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Published: March 17th 2014
See "Great American Road Trip Part 2: The Redwoods to Boise" for the prequel to this story
I wake up Friday morning with a throbbing hangover. I used to never get hangovers, but at this age no matter how much water I chug before bed I still get hangovers. And this isn't exactly the best day to have a hangover. I have almost 400 miles to go to reach my final destination for the day: Grant Teton National Park. But first I am taking a slight detour to a unique geological site in bumfuck, Idaho. Craters of the Moon National Monument is about 170 miles from Boise down Highway 20. I turn off I-84 in Mountain Home and I'm one of the loneliest roads in America. It's me and a few bikers and we are going fast. At one point I get up to about 100. It's OK, there is no one to be seen now that the bikers have turned off the road. Minutes go by where I don't see another car, not even coming the other direction. This is my kind of road. This must have been what the founding fathers were thinking about when they said freedom.
Well, maybe not, but this is freedom right here.
I pass maybe five exits in 150 miles and it's finally time to get off the road. A small brown sign points me to Craters of the Moon. As soon as I turn I notice the landscape start to change. Barren desert and rocky mountains has now become black rock and red hills. Craters of the Moon (http://www.nps.gov/crmo/naturescience/geologicactivity.htm) is a volcanic geological site that really seems out of place. There is no other volcanic activity in this area, just this one spot, where lava flowed out of cracks in the earth some 15,000 years ago creating what today looks like the surface of the moon seen through a telescope. This is one crazy landscape. Who knew this existed in Idaho?
The park is small, only encompassing a 7-mile long loop road. There are a number of sights on the loop road, some shorts walks, and some long hikes. I've only allocated about an hour to see this little park so I'll have to settle for short walks along the loop road. The first stop is the North Crater Flow Trail, a quick quarter mile paved walk around some impressive
ancient lava flows. It looks like someone literally heated up a bunch of rocks and left them to dry in a chaotic fashion. The rocks are black and brick red, or a combination of both. It's an eerie place. I can imagine the first people to stumble across this place were a bit freaked out. After wandering through dry grass fields of brush to come across this volcanic landscape must have been something else.
Moving on, I walk the Devil's Orchard trail and a few other short trails. There are large hills of red sand and black holes in the ground dropping down to the abyss. Like I said, it's eerie out here. But Craters of the Moon is nothing short of spectacular. It's a little visited park, due to its remote location, but people who make the journey here are treated with a very unique experience and the opportunity to see what molten lava looks like once it has hardened. Being in the middle of nowhere makes it even more amazing. It's not like you're looking up the face of a volcano. It's like if you stumbled upon a lava flow in Nebraska. It's just crazy! I highly
recommend a stop here if you're ever driving across Idaho.
Satisfied with my visit to Craters of the Moon I get back on the road to Grand Teton. I'm back on 20, and once again there is nobody in sight. I'm freer than Ronny Van Zandt when he wrote "Freebird." I breeze through the little town of Arco on towards Idaho Falls where I stop at Albertson's, my least favorite grocery store from my Vegas days, for some groceries. I'm going to be in parks for the next few days so I will need some food. I also grab a sandwich and find a Starbuck's in town to sit and eat at. Refueled, it's time to put my little Ford Fiesta through its biggest challenge of this road trip. It's time to cross the Teton Range into Wyoming!
I've been to Wyoming once before. I drove north from Denver to Cheyenne and up to Devil's Tower on my way to the Black Hills in South Dakota. That was a far different Wyoming that what you see in Yellowstone country. That was flat, brown, and full of coal mines. This is green, rocky, and full of bears. This is
the Wyoming everyone knows, thanks to Yellowstone, the world's first national park (brilliant!). Passing through the Teton range in my little Ford Fiesta is a challenge. These are some of the steepest roads in the country and I struggle to maintain 35 mph even though I'm literally flooring it. For a moment i wonder if my car is just going to give up and die. But it powers up the mountain and is rewarded with leisurely coasting all the way into Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole is the most visited town in Wyoming, thanks to its proximity to Grant Teton and Yellowstone. Its proximity to an abundance of nearby ski slopes makes it a popular destination in the winter as well. Basically, Jackson Hole is always busy. I'd like to spend some time here and explore the town, maybe get a bison burger or something, but it is just swarming with tourists. Driving through takes long enough. The heavy pedestrian traffic has brought the vehicular traffic to a standstill. Who knows if I'd even be able to find a place to park. I continue through Jackson Hole without stopping and eventually the congestion clears up.
My first order of
business in Grant Teton is securing a campsite. It's first come first serve here and it's getting late into the afternoon on a nice summer Friday. Luckily I find a spot at the big Gros Ventre campground at the far south end of the park. I set up camp and get back on the road. There are some things I want to check out before the sun sets. As I head back towards the main road I spot a heard of bison off to the right, in the foreground of my view to the Tetons. I get out of the car and take a few pictures. This is the American west to me. A heard of wild bison eating grass with a jagged, rocky mountain range in the background. What a view!
