Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting Maui, Hawaii (which I posted about here), and more recently I had the privilege of traveling to Wyoming, which offered a completely different brand of natural beauty. While Hawaii boasted the lush, exotic splendor and gorgeous seasides of a tropical locale, Wyoming’s appeal lay in its charming pastoral scenes, majestic mountainscapes, and geological marvels.
I thought I’d share a few of the highlights from my trip to Wyoming, which included Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Teton Village, and Jackson Hole.
I hail from California, near LA, where most encounters with wildlife unfortunately take the form of roadkill (usually of the opossum and squirrel variety). You see lots of jolly dogs on leashes and wandering felines with shifty eyes, but otherwise we Angelenos don’t often run across any big animals unless you see a coyote or mountain lion in the hills (I’ve seen neither, and I go hiking fairly often).
Cut to Wyoming. The speed limit on the highways – on the long, open highways – averages 35 miles per hour. It feels unbearably slow after zooming down a comparable Cali highway at 80 mph minimum. Why so slow, Wyoming? Because, apparently, each day a bear is run over on WY highways. Cue melancholy violins. My friends and I got pulled over for going 55 in a 35 mph zone, and the officer was nice enough to let us off with a warning after lecturing us on the importance of protecting the wildlife.
We didn’t see any bears, but once we entered Yellowstone National Park , we did encounter some other beauteous beasts we don’t typically come across on the road.
For starters, there are plentiful deer.
Then, of course, there are abundant elk.
The coolest animals were the bison. Big and badass, yet nonchalant.
We also encountered some huge, scary ravens that made ominous clicking sounds.
The Grand Tetons and Surrounding Lakes (Grand Teton National Park)
When you think of America the Beautiful, what comes to mind? Purple mountain majesties, for one, right? Well the Teton Range (a subrange of the Rockies), which includes the Grand Teton, is certainly majestic, and blushes purple in the right light. These mountains are not the dirty, grassy slopes of California…the Tetons are rocky, craggy, and wrought with character. The rugged peaks and turrets jut sharply into the sky like some fantastical terrain.
We caught other views of the Grand Tetons as we hiked around Jenny Lake. We also canoed across the lake…because there is just something sublime about being in the center of a large body of water amid shimmering diamond-eyed wavelets, bordered by stately mountains and a dark fringe of forest.
We also swam in the Teton-framed String Lake, which was like a giant swimming pool. String Lake is shallow and composed of glacier runoff water (heated a bit by the afternoon sun); I stood at the very center of the lake with the water coming up to my shoulders. In the late afternoon, we found it fairly secluded.
I engaged in a lazy backstroke, cruising across the lake as I gazed up at the sky and mountain peaks, then raced my friend to the shore, alternating between swimming the breaststroke and treading thickly through the mucky ground. We mimicked animal calls and shouted odd noises, and the sounds seemingly ping-ponged from mountain to mountain, echoing back in a resounding chorus from about five different places. Luckily we didn’t come across any bears; apparently we had just missed a mama bear and her cub that had been mosying about earlier on our very patch of shore. Yikes!
How did the Grand Tetons get their name? Well, that’s up for debate. According to Wikipedia: “The most common explanation is that “Grand Teton” means “large teat” in French, named by either French-Canadian or Iroquois members of an expedition led by Donald McKenzie of the North West Company. However, other historians disagree, and claim that the mountain was named after the Teton Sioux tribe of Native Americans.”
Take your pick.
Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone National Park)
Speaking of names…the name “Grand Prismatic Spring” is fairly self-explanatory. This spring, the largest hot spring in the U.S. and third largest in the world, is effectively a big, hot puddle of rainbow. Its vibrant hues are incredibly striking: The center of the spring is deep blue high-purity water, progressing outward – due to pigmented bacteria in varying temperatures – with layers of emerald green and acid yellow before the sprawling sunburst frame of molten orange.
At ground level, it’s hard to make out all of these startling colors, or to see much beyond the rising steam…so my friends and I made the steep climb up the side of a hill to seek the ideal bird’s-eye vantage point. Several times we stopped to struggle for breath on this strenuous hike, but each time other hikers on their way down encouraged us to persist and go all the way to the top. “Trust us, it’s worth it,” they said. And so it was.
Old Faithful (Yellowstone)
Old Faithful is one of the most popular attractions at Yellowstone, as evidenced by the numerous tourist traps that surround it (shops, accommodations, dining options, etc.). Like clockwork, Old Faithful erupts (Blows? Squirts? Spews? Not sure what the appropriate verb is here…those all sound quite inappropriate haha…we’ll stick with “erupts”) every 90 minutes. When my friends and I arrived at the site, the geyser had just erupted, so we stuck around to wait another 90 minutes to watch the show. After browsing the tourist shops and treating ourselves to ice cream cones, we found ourselves with time to spare; still, a substantial crowd had begun to gather around the benches circling the geyser, so we took a seat.
