Autumn 2006
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Wyoming

Welcome to Wyoming For many years, we have wanted to visit the Grand Tetons in the Autumn. If any fall scenery could surpass that of Colorado, that of the Grand Tetons seemed like a promising candidate.

Although our main objective was the Grand Tetons, we knew that nearby Yellowstone National Park would be too irresistible to ignore, so we budgeted one day for an excursion to our favorite national park. We have been to this part of Wyoming several times, but always in the spring or summer, and this would be our shortest visit. One day driving each way and three days exploring the area itself. Five short days and we would be back in Colorado.

An early start got us across the Colorado-Wyoming border by 8 am. We followed the "Laramie cutoff," which is US 287 from Fort Collins to Laramie, Wyoming. Not only is this route shorter than the standard route through Cheyenne, it is much more scenic.

From Laramie, we turned west on I-80 and headed toward Rock Springs. West of Laramie, where the East Fork of the Medicine Bow River crosses the highway, the view of Elk Mountain, a southern Wyoming landmark, was so dramatic with an Aspen-colored foreground that we circled back to take some pictures. This would become a familiar pattern that would expand our drive time by hours. We repeatedly stopped to take pictures and admire the scenery.

Near Bondurant, Wyoming We were expecting a long boring drive from Laramie to Rock Springs, where we would pick up Highway 191 to Jackson, but we found a surprising number of places that motivated a stop.

Near Elk Mountain, we pulled over to view the turbines of the Wyoming Wind Project, which reminded us of the wind farms we saw on our trip to Holland the previous year. Near Fort Fred Steele State Historic Site, I admired the Cretaceous inland sea deposits dramatically displayed across the North Platte River. Just west of Rock Springs, I stopped to examine some of the most interesting road cuts I have seen in several years.

After lunch in Rock Springs, we headed north along US 191 through the Red Desert Basin toward the Wind River Mountains. With the exception of a few distant exposures of the Rock Springs Uplift, this is a fairly scenery-poor part of Wyoming. After about 90 minutes of monotonous driving, we were skirting the Wind River Mountains. We quikly passed a series of towns, any one of which would have been a great destination— Boulder, Pinedale, Cora— but our destination was Jackson Hole.

At this point, we began to stop more frequently, just as we did during the earlier part of the drive. We stopped when we entered the Bridger-Teton National Forest, we stopped at the historic Warren Bridge crossing of the Green River, we stopped at several places along the Hoback River and in Hoback Canyon. Eventually, we began to lose our daylight and we arrived in Jackson just after dark. We had accumulated 520 miles since leaving Broomfield.

Day 1 - Grand Tetons
Mormon Row Barn One of our predetermined goals was a sunrise shot of what may be the most photographed structure in Wyoming. The barn built by Thomas Moulton during the late 1800's is a landmark known by every professional and serious amateur photographer in the United States. It is located along a dirt road known as Mormon Row because of the large number of Mormon homesteads clustered in the area. The highest peaks of the Tetons form a dramatic backdrop to the wooden barn and its almost perfectly flat setting.

We were concerned about distinguishing the Moulton Barn from nearby less photogenic structures in the early morning darkness, so we left Jackson an hour before sunrise. Our concerns were groundless. We just had to look for the cars pulled over on the side of the road. For some reason, it had not occurred to me that there would be a photographer frenzy waiting for us. We arrived at least thirty minutes before sunrise and there were already a dozen tripods, along with a couple of mobile shooters. By sunrise, at least two dozen tripods were lined up along the wire fence.

We got our sunrise shots, but later decided that they were not as impressive as we had expected. The barn is potentially an outstanding subject, but the Autumn sunrise light was not as warm as the spring and summer early morning shots. Moreover, a dark haze, which we later discovered was low-altitude smoke from controlled burning throughout Teton County, degraded the clarity of our images. By the time the sun reached the spot at which we were standing, our ears and fingers were numb from the chilly air. We returned to the Moulton Barn on the last day of our stay in the area and shot a series of mid-morning photographs that were much more satisfying.

After leaving Mormon Row, we headed toward what is probably the most photographed scene in the Grand Tetons— Oxbow Bend. On the way we stopped at Blacktail Ponds Overlook, where we watched a cow moose with a calf feeding in the distance. We also stopped at the Snake River Overlook. Here we saw something that concerned us. The daylight was bright enough that we realized that a haze we had noticed earlier at Mormon Row was not early morning fog, but was the result of controlled burns that were being conducted in the park. Was this going to ruin the great Autumn scenery that we traveled 500 miles to photograph? A park ranger assured us that the smoke would dissipate as the mid-morning winds began to stir the air. It turned out she was right.

