Contents
  1. 1. Travel Guide
  2. 2. Day 0 Flying
  3. 3. Day 1 Hiking in Glacier National Park
  4. 4. Day 2 Change of Plans, Escaping the Haze
  5. 5. Day 3 Hiking in Grand Teton
  6. 6. Day 4 Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  7. 7. Day 5 Staying at Old Faithful Lodge
  8. 8. Day 6 Mammoth Hot Springs
  9. 9. Day 7 Finally Spotting a Grizzly Bear
  10. 10. Day 8 Colter Bay in Grand Teton
  11. 11. Day 9 Kayaking on Jenny Lake
  12. 12. Day 10 Returning Home
  13. 13. Trip Summary

This content was automatically generated by gpt-4-turbo-preview (No human review). The original post is in Chinese.

This blog post shares our road trip in September this year. Here is our final self-driving route: google maps

After more than two months of grinding through coding problems/interviews for job hunting, over twenty days waiting for offer negotiations, and lastly, enduring about ten days of COVID-19 plus a heatwave, I was more than eager to start our summer trip this year. Fortunately, cuihao and I both tested negative for COVID-19 the day before our trip, thus kicking off our journey on the road.

Travel Guide

Our trip was planned around three national parks: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park. Given the remoteness of Glacier and Yellowstone, visiting them separately would be challenging, so we decided to visit them together. Moreover, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are so close to each other that it makes perfect sense to visit them in one go.

For this trip, we referred to the following guides, as well as official national park websites.

During mid-September, the parks are in the shoulder season, presumably with fewer tourists, but rental and accommodation costs remain high. In our previous road trips, we often saved money through camping and sleeping in the car. However, after enduring ten days of COVID-19 and a heatwave, we agreed to treat ourselves better this time and opted for hotels or cabins throughout the trip, which significantly increased our expenses. Our journey began at John Wayne Airport (SNA), flying to Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), rented a car in Kalispell, then drove to Yellowstone, and finally returned the car at Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), flying back to SNA from JAC.

After thorough research, we looked forward to:

  • Hiking in Glacier National Park, with its glacier lakes/mountains/glaciers
  • Exploring geothermal features and wildlife in Yellowstone National Park
  • Hiking, mountains, and autumn scenery in Grand Teton National Park

Day 0 Flying

Our flight was at 5:30 PM, from SNA to SLC, then connecting from SLC to FCA. With a checked bag, we arrived at the airport around 4 PM, leaving us an hour after checking in and going through security. Normally, we would have dinner around 6 or 7 PM, so we didn’t buy anything to eat at 4 PM. After arriving at SLC, we forgot about the time difference and almost missed our connecting flight thinking we had an hour to spare for dinner. Thus, we missed our dinner opportunity again and hurried onto the plane. By the time we arrived in Kalispell, it was nearly 11 PM. After deboarding, luggage collection, and car pickup, we were on the road by 11:30 PM. Starving and having only had some snacks on the plane, we sought something to eat before checking into the hotel. Realizing Kalispell was utterly desolate at that hour with many places, including McDonald’s, closed, we eventually found pizza and chicken wings at Papa John’s. By the time we checked into the inn, it was past midnight. When we finally went to bed, it was already past 1 AM. The lesson learned is never to book flights that arrive so late, as arriving around 10 PM at a place is incredibly inconvenient; also, always purchase dinner ahead when flying or bring snacks.

Day 1 Hiking in Glacier National Park

Arriving in Kalispell made our cough worse, initially thinking it was COVID making a comeback. To our surprise, the next morning unveiled a hazy and even slightly reddish sky, hinting at the massive impact of wildfires, explaining our continuous coughing.

The main task today was gathering supplies. We needed to visit Costco, Target, REI, among others, to buy dry food, vegetables, fruits, snacks, tissues, gas canisters, and importantly, bear spray. We had planned to ship our own bear spray to the hotel we stayed in last night, but due to a delay (caused by forgetting amidst our COVID-19 preparations), we had to purchase a new one (as it turns out, the bear spray was just a burden).

After stocking up close to noon, we finally headed to Glacier National Park. About an hour’s drive later, we checked into Motel Lake McDonald, rested a bit, and then tackled a simple trail: Avalanche Lake Trail. The round trip of approximately 10 kilometers ends at a glacier lake, Avalanche Lake, offering majestic mountain reflections. Despite the crowd, we completed the trail in over three hours, just before sunset. This trail was meant to be just an appetizer for Glacier hikes but turned out to be the only trail we completed.

Post-hike, we visited Lake McDonald Lodge and its lakeside, missing the sunset by minutes. The haze over the lake was sharp, with the sky turning a faint pink, permeating the air with a burnt scent.

Day 2 Change of Plans, Escaping the Haze

Initially, we planned to tackle the challenging Highline Trail, a one-way 18km from different starting/ending points or a 24km round trip. However, waking up to significantly poor air quality prompted a change of plans. Cuihao found the PM2.5 levels to be above 200. Seeing the severity of today’s haze, we decided against hiking for health reasons and the disappointment of compromised views. Instead, we opted for a scenic drive along Going-To-The-Sun Road from Lake McDonald to St. Mary, stopping at viewpoints along the way. The haze persisted throughout, making every scenic spot less than satisfactory. With all distant mountains obscured by fog and visibility poor, even places like Weeping Wall, which was entirely dry, added to our disappointment.

Reaching St. Mary by 11 AM, we had initially planned a four-day stay at Glacier, considering other hikes. However, the smoke made us eager to leave. After weighing our options, we decided to leave Glacier at noon for Yellowstone National Park, adjusting our accommodations for the next three nights and forfeiting that night’s lodging fee (due to cancellation policies).

