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Yellowstone, Grand Teton national parks a mix of mountains and majesty

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo.

There are a lot of things a visitor might remember from a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful Geyser for one, spouting high every 90 minutes, give or take. • Then there are the free-range buffalo, burbling mud pots and other geothermal wonders, plus a pretty impressive 23-mile-long canyon complete with gushing waterfall. • Us? We keep going back to the night the lights went out at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. • It wasn't exactly The Shining or anything quite as Stephen King creepy, but it was spooky enough to be entertaining. Evening storm clouds gathered over Yellowstone Lake outside our window. Thunder followed lightning, loud but hardly as impressive as a Florida summer storm. • Still, the lights in our room flickered, then went out. Screams and heavy footsteps followed in the hall of the rambling 100-year-old-plus hotel. The lights came on, then went out again. The scene repeated several times, long enough for someone to cue up Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on his iPod, providing pounding organ music fit for horror-master Bela Lugosi. He pushed the iPod under the door of the bathroom where his father was ensconced in the dark. Screams were now accompanied by giggles. • We opened a window wide to get the full effect of the wind off the lake. The someone with the iPod suggested we hunt for the flashlight at the bottom of the suitcase. We vowed to get serious about the real wonders of Yellowstone tomorrow, but on this night, we went a-haunting. • There are many ways to get your thrills in America's oldest national park.

A volcanic cauldron

Yellowstone is the second of four national parks on our June-July grand Western driving tour and we couple our visit with Grand Teton and a night in Jackson, Wyo., to the south. We've just been wowed by Glacier National Park in Montana and wonder if anything can compete with its eye-popping attributes. (Go to links.tampabay.com to read about the Glacier trip.)

This park turns out to be a different type of wow, volcanic rather than glacial.

Yellowstone lands in the top 5 on the list of most-visited national parks, with about 2.5 million people experiencing its diversity every year. It spreads across more than 2 million acres, mostly in northwest Wyoming, tipping its toes into Idaho and Montana, too. The most famous of its 10,000 thermal features is Old Faithful Geyser, which spouts off regularly and draws big crowds with cameras. Boardwalks in several locations let visitors get close to other steamy phenomena, including hot springs of Jell-O colors, blooping mud pots and more geysers. Yellowstone contains 60 percent of the world's geysers.

The heat comes from the Yellowstone Caldera, an active sunken volcano, some 30 by 50 miles. Think cauldron, but don't think too hard when you're viewing the outer worldly landscape, otherwise you'll fret about the whole thing blowing sky high. Scientists believe the super volcano has only violently erupted three times in 2 million years, the last being 640,000 years ago. If you're like me, you're probably thinking it's due.

Besides thermal marvels, Yellowstone is home to lakes, mountains, waterfalls and its version of the Grand Canyon, which sneaks up on visitors who follow the signs from the park's main road. It seems to draw as many people as Old Faithful and in the busy summer months you'll be jostling for a photo opportunity. And also for a parking space.

Wildlife is abundant and when we visited, buffalo were most prevalent. We pulled over several times to watch the seemingly gentle giants graze and amble along. Of course, videos on YouTube, and many posted signs in the park, let us know that buffalo are fully capable of charging and injuring people who get too close. We keep our distance, especially in the parking lot of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel when a scruffy behemoth ambles through.

From Yellowstone, we head south to Grand Teton National Park, which we mostly enjoy from afar, rather than hiking any of its jagged peaks. A fine hotel awaits in posh, yet weirdly tacky-touristy, Jackson.

Before all that, we have to get to Yellowstone.

The long and winding road

There are five entrances to Yellowstone, which makes it easily accessible from three states and a handful of interstate highways. Our convoluted road trip has us coming through the northeast entrance on the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212), a road we won't soon forget. The late Charles Kuralt, who led TV viewers on many travel adventures, called Beartooth "the most beautiful drive in America."

It's just 68 miles, but it takes about three hours of serious driving interspersed with lots of pulling over to take in the views. We pass through the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains, including peaks that top 12,000 feet. The road isn't much lower, taking the title of the highest elevation byway in the northern Rocky Mountains.

