Friday, September 15, 2017

A Trip to Yellowstone National Park - Lessons Learned

And now we are on to the lessons learned portion of the trip.  The good, the bad, the ugly...the stuff to remember for next time.

Also, please take into account that this is all coming from our personal perspective.  Remember that we are Ohioans and we are used to very humid environments and warm temperatures.  The fluctuation in temperatures from day to night is not as drastic as those temperatures in the high desert.

Gear and Supplies
I must admit that for the first time being to a place like this, we did pretty well on packing for the hikes and photography.  Some misses, though:

Hiking:  The temperature swings were there, but it was warmer than we had been lead to believe from our research.  We brought along hats and hoodies...but didn't really need it.  I'm not going to say that the advice was bad...perhaps this particular trip was just different than the norm.  Again, coming from Ohio, our perception of the situation is probably different than someone else's.

Photography:  I had ordered some neutral density(ND) and polarizing filters for my lenses, but there was an issue with the delivery and they did not make it to me before the trip.  There were times when a polarizer would have helped or an ND would have made things easier.  Will definitely have those for the next trip.

Lessons Learned: the climate is a lot more erratic than you might be used to, so plan for the worst case scenario.   The camera and focal length I chose were near perfect for me....however, the strong high desert sun and reflective surfaces could have benefited from a polarizing and neutral density filter.

As mentioned before, Ohio is a humid place in the summer months.  Wyoming in late August/Early September is not.  Coupled with the haze of the surrounding states forest fires, the climate played havoc with my sinus'.   We got so dry that nose bleeds were common as were inflamed nostrils.   I needed quite a bit of nasal spray (Flonase) as well as a NeilMed Sinus Rinse to help get me through.  The local Walgreens also stocked a NeilMed NasoGel that helped to keep my sinus' properly lubricated from the dry environment.

Beyond that, we both found the temperatures to be great most of the days in the park.  It rained a little bit on one of the days, but it was barely enough to get anything wet.  Had we not been out in it, I would not have believed it rained at all.

Since it is dry, and the dry heat doesn't feel the same as a humid heat....STAY HYDRATED!  The 3 liter Camelbak units were great as they carried plenty of water for a long day of hiking and site seeing.

Lessons Learned:   If you are not used to dry climates, then bring along items that will help you cope with it.  Since it is very dry and not humid, you may over look your hydration.  Keep plenty of water and snacks with you.  It is very easy for the time to get away from you if you are not careful.

Estimating Your Capabilities
Not going to lie...we were so excited that our first day we hiked and drove a ton.    We were absolutely exhausted come the end of the we took the next day and stayed in Cody.  Travel may have also played a role in the fatigue as well.   It was OK, too as the temperatures that day were the hottest they would be all week, so staying local and visiting some of the sites in Cody was a good alternative.

Before leaving, I had already researched a lot of the trails through various sites and books.  They normally rated them on a 1 to 5 scale.  As with anything, you'll want to take these as subjective.   While there were definitely some that were harder than others - none were insurmountable.  All the same - we stuck to the ones rated 1 through 3 for this first trip.   Being our first time here, we really wanted to get an idea of what is there.  Subsequent trips will allow us time to do more of a "deep dive" into the park.   This trip gave us the much needed intel to have a much better second through "nth" trips.

At a minimum, we hiked no less than 5 miles per day on trails but usually more to give you a frame of reference.

Lessons Learned:  Know what your physical limitations are and work your site seeing and hiking around it.  Cell service is very poor in most of the park, so if you push yourself too far - professional help could be a long way off.

Expectations on the Sites
A lot of hype was built up on the thermal features.  To be honest, we were not really that impressed by them.  Sure, the geysers were fun and Morning Glory Pool and Grand Prismatic Spring were beautiful....but beyond that - it was of very little visual interest to us.  From a geological perspective - they are fascinating to be sure.

Old Glory was fun and a great way to see a geyser go off.  However, we found that the other geysers behind Old Faithful to be just as fascinating.  For example - Beehive Geyser was a great show.  What we did not know was that the park rangers broadcast over a specific radio frequency and you can monitor that for park activity.  We were walking along the far west side of Old Faithful and heard on a passerby's radio "we have a water indicator at Beehive".  My wife asked what that meant and the guy told us that within 10 minutes Beehive Geyser should erupt and it was worth our time to get there.  Next time, I will be doing research on a suitable radio and the frequencies they broadcast on.