Oxbow Bend Oxbow Bend is the subject of countless postcards, calendars and refrigerator magnets. At the time we visited the Tetons, an Aspen-dominated image of the Grand Tetons from Oxbow Bend adorned the cover of the current edition of Outdoor Photographer magazine. In the still waters of an oxbow lake, an abandoned meander of the Snake River, the image of Mount Moran, one of the dominant peaks of the Tetons, is reflected with virtually no loss in color or clarity.
Oxbow Bend is also known for abundant wildlife, especially moose and waterfowl. Like the barn along Mormon Row, this area had more photography equipment than a Wolf Camera outlet. I have visited this spot many times, but this was the first in Autumn.

After leaving Oxbow Bend we drove to the top of Signal Mountain and hiked the short distance to Jackson Point, 800 feet above the surrounding terrain. The overlook is named after William Henry Jackson, photographer for of the 1871 Hayden Expedition that first explored and studied Yellowstone in a scientific and systematic manner. W. H. Jackson, incidentally, is not the person that the area of Jackson Hole and the town of Jackson are named after. This was David Jackson, a fur trapper that visited the area a half-century before the Hayden Expedition.

Jackson Point offers panoramas in several directions. Great views to the north, east, and southeast, but the most spectacular, of course, are west, toward the Tetons. Once again, just as at Oxbow Bend, Mount Moran is the premier attraction of Jackson Point. The difference is that at this location the foreground is dominated by the water and islands of Jackson Lake.

Cathedral Group After Signal Mountain and Jackson Point, we hit a few more turnouts, including Mount Moran Turnout and Mountain View Turnout, but the most impressive was Cathedral Group Turnout. The ruggedness of the Tetons was perfectly encapsulated from this view. We then had one of the worst meals in months, if not years, consisting of deli sandwiches from Dornan's, the main park concessionaire at Moose Junction. Choices were limited, most of the visitor services were closed for the season.

With the Moulton Barn and Oxbow Bend checked off the list, the next activity that we were most looking forward to was a ferry ride across Jenny Lake to the head of the Cascade Canyon trail system. The ride was $9 roundtrip and took about ten minutes. The boat was little more than benches on pontoons, but it served its purpose.

From the boat dock, we first hiked to Hidden Falls. Carolyn brought her tripod to practice some slow shutter-speed shots to soften the water, but the falls were too brightly illuminated to avoid overexposure. She tried a neutral density filter, but it was still overexposed.

From Hidden Falls, we hiked up to Inspiration Point. A few hundred feet along this moderately steep trail and we realized that we should not have brought our coats, despite the fact that they were appreciated on the ferry ride across the lake. The view from Inspiration Point was disappointing— nothing spectacular by Teton standards, but we passed some great exposures of the Archean rocks that comprise the core of the Wyoming Province. After we hiked down to the boat dock, rode the ferry back to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, and drove to Jackson, we were ready to call it a day.

Day 2 - Yellowstone
Yellowstone South Entrance For the second day in a row, we were up by 5 am because we wanted to reach Yellowstone National Park while we still had the well-defined shadows and warm light of the morning sun. The southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park is about a 90 minute drive from Jackson. The most direct route is through Grand Teton National Park and, resisting the most powerful of instincts, we only stopped twice as we passed through the park.

Our first pre-Yellowstone stop was Oxbow Bend. We timed our drive so we would reach this west-facing view point at sunrise. It was more crowded than the previous day. I've never seen so many Manfrotto tripods and image stabilization lenses in all my travels. As with the Moulton Barn, I preferred the mid-morning light to the sunrise shots.

Our final stop before leaving Grand Teton National Park was Willow Flats Overlook near Jackson Lake Lodge. We watched a cow and calf wander among the brush immediately below the overlook for nearly 30 minutes. Another moose watcher, who lives only a few hours away and is a regular visitor to the park, told me that the calf was born in the lodge parking lot because the mother was wary of a grizzly bear that frequented the area. Areas near the lodge were safe because the grizzly was afraid of humans.