We breathe deep as we drive toward 11,000 feet, forested valleys and glacial lakes far, far below. At some turns, we feel alone in the world because there are no other vehicles in sight. At others, the hardened snow bank rises 6 feet above the road to create an icy canyon.

Something altogether strange happens as we get to the top of Beartooth Pass, 10,947 feet. The forest gives way to alpine tundra and we are no longer driving near the precipice, but rather winding along gentle slopes with plenty of land on either side to allay our fears. No sheer cliffs here, but the knowledge that we have to go down the other side rattles the brief peace.

The scene is just as interesting behind us as in front, and we scan the rearview mirrors more than usual. The wow factor we wondered about presents itself mile after mile.

A sturdy place to stay the night

We've snared one night at the historic Old Faithful Inn and another at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the scene of the on-off light show. Both have their charms, but Old Faithful trumps all park accommodations because the namesake geyser can be seen without leaving the hotel. It's all about location. Everyone stops at Old Faithful, even if they aren't staying at the hotel, so it's a busy place. At night, the crowds thin and we almost feel like we own the place.

Old Faithful Inn, which opened in 1904, is the largest log hotel in the world, the soaring lobby constructed of local lodgepole pines. The massive fireplace welcomes chilly visitors but on our visit there are no flames. It's not cold enough, even though there is still some snow on the mountains.

We are content to sit in rockers along the second-story railings and watch the action below. Our room is dark, its walls lined with dark wood; think paneling but not in a '70s sort of way. Oh, yeah, and there's no private bathroom. Still, sharing the facilities is no chore, and in fact is kind of fun, especially because you get to pad down the hall in the middle of the night in jammies. Sort of like a national park slumber party.

The great wildfires of 1988 that burned nearly 800,000 acres of the park also threatened the inn, which firefighters worked mightily to save. The aftermath of the fire can be seen throughout the park where tall burned trees still stand and green growth climbs up around them.

The Lake Yellowstone Hotel is a completely different experience even though it's similar in vintage to Old Faithful Inn. It is more colonial than rustic national park and the airy lobby faces everyone toward Yellowstone Lake, which covers 136 square miles. In the dining room, we have a fine meal served by a college student from the University of Central Florida, spending his summer far from his Windemere home. The creamy mushroom soup is luscious.

After dinner, we head back to the lobby to play gin rummy, a perfectly suitable diversion when there is no TV or WiFi. We gather there again in the morning, sipping coffee and staring at the lake before we head off.

Going south

Our experience in Grand Teton National Park is largely from the road that skirts the impressive mountain range to the east. We stop for 15 minutes and watch a female moose trot alongside. She's all gangly legs and a bit wild-eyed, but enough of an attraction to stop cars.

We pause at pullouts and watch the sky change around us. The sun is starting to set and we wait for a light show of magnificent proportions. It's our only night here and we are expecting something big, besides the monster mosquitoes buzzing around us.

I don't want to say we are disappointed because that sounds ungrateful. After all, this is nothing short of paradise. Lush meadows filled with wildflowers give way to sagebrush flats then evergreen forests topped by snow-covered jagged peaks. On this night, though, there is no magical show, but the mosquitoes go away, and stillness spreads like a comforting blanket. We are content.

One of the things we learned on our northern national park tour is that the long days provide plenty of time for sightseeing well past 9 p.m. The other lesson, though, is that restaurants follow the clock, not the sun.

We race back to Jackson, remembering a night in Glacier when dinner was breath mints at 10:30 p.m. The famous Cowboy Bar and another tavern welcome drinking-age patrons, but we're looking for family fare, and not the drive-through variety.

Mountain High Pizza Pie's neon sign calls to us and we order a large pepperoni and grab seats at an outside picnic table. A black dog we name Pizza Pete sidles up, scaring us a little after being on a high alert for wildlife for more than a week.

Pizza Pete finally slinks away when he realizes we are seasoned national park tourists. We don't feed the bears. Or even dogs that look like bears.

