Jackson, WY, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone

[Part one and two.]

Driving to Jackson, Wyoming is beautiful. That really shouldn’t be surprising. When we crested the top of the Teton Pass and started coming down into Jackson, we had to pull over and stop. The view was too impressive. The sky too blue. The mountains too majestic. Purple mountain majesties actually made sense for once. There was a bit of snow in pockets on the ground or on the mountains, but they weren’t kidding about winter being over early here. It melted several weeks ahead of normal, which was fine with me and my travel schedule [thanks global warming!].

Everyone refers to Jackson the city [town?] as Jackson Hole, but really Jackson Hole is the valley you enter when you come out of Teton Pass. It was confusing the hell out of me for the longest time. Thanks for clearing that up Google. Jackson is bustling. Even in May. It’s a ski resort town, but it’s also the home base for a lot of people heading out to Grand Teton and Yellowstone. There are a ton of shops and restaurants, much of it very walkable from any number of hotels in the little downtown area. Some aspects of it reflected the ski resort prices [namely food/drink], but since it was May and not the peak of summer or winter, prices for rooms weren’t too bad. We stayed at the Parkway Inn for the whole stay. We were bumped to their suite for no reason what so ever. It was in a little outbuilding that had a room on the bottom and then the suite up at the top of the stairs. If I could describe the room, it was definitely Grandma Chic. The woods were a dark oak. The floor was a burgundy velvet. The drapes and other linens were heavy. The wallpaper was floral. The ceiling boasted those tin ceiling panels. The main living area was bigger than most hotel rooms, but also had a full bed. If you sat on the vintage couch with all of the other doors shut, it looked like either my grandma’s house or the scene in a horror movie. There was a bedroom off to one side with a most uncomfortable king size bed [seriously, we slept on the full]. The highlight of the space was the split-level bathroom. The foyer of the bathroom was carpeted in more velvet and had a long dual sink vanity. You ascended a few awkwardly sized stairs up some hexagonal tile [trendy!] to the bath tub, toilet separated by a half wall, and a stand up shower that had a frilly cloth curtain with a valance. It was awesome and super weird all at the same time. I never got comfortable with the stairs. I was convinced I’d fall at least once, but didn’t.

The rest of that first day/night in Jackson was spent wandering the downtown area [archways made of elk horns! practicing for the gun battle reenactment for Memorial Day!] and eating one of the best burgers of my life at MacPhails Burgers. Again, we learned that a dead dining room did not compromise quality of food. The food is all locally sourced or made on site. They serve 1/3lb and 1/2lb burgers in both certified Angus and buffalo. The price isn’t of the ordinary burger cost, but you’re getting some of the highest quality meat I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. The buns are made especially for the restaurant and made every single day. They were perfection in a bun. Integrity but still maintaining it’s pillowy texture and soaking up the juice from the meat without going soggy. Serious perfection. Fries are cut and fried to order — both regular and sweet potato. You can get a mix of both, too. Be still my heart. While a lover of sweet potatoes, I don’t usually order the fries because they end up tasting too fake. Not here. Sweet potatoes like they should be, and not a freakish color. They blended in with the regular potatoes that it was almost hard to tell them apart. They’re piled high, too. I don’t know how anyone could eat a 1/2lb burger + fries. My 1/3lb was topped with mushrooms and swiss and I struggled. They also serve other things like cheesesteaks, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches [all of the same high quality], but I gotta get a burger at a place with burger in their name. The family that owns the place runs it and we got to meet nearly everyone. We thought we’d come back to eat there at least one other time because they were so dang good, but it didn’t happen.

The next day was devoted to Grand Teton, despite the rain. It was the closer of the two parks. You drive through it to get to Yellowstone. We stopped at Pearl Street Bagels for lox and one of their ready-to-go bacon, egg, and cheese bagels. The coffee was forgettable. It felt like everyone else had the same idea as the line formed nearly to the door and stayed a steady stream the whole time we chowed down.

The cost of $25/car gets you into the park as well as Yellowstone for seven days. A steal! We would spend about four total and need the pass to get all the way through Yellowstone and out the north entrance to Montana. Grand Teton is gorgeous. The mountains are imposing and beautiful. They jut up out of nowhere without the usual foothills leading up to them. There is a lake in front of a fair amount, adding to their dramatic projection into the sky. Reflections off the water and moody clouds played supporting roles every time we drove through the park. On the first day, we made our way on a 7 mile roundtrip hike to Taggart Lake. It was our first so we had our bear spray and layers ready. Within 20 minutes it started raining. We contemplated heading back to the car being the fair-weather outdoorsmen than we are. Once you’re wet, you’re wet, so we carried on. I became increasingly aware to how alone we were. Knowing there are bears everywhere really heightens your awareness and adrenaline. My bear spray wasn’t handy unless it was in my hand. Fitting. We rounded every corner trying to be noisy [yelling “Heeeeeeeey bear” and clapping wildly], but the rain kept falling drowning us out. We befriended the only other couple on the trail, Emilio and Maria, a pair from Madrid who were living in Toronto. Andrew kept them talking while I led the group around the blind corners and through the gigantic puddle that was once our trail. The only reason they visited was because of Yogi Bear cartoons playing in Spain when they were kids. Thanks, Hanna-Barbara.

