On August 18th, 2019, my mom and I were sitting in a wagon being hauled by two horses. We went a couple miles through this little valley and around a herd of grazing bison. Eventually, our crew (or is it fleet? What is a group of wagons called? Wagi?) arrived at the destination, which was a chuck wagon dinner tucked between two little forested hills and the air smelled of steaks and baked beans. My dad would’ve really gotten a kick out of this whole experience.
In a way, he was there. We did this special dinner on the anniversary of my dad’s death in honor of his memory.
Ever since my dad passed away, my mom and I have made a conscious effort to create new experiences and memories, especially on dates that are important to us. That is how this trip to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park came into being. If you want to check it out, I wrote several blog posts pertaining to my dad and how I’ve been processing his death for the last ten years over on my personal blog.
We started the trip in Grand Teton National Park and it’s easily one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been. There are many times throughout my adventures where I feel like what I’m seeing is just an immaculate painting created by the world’s greatest artist, and Grand Teton was one of those moments. It was very hard for me to process what I was seeing the entire time I was there. This is also the place I decided to do my big hike of the year.
Ever since I hiked the Grand Canyon last year, of which I write about it here, I decided I want to do one huge hike for every year I’m alive. Now, this doesn’t mean I have to do more and more miles than the last big hike, but it’s more so I want to do one hike that will be an experience for me that I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ll ever top the Grand Canyon experience, but the Grand Teton experience is a very close second.
I chose to do the Teton Crest Trail, which is a massive 38 miles up and through the Teton mountains then back down, also resulting in an elevation gain of over 8,000 feet. Unfortunately, due to timing, I was only able to finish 32.5 miles of this trail. I’m not disappointed, though! It’s still quite a feat to do in one day and I loved every moment of it. Well, except for when I thought a deer was about to attack me in the pitch black canyon at 5:00AM.
And I got what I needed from that hike. I got the soul-enriching experience that included an appropriate number of moments to make me teary-eyed and in disbelief and feeling so grateful I am able to have journeys like this.
I started the hike at 4AM at the Granite Canyon trailhead and headed up through Granite Canyon with plans to have breakfast at Marion Lake. I nearly had a running start because I was feeling so good and was pumped full of adrenaline and excitement for the adventure I was about to have. I was on edge, though, because this was new territory for me, which means animals I don’t usually have to worry about. Namely, grizzly bears and wolves. Animal encounters that turn dangerous are rare, I know this, but being alone in the mountains at 4AM when you only have your headlamp and the stars for light, it’s a little harrowing. After about a half-hour of hiking, that’s when I saw the eyes.
My headlamp illuminated a pair of eyes staring directly at me so I immediately gripped my bear spray because all I could see were the eyes, nothing else. I had no idea if it would be a bear or deer or Karen from accounting so I had to be careful. I got close enough to realize it was a deer and my heart rate calmed down as I continued on past the animal. I noticed the deer was following me for a bit but I ignored it and quickly forgot about it all.
A half hour later, I stop for a pee break and take my backpack off and set down the bear spray. As soon as I finished my business, I looked to my right and see a pair of eyes staring straight at me. Except this time they’re much lower to the ground, like the height of a bear. It started walking towards me, going around a tree carefully, then it full-on started running and I felt such a primal fear that I’ve never felt before. I shouted, “GET BACK! HEY! GET BACK!” and just as I’m about to push the trigger on the bear spray, it got close enough to me that my headlamp revealed a deer. It suddenly stopped in its tracks, perked its head up, and took off up the side of the canyon. Thankfully I had just peed otherwise I absolutely would’ve wet myself in that moment.
The sun finally started peeking out over the horizon and light crept up into the canyon just as I was reaching the first summit of the trail. I was finally able to relax and calm down a bit from the deer encounter, especially since I could actually see what was around me without the aid of the headlamp and stars. The downside to hiking in the dark is that you miss out on a lot of the beauty you’re sauntering through. So, seeing the world around me become brighter was re-energizing me and bringing a fixed smile to my face. This was when I was getting really hungry and eager to reach my breakfast destination.
After breakfast, I crossed over Fox Creek Pass into an area called Death Canyon Shelf. ~*~OoOoOoH sPoOkY~*~ This part was really nice because it’s gorgeous, obviously, but the trail takes a very flat, meandering path through so it’s a nice break from the intense elevation gain at the beginning of the hike.
Once I crossed from Death Canyon Shelf into an area called Alaska Basin, I knew I’d be approaching the final trail junction that would allow me to start the end of the hike or keep going and attempt to complete the entire trail. The basin dipped me way down over a few miles then straight back up the other side when I finally hit that trail junction. Which is when I tried to make a funny video for my Instagram that quickly backfired. I did have a nice conversation with the runner, though!
I chose to take the trail to the east because I wanted to play it safe and ensure I could end the hike by sunset. This was when I learned I really should’ve started the hike at 2AM rather than 4AM, but I still got to experience 85% of the original planned trail! This new route back to civilization would take me to the summit of Static Peak, across Static Peak Divide, then eventually corkscrew down into Death Canyon and out at Phelps Lake.
My mom picked me up shortly after I ended the hike and we were able to make it back to the lodge in time so I could have a much-needed greasy burger. My body hurt but I felt so good. I then went and got a beer while watching the sunset over the sharp, raggedy peaks that, for a day, was home to my adventure and exploration. It was a beautiful sunset and ending that day felt good. I was in my happy place and I couldn’t stop smiling. Immediately after the sunset, I was already figuring out when I can go back and experience Grand Teton again. I want to do that hike again, but complete the entire thing. Also, I want to state how proud I am of myself for not making any “big titty” jokes about Grand Teton during this post.