Bear Spray.  We rented a unit for the week.  Since we were unfamiliar with the location we decided to make sure that we took proper precautions.  While there we did see a black and grizzly bear.  The black bear was much closer....and some of the trails were marked with signs stating that bear activity was seen recently on the trails we were on.   I just assumed that we might run into anything wild in the park at any time.  Better safe than sorry.

I do hope that more money is placed into the Yellowstone Park for upkeep of some of the boardwalk areas.  Specifically Mammoth - a lot of the boardwalks were in horrible shape with lots of cracked  and loose boards.  I'm 235 lbs and I did not feel safe in certain areas of the terraces.

When the second piece of paper they hand you after your park pass receipt states, "Yellowstone is a dangerous place".  Always keep that in mind.  I'm not saying to be paranoid.  I'm not saying you shouldn't go.   Just a friendly reminder to all that you are the visitor here and the animals here are wild and potentially dangerous.  This is as close to a safari type environment as the United States will probably ever have.
In a way, it is very refreshing.   The lack of guardrails in places, the open environments is a far cry from the "nanny state" mentality that a lot of us must live under in our everyday lives.  They tell you right from the get is dangerous here, proceed at your own risk, have a great time...your safety is on you!  I LOVE IT.

Lessons Learned:  Yellowstone is hard to get a grasp around in your brain if you've never been.  I recommend doing as we did and spend a day just getting your bearings,  Drive the grand loop and hit some of the major points, noting what you want to go back to and explore in depth.
No one is going to hold your hand here - your safety is on you.  Prepare accordingly.
Don't allow your first impression of some sites tarnish your outlook on other similar sites.

The People - Staff and Visitors

Staff:   I'm not sure that I've run into a park staff that is more helpful, friendly and caring.  I really mean that.  It is a genuine love they have for the park and it really shows through.   We stumbled across a ranger led hike to Wraith Falls.  The volunteer ranger named Emily not only gave us great information, but was very personable.  We wanted to be her friend.  Not only did she tell us about the falls, but stopped along the way to discuss other features within eye sight of the trail.  Between stops, she took the time to talk with everyone in the group individually and learn a little bit about them.

At Canyon Village, Ranger Susan gave us a lot of great recommendations for our visit.  She is the one that turned us on to a sunset drive through South Fork Road.  She also mentioned the scenic Chief Joseph trail drive to the NorthEast Entrance.  While doing that trip, we went through the Montana town of Cooke City and Silver Gate.   Silver Gate greeted us with an early morning breakfast at a local restaurant - one of the best we had the whole week.

People:  I'd say that 99% of the people - people being visitors - were awesome.  Kind, generous, willing to have a conversation with a total stranger.  They come from all walks of life as well as all points of the globe.  Yellowstone brings them in.  What to look out for?  We did witness some incidents that could have been handled better.

For instance, we were by Dunraven Pass and there was a black bear spotted down an embankment by the road.  It jammed up traffic pretty good.  Not 40 yards from the spot was a parking lot for a trail.  Some people got so over whelmed that they started pulling over into a non-existent shoulder on the road.   One woman almost drove her Jeep over the embankment.  It was so bad that one wheel was off the roadway.  When she tried to correct her error, she came inches from almost hitting another car behind her on the road.

Another incident occurred at Mammoth.  The main parking area was full, and people were driving the lot waiting for other cars to leave.  One person stopped and waited, while another pulled around her to get into position for a spot on the other side of the lot.  Person 1 misjudged the intentions of the car they were waiting on.  Person 2 got a parking spot.  Person 1 decide that this was unfair and drove by Person 2 and scolded them for "taking their spot".  A very public and shaming scolding.
It was such a shame too as there was a lot just to the other side of Mammoth that had 20-30 open spots and an access to the boardwalk from there.

Lesson Learned:  Talk with people, both visitors and staff alike.  99% of the people there were more than happy to chat up for a minute and share what they know or saw.  You'll get some great insider tips on what to see, some less traveled trails and even sightings of wildlife or geothermal feature eruptions.  Keep your cool and always look for alternatives.  We found that there was plenty of parking and ample access to everything if you are patient.

Well, that's the end of exhaustive view of the trip my wife and I made you Yellowstone.  Please, feel free to comment or email if you have any questions, tips, hints or information that you might deem useful to those of us that may want to go or plan to return to Yellowstone some day.

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