Arriving at Taggart Lake was mostly disappointing by that point since I was freezing, numb, and the lake was covered in a misty fog making it hardly a vista. We stopped for one obligatory group photo before continuing on the trip. I am so incredibly thankful we didn’t come across a bear. By the midway point of our trip, my basic hand motor skills had generally disappeared so I really don’t think my bear spray would have been any use short of throwing it at a bear. The rain never let up the the rest of the trip. As we got back to the car, we bid our new friends adieu and sat in the car with the heater on full blast to try and warm up. It was a long, painful process. It didn’t help to have a sandwich from Creekside Deli smelling delicious in its Italian sub glory and not actually be able to eat it. Getting the taped wrap off is one thing. Getting the sandwich to your mouth without biting a finger is another. We hadn’t brought spare clothes in the car, so we spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the park trying to dry off. We drove around Jenny Lake and almost ran over a baby bear. A BABY FREAKING BEAR. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.  It bolted in front of us, we slammed on the brakes, and it climbed a tree next to my passenger window. I stared at for a few seconds before we got out of there. Where there is baby bear, there is mama bear. The closest we got to camping was a nap in the car at Leeks Marina, which would become a frequent stop on our trips to/from the parks. You park on the lake and stare awe-struck at those Tetons staring back at you.

That night Andrew witnessed his first rodeo. The Jackson Hole Rodeo kicked off Memorial weekend for its 2015 season so we were able to partake. It was every bit of the barrel racing, bucking broncos, and bedazzled jeans that you expected it to be. Calf roping was not this group’s strong suit. Because most nights kept us out doing things close to 10pm or later, a lot of the restaurant options would close up. We ate/drank beers at Snake River Brewing on more than one occasion.

The south entrance to Yellowstone is about an hour from Grand Teton. If you haven’t seen a map of it, it’s huge. It has a giant figure eight made of roads winding through it and connecting all of the entrances. Since it was off season, but the snow was melted, you’re subjected to road construction. The main goal of the day was to go see Old Faithful, which is normally 30 miles or so west of the south entrance. Normally wasn’t the case though since they had the bridge out for replacement, so we had a 80 mile detour. The park ranger at the entrance gate told us to expect a good 2 1/2 hours to get there. Ugh. There is something a bit oxymoronic about driving through preserved wilderness. It took that long in slow season. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the crazy summer. By the time we made it to the lodge at Old Faithful, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t cranky. I was hoping the geyser would be as cool as advertised.Of course we showed up as it just finished blowing, so we had to wait the approximate hour before the next showing. It gave us time to check out the visitor center that had a lot of hands-on exhibits. As someone who lives near the wilderness, I just wasn’t impressed with most of the driving through Yellowstone. Trees? We got ’em. What Grand Teton has in raw beauty, Yellowstone has in geologic wonder. The geothermal parts were awesome. It’s hard to fathom the magma so close to the surface. Old Faithful was as faithful as ever and did its thing within a few minutes of the estimate. It was rather impressive to see water naturally shooting that high out of the ground. There are several other things to see in the area, like Dragon’s Mouth and a ton of mud pots. We also saw a lot of wildlife — another bear [this time a safe distance from the car], a moose, and a lot of bison along the roadside. It blows my mind how many people take their wild nature for granted. So many stories of animal attacks come out of the parks purely on human stupidity. This isn’t Disneyland folks. That night was an incredibly good pizza coupled with more local beers at Pinky G’s.

We spent the next day fully in Jackson. Since we’d been at the parks most of the previous days, we hadn’t seen very much of the town. We started the day off with coffee and homemade coffeecake at Jackson Hole Roasters, followed it up with spicy meat breakfast burritos at D.O.G – Down on Glen, and then got to walking. There are a lot of shops — MADEFjällräven, Valley Bookstore, Mountain Dandy, and more art galleries and tourist kitsch than you can shake a stick at. There was a shot of espresso had at Cowboy Coffee Company and a beer at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Yes, there are saddles at the bar for seats. Yes, we sat at them. Had to. We had dinner at Local Restaurant & Bar, which was an absolute hit. It was recommended to us by the owner of Mountain Dandy, and it was one of the best meals of the trip. We befriended the bartender and proceeded to eat/drink our way through the menu while watching the NBA playoffs. Highlights included a buffalo tartare, a gigantic fall-off-the-bone pork shank, locally made charcuterie, and chocolate donut holes. The menu rotates often, so you’re probably not going to find much of that on the menu anymore, but I don’t doubt it’s all amazing. I’d gladly trade a few restaurants or ten to bring them to Portland.

That would be our last night in Jackson. The next day we’d head up to the north part of Yellowstone and then on into Montana.