Now it was time to relax! After such a big hike that wrecked my body for a short time, I was excited to chill out for a bit. What better place to chill out than at Yellowstone National Park? Both parks are less than 30 miles apart with Grand Teton being just north of Yellowstone.
Now, here’s where I have to be honest. Yellowstone is very different from other National Parks in the west in the sense that it just doesn’t have the wide, sweeping vistas with huge mountains and deep canyons or massive geological formations. The views you get in Grand Teton melt away into vast plains and rolling forested hills in Yellowstone. Basically, I’m saying it’s not as pretty or awe-inspiring as most other National Parks. Kind of similar to Mesa Verde, where it’s more about the history of the area rather than the views; Yellowstone’s standout feature is the geology of the area, rather than the views.
It became blatantly obvious what makes Yellowstone so special once we made our first stop. See, Yellowstone is massive. Bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. In order to fully absorb the entire Park and experience everything it had to offer, we had to spread this visit out over several days. And it was worth every moment.
Our first stop was Old Faithful. It was crowded, sure, but the entire area is teeming with geological oddities and features that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. Plus, the trails that snake their way from the main tourist parts of the Old Faithful area take you to where the crowds aren’t and brings you upon sights most people overlook. Oh, and Grand Prismatic Spring, which is just a couple miles away from Old Faithful, is an absolute must-see with the rainbow colors in different layers of the spring and just how huge the whole thing is is impressive.
What makes Grand Prismatic so colorful is due to the many types of bacteria which thrive in the boiling hot acidic environments within the spring. Each layer of the spring has a different temperature zone, which means different bacteria lives in each layer, which is what helps create the different colors. Is this stuff fascinating? Life is amazing and awesome and I love how it can thrive in even the harshest environments. I like to think of this stuff as proof that life can easily exist and be found in the deepest and most harshest reaches of outer space. Anyway, let’s get back to earth.
Our next stop was to the Mammoth Hot Springs area. It’s such a cute little village with a big hotel and a bunch of little cabins scattered everywhere. There is a tiny neighborhood nearby and a little “Main Street” type of area. Obviously, the standout attraction were the Mammoth Hot Springs.
I explored and ran up and down the paths around the springs and got more and more of an education on the geology of the area and how all of this works. The more time I spent in Yellowstone, it became increasingly clear how geothermally active this place was and how we were all just walking around on a massive caldera. What’s a caldera? It’s basically a giant volcanic crater, which was caused by a past eruption. And the Yellowstone caldera is expected to blow again. Hopefully not anytime soon since humans are determined to destroy the environment first.
That evening is when we did the cowboy chuck wagon dinner I had mentioned at the beginning of this post. Like I said above, this whole trip was in honor of my dad passing away ten years ago. He would’ve really enjoyed this entire experience and I’ve had a moment of grief here and there thinking about how he should’ve been there with us. How he deserved to experience places like this and to go on these hikes with me, although I think he would’ve said a loud no with joining me on the Teton Crest Trail. But I am also grateful for his existence I got to experience and how his passing has fundamentally changed how I view life and how I go forward from now. Out of death, a lot of beauty came. I wish it didn’t have to be like that, but that’s just how it is. I don’t know who originally said this, but some things can only be seen by the results they cause. Still, I would give anything to have another cup of coffee with him.
At the end of the cowboy dinner, my mom and I each got a cup of cowboy-style coffee and honored my dad.
The next morning, I got up early and did a 10 mile hike up to Osprey Falls, just outside of Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s an intense hike but very doable and the end where the waterfall is makes the whole hike very rewarding. What’s funny is I was so very impressed because this had been the largest waterfall I have ever seen in my life. In case if you didn’t know, waterfalls aren’t really a thing in Colorado. We have a lot of cascades but not a lot of legit waterfalls, you know? It was impressive until we went to our next, and final, stop of the Yellowstone trip.
To be blunt, good-fucking-Lord. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was like nothing I had ever seen before. I’ve seen dozens of photos of the falls and the surrounding area but it still absolutely did not prepare me for what I would witness myself. In the matter of a few hours, I got to witness the two largest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. And how cool was it that the sunlight delved into the canyon at just the right angle to create such a vivid, gorgeous rainbow?
I stayed on the tourist trails along the rim and ran down two side trails to the falls and, despite the crowds, people were respectful and nice enough to allow everyone turns to get the best views of the area. My mom and I stayed for a while in this area to really take it all in and I’d say this was an excellent way to finish the trip off. We stayed the night in the Canyon Village area and then set out on the road early next morning to get home.
I want to end this long post with a shoutout to my mom. She’s the one who texted me long ago with, “Do you want to go to Yellowstone for dad’s anniversary?” And then that’s how this entire thing unrolled from there. I added the Grand Teton part and then we got to spend a week together and apart doing our own things. But the most important aspect was we enjoyed this whole trip and added another incredible experience to the list of stuff that we’ll remember forever. None of this would have happened without my mom so I am eternally grateful for her love and support and I’m glad to call her one of my best friends. Hopefully she’ll eventually have some grandkids to take on these adventures! *cough* hint, hint *cough*
I’m already itching to go back to Grand Teton and Yellowstone. There’s a lot I saw and adventured on, but there’s still a good chunk of both Parks that I didn’t get to see. There’s also a lot I didn’t share on this post because it’s just all so much! I have this problem where I want to share every little awesome thing about my adventures but it’s just not possible. Plus, some things are better left to be experienced than told about.
Thank you for your time reading this and for allowing me to share these adventures with you.