After leaving Willow Flats we did not stop again until we reached the southern entrance to Yellowstone. Only about ten miles separates the north boundary of Grand Teton National Park from the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. We celebrated our arrival in Yellowstone by stopping for the mandatory entrance sign pictures.

The southern road into Yellowstone provides a fascinating glimpse into both the constructive and destructive power of pyroclastic volcanism. Running alongside the Lewis River, this road traverses some of the youngest welded ash and rhyolite flows in the park (< 100 thousand years old). One exposure at the Lewis Falls Turnout could have occupied my attention for hours. The rocks exhibited all the indications of high-energy volcanic deposits— banded flow patterns, quenched obsidian rims, and vesicular brecciated margins. While I studied the rhyolite flows, Carolyn was preoccupied using Lewis Falls as a practice subject for the slow shutter-speed techniques that she had learned in\ a recent photography class.

Nearly twenty years after the great wildfires scorched this entire corner of Wyoming and garnered worldwide attention, evidence of the destruction remains evident along the rims of the Lewis River Canyon. Yet signs of regeneration are ubiquitous. Bright green shrubs thrive among the carcasses of towering charred trees. This section of the park, at least, is considerably greener than our first post-fire visit in 1992. At some point along the south entrance road, we crossed the continental divide, which on the Yellowstone plateau is unimpressive.

Our first major destination was the Grant Village-West Thumb area. Even before we parked the car, we could see that most of the visitor services were closed for the season. We followed the boardwalks among the hotsprings, fumaroles and mud pots. The first thing I noticed when we neared the hydrothermal area was the "Yellowstone odor" that I came to know so well during my college summers spent in the park. The geyser and hotspring basins of Yellowstone feel and smell like very humid warm air tinged with hydrogen sulfide. It's a distinctive smell. One visit and you will always remember.

Bison near Gibbon Meadows After an hour of wandering among the West Thumb hydrothermal features, we headed north to Upper Geyser Basin, home of Old Faithful. Along the way, we stopped at a few more rhyolite exposures and at the Kepler Cascades Overlook.

Yellowstone contains an astonishing two-thirds of the world's geysers. The Upper Geyser Basin alone contains one-quarter of the world's geysers. Named after the upper reaches of the Firehole River in which it is located, the Upper Geyser Basin is home to the world's most famous, and most photographed, geyser— Old Faithful. Although not even a candidate for the most spectacular geyser in the park, Old Faithful is notable for a convenient (from the tourist's perspective) tendency to erupt at relatively frequent and predictable intervals. This reliable behavior has been consistent for at least one and a half centuries.

On average, Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes. The shortest recorded interval was 22 minutes and longest 120 minutes. The physics of superheated groundwater and the physical characteristics of the subterranean passages conspire to guarantee a minimum eruption height of 100 feet. Most eruptions readily exceed this value.

We arrived about an hour before the next anticipated eruption, so we wandered around the lesser known hydrothermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin. As time for the display neared, we decided to view it from the "back" side, directly opposite the metal benches in front of the visitor center. The eruption occurred more or less on schedule. It looked exactly as it had on the many previous occasions I have witnessed this event. Our post-eruption activity at Upper Geyser Basin consisted of wandering around Old Faithful Inn and enjoying some ice cream.

Next on our list was the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Along the way, we stopped at two nearby geyser basins. The first was Biscuit Basin, named for several prominent biscuit-shaped hydrothermal deposits destroyed by the reactivation of a once dormant geyser.

Midway Geyser Basin, our second post-Old Faithful stop, includes one of the most colorful hydrothermal features on the planet— Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, the beauty of the spring can only be appreciated from above. Since we weren't in a helicopter, the walk up to the spring was disappointing. From the boardwalk, only the hazy steam was visible.

We couldn't resist a brief detour through the 800 ft high Firehole Canyon. The centerpiece of this one-way road just north of Midway Geyser Basin is Firehole Falls. The rock exposures in the canyon are explosive silicic volcanism at its best.

After leaving Firehole Canyon, we expected to reach Canyon Village, the tourist focal point of the Yellowstone canyon area, well before dusk. We were, however, repeatedly delayed because we continually spotted wildlife, mainly elk and bison, along the park roads. We stopped at least a half dozen times. Wildlife is not difficult to find. Just look for the traffic jams. My addiction to geology was obvious at several locations. While all others were taking pictures of the wildlife, I was checking out nearby road cuts.

