Monday, September 28, 2009

Vacation 2009: Day 2

We again rise bright and early. Wow last night was hot! We expected it to be real cold (all sources say weather here is highly unpredictable and it may even snow) and got new down sleep bags and pads. Guess what, I don't think the temperature even got close to freezing. We initially had two bags zipped together for warmth, but soon abandoned that idea. And I still couldn't go to sleep until I fully unzipped my bag and slept directly on my pad, using the bag as a quilt.

The morning air in the woods is clear and crisp and immediately wakes us up fully. We first take the scenic drive by Jenny Lake. The road goes through the woods and past Jenny Lake, giving us the opportunity to stop and watch the first sun light hit the tetons. We also see a cow moose grazing near the roadside, but don't get a chance to take any good pictures of her.

The south entrance of Yellowstone is just 8 miles north of Grand Teton. Unfortunately the road in between is undergoing some heavy construction and has been reduced to a bumpy dirt road. Not only that, a long stretch of the road only allows one-way traffic at a time, so we have to stop and wait for our turn. The drive is still pleasant because of the scenery. Some aspen leaves have turned yellow. It's a bright, vibrant yellow and contrasts very well with the leaves that remain green. Patches of some red grass complete the color pallete.

I have high hopes of spotting some wild animals along the way, but have no luck till we stop at the entrance to Yellowstone. Entering Yellowstone got my hopes high again. I expect to see herds of bisons for which Yellowstone is famous for. But I get disappointed again. The first wild animal we see in Yellowstone is an elk cow in the parking lot of Grant Village, some 20 miles after entering the park. But again the scenery more than makes up for it. The road follows the snake river for the most park and the grass by the river is just starting to turn into its full fall glory, with a spectrum of color ranging from green to yellow to red covering the riverside.

We quickly check into the campsite (the only reserved campsite of the whole trip) and head for Old Faithful. Old Faithful is probably the most famous landmark of Yellowstone. It's known for its predicatable eruptions and upon arrival we find out that it's only minutes before it's next eruption. Yay!

Old Faithful is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, with hundreds of other geysers, hot springs, and steam holes. Upon arrival we immediately notice this is different from any other parks we've been to. Steams! Steams are coming out of the ground everywhere, you'd think the whole place is on fire. (BTW, a huge wild fire in 1988 burned 1/3 of the park and I think these steams must have played role. People probably just ignored the initial smokes from the fire, confusing them with the steams.) Around Old Faithful are benches and they are all taken now. This is the most crowded area in Yellowstone and feels more like an amusement park than a national park. (Days after returning from the trip I watch Colbert interviewing Ken Burns, maker of the documentary "The National Parks, America's Best Idea". Burns says "... if we hadn't make Yellowstone a national park, it'd be turned into Geyser World", to which Colbert relies "Have you been to Yellowstone? It is Geyser World". I think I agree with Colbert on this one.)

I have to mention the boardwalks in Yellowstone. They are very well maintained and cover all major geo-thermal areas. They keep tourists from stepping on the unstable grounds in these areas, where seemingly solid surface could be just a thin crust covering a pot of boiling water.

Shortly after we find a spot and ready our camera the eruption begins, right on the minute of the predicted 11:28 eruption time! Impressive. I wish people could be as punctual as this geyser. The eruption only lasts a couple minutes but it's a fantastic show of what a super-sized tea pot can do. This makes me tend to believe that some Indian probably had invented the steam engine long before Watt did. As the Old Faithful eruption dies down, we notice another geyser several hundred meters away uphill is erupting, too. We later find out it's the Lions Geyser. From this distance it looks even bigger than Old Faithful. But by the time we take pictures it has died down, too. Here's a tip for future visitors: prioritize Old Faithful lower than any other geysers. If you see another geyser erupting, run to catch it. You'll always get a chance to see Old Faithful as it's the most predictable.

After a quick sandwich lunch we set out to explore the rest of the basin. We first take the small loop trail of Geyser Hill. It's a small area with high concentration of various geothermal features. The ground has been colored by sulfur and other minerals in the water. The water itself appears to have different colors because of various micro-organisms living in the pool. The whole scene is so foreign to what we are used to see it could be from another planet. Geysers don't erupt that often. Most of the time they just bubble, give out steam, or squirt a little bit of water. The Lions Geyser erupts again and this time we are much closer. But the eruption is also much smaller than before, probably just an aftermath of the last one. Just as we are about to move on from Geyser Hill, a lady with a notepad in hand informs us that the Plumes Geyser is about to erupt. She's either a scientist or a maniac geyser watcher, since her notepad has hand-written records of all eruptions of all the geysers around. She also tells us about the Grand Geyser down the way. It's far less predictable compared to Old Faithful, with a 4-hour window for the next eruption. "but even if you had to wait the whole 4 hours to see it, you'd think it's worth it". I don't think we have 4 hours to spend waiting around. We'll just have to try our luck. The Plumes does erupt exactly when the lady says it will. This geyser is quite fun. It's not a big one. But it erupts for 10 seconds, then stops for 10, then erupts again, and repeats 4-5 times.
the Plumesnow you see it
now you don'tnow you see it again
now it's gone

