Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons National Parks are set one right south of the other but the feel is very different between them. The Grand Tetons’ area is only about a seventh of what Yellowstone covers; however, it receives almost the same number of visitors that Yellowstone receives on any given day and although the Grand Tetons is also a civilized park with roads, gas stations and lodges; overall it feels much quieter.
We left Yellowstone about midday and drove down to the Grand Tetons in hopes of finding a campsite open. Our first choice was Jenny Lake but found it full and settled for the Colter Bay campground. The first thing the park ranger told us as we arrived was that a black bear had been seen just that morning around the campground and thus we had to take the, by now, usual precautions. The recommendations are always the same: odors attract bears and thus keeping a clean camp is essential. Essential also is storing any food, toiletries and anything else with an odor in a locked hard-sided car or bear-proof box and absolutely not wearing to bed any food-stained clothes or even clothes you wore while cooking. I wonder if not showering for a couple of days helps keep the bears at bay since we didn’t have any encounters.
The recommendations on how to act if you do have an encounter with a bear vary though and it was confusing enough for me to ask the park ranger about it. While we were in Denali, we had learned that one must never run away from a bear since it might trigger its predator instinct and give chase, this was the same at all parks. However, if a bear does charge, the recommendation at Denali had been to drop to the ground, cover the back of your neck with your clasped hands, leave your backpack on to protect your back and open your legs up so that the bear won’t be able to roll you onto your back and then not move until the bear leaves. Given that I would have probably fainted if that had happened, it would have been easy to play dead. At Yellowstone, the recommendation had been to clasp your hands behind your neck, keep your backpack on but curl up into a ball to protect your stomach and then not move until the bear gives up. Different. At Grand Tetons, the printed recommendation was to fight back with all you had in you. I jokingly asked the park ranger if that was because there was no way you would survive an attack anyway and you might as well go down blazing. He smiled and then answered that no one could really tell what the best approach was so he was of the opinion that fighting back at least gave you something to do and showed the bear that you weren’t easy prey. Not very comforting…
Now, my own personal opinion is that the recommendations vary based on how the bears at these different parks behave. Denali is a desolate place where bears are not, and never have been, used to human interaction. They mostly keep to themselves, find their food in nature and have a lot of room to retreat into if humans come by. Since the park does not allow for cars, only the most persevering humans ever hike into bear territory and those kinds of people tend to also be the kind of people who take the “Leave No Trace” guidelines seriously and follow such a lifestyle. There have never been any reported deaths to humans due to bear attacks in Denali.
Yellowstone on the other hand, was the first established national park in 1872 and back then the expense had to be justified by enticing people to come visit. Seeing bears was, and continues to be, a great enticement. When hotel managers back then began noticing that bears were rummaging thru their trash sites (which were left out in the open) they constructed “Bear Dumps” where they would dump all the garbage from the hotel on a raised platform at certain hours of the day and tourists could come watch the bears as they fed. Tourists were also encouraged to feed bears they found alongside the roads and pretty soon, black bears began “panhandling”. While it ensured a steady supply of visitors to Yellowstone, it was problematic. The bears quickly became aggressive when the snacks would run out, injuries and some deaths followed and after almost a century, rules declaring feeding of wildlife illegal were enforced. The bears in Yellowstone have been used to finding food wherever humans are for longer than the regulations have been enforced and thus it appears to me only natural that these bears would continue to look to humans for food. Since Yellowstone is open to private vehicles and is also set in a more populated area than Denali, it attracts a greater number of people and a very different set of people at that. Families are very common in Yellowstone and anyone with children knows that snacks are as necessary to children as water to a fish. Thus people camping in Yellowstone tend to be not as watchful of recommendations. Our own neighbor at our Yellowstone campsite was a newly divorced father of two young boys whose equipment had all been bought just a few weeks earlier, meaning he had no experience with it; not a bad person but a careless camper. It ultimately doesn’t matter that I keep a spotless site when the person camping at that same site a few days before my arrival didn’t do so and a bear learned that it could get food there. Keeping a clean site is not only for your own safety but also for those around you and those that will come after you. In the end, it is also for the bears’ safety since a bear that has been habituated to human food and goes in search of it, will present a danger to people and might end up having to be put down.
Even worse we learned, there had been a couple of predatory bear attacks on humans in the Grand Tetons Colter Bay area. While the Yellowstone bears might attack if they encounter a human in their search for food; the bear at GT was actively hunting humans for food, particularly at night while people were walking to the bathroom. This made it all the more dangerous and I had to convince the kids to share our tent with us.
I don’t think I could have slept a wink otherwise.
We arrived in the late afternoon and found our campsite more to our liking than the one we had in Yellowstone. The one bathroom facility wasn’t as nice but the sites have a lot of bushes and foliage in between one another so we enjoyed the privacy. We are glad we stayed at Colter Bay and would definitely recommend it.
