Sorry for the long delay between my first post and now, can you believe that the US and Canadian National Parks Systems don’t have WiFi everywhere? I’m kidding! I am glad they don’t but it just means it takes time between these posts since I have to get out the laptop, type it up, and then connect to the WiFi to post. If you want some of my shorter updates check out Instagram (or Facebook or Twitter) where I post pictures of our adventures more frequently.
On to today’s topic: Firsts! This trip has a lot of first for Dr. Newman and I. First time driving to Alaska, First time visiting the Canadian Rocky Mountains, First time on a big trip as a married couple, First time driving the AlCan Highway. Tons and tons of first. But one of the coolest firsts we got to do is visit both National Park Systems’ “First National Parks.” It was really fascinating to see how both Park Systems deal with the crowds, emphasize what is important, and manage their areas. It is also always great to do this since Dr. Newman, being the 3rd generation ranger that she is, is a wealth of organizational knowledge about NPS and can start a conversation with a mute if she needed to, so I am always learning when I listen to her.
We cruised across Wyoming after leaving Olivia at her summer home (Casa di Newman- Thank you again Tom and Patti!). We made a brief stop at Fossil Butte National Monument (a NPS that combines my favorite things- small parks and fossils!). It is out there but if you ever find yourself near Little America, Wyoming spend the afternoon visiting Fossil Butte! It is the fossilized aquarium of America, which means there are lots of fish fossils. We rolled into Grand Teton in time for sunset and then rolled out just as fast since our goal was to see Yellowstone (it is not because we don’t love Grand Teton, but we had seen it two summers ago and I was itching to see more of Yellowstone after our brief drive through last summer).
We were early in the season, but not by much. The south entrance still had a line, we got stuck in a caravan of rented RVs (which is a stupid idea, I mean we make tractor trailer drivers get special licenses and some of these RVs are just as big and being driven by people with less skill than those semi drivers), and we saw some breath taking canyons. We didn’t stop too much on the southern road since my goal was to see the geysers. We made it into West Thumb mid-morning and found parking! That is one challenge in both national parks, the age of automobile has wreaked havoc on the old narrow roads and small parking lots (and I am not saying we should make bigger ones, but find a way to balance access- which the cars give, and safety- which the cars take away when you have people looking at sites more than the road). After checking out the West Thumb geysers we cruised to Old Faithful Visitor Center.
There we were slapped in the face with tour busses, crowds and an almost full parking lot. We did find parking and had lunch to fortify ourselves before diving into the crowds to see Old Faithful. Since the geysers typically shoots 120-145 feet in the air Dr. N and I sat on some logs in the shade of the trees, did our junior ranger, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Old Faithful was 25 minutes past the estimated time range they give. Despite being less than faithful, it was still pretty epic. And really cool to see in person (something that Dr. N studies is the need for these bucket list items and why everyone takes pictures of the same thing even when someone with a better camera and lens has already done so- of which I am super guilty). We waited for the tour buses to leave and strolled over to Old Faithful Inn, a huge inn from the days of rail travel to the parks. This gave us time to let the parking lot clear (and Dr. N to grab a nap in the car; she’s a professional napper).
Next we were off to Midway Geyser Basin, the home of Grand Prismatic Spring. Now Old Faithful was way more crowded but the park did a good job of managing the crowds, providing safe view points and helping everyone have a good time there. Grand Prismatic had none of that. Dr. N and I sucked it up because we were just leaning into the crowds of the park. We parked along the road (since the lot was full and people were being stupid about driving in the lot) and walked to the boardwalk and then started to weave in and out of the crowds. People were just stopping in the middle of the boardwalk to take a photo, oblivious to the crowd of people around them. We made it to the spring and didn’t throw anyone into the water and then booked it out of there to Uncle Wayne’s compound in Ennis MT where there were no crowds, unless you count a big lab dog as a crowd.
It is hard in this social media age to have peace in some of these beautiful places, unless you get up before the butt crack of dawn. I don’t want to stop people from going and I want to share my adventures as many people are sharing their own. It is a hard balance and once that I don’t have a good solution for. It is nice to have the freedom to drive into Yellowstone and stop when and where we want (and not get charged at each stop) which wouldn’t be possible if busses were mandated, like at Zion. But the crowds made it uncomfortable and challenging to be there.
After our too short visit with Uncle Wayne we hit the road north again. We decided to skip Glacier (we saw it last summer) and stop into Waterton Lake for a cup of tea and a parking lot dinner before camping by Oldman River near Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also in the middle of nowhere). Then after snapping a selfie at Okotoks’ Glacial erratic (hi, Mr. Newman!) we headed into Banff. Even though a 2 lane highway led into the park they had clear signs about which lane to be in and there was almost no wait (although it had to tell if the active snow storm was keeping people away, I would say no since the town of Banff was full). We soon were rid of the crowds when we visited Cave and Basin, the National Historic Site in Banff. There we got stumbled into a ranger tour and got to learn about the indigenous, trapper and railroad history of the site with Ranger Alex.
Banff does a much better job of recognizing the challenging First Nations history in the park (something I didn’t see once in Yellowstone). Although we did have to pay admissions to see the site (something we didn’t have to do in Yellowstone). But at least Banff staffed the site we enough people that when there was a bear siting, the rangers were able to jump into action.
The next day we got up early from our really nice campsite (they left a lot of space between the rows to allow trees to divide the ground up) to head to Lake Louise where we hiked to the Lake Agnes Tea House (a really popular hike). We were there early and got a parking spot but we only saw staff who were on car control. We didn’t see any rangers who could give us an update on the trail/ avalanche conditions.
We started our hike in the clouds and made it to the tea house where we had tea and biscuits. By the time we were finished, the clouds were starting to lift and we have some stupid amazing views of the valley and lakes below from Little Beehive. By the time we got to the trailhead the busses had arrived and the place was hoping. We escaped to a hotel room for the night to do road chores and re-pack our car.
Both parks are amazing and I am so grateful we got to see them on the start of our trip. Both have amazing views, too many tourists and are understaffed in different areas. Both have troubled histories (which Banff is working to address) but they still are important histories and natural wonders for people to witness.
Thanks for sticking with me, up next Hot Springs!