Part 1 – Characters & Route
Part 2 – The Grand Plan
Chicago, Milwaukee & Madison, WI
Minnesota & Dispersed Camping
Fort Pierre National Grassland & Badlands National Park
Bighorn National Forest & Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 1
Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 2 & Shoshone National Forest
Shadow Mountain & Grand Teton National Park Pt. 1
Grand Teton National Park Pt. 2 & Jackson Hole
Flaming Gorge, Red Canyon & Salt Lake City
Arches National Park & Moab
Canyonlands National Park
Monument Valley, Mexican Hat & Page (Horseshoe Bend)
Bryce Canyon National Park, Dixie National Forest & Zion National Park
Grand Canyon National Park & Kaibab National Forest
Saguaro National Park & Tucson, AZ
Albuquerque, NM & White Sands National Park
Texas & Oklahoma
Arkansas & Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Virginia Beach & El Fin
A more serious hike was our second day endeavor. We picked Cascade Canyon trail, which is a 13.6-mile long hike that starts at South Jenny Lake Junction. There you have an option either to take a trail around Jenny Lake, or a boat across it, effectively cutting ~2.4 miles; in both cases you end up on the mountain side of the lake. The trail climbs up through pristine conifer forest past the Hidden Falls (a beautiful waterfall dropping roughly 100ft in a series of steps) and to the Inspiration point, where you can see panoramic views of Jenny lake and Gros Ventre mountains towards the east.
After Inspiration Point you descend into Cascade Canyon itself, and the trail runs along Cascade creek all the way until it splits at the fork. Google Maps doesn’t know this part of the trail but MapsWithMe does (highly recommended!).
We hiked along the river all the way till the fork, risking coming back in darkness (because I can never quit a challenge once I start it). In the end we saw snow and Cascade creek bluffs.
Note for self: It would be amazing to come back and do a multi-day backpacking hike into the backcountry wilderness – through Hurricane Pass to Alaska Basin and come back through Death Canyon and Phelps lake. Officially all backcountry hiking was banned due to COVID.
On our way back we landed for a quick snack on a spot where Cascade Canyon creek crosses the trail. We put down our things and set up improv table on the rock, rolling together some tuna burritos. I sat down with my back to the creek, and Jackson was facing me. 5 minutes later delicious burritos with corn tortillas, black beans, canned tuna, grape tomatoes and bell peppers were ready for us to enjoy. So I grab mine and Jackson grabs his and here we are sitting and chatting… And suddenly I hear a person coming down the trail.. It was quiet so far but we saw a good number of hikers, except this time someone was headed the direction into the mountains, and it was getting late! What’s going on? 3 seconds later I have an answer – it’s not a person headed our direction, it’s a black bear!! My eyes triple in size, I jump up, Jackson follows, and we start backing away from the bear and into the creek.. tuna burritos in our hands! Luckily, the bear wasn’t very hungry / interested and after stopping only for what felt like eternity (~5-10 seconds), he turned his head away and continued down manmade path.
That’s how we and our tuna burritos stayed well. Despite being millennials, we didn’t take any photos of that bear because of the gut feeling that was yelling “CONFUSION!”, “EXCITEMENT!”, “FREEZE!”, “RUN!”. However, we were visited by a scavenging porcupine shortly after, and here are is picture of him along with the place where it all went down and some other wildlife we’ve seen during fantastic Cascade Canyon hike.
The Tetons were phenomenal but it was time to head south; the next stop on the way was the town of Jackson Hole. Here Jackson got me a sunhat, we enjoyed some amazing ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream and hung at the Town Square. The place was full of tourists and looked very glamorous for a cowboy town.
Jackson Hole visitors did not appear to take COVID very seriously. The streets were crowded, all restaurants & bars open, cautionary measures present but sparse. We had to wear a mask when entering a store, but all other stuff was pretty open.
According to a personal observation the town was full of fine art, wildlife & nature photography galleries each representing an individual artist-owner. The work was beautiful and people very friendly, but the photographers for some reason were always white men in their 60s.