The trail will eventually lead to Morning Glory Pool, famous for its vibrant colors. On the way we'll pass numerous geysers and pools. Among them the Grand Geyser attracts most tourists. Although the geyser lady says it's worth the possible 4-hour wait, and the people who are already waiting around it apparently agree, we decide to move on and, if we are lucky, see its eruption on our way back. Each geyser and hot spring pool we pass are unique in its own way, but the Morning Glory Pool, at the end of the trail, is definitely worth the hike. Its shape resembles that of a morning glory. Its colors are beyond my words, I won't even try.
the Morning Glory

We pass the Grand Geyser again on our way back, and wait for 10 minutes but finally give up. And just as we are stepping away, it starts! It reaches its full glory almost instantaneously. Compared to Old Faithful, this one is taller, wider, just way grander. As the big one is going, some smaller geysers next to it starts to erupt, too. Seen from where we stand, the water and steams cover half the sky, seemingly reaching up and connecting with the clouds. And it just keeps going, lasting about 10 minutes with more or less the same ferocity!
this guy's determined to wait for the Grand!

One our way back to the car we also pass the Castle Geyser, which doesn't show us much more than a couple steams. But we think we are already quite lucky for catching the Grand. It's also at this point that we realize we've got a little sunburned. I got a "raccoon tan" thanks to my sunglasses.
crested pool
the Castle Geyser

Out next stop is the Midway Geyser Basin, where the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring are located. Although this area is much smaller than the Old Faithful area, these two places make it a must-go. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the subject of so many photos and postcards. It's best viewed from the air because on the ground, the steam blocks the view and keeps you from seeing the full spectrum of its colors. It's also big so you can see the whole of it standing so close to it. Next time we should try to see it from a higher ground, maybe from the trail behind it. The Excelsior Geyser Grater is a different story. It used to be a geyser, then one day some 100 years ago, it exploded, leaving this big crater with this unbelievably blue water. Unlike the Grand Prismatic, it's just one color. But the color is magical, enchanting, even. You'd be able to just stare at it for hours and you'd feel you have accomplished something. It's really impossible to describe. You just have to be there and see it. The Excelsior also gives out vast amounts of steam. It's like an outdoor sauna, with rotten egg smell, of couse.
water running from Excelsior to the Firehole river

also in midway geyser basin, but forgot its name.
a flower blooming next to the hot springs!
a bug actually lives in this water!
At this point we both feel we've seen enough geysers and hot springs. But there are even more to see. The Firehole Lake Drive takes us past Great Fountain and White Dome geysers. We can only imagine what the eruptions look like, though, as neither is ready to give a show. The Fountain Paint Pot is also interesting in that it's a pot of boiling mud with a pinkish hue!
the firehole lake
the Fountain Paint Pot

Now we are pretty close to Madison but there doesn't seem to be anything quite interesting there, so we turn back taking the Firehole Canyon Drive. It passes a pretty nice swimming hole, but we are not ready to get wet today, as it's a bit cold for swimming. We also make a stop at Fountain Flat Drive in an attempt to spot some wild life. Nothing but a small blue bird. Till now we've only seen an elk (in a parking lot) and two bisons (walking mid-hill while we drive by) in Yellowstone. Is this the park known for its abundance of wildlife? Where are the bisons that's supposedly blocking the roads? Are we even going to see a bear?
the swimming hole on firehole river. there are two girls in bikinis behind the tree. use your x-ray vision or imagination :)

no luck seeing wildlife, and the rain clouds are closing in!

Out luck improves as we head back to camp, when traffic stops for a big bull elk crossing the road. We'll see more elks before we reach camp. But I can see elks in my "home park" of Yosemite. Please, show me something I haven't seen before.

It's getting dark when we reach camp, and about to rain. We quickly cook and setup tent, then have to eat in the van because it's raining. It's been such a long day and we still haven't seen much of wildlife. Maybe we used up all our luck to see the Grand. Well, that's worth it. Hope we got better luck tomorrow.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vacation 2009: Day 1

>Today the real deal begins!

We rise at 7. And remember this is 7am Mountain Time, so that's 6am to our Californian bio-clock. Not easy for us, but we want to make sure we get the campsite we want. Right out of the town of Jackson we get our first good look of the Tetons. Grand indeed!. They are only several miles away and over 2000m higher than where we stand. BTW, the name "grand teton" means "large teat" in French :-o. (I have say, these people are perverts :-D.)

The visitor center is actually outside the park entrance and is nicely designed. The glass walls give great views to the Tetons. But we don't have time to explore now. We press on to Jenny Lake and shortly after we enter the park we see a small herd of elks, not far from the road. We just snapped pictures from the car and move on. Jenny Lake isn't too far from the entrance and there are several camp sites still available when we get there at around 8:30. Phew. Now we can relax and get some breakfast from the general store. Then we go to the boat dock which is only steps away and get on the ferry to cross the lake. It's also possible to hike around the lake and it's a nice, flat, 2-mile hike. But we are not trying to maximizing hiking distance today :P. Before we arrive at the other side of the lake the ranger pointed to a bald eagle sitting in a dead tree. Hmm... I think I've seen that eagle and that tree before in a postcard. The eagle just sits there, motionless. So I'm able to take a picture through my spotting scope. This technique will be proved to be quite useful at times for the rest of this trip. From the boat dock it's a short uphill hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Berries abound, and they are actually quite tasty (I didn't swallow, though). We turn back at Inspiration Point. The trail continues uphill and can be hiked in a 18-mile loop. But that will have to wait for next time. We have planned too little time for Grand Teton and it deserves a much longer trip dedicated to itself.