The next morning we embarked on one of the many float trips offered at GT. The trips are provided by four different private agencies, they all embark and disembark at the same place and traverse the same 10 mile stretch of the river so choosing one comes down to price. Each of them have similar but slightly different prices for both adults and children so choose the best option given the composition of your party. The trip is about 3 hours, you spend a bit over two of those floating down the river. This trip was as exciting as…watching golf on TV (apologies to any offended golfers out there) and about as dangerous. I believe the most adventuresome part of the entire trip was stepping into the raft at the beginning.
Our guide kept pointing out places where wildlife had recently been seen. We saw a couple of eagles
evidence of beavers in some downed logs but apparently all the wildlife that had been so abundant up until the time we got on the raft suddenly decided to leave because we didn’t see much else. At some point we were so bored, Ale and I invented “disappearing tic-tac-toe”: we would wet our fingers in the river and make our mark on the side of the raft. Any mark that disappeared left an open space which could be used again, thus to win in the scorching sun, you have to be very quick.
While the views of the mountains were great
in hindsight, spending those 3 hours hiking would have a been a lot more fun. The trip ends at Moose junction and although we looked everywhere, the only moose we saw was right outside the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center.
There are some good exhibits here and we listened for a bit to a ranger talking about the many different types of wildlife that live in GT. We then drove north to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center which is so congested, it feels like the mall on a Sunday afternoon. We parked, like half the people, on a restricted area since the parking is insufficient for the amount of cars. Three other cars quickly parked behind us. We spent almost no time here finding it too congested for our liking and quickly left. There are two-day excursions to climb the mountain and I believe they start from here so that may be the cause of the congestion. We were too overwhelmed by the amount of people to even ask. There are also cruises on the lake but after the slow river trip we’d just had, we weren’t interested. We took the road leading to the Jenny Lake Overlook looking for a place to have lunch at and also found it congested beyond belief. We managed to park and make our way down to the lake where the boys spent the time hopping over rocks while we enjoyed the bit of solitude provided by the fact that most visitors aren’t able to climb down the steep hill but we could clearly hear them over our heads asking themselves how on earth we managed to get down there.
A warning to visitors here: the parking area is terribly small and although you might be tempted to park illegally (like many people do), don’t. When we were climbing back up the hill, we encountered a tow-truck taking away a car that looked just like ours and almost gave us heart attacks. It wasn’t our car but whoever the owner was, I’ll bet he had a bad day.
After we’d had enough, we continued on our way north. While we drove we would stop and look at wildlife which isn’t so abundant here but there’s still enough to warrant several stops, we saw elk
A truly worthwhile stop is Signal Mountain. There are two stops at the end of the drive. The first one provides you awesome vistas of the Grand Tetons
while the other looks to the plains where you can view animals grazing
We found these two places to not have many people and I wonder how it is that some places at the GT are so horribly congested while others seem devoid of people, it is quite a noticeable difference.
We made our way back to the Colter Bay area and since we were a bit early for the nightly Ranger campfire talk, we employed the time in the public showers. There is a charge for taking a shower but they are kept clean and, maybe due to the time of day, not full. After several days of camping, finding out you’ve got time for a readily available hot shower seems like a treat. The Colter Bay Amphitheater is fabulous: with a huge screen and curved rows of seats, it reminds one of a greek site. This night’s talk was on Bear and Wolf clashes followed by an hour movie which we all enjoyed. It was after ten when we were getting ready to return to camp and the ranger issued a warning since the bear had once again been seen only 20 minutes before at the Colter Bay campgrounds. We didn’t have any incidents that night but I must wonder why a notice was not posted at the campground; had we not attended the ranger talk, we wouldn’t have heard about the bear’s presence . I did worry thru the night whether our shampoo smelled too strong and had taking a shower been a bad idea after all.
We got up early the next morning and quickly broke camp. We were on our way out of the park and we really, really wanted to see a moose before we left. We drove down to the Jackson Lake Lodge, stopping on the way where the ranger had pointed out good moose hang-outs but didn’t see any.
The views from the Lodge though are gorgeous and anyone who comes here should stop at the mezzanine’s huge picture windows to observe the Tetons.
Although the lodge is ridiculously expensive, there is no charge for looking and it is definitely worth it. We found a park ranger on the grounds who had just set up a telescope to look out onto the Grand Teton to observe the climbers on their way to the top.
The Grand Tetons are beautiful and the entire scenery of the park is wonderful. Wildlife is not as abundant here as in Yellowstone and although moose are supposed to be plentiful we didn’t see any. We met many people who were on the look for moose, we all had ranger-circled maps and exchanged tips but not one of the people we talked to had actually seen a moose on their trip. Given how gorgeous the Grand Tetons are
we might just need to come back and search again.