Wildlife, geysers and hot springs, historic lodges and sustainable food– it’s a road trip to Yellowstone.
I left Boise, Idaho, and headed east in a rental car toward Grand Tetons National Park, those ethereal crystalline mountains in northwestern Wyoming. Although making the five and a half hour drive alone, I felt securely enveloped by “big sky” almost the entire time. Having lived my life on the East Coast, I wasn’t used to the vastness of the landscape and it produced a profound sense of awe. I felt small and humbled by the grandeur of nature all around me.
When I exited Interstate 84 for the back roads, I encountered such dramatic scenery, all I wanted to do was stop the car, get out and take photos. I did, in fact, do that often, but felt a bit of pressure to arrive at my room before dark. However, I am glad I made time; scenic stops are some of life’s treasured moments.
Soon, I drove through the cutesy little town of Victor, Idaho, and pulled up at Tetons Springs Lodge. The surrounding valley, dwarfed by the magnificent snow-capped, 12,000-foot Tetons- just 30 minutes away- lies scattered with upscale log cabin homes. The Lodge was exactly what I’d hoped for: a steadfast wooden structure that exuded warmth and welcome.
My one-bedroom suite on the third floor was beyond expectations: richly painted red walls, dark wood trim, smooth leather upholstery, and rustic western type decor. The kitchen came complete with all the upscale amenities one could desire. I flicked on the gas fireplace and immediately enjoyed cozy comfort…and a glass of wine.
Sadly, the next day I was expected in Gardiner, Montana, so had to depart before dawn. I took off from the Teton Valley toward Island Park and then into West Yellowstone. This route was named one the “Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies” and is truly breathtaking. I stopped at Mesa Falls hearing their roar before I even parked. The falls were a remarkable display of pure gushing water and cascading spray. The visitor’s area includes a series of planked stairways and platforms which allow some dreamy shots. Lucky for me, I almost had the place to myself.
Proceeding on, I entered Yellowstone at the West gate and drove within the park toward the North Gate and the famous Roosevelt Arch. Yellowstone became the first U.S. national park in 1872 and the 2.2 million acre gem in Wyoming shines for its incredible landscape diversity. All my life I’d longed to visit this park (perhaps the thought first instilled from cartoons of Yogi Bear, his search for pic-i-nic baskets and encounters with Ranger Smith). Finally, I had landed on this hallowed ground and drove along with a mixture of glee and goose bumps. I found myself snaking up and over a forested mountain pass, then gazing out on a grassy valley filled with bison and elk. I passed otherworldly geo-thermal hot spots, boiling mud pots and, of course, shooting geysers like Old Faithful. Honestly, this park showcases the most jaw-dropping variety of mystical, movie set landscapes I have ever seen.
I stopped in Mammoth Springs and went into the Lodge’s restaurant for lunch. The huge dining area had the feel of a former tea room and included a wall of windows on one side. The ambiance was elegant in an old fashion way yet somewhat rustic, ideal for a National Park.
Recently, my doctor recommended I try a gluten free diet and I doubted I would find much on the menu. Wrong! I was totally surprised and delighted that the menu included a major gluten-free selection and a statement explaining the approach:
Kitchens in Yellowstone National Park are not gluten-free environments. The gluten-free menu items were based on the most current ingredient lists provided by our suppliers and their stated absence of white/gluten within these products. Our operations have shared preparation and cooking areas and designated gluten-free areas do not exist.
So, individuals with celiac disease need to be careful, but, for someone like me just trying to refrain or cut back on gluten, the options were plentiful. In some cases, like the grass-fed beef burger, you can simply request a gluten-free bun.
The menu also contained a logo that denoted items made with sustainable and/or organic ingredients. I am happy to report there was a large selection such as Warm Goat Cheese Salad, Trout or Bison Tacos, and Smoked Wild Alaska Salmon Club.
I kept reading the fine print and found that the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room is a Green Certified Restaurant, in fact the first 3-star Green Certified restaurant in Wyoming. It is run by Xanterra, the parks commissioner and the company has taken a firm stand on sustainable practices.
I say,” Bravo.” My lunch looked fabulous and tasted absolutely delicious. Of course, I was pretty hungry, too. I began with steamed edamame and then ate a bison taco.
After lunch, I began to make my way toward the Old Faithful Inn. Driving within the park proceeds slowly. Backups occur whenever a large animal appears. Drivers simply stop in the middle of the road and to take photos out car windows. Even though they are warned not to do so, many even step out of their vehicles.
During my visit, the sky was unfortunately laden with gray clouds as the first snowfall was expected. Not that traffic congestion or gray skies could have damped my spirits; I was in Yellowstone!
Old Faithful Inn
In fact, good fortune was shining on my as I had secured reservations at the historic Old Faithful Inn, which is also operated by Xanterra. The rustic timber constructed lodge first welcomed guests in 1904. It has withstood severe winters, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and the fires of 1988. Once again, I was overcome with gratitude and humbled when I stepped into the massive 76 foot tall lobby. The twisted wooden supports are tree trunks and a huge fireplace and chimney beckons.
The designated National Historic Landmark was designed by Robert Reamer, a 29-year-old architect from Ohio who utilized local materials to create a semi-indoor forest. Construction of the original 140 rooms took just 13 months. In 1913, Reamer designed an addition for the East Wing and, in 1927, the West Wing extension.
My room came with two double beds, a small table/breakfast nook and 1960-ish feeling bathroom sporting some colorful animal tiles. Don’t expect a TV or posh accommodations here, just very comfortable ones. If you are lucky enough to stay in a National Park Lodge, fully indulge in nature and the hotel’s relaxed and historic ambiance. I could actually watch Old Faithful from a window in my room; however, the outdoor patio offered ever more exceptional views.
Geyers and Hot Springs
The next day, I signed-up for the Firehole Basin Adventure: a three-hour exploration of some of Yellowstone’s geo-thermal wonders. The tour utilizes a 1937 yellow wooden touring car, one of eight which Xanterra refurbished at the cost of $237,000 each. The car’s windows are quite costly and delicate. In fact, my guide banned everyone on the tour from closing the door! He did that himself, so as to not break any of the windows.
While jaunting around in our touring car, the guide explained the hot springs and geysers. Yellowstone sits on a huge caldera, one that erupted 640,000 years ago. While the earth’s crust is normally 20-30 miles thick, the park’s magma rests just 1-7 miles below surface. Superheated water gets pushed up, and rises near the top. Constriction around the geysers from deposits of silica cause the pressure to build until the water finally shoots out.
Old Faithful, the most famous geyser, erupts about 17 times a day and shoots a stream of water 80-180 feet high. The next display can be predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate within a 10 minute variation. It’s quite a show but there are 250 geysers in the park and over 1,000 thermals. The Painted Pots area was particularly eerie and fascinating.
The best part of staying at the Inn, however, is being right in the middle of the untamed wilderness. I just had to keep pinching myself. Before I left on my last day, I strolled to a number of hot pools and relished the magic of Yellowstone after an overnight dusting of snow. Fortunately, I’e packed appropriate attire.
Yellowstone’s wildlife, diversity and heritage will not disappoint. This National Park is an astonishing gift; see it, treasure it and pass it on. – by Debi Lander, RFT Contributor
Many thanks to Teton Springs Lodge and Xanterra Resorts who provided lodging and the Firehole Basin tour.
Tetons Springs Lodge: www.tetonspringslodge.com
Xanterra Parks & Resorts 866 439-7375.