Getting Ready for Yellowstone

A couple of years ago my Peace Corps group was going to have a reunion, possibly at Yellowstone National Park. However we waited too long and wound up canceling the idea. It turns out you have to reserve lodging well in advance. So last September I placed a reservation and put down a refundable deposit for the historic Old Faithful Inn this coming May (they charge your credit card, but you can cancel for a full refund up to the day before you are supposed to be there). Even then it wasn’t easy finding places, but I reserved for 3 nights during the week of Memorial Day. The plan was to try to do the nearby Grand Teton National Park that week as well.

A couple of weeks ago I made firm plans by booking a flight to Salt Lake City and from there will drive up to the park, about 5 hours away. I had hoped to use my frequent flyer miles and get a free ticket, but Delta’s program requires different numbers of miles depending on whether they consider a ticket price to be low, medium, or high. I had enough points for a low price ticket, but not a medium price ticket, which is what they usually assign to Atlanta to Salt Lake City (though sometimes during the week it is considered low; nothing remotely close to when I wanted to go).

Then I realized I had myself flying home the same day I was checking out of Yellowstone, which would mean leaving the park at 4 AM to get back to Salt Lake in time for my flight. Ugh. All the lodging in Grand Teton seemed to be full at this point, but I found some cabins available in Yellowstone and booked those for the two preceding nights, for a total of five nights, all in Yellowstone. However, it turned out that it might be just as good or better to get a place in Jackson, Wyoming, which is in the area called Jackson Hole, not actually a hole, but a valley, just outside of Grand Teton NP. Jackson seems to have some things to do as well, including whitewater rafting down the Snake River. However, while in Georgia May is practically Summer, in the mountains it is early Spring and some of the roads are just opening from the winter snows. In fact the northeast Yellowstone entrance along Beartooth Highway is only cleared of snow the week before Memorial Day and has 15-foot snow drifts on the side of the road through June. For rafting the water could be ice cold (they do have wetsuits available which should provide some warmth). In the end, I wound up canceling the cabins, getting two nights in Jackson, and then canceling the third night in Yellowstone for a total of 4 nights. While I did that, I also made dinner reservations for both nights at the Old Faithful Inn, which was already filling up 2 months ahead of time!

I ordered a couple of travel guides from Amazon and have been reading those, including details of some hiking trails (the National Park Service also has PDF brochures of trails). I also read some of Ed’s old blogs, which said that maybe I don’t really want to try and see every geyser, mud pot, fumarole, and hot spring in Yellowstone (a geyser that isn’t spraying looking much like a rock). Some people do very serious hiking of several days, and in Teton you can actually do mountain climbing (one of the hikes recommends bringing an ice axe before August). That is more than I want to try, but there are also “Easy” hikes and some “Moderate” hikes of a few miles that might be doable. One statistic about Yellowstone that I saw was that 97% of the people don’t ever get more than a quarter mile from the main road (I’m not sure that’s accurate, but 90% at least). The main road in Yellowstone hits most of the highlights of the park and forms a loop with branches going off to the entrances to the park and one road across the middle of the loop. The loop road is over twice as long as I-285 around Atlanta and the park itself is larger than the state of Delaware. And it is all a big volcano that erupts every 600,000 years, though they haven’t had an eruption for, get this, 600,000 years. The volcano is what is producing all these geysers and hot springs. And I mean HOT! Some of the pools are right at boiling, fed by water that is actually above boiling when it is under pressure in the ground. An early photo of a visitor shows him catching a fish out of the lake and then boiling it while it is still on the line in an adjacent hot spring. This is not allowed now and the fish probably tasted like sulfur anyway, but they still have hot springs right on the lake shore. Some of the springs actually have acid that is stronger than the acid in a car battery. One book remarked that if people had done this to the land, it would be a Superfund site, but since nature did it, it is a national park.

Everything I read about Yellowstone says that to really enjoy it you need to get off the main road and do some hiking. However, they also mention that you might have encounters with bears, including black bears or the much larger grizzly bears. They recommend taking “bear spray” which is like super-sized pepper spray, shooting a stream of pepper spray about 30 feet out of what looks like a small fire extinguisher. A can of this stuff is $50. However, there are usually only a few bear attacks per year and there are 3 million visitors. So the chance of any particular person having a bad encounter with a bear is very small. However, given that only a small percentage of people are hiking, if you do hike the odds will increase greatly. But also 1% of people camp in the backcountry and I think those people are just asking for it; they even take food with them (my plan is to only take water hiking, no snacks, even in the car). They tell you to keep at least 100 yards from bears, but if you are hiking you might come around a blind turn in the path and all of the sudden happen upon a bear. The worst thing is a bear that is feeding on something because they get very protective of their food (there are other bears and even wolves around). And of course you never want to appear threatening to the cub of a mama grizzly. If you find a mama grizzly and cub eating, you are probably about done. They say you should not run away, but should make a lot of noise and try to be scary, and then back away. Only if the bear attacks should you play dead. Or shoot it with some bear spray, if you were dumb enough to buy some.

So most people aren’t going to need bear spray, but you can’t take the canister on a plane, so you pretty much have to pitch it when you are done. You would think you could donate it, but I guess they are worried that it might not work or the previous owner already sprayed part of it. So if you turn it in at a ranger station, they will discharge it and recycle the can. Seems like they could do an informal pay it forward program where people could leave cans and you could take one, accepting that the can may not work (if you want to be sure, buy a new can). Then give it to someone else when you leave.

The guide books are terrible because they can’t very well come out and say “Don’t get bear spray” or else one of their thousands of readers will get mauled by a bear and sue them. They also say be ready for rain (or snow!) because Spring weather can be very unpredictable (some of the guides barely mention Spring, like it doesn’t exist, just talking about the peak Summer season of July and August, the beautiful Fall, and the snowed-in Winter). Cotton clothes are supposed to be terrible for both the cold and the wet, and all of my clothes are cotton. So I bought some synthetic outdoor clothes that I hope will be okay. At least I can take those on the plane, unlike bear spray. I probably also need some rain gear, so I may take a poncho and hope for the best on that. I shouldn’t ever be that far from the car.

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