Carolyn at Lower Falls We finally reached Canyon Village about an hour before dusk and followed the North Rim Drive to Inspiration Point, Grandview Point, and Lookout Point. The first two stops offer only views of the canyon, not the falls. Lookout Point offered our first glimpse of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. At 308 feet, considerably higher than Niagara Falls, the Lower Falls are an impressive sight.

The best view from the North Rim Drive is from the end a trail that begins at Lookout Point and descends 500 ft into the canyon. The Red Rocks Point trail is slightly less than a mile in length. Going down is easy. Returning to the canyon rim is obviously more of a challenge. We had the trail and the overlook to ourselves. Apparently, the late hour discouraged others from making the effort.

After twenty minutes at Red Rocks Point, we began to lose our light. Even when we first arrived, conditions for photography were well past optimal, and soon it was difficult even to study the rocks. We began the dreaded climb out of the hole that we had gotten ourselves into.

The drive back to Jackson was difficult. It was a long day. We were out of bed by 5:00 am and had not stopped since. To cap it off, we climbed the 500 ft from Red Rocks Point to the parking area at the canyon rim. I was pretty tired and had a long drive ahead of me. It took us neary 2½ hours to return to Jackson. I never exceeded the speed limit because I was terrified of hitting a deer or an elk. Somehow I managed to stay awake and alert for the entire drive. I vaguely remember getting some late night fast food and then fell immediately to sleep.

Day 3 - Back to the Tetons
Moose Stalking Our plans for this day were limited. We would just wing it, which is a remarkable deviation from our travel ethic. We began by refusing to get up at 5:00 am again. The skied were gray and threatened rain, so we were in no hurry.

The only remaining "must see" item on our list was the Chapel of the Transfiguration near Moose Junction. Noted for a window behind the alter that frames one of the more rugged spans of the Tetons, this is another mandatory pilgrimage for the photography-obsessed visitor. The door to the chapel was open. It was chilly inside. We got our pictures, looked around and headed to the Moose Junction Visitor Center where I purchased some books on Wyoming geology.

A park ranger suggested that we drive along the Gros Ventre River if we were interested in spotting some Moose. Following her advice, we saw a group of cars haphazardly pulled over along the small dirt road leading to the Gros Ventre Campground. Sure enough. There was a bull moose, at least one cow, a few calves lying in the brush.

To everyone's disappointment, the bull moose never stood up. The only proof of his existence was the pair of antlers extending above the brush. It could have been a prop put there by some prankster the previous night for all we knew. The cow did stand and wander about for about five minutes before lying down again.

One person I spoke to had been there more than two hours and the bull had not moved. Moose attract three of nature's most notorious pests— gnats, mosquitoes, and photographers. This bull moose couldn't do much about the first two, but he wasn't going to give the photographers what they wanted.

Mormon Row was nearby, so we revisited the Moulton Barn. On this occasion, we were the only people there. We discovered another, slightly less scenic, barn a quarter-mile north of the Moulton Barn. The second barn was near a very colorful abandoned house. Because the light was much stronger than our early morning visit two days earlier, I could clearly see the famous Gros Ventre landslide in the distant hills.

Near Moose Junction, Carolyn spotted a moose just off the road. No cars were haphazardly pulled over, so this was our find. We found a parking area nearby and slowly walked toward the moose. It spotted us when we were still at least a hundred feet away and began frantically running. Apparently, this moose was famililar with photographers and wanted nothing to do with them.

The moose incident was at the foot of Blacktail Butte and, walking back to the car, I noticed a trail leading to the top of the butte. While Carolyn photographed some wildflowers, I followed the steep trail for about twenty minutes until it faded away. The effort was rewarded with some impressive views of the Grand Tetons with Jackson Hole in the foreground. It would be my last great view of the mountains on this trip. As I was admiring the view, it began to rain. Soon the clouds obscured the reason we were there and we spent a rainy afternoon exploring the town of Jackson.

The drive to Colorado was uneventful. We were denied the luxury of stopping at will because I was scheduled to take a geology course at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature that evening.

Photo Gallery
Green River Moose Junction View Blacktail Ponds

Cathedral Group Bison near Moose Junction Chapel View

Chapel of the Transfiguration Moose near Gros Ventre Campground Mormon Row Barn

Midway Geyser Basin Bison along Norris-Madison Road Red Rocks Point Trail

Carolyn Mueller Inspiration Point Trail Lower Falls Elk along Madison-Norris Road