“Old Faithful must be a woman,” said a lady next to me, “for making us wait so long.”
A park ranger explained the geology behind geysers – underground, sheets of rock are heated by the volcanic magma below, in turn heating the caverns of water above the rock. The water boils and becomes pressurized in deep fissures until finally, it spews up in a glorious eruption. Old Faithful is currently known as the most predictable geographical feature on Earth, but significant earthquakes could alter the geyser’s plumbing system, which could potentially make it less predictable.
“Then they’d start calling it Old Traitor,” I said.
After keeping us in breathless anticipation, the beautiful Old Faithful shyly tested her jets in small, hesitant spurts before gaining confidence and erupting higher and higher. Oh come, ye Old Faithful…joyful and triumphant!
Mammoth Hot Springs (Yellowstone)
On our first day in Yellowstone, we had a late start and spent so much time waiting for Old Faithful to blow that we didn’t have time to make it up to Mammoth Hot Springs. Oh well, we thought, it’s just another hot springs…and not even a colored one like Grand Prismatic…we can’t be missing much.
But as we stopped at Old Faithful Inn for a hot meal and refreshing libations, a traveling geologist struck up a conversation with us and simply gushed about Mammoth Hot Springs. He gushed about a lot of other sites too – Yellowstone is a geologist’s dream, as being situated over a volcano creates many geologic marvels. Yet there was something electric about the way his eyes shined so brightly as he chattered ceaselessly and with such zeal about the natural staircase-like travertine formations of the hot springs, about how the forces of nature had fashioned a magnificent fountain that one could easily imagine the ancient Romans topping off with a stone statue of a goddess.
So we squeezed in a visit to Mammoth Hot Springs the next day. And boy are we glad we did, because it was indeed an awesome sight to behold. Over the course of thousands of years, hot-springs water streamed down limestone, cooling and depositing calcium carbonate, to shape a complex of travertine terraces. A natural architectural masterpiece. The terraces are streaked olive green, brown, golden, and white from the mineral deposits, with lovely flowing runoff patterns.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Unfortunately, we came upon the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on an overcast day, which sucked out most of the color, but I think my photo still captures much of the majestic splendor of the waterfall, river, and deep canyon.
Top of the World Waffles (Top of Teton Village)
Want to know the best place for a waffle-sandwich (though not much else)? Here! Not quite filling, but delicious and oh-so worth it. Go to the cute little ski resort of Teton Village, pay to take the aerial tram 10,400 feet up to a mountaintop for a stunning view of the valley below as you pierce through the clouds, and partake in the tastiest waffles at this little hole in the wall. Then go outside and meander as you gaze at your view from on-high.
Rodeo (Jackson Hole)
As a respite from all the physical activity amid natural wonders, Jackson Hole served as a cool little town to recharge our batteries. Slightly touristy, perhaps, but relatively modern and well maintained without losing too much of its rustic charm. Jackson Hole was our go-to destination for delicious chicken wings, drinks at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, old-timey photographs dressed as cowboy/cowgirl outlaws, souvenir shopping, and of course…our first rodeo! Yee-haw!
I didn’t really like the part where the cowboys lassoed the horns and legs of cute little calves…I felt kinda bad for those baby cows. But watching the cowboys trying to stay on a full-grown, wildly bucking bronco or stallion…that’s where the excitement was at! And yes, we did also ride the mechanical bull…
Horseback Riding (Jackson Hole)
In Cali, I’ve ridden horseback in guided tour groups of 15+ people, usually at a sluggish pace in the blazing sun. My experience in Wyoming was completely different. At Spotted Horse Ranch, a real-life cowboy (who, incidentally, we had seen riding a fierce bronco at the rodeo we’d attended) gave me and my friends a private tour on horseback through meadows and forest, up and down hills, and across the river. The weather was lovely and mild, the horses spirited. Dan, our cowboy guide, allowed us to break free of the line and gallop full-speed across the meadows. So liberating…
State of Mind
Wyoming was a great trip. I love seeing the multifaceted beauty of ‘Murrrrrica through its distinct states. It’s a wonderful way to feel like you’re actually living life during the small vacations between the daily work grind while also experiencing all of the different wonders this great nation has to offer.
So which state shall I visit next? Any suggestions?