportation in this part of the world was the pickup truck. The popular fashion statement seemed to involve clothing with camouflage design on it. The Salmon river flows past Stanley on its way north along this section of the road.In general, many of the small towns that we drove through in the countryside during this trip could be considered “cute”. The few commercial buildings in town would mostly be centered around the one main traffic intersection on a main road. There could be the town’s only traffic light at the intersection. There was usually a gas station. The towns that were not too far from the tourist areas would have a few restaurants and drinking holes, and perhaps a motel or two, some of them new and modern. I did notice a Buddhist establishment in at least one town. Young people seem to find jobs in some of these places. Perhaps they keep them alive.
The stop at Shoshone Falls in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, took place the same evening that we visited the Sawtooth Mountains. It happened because of an encounter we had the previous day at the Craters of the Moon. A fellow visitor had shown us pictures she had taken of the place. The waterfalls are impressive. They are also called the Niagara of the West. The waterfalls happened to be on our way back to Salt Lake City. Not many people visit, although we did see the obligatory busload of Chinese tourists.We spent a significant part of the next day on our way back to Salt Lake City at Antelope Island, located on the Great Salt Lake. Antelope Island hosts a popular state park and is reached by driving over a causeway from the mainland.The island is dedicated to outdoor activities. We were limited in what we could do because of the pre-trip injuries. We did a little bit of hiking on the easier trails. In general, these trails were not that well maintained, nor well marked.
We made it to a beach to check out the salinity of the water.You do get a view of Salt Lake City from a distance from certain viewpoints on the island. The Wasatch mountains dominate the background.I was hoping to see more of the local flora and fauna on the island. That did not happen.
The final day was spent visiting the sights in Salt Lake City. The city is small enough that you can cover it on foot. The main attraction is Temple Square, where you can see the outside of the Mormon Temple, and visit their chapel and Tabernacle. They have visitor centers where you can learn more about Mormonism. It is an interesting experience, and there is no pressure. Salt Lake City is the seat of the Mormon religion.We caught a performance on the organ at the Tabernacle. After a visit to the nearby Utah State Capital Building,we headed back to our hotel. Autumn was very much in the air in Salt Lake City.We went to the Saturday evening service at the Cathedral of the Madeline later on in the day, went out for dinner at a sushi restaurant after that, and finally called it a day.
And that was the end of the vacation and the visit to the four northwest states.
We flew back to Maryland the next morning. (That’s Salt Lake City in the background in the picture above!)
The first of a series of blogs with more details of the trip can be read here.