You have to understand the American mentality in order to grasp the kind of apprehension you have when travelling the States. Bull shitting is the norm and no one seems to care. Hotels will label themselves the best in the State, parks will claim to be the cleanest on earth, beaches will award themselves world class status and McDonalds offers free burgers by means of a survey which never actually materialize. In the UK we call it false advertising, in the US they call it normal. So when I read about how spectacular Yellowstone National park was many years ago, and how it was so amazing it was practically dripping off my page and booking me a flight out there, I was understandable skeptical.
Way back in 1804 Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, dispatched an expedition to the Western United States so that it could be mapped, and that a route be planned from St Louis to the Pacific. Naturally, hiking across an un-hiked land, through unbearable heat, cold, mountains, and canyons is dangerous enough. The group covered around 70 miles per day and took two years to make the round trip. Miraculously, only one member of the expedition died, probably thanks to the Native Americans the group met along the way. Anyway, one of the members of the expedition group; John Colter, decided he liked the west so much, he didn’t return with the expedition and instead somehow found himself stumbling across what he termed “fire and brimstone”, a place he termed ‘Colter’s Hell’. Naturally, he was laughed out of every saloon in which he tried to tell of what he had seen. He described bubbling mud pots, smoking earth, water shooting from prism like pools of water, trees that had turned to minerals, his friends started to think he was going crazy and so Colter decided to return to the area and make more detailed accounts. Taking a few friends with him he pissed off a few Native Americans who didn’t like his friend’s faces and ultimately slotted his entire entourage. By 1810 Colter had been convinced to leave and return to St Louis, and by 1813 he was dead.
Over the next half century reports trickled back to civilization confirming what Colter had first spoke of. And in 1869 an expedition was mounted to finally find out the truth. The details of the expedition can be surmised by stating that in 1872, then president of the United States Ulysses S. Grant signed into law, the first national park and in the world – Yellowstone National Park, some 3,469 sq. miles of natural perfection. Home to almost all of the geothermal ecosystems on earth. Fast forward a century and a bit and things get even more interesting…
Yellowstone sits above the largest super volcano on the planet and straddles Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The lake of lava beneath the ground is around 50 miles, 15 miles wide and going as far as 125 miles down into the earth. Earth quakes are regular (as the park also sits on the continental dived) and no one really knows what will happen when Yellowstone erupts, the information available is that Yellowstone erupts every 600,000 years, with the last eruption 630,000 years ago… When it does erupt, it will be on such a scale that it will be incomparable to any other event that has happened on earth that we know about.
Still, the park attracts about 3.5million visitors each year and from what I saw about 80% of those are Chinese. We made up some of the remaining 20% and as we entered the park ($30 per vehicle, $50 including Grand Teton NP, or $80 for an interagency annual Pass) Yellowstone is mainly alpine and the first half hour drive offered up nothing much at all. I figured we had been done. Suddenly, Abi noticed plumes of (she said smoke, but it was steam) coming from the distance. Signs started popping up and to cut an extremely long tour of Yellowstone short, I will keep it succinct. Cut offs around the circuit of Yellowstone expose you to the highlights of the park. We couldn’t get enough to be honest, our first experience was one which I will never forget, we was walking along a boardwalk and around us were pools of bubbling water, I convinced the kids they were portals to the centre of the earth and they believed me. One might laugh reading that, but see those amazing, colourful and other worldly pools of water, bellowing out steam, hissing away and occasionally shooting water up into the air and it suddenly seems like an obvious explanation. Abi said “I bet this is what it’s like on another planet” and for me that very sentence summed up Yellowstone perfectly. The baron areas of mud, of burned earth scarred by a millennia of geothermal processes, completely void of life, yet so elegantly beautiful in their offering to the eye.
I could sit and write thousands of words about Yellowstone but I would rather not, I want to leave it to the readers imagine. Close your eyes and think of a molten landscape, the smell of Sulfur abrasive in its nature, hot steams flashing past you making you blind for seconds and then clearing to show prismic colors ranging far beyond what the eye is used to. The temperature flits between hot and humid to cold and dry every few seconds, mud around you bubbles, water rushes from the earth with unfathomable force and as high as 185m, the world around you is alive. Welcome to Yellowstone. It is no surprise that Colter was scoffed at 150 years ago, for he had stumbled upon something so out of this world, that had I not heard of it myself, I too would question it now.
Highlights of Yellow Stone for us was the Canyon, Middle Geysers (especially Artists pot and Prism Geyser) and also Old Faithful, which had literally just blown its load 5 minutes before we had arrived. We didn’t have the time to wait the next approximate 91 minutes.
Directly south, about 20 miles is Grand Teton National park. Technically you should get a ticket, but there is actually no entrance and so if you are coming through Yellowstone, you won’t get checked. Grand Teton had been on my hit list for years, so long in fact that when I sent Gemma an image I had taken (the leading image in this post), her response was ‘you finally got it”.
Grand Teton is difficult to put a number on really, no doubt Yellowstone puts a huge number of tourists in the park, and really other than some absolutely spectacular granite mountains, from the road there isn’t a great deal to do. To see the best of Grand Teton you have to hike, and with over 200 miles of trails, there really is something for everyone. The mountain range maxes out at 4,100m, but is extremely imposing and the granite peaks do require some real skill, far more skill than my kids have meaning we couldn’t go for the summit. The range is only around 40 miles long and a drive southbound from Yellowstone takes you right down that route. No doubt it is gorgeous, and for someone not accustomed to mountains, the range will likely blow you away. But for me, I was there for one reason – The barn.
The barn at Grand Teton NP is the most photographed barn in North America, and probably the world. But, I guess thankfully it is not that easy to find without a little help. That means that it instantly rules out the Chinese tourists, and actually when we finally got there, there was just one other guy there.
How to get there: If you are coming from Grand Teton, you should go all the way to the highway, turn left and then look for the sign to Antelope Flatts. If you are coming to Grand Teton, miss the turn off, keep driving a take the turn off for Antelope Flatts. It is about a mile from the NP entrance.
The History behind the barn is short and almost sweet. It is one of a number of buildings, all forming part of the historical Mormon district. A residence of a group of Mormons who were sent from Salt Lake City to see if they could find land worth farming. An expansion if you like. And it is really quite beautiful. I lay on the grass whilst the kids climbed, ran and had fun, all to the back drop of the stunning Grand Teton mountain range.
Usually I would leave the blog there, but as a final note I want to point out. Heading back to Utah we could’ve nipped back to the I-15 and then bolted south. But instead we took the scenic route, which took us through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and wow. Genuinely, if you have been on a road trip to the US and not driven through the meadows, plains, mountain and jaw dropping gorgeous little farming villages of Montana and Wyoming you cannot claim to having been on a Western road trip. The journey was filled with such Western beauty I almost had to slap myself a couple of times to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming. Think chicken little style barns, meadows filled with corn, folks walking around in dungarees and straw hats, horses racing each other, buffalo, cattle ranches, it was mesmerizing and we had 200 miles of it. I wound the windows down, turned up the stereo and sang along with kids on what was one of the best drives we had ever done. It was absolute bliss, and as I stopped just short of the Utah border to pick up a six pack of Budweiser life felt good. (In Utah alcohol is capped at 3.2%). I just wished I had the rest of my family with me.