I decide I'll do the main loop around the park this evening. I'll have light till about 9:00 so I should have plenty of time. Tomorrow I have a hike planned so I'll have to do most of the main sight-seeing tonight. I head north and turn left at Moose Junction, heading towards the Tetons. On Teton Park Road I'm right at the base of these giant
grey peaks. I find it crazy how flat the valley I am standing in is. It's like the someone just dropped the mountains down from space onto a flat grass-covered field. Mother nature is never short on surprises.
I press on north up to Jackson Lake, a huge lake just north of the three main Teton Peaks (Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton). The views from the shores of this lake are nothing short of spectacular. I make a stop at the Signal Mountain Lodge and check out the hotel. It's nice but I'm not paying $200 a night to stay here. From the back porch, though, you do get one hell of a view of the mountains. Worth it for some people, I suppose. I also check out the Jackson Lake Lodge and Colter Bay Village, two little built up areas with services and restaurants. If you go north from Colter Bay Village it's not long before you hit the world's first national park, the mighty Yellowstone. That's in the cards for tomorrow but right now I'm focused on Grand Teton. I continue on my loop and back down south. Now the Tetons are on my right.
To the left there are some smaller grass and tree-covered mountains, but it is mostly flat. Nothing like the jagged rocks of the Tetons. I stop off at a little ranch from the old mining days and check out some old buildings from the 1800s. Nothing too impressive though. The real draw here is the mountains. The sun has set behind the Teton Range and darkness is starting to set in. I zoom on back to my campsite and eat some pre-made meals I got from the grocery store earlier while sipping on some local brews. I've got another big day tomorrow so I better rest up.
I pack up my things on Saturday morning and head over to Jenny Lake as fast as I can. I decide that Forest Gump must have named this lake so I have to do some hikes nearby. I've chosen to do the Cascade Canyon trail today. I find a parking spot at Jenny Lake, which is actually quite the achievement since it's starting to get really crowded. It is a Saturday in August after all. I could hike around Jenny Lake to the beginning of the Cascade Canyon trail but I opt
to pay the $12 for the round trip boat ride, since I don't have all the time in the world today. It's a beautiful morning with not a cloud in the sky. As I'm stepping into the boat one of the rangers spots a black bear on the hill above the dock. It's no grizzly, but this is the second closest to a black bear I've ever been while not in the safety of a vehicle so it's pretty cool. I flash back on my terrifying experience on a trail at Mt. Rainier a few years earlier. Much safer this time!
The boat across the bay takes about five minutes and from there I'm off. There are tons of families getting off the boat with me so I want to get ahead of them on the trail. Most people won't be doing the entire Cascade Canyon trail luckily. There is a short walk here that leads to a place called Inspiration Point, no more than a mile round trip. This is what most people will be doing before heading back. But I will be heading on past Inspiration Point down through the canyon, hopefully with more solitude. I press
ahead on the trail at a fast pace with a few other hikers who clearly have the same intentions of me. We pass a few waterfalls and switchbacks before we reach Inspiration Point. We are basically on top of a rock looking back towards Jenny Lake and the valley below. It is quite inspirational. I take a few minutes to sit and enjoy the view before moving on.
I'm heading into the canyon now. There are a few people coming with me but for the most part it's quiet. Cascade Canyon stretches almost 6 miles into the Tetons. That's almost 12 miles round trip. I probably don't have time for the whole thing but I'm going to get as far as I can with the time I've allotted. I'm hiking through a pristine forest, one with nature. It's nice being out here by yourself, though maybe a bit dangerous since I'm in grizzly country. Good thing I've got my bear spray. I reach a point on the trail where I want to get off the dirt path for a bit and go up. There is a pile of boulders, created by a rockfall at some point in time, that
looks like it would be fun to climb. I head up on the boulders and eventually I'm a few hundred feet above the valley and the path below. It's a nice side trip, but I don't want to spend too long up here so I head down after relaxing for a few minutes on the rocks.
After about three miles on the trail I decide to turn around. I still have plans to see a lot of Yellowstone today and this flat trail is getting a bit repetitive. I hustle back towards Jenny Lake and after passing Inspiration Point I stop when I see a large crowd of people looking into the forest. Usually this means that something is back there. I ask what's going on and sure enough there is a huge moose right in front of me when I turn my head! It's a male, which are more exciting to see since they have the horns. He's literally right by the path, no more than 20 feet from us. I saw plenty of moose in Alaska but never this close. These things are huge! Definitely don't want to make this guy mad. I watch him chow down
on some leaves for a few minutes then head on back to the lake, where I board the boat to take me back to the parking lot.
Grant Teton is a beautiful place. I could spend weeks here hiking around and exploring the back country. But as usual, I don't have that kind of time, and I've allotted myself more time in its neighbor to the north. Up to Yellowstone I go! For the continuation of this trip please see "Great American Road Trip Part 4: Yellowstone and Wyoming"
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