What could be more exhilarating than watching a grizzly named Raspberry chase after her baby, Jam, on the shores of Yellowstone Lake? Maybe watching Jam’s older sister, Snow, dig for berries and roots on a hillside for an hour! Stalking amateur bear sleuths around Yellowstone National Park became our latest pastime to capture some close-up shots of these magnificent beasts.
Our adventure into America’s oldest national park began after a breathtaking trip through Glacier and a brief stop at a charming, historic B & B in Bozeman, Montana called the Lehrkind Mansion. Home to the 19th century German founder of the Bozeman Brewery, Julius Lehrkind, this lovely Queen Anne houses four quaint rooms in the main structure and five rooms in the garden house surrounded by a koi pond and bright cheery garden.
The northern gates of Yellowstone pay homage to President Teddy Roosevelt and ushered us in with a warm welcome from several elk lingering in the grass and napping in the afternoon sun. We passed through Mammoth Hot Springs and headed for Lemar Valley which a fellow traveler had recommended as the best place to site Yellowstone’s finest wildlife. Located on the northeastern quadrant of the park, Lemar Valley came through and then some. We managed to spot three brown bears ambling alongside the road, an immense osprey nest strung over a rushing river and several bison moving at a snail’s pace.
While COVID had closed all the restaurants for dining, ‘grab and go’ was alive and well as we picked up Sloppy Joe’s and blackberry barbeque ribs for our picnic at sunset. Unlike Glacier, most campgrounds were open save three and a few lodges offered their individual cabins for accommodation. Canyon Lodge in the center of the park served as our home base for three nights and proved to be the perfect location to access the best parts of the park. Even though the visitor centers were closed the general stores remained open for provisions and souvenirs and park rangers popped up everywhere like gophers ready to answer questions and provide assistance.
Rising at dawn on day two, we hit the ground running with our first stop at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The thundering Lower Falls jolted us awake as we watched a river of water tumble down 300 feet and snake through 24 miles of steep, rhyolite rock. Heading further south, we caught the sunrise over Hayden Valley dusting light across the Yellowstone River that reflected low lying clouds and snowy peaks in the distance. Bison and elk peppered the misty pastures while Canada geese bathed on the marshy shores. En route to Old Faithful, we passed an eerily quiet Yellowstone Lake, (the largest Alpine lake in America) as no boat activity was permitted at the time due to COVID, one of the few blessings of a pandemic.
There is no internet service so for those of you relying on your phones for directions and information make sure to download the Yellowstone National Park App. This amazing tool provides information on self-guided tours, hikes, wildlife and cultural history. It will even give you geyser predictions so you won’t miss Old Faithful’s daily eruptions. We caught her at just the right time and continued on strolling the boardwalk that winds for over four miles of geyser viewing. Bright colors of orange, cerulean, yellow and green boiled in natural cauldrons across the steamy landscape. We spotted a Yellow Belly Marmot with his own grab and go lunch picnicking on a rock near a simmering spring of azure. Other spectacular geysers included Grand Prismatic Pool, the Great Fountain Geyser and Midway Geyser up the road, all within a reasonable distance of each other.
Our final day in the park included a scenic hike in Sentinel Meadows, which after getting lost and bumping into some Bison ended with a ranger closing the trailhead behind us after several grizzlies had been spotted. Phew! Several fly-fishing folks dotted the Nez Perce Creek where we lunched between visits to Firehole Falls and Virginia Cascades. The grand finale was a visit to the southern end of Yellowstone where we spied grizzly photographers on the hunt. Here is where we saw mama bear Raspberry and her baby Jam scampering along the shores among burned out trees. Rumor has it that the female bears stick closely to the roads to avoid male bears who generally shy away from traffic. Diligently following the bear sleuths, we headed north a few miles and abruptly stopped to gush over Snow, a five-year old female (another daughter of Raspberry) who entertained her fans by digging for huckleberries and roots on a lush hillside. She indulged us for an hour and then finally sauntered away, her time on center stage finished for the day. It was the perfect ending to our Yellowstone adventure.
Grand Teton National Park made for a perfect segue into our next travel segment. Lying just south of Yellowstone, it’s easy to follow HWY 89 right into this park that spans over 300,000 acres. The Jackson Hole Valley, bifurcated by the long, winding Snake River and its tributaries, lies at the base of 7,000-foot peaks and glaciers with names like Mount Owens, Grand Teton and Teewinot. A clear, bluebird day welcomed us with stunning views of the jagged peaks hovering over Jackson Lake at Colter Bay. Silvery lupine and low larkspur carpeted the pastures where pronghorn deer bounced among the Aspens and sagebrush. A drive along Mormon Row with its antiquated, rustic barns made for an ideal photo op; the scenery a backdrop for an old western.
For a change of pace, we chose to stay outside of the park in Jackson taking shelter in a quaint cabin near a sleepy creek. This enabled us to sample trendy restaurants like the Local, The Blue Lion and The Gun Barrel where we dined on bison tartare, grilled elk, and rainbow trout. In cooperation with COVID guidelines, hand sanitizer was readily available, the tables were six feet apart and all staff in the restaurants wore masks. The same protocol went for the boutiques, shops and bakeries around Jackson.
Weather can be unpredictable in the mountains so check your forecast ahead of time when planning your activities. Don’t forget to download your Grand Teton app! We booked a fabulous river rafting trip on a sunny day through Lewis and Clark River Expeditions on the Snake complete with the siting of three Bald Eagles and three osprey. On what would be our only rainy day, we donned our rain gear and headed to Jenny Lake for a rewarding nine-mile hike that included a short detour to Hidden Falls. These falls were more like a vertical river ten stories high tumbling into the narrow canyon below with voracious vigor – the rain gear came in handy to say the least. A smokey fog lay midline across the range, conjuring up a whole new interpretation of these majestic mountains. As quick as the storm arrived it was gone in a blink of an eye leaving our last day to play at Jackson Hole Ski Resort.
Up the ski lift we rode, our rented mountain bikes on the chair ahead and us clad in bullet proof protective gear. Piles of lonely snow mounds retreated into the hillsides bordered by trails of bank turns, jumps and wooden ramps. I felt like I was ten-years old again riding through the trees, sliding out and launching myself mostly into dirt. After three hours of downhill biking, we awarded ourselves with lunch at the top of mountain via the gondola which sported a million-dollar view of the whole valley. This was a place I want to return to but next time during the snow season to see how the mountain range would wear her winter coat.
Our last night of the trip inevitably arrived and we were lucky enough to spend it with family again. Departing Wyoming, we wound our way back to Idaho through Douglas Firs, Cottonwoods and Aspens with a brief stop at Crater of the Moon National Monument. We reached Galena, just north of Sun Valley, and our choice of accommodation this time was a yurt nestled at the base of the Boulder Mountains. After sanitizing our surroundings and ourselves, we celebrated our final night with elk sausage, red wine and a toast to our successful COVID vacation. After all, America is beautiful!
Extra tips and items for Travel during COVID in the national parks:
Bring your own utensils, wine glasses and coffee cups
Lysol wipes to sanitize your cabin, hotel room, bathrooms etc.
Cooler if going by car for water, snacks etc.
If you are in your own RV, bring your own food unless you are okay with a lot of hot dogs, burgers, and pulled pork. Vegetables and fruit are harder to come by at the general stores
Cover for your backpacks if you are hiking in the rain, especially if you bring your phone for taking photos
Rise early safari style – animals love the morning to feed and dusk as well
For parks like Yellowstone, staying in the park gives you a head start for watching animals. Otherwise, you have to wait in line to enter the park
Try the local beers!
Check the nps.gov website for updated information and weather!