NEXT: FLAMING GORGE, RED CANYON & SALT LAKE CITY
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We left Yellowstone longing for a sense of freedom. What we saw next did not disappoint. As we rolled into Grand Teton National Park, a perfect range of snow-covered peaks piercing the crystal blue sky appeared before us. Someone said describing them: “This is what real mountains should look like”.
A large green open space lay between the mountains and us; occasional old ranches would appear as we drove by, wild bison grazing on fresh grass, antelope and domestic horses coexisting in the same environment. The dry air of the breeze brought in freshness through a rolled down car window.
In the northern part of the park something amazing attracted park visitors’ attention. A grizzly mama bear was bringing up her 4 babies in the area. Indeed, a rare occurrence. Dozens of cars were parked on both sides of the road, people with all types of cameras fighting for the best spot to take a picture from the distance of the road. We slowly drove by the crowd without stopping.
We had an important issue at hand – where do we set up camp for the night? Having consulted our best friend – the US Public Lands App, we found what looked like a perfect spot. Not too far away, within an hour drive there was a good amount of official dispersed camping spots. We crossed Snake river, drove through Antelope flats and finally here we were, at the foot of Shadow mountain.
Those camping spots looked absolutely amazing, the problem was that they were all taken. Faced with no alternative, we set poor Ёжmobile up for a trial: we decided to drive up Shadow Mountain in hope of finding a free spot up closer to the top.
What came next was a purgatory. Huge boulders sticking out from the gravel, steep curves pointing upwards, 4x4 trucks with high clearance sneaking by, hunting for the same thing we were looking for.
Finally, we stopped pretty high up just to look around. The view was absolutely incredible: sharp mountain peaks looked past the clouds, their wide bodies crowded next to each as if lined up for something, be it obligation or a spectacle. A vast plain separated us and all around there was forest, forest, forest.
We parked next to a guy who has already claimed a spot with a perfect view, and hiked up a hill to find a nice prairie to set up our tent, away from the road, from the RVs and everybody else. Wild elk greeted us at the top, and soon enough we were all set for the night.
The next day we collapsed our tent, rolled the dice and drove all the way back down to see if anyone has taken off, and oh yeah we got lucky! The sweet sweet spot from the day before was free, and 10 seconds later it was ours.
We did several hikes in Grand Teton, all of them south of Jackson Lake. On day one, we took a much needed shower aka ice-cold dip on a hike around glacially-carved String lake. The water was about 54ºF (12ºC).
It goes like this: you force yourself into the water, then there is about a minute or two of pure pain because the cold gets straight to your bones, and after that you just stop feeling your legs / body and everything becomes OK again. The alternative being staying dusty & gross, it was totally worth it!
Later on hiking we saw signs of avalanches taking place earlier in the season: there was still a thick layer of snow on the ground and numerous trees broken and bent down. Apart from that the nature was flourishing. Gentle birch trees, pine forest, wild animals and birds surrounded us.
NEXT: GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK PT. 2 & JACKSON HOLE
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As you drive around Yellowstone, there is a good chance to see a great variety of wildlife directly from your window.
We were fortunate one day to see a grizzly bear couple running around chasing each other. They crossed the road from the side of Hayden Valley, then leaped right into the ice-cold Yellowstone river, swam across fighting the strong current, and continued down into the forest. It was truly an unforgettable sight!
The park was open only for daytime visiting and wasn’t issuing any backcountry permits because of COVID-19. We camped in nearby Shoshone National Forest and would spend around 1.5 hrs driving in and out every day.
Our camping spot was absolutely beautiful, a gem with a fascinating mountain view on top of a hill amid yellow mountain wildflowers. The air in the mornings was incredibly crisp; and one day we were surprised to wake up with a layer of ice on top of our tent – it was the beginning of June!
On our first morning in Shoshone we were visited by the majestic Mr. Bison. What an introduction! He was grazing some 150ft from us, slowly coming closer and closer, rubbing his huge head off the small pine trees. We stood still, fascinated. He just kept slowly moving closer. At some point we found ourselves 30ft away from the visitor, but he acted absolutely calm and indifferent to our presence. We took some photos, respectfully keeping our distance, and everyone was left happy and undisturbed. The sole visitor continued along his path, past our camp and car. Below are some photos from this magical encounter.