Tomorrow, we begin our trek toward Arizona and the Grand Canyon. And we just might want a couple slices for the road.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

If you go

Yellowstone National Park

Planning ahead: If you are at all entertaining the idea of staying in national park lodges or at the campgrounds, call soon to make reservations. Reservations are being taken now through 2011, and you can always cancel if your plans change (deposits are refunded up until a few weeks before the date). Check those details when you make reservations.

The historic lodges fill up quickly. We called in mid January for a June trip, and luck had it that there was a one-night cancellation at the historic Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. We booked a second night on the other side of the park at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. We also made dinner reservations then, which seemed weird at the time. How do I know what time I want to eat dinner in six months? We picked 8 o'clock both nights and that turned out to be perfect — and smart. We saw many walk-up diners turned away.

There are a number of other accommodations, including hotels, cabins and modern motels, plus a dozen campgrounds. Hotel rates range from less than $100 to about $200 a night.

For more information on park lodging, including campsites, go to
yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call (307) 433-78901.

Getting to Yellowstone: Unless you're on a major road trip, you'll likely fly from Florida and then rent a car for the drive to Yellowstone. You'll have several airports to choose from because there are five entrances to the park from three states — all open in the summer. (Most visitors use the southern entrance.) Airports closest to the park are in Cody, Wyo.; Bozeman, Mont.; West Yellowstone, Mont.; and Jackson, Wyo. You could also land in Idaho Falls, Idaho, or Missoula, Mont. Where you fly depends on your budget and your travel plans.

Things to do: Hiking, camping, boating, fishing, horseback riding and general sightseeing of the park's geothermal features are the biggest draws of Yellowstone. The 140-mile Grand Loop winds through the park's central region in a figure eight. Most of the park's main attractions are along roads off this main thoroughfare.

There are many ranger-led programs for adults and children. Schedules and maps are available at visitor centers and as you enter the park.

Dress in layers for warm days and cool nights in summer. Most of the park is above 7,500 feet, and the weather can be unpredictable. Expect thunder and lightning in the summer.

About Yellowstone: There are two main seasons in Yellowstone. The crowds are thickest in July and August of the May-September summer season. You'll find fewer people during the mid December-February winter season, when winter sports are the park's main attraction. The park largely stays closed from October to mid December and from March to late April or early May. Not all of the entrances are open year-round.

It costs $25 per car to enter the park for seven days. A year pass is $35 and an annual pass for the national parks is $80. Much more information is available at nps.gov/yell. We also found Fodor's most recent Montana and Wyoming guidebook helpful.

Grand Teton National Park

About Grand Teton: The immense peaks of the Teton mountain range rise up from the Jackson Hole Valley floor without any foothills to block the view. There is no bus system, so most of the sightseeing requires a car. The roads are fully open in summer, but access is restricted in winter even though the park is open. There are 250 miles of maintained hiking trails, many around stunning lakes. This includes Jenny Lake, which draws lots of paddlers. Birdwatching, fishing and water sports are popular activities. Admission fees are the same as Yellowstone, but you can enjoy much of the view for free from scenic U.S. 89. There are several lodges, plus cabins and campsites. There is no central reservation number.

Find more information, including accommodations, at nps.gov/grte.

Outside the park: Jackson, Wyo., is a fun stop for visitors looking for more "civilized" entertainment. There are lots of shops, some of which cater to tony winter visitors but plenty that sell cheap T-shirts and other souvenirs. In the winter, Jackson becomes a mecca for skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts.

Our National Parks

A three-part series

Aug. 8: Glacier National Park in Montana.

Stunning vistas on and off the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Go to links.tampabay.com to read story.

Today: Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming.

Geothermal wonders, buffalo and one historic lodge.

Aug. 22: Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

The results of erosion and a raging river seen from the south rim.

On the Web

Go to links.tampabay.com for a slide show of photographs of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks plus Jackson, Wyo., by Scott Keeler.

Yellowstone, Grand Teton national parks a mix of mountains and majesty 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 4:00pm]

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