Coming off the mountain we head out of the park for some camping supplies and lunch. There's a patch of stores and eateries outside the entrance. But just as we drive across a bridge we see a bunch of people on the bridge, looking down. We join them and see two bull mooses! They don't appear to be doing anything, just lying there down by the river, occasionally swaying their heads. We take advantage of this perfect photo opportunity and continue to get lunch.

There's a saying in Jackson: "If you don't like the weather, just wait for 5 minutes or move 5 miles, and it'll change". Sure enough, it starts to drizzle shortly after we sit down at a table outside, so we move inside the big tent. Juny listens to the rain drops falling on the tent and says "sounds like it's raining pretty hard", to which I reply "No it's not that hard, if it's raining hard..." and just as I am finishing that sentence it starts to really pouring, so I am able to finish the sentence by saying "... it should sound like this." A minute later I notice little white balls bouncing off the lawn. Yup, these are hails. The rain/hail stops as sudden as it starts and as we finish our lunch (BBQ pork and teriyaki chicken) it's good to head out again. But I wonder if anyone is attempting Grand Teton summit today. It doesn't look very pleasant up there.

sipping coke at our table, with rain clouds approaching from behind.

now it starts to rain.

and one minute later the hails hit

Driving up Teton Park Road we stop at several turnouts to enjoy the scenery. It's still cloudy but the mountains look impressive never the less. We can see some wild fire going on across the lake. It was caused by lighting a couple weeks ago and is still burning, giving out quite some smoke. No one seems to be particularly worried about the fire. But the fact that lighting can strike so close to the lake is a bit unnerving. I have always thought it'd happen at higher altitudes.

We stop by the Jackson Lake Lodge, where we'll spend the last night of the trip. We especially like its lounge, with the tall windows framing the tetons perfectly. The meadow behind the lodge, Willow Flat, is known for moose spotting. But we can't find any this time. Throughout the week we'll learn that the best time to see any wild animals is either dawn or dusk. Now is simply too early to see any.

We continue north to Colter Bay, where we hike a small loop trail behind the visitor center. Next to the water we can see plenty of moose tracks. This trail goes through some wooded area and seeing the bear warning signs we start singing. Although the chance of actual bear encounter is quite low, we still don't want to risk startling one. The trails leads to the beach for a good look of the mountains.
Leaving Colter Bay we head back to the camp site, taking the longer route by hwy 191. We give moose spotting another shot at the Oxbow Bend Turnout. When I point my scope at the river bank about half a mile in front of us I see a cow moose drinking water right there. It's kind of far so the picture is actually a crop of a bigger image. We get a much better look through the scope. I'm so glad we got the scope for this trip. It's totally worth it!

The sun is now setting and we enjoyed the view while driving back to camp to cook up our traditional camp dinner: instant noodles with egg and luncheon meat, a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Vacation 2009: Day 0

Day zero of our vacation is supposed to be quite leisurely. The flight is in the afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to sleep in and finish packing. We play cards as usually with tt and rui on Friday night, go to bed at around 1:30, setting the alarm at 10 thinking we'll have plenty of time to sleep and pack.

Damn that guy named Murphy!

At 6am I wake up to the sound of a text message. No one but Pasha ever SMS me. But at this hour it can't be a living person. Only the cold-blooded machines at pingdom would do this to me, alerting me of a site issue. And a site issue it is, keeping me up till 6:30 and can't get back to sleep any more.

When we pull into the long-term parking lot at SFO I still feel sleepy, and that makes my tendency to get motion sickness 100x worse. 10 minutes later when we get off the shuttle bus I'm feeling nauseous and it doesn't get any better until we are 30 minutes in the air. Our flight has been delayed, and when we arrive in Denver we just have enough time to run across the hallway to catch our connecting flight boarding. The flight to Jackson is short, but the descend is bumpy and makes me nauseous again. Fortunately the view out of the window is fantastic and almost makes me forget about feeling sick. After we land I take several minutes to regain myself and by that time the line at the car rental counter is a mile long. Everyone ends up getting a big ass van, because that seems to be the only vehicle they have left, despite of different reservations people have made.

We check in our motel (the most expensive motel I've ever booked at $150 per night) at 9:30 and the only acceptable dining option we can find is a Japanese restaurant. The guy behind the bar is Chinese, and the food is neither Japanese nor Chinese. But we are not that picky after a long day with little food.

Tomorrow we need to get up early. The campsite we plan to spend tomorrow night in, Jenny Lake, is said to be super popular and fills up early, and it's first-come-first-serve.

The ridiculously expensive Anvil Motel.