To enforce order and protect fragile nature, the park was swarmed with the police. Rangers were passing by every 5 minutes, seen at every location and every spot. No other National Park has been policed as heavily, as far as we’ve seen.
Of course, there is reasoning behind it – the geothermal features of the park are very delicate. A mark of someone’s name (Malachi) left on the algae at Grand Prismatic (the world’s largest hot spring) would take hundreds of years to disappear and the park staff would have to clean off all microorganisms surrounding the spot as well. Immense fines are imposed on the offenders, if caught (we heard of $5K for approaching the wildlife, $10K for messing with hot springs and geysers).
We had our own unfortunate encounter with a ranger, which ended up with a $260 collective fine for trespassing. Driven by a desire to find a hiking trail that would take us away from the beaten path, we accidentally entered an unmarked restricted area, which turned out to be a wolf sanctuary. Having wondered in search of the trail for some time, we turned back, only to be met by an uncompromising and serious lady, who refused to show any empathy toward us.
UPD: This $260 fine didn’t seem fair us, so we decided to contest it in court. Thanks to the pandemic (!), we were able to request a teleconference hearing, which was held on August 3rd and resulted in US government dropping all charges. The judge was unaware that the area in question has been restricted at any point.
This was our experience in Yellowstone… We were a little worried whether the rest of the parks would be as overflown with the police, and offer limited adventure time, but we couldn’t imagine what was waiting for us next. We kept on driving.
NEXT: SHADOW MOUNTAIN & GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK PT. 1
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In order to get to Yellowstone we had to drive through Central Wyoming and cross Bighorn Mountain range. We were looking for a place to camp for that night, and Bighorn National Forest was right on the way. So we set our way there through Buffalo.
The drive began to change slowly. The flat prairie lands started to get more shape. Little canyons appeared here and there. The landscape was gaining more character…
And then we got hit by a massive storm. I have never seen anything like it in my life. We entered complete darkness. First, there were gusts of wind – they would kick the side of the car, swerving it out of the lane. Then, the rain started – little drops on the windshield turned into a dense wall in some 30 seconds, if not less… I flashed hazard lights and pulled over to the side of the highway. Jackson and I switched seats without even leaving the car! The storm raged for about an hour and a half – we slowly continued our journey.
Bighorn Mountains lay ahead. This was our first mountain pass to cross on a little Ежмобиль.
I jumped back at the wheel and that was a miscalculation. Steep elevation, curvy turns and a narrow road were quick to put me on edge.
It was also my first time driving a car with manual transmission up the hill and I wasn’t very smooth at downshifting. So, entering our proposed campsite area Jackson and I were arguing. Too bad, because we were greeted by two moose right as we were making the turn to the Forest road.
There it was, the majestic view of the mountains with the wildflower field in the forefront. The sun was setting and it started to get chilly. We made a fire and dinner and set up tent. Next morning revealed the first glimpse of the West to us.
We got back on the road and kept on driving. Yellowstone was the second National Park on our route, and the first internationally famous one. At the end of our visit we were left with some mixed feelings. Of course, the nature itself was incredible and very unique. However, the park’s organization seemed to be geared towards a very different type of tourist.
The park is set up as a giant 142-mile driving loop within the caldera, with entrances from the South, East, North, Northeast and West. The roads are maintained in excellent condition, but the distances are vast. Most “Points of Interest” are located along the route and are accessible by car.
Exploring Yellowstone included a tedious amount of driving, some of it at night. We had to always be on the lookout for deer and elk leaping on the road. To see a natural sight, you just had to drive there, pull over at a designated spot and walk for about 5 minutes or less. The park has great views for you to enjoy, all carefully selected and prepared; and you are expected to happily snap a couple of shots and move on. No effort needed; nature is served to you conveniently on a plate. It felt like we could see only a tiny glimpse of what Yellowstone truly had to offer.
That said, those sights nevertheless were fascinating. It all seemed to be a part of a different world. The ground was moving under our feet, bubbles of mud appearing in weird places, layers of smoke erupting from the ground. Incredible color palettes created a vision of an alien planet never seen before.
NEXT: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK PT.2 & SHOSHONE NATIONAL FOREST
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