A nine-hour drive later, we arrived near Grand Teton, traversing through continuous haze (indicative of the extensive fire impact across Montana). Passing through Yellowstone, we spotted a brown bear, two bison, and three deer, our first wild bear sighting from a distance. Staying at Headwaters Campground and RV Park in a cabin for the next three days proved advantageous due to its central location between Yellowstone and Grand Teton, with excellent signal and public restroom/shower facilities allowing for hot showers.

Day 3 Hiking in Grand Teton

Blessed with clear skies on the third day, we headed for Grand Teton’s most popular site, Jenny Lake, to hike Cascade Canyon Trail. Arriving around 11 AM, finding parking was a struggle, taking nearly twenty minutes to secure a spot. From Jenny Lake’s eastern shore, we took a shuttle to the western shore to start our hike. Along the way, we encountered four moose; considering the shuttle’s last operation at 4 PM, we had to hurry back not to miss it. We made it back to the dock in time, catching the shuttle after a brisk downhill trek.

Day 4 Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Rain on the fourth morning directed us towards Yellowstone National Park. With West Thumb closed, we headed directly to Yellowstone Lake, North America’s largest high-altitude lake (above 7000ft), and then to Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. In Hayden Valley, we saw numerous bison and three elk, besides visiting Mud Volcano and various geothermal features. Our afternoon stop at the canyon showed us a busy spot with many tourists and tour buses. Encountering more bison on the way back, reaffirmed Yellowstone as the easiest park to spot large wildlife.

Day 5 Staying at Old Faithful Lodge

On the fifth day, we left Headwaters for Yellowstone Airport-WYS to pick up a friend, restocking in West Yellowstone before re-entering the park. We visited Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin (Grand Prismatic Spring), and Old Faithful Geyser. Staying in Old Faithful Lodge’s cabin, we enjoyed much better amenities than at Headwaters and an excellent location to view Old Faithful Geyser eruptions directly. After dinner, we strolled nearby to witness Old Faithful erupt twice – once in the rain and again under the sunset for a full show.

Day 6 Mammoth Hot Springs

Rain dominated our sixth day. Heading north from Old Faithful, we explored Norris Geyser Basin and then Mammoth Hot Springs (boasting an excellent Visitor Center). At Mammoth Hot Springs Lower Terrace, heavy rain soaked through my REI GTX jacket. Hoping to see wildlife, we also drove Blacktail Plateau Drive and towards Lamar Valley but only found more bison, elk, and our first sighting of pronghorns. Interestingly, we saw a rainbow on the way back, somewhat compensating for the day’s constant downpour.

Day 7 Finally Spotting a Grizzly Bear

Day seven began without rain but with thick fog. After watching Old Faithful erupt and walking a nearby trail, we ventured back to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, covering the spots missed previously and learning about Yellowstone’s geology at the Visitor Center. We then spotted a grizzly bear, confirmed by the gathered crowd and their long lenses. Despite only seeing its back for an hour as it appeared to dig roots, its distinct shoulder height and size marked it unmistakably as a grizzly. Later, we aimed for a clearer view of the Grand Prismatic Spring from an Overlook, appreciating its beauty despite the biting cold wind at biscuit basin and black sand basin.

Day 8 Colter Bay in Grand Teton

Moving south from Yellowstone on the eighth day, we returned to Grand Teton National Park. Upon reaching Colter Bay Visitor Center, we joined a Ranger Program for a 4 km hike, enriched by the ranger’s insights on geography, history, and wildlife. We caught sight of five deer, presumed to be mule deer. Later, we visited several viewing spots along Grand Teton highways (Signal Mountain, Oxbow Bend, Elk Ranch Flats Turnout), though afternoon backlighting made the mountain views underwhelming.

A post-dinner walk led us to an evening program in the campground, where staff, by a campfire, introduced wildlife calls, especially those of different elk ages and sexes. The performance included impressive elk call imitations, aside from sounds of moose, bison, and bears, making it a highly entertaining evening.

Day 9 Kayaking on Jenny Lake

Continuing our stay in Grand Teton on the ninth day, we caught the sunrise at Oxbow Bend, viewing Mt Moran among many photographers. However, morning mist partially obscured the peaks until clearer conditions post-sunrise, which seemed prime for photography. Afterward, having to turn back from a closed Jenny Lake Rd, we hiked Moose Ponds Trail, indeed spotting a female moose. We then kayaked on Jenny Lake, facing larger waves when crossing. Completing the day with a hike around Taggart Lake Loop and spotting pronghorns and hearing elk calls, we wrapped up with a serene view of moose by Moose Wilson Rd. The day was eventful with hikes and kayaking, showcasing the best of Grand Teton’s landscapes, especially in the morning light.

Day 10 Returning Home

Our journey home on the tenth day began with the hassle of shipping the unused bear spray from Jackson (as it’s not allowed on planes). Jackson’s crowded and narrow streets left a poor impression. Facing a delay at Jackson Hole airport and additional delays at SLC, we rerouted via SLC to LAX, finally reaching home much later than planned.

Trip Summary

We covered 1422 miles on this trip, with the route again here: google maps

This trip was fraught with difficulties, primarily due to Montana’s wildfires significantly shortening our Glacier National Park visit from four days to merely a day, not to mention closures in Yellowstone and weather challenges like rain and fog. We missed seeing snow-capped mountains and autumn foliage in Grand Teton due to timing and environmental conditions.

Yellowstone National Park’s array of geothermal features, wildlife, and the Grand Canyon were the trip’s highlights, showcasing the incredible geological activity due to past volcanic eruptions and frequent earthquakes.

The trip was exhausting with poor sleep quality despite not camping or sleeping in cars, attributing to high altitudes affecting my rest. My sleep quality was at its lowest, even worse than during high-stress work periods, essentially experiencing burnout for ten consecutive days.

The trip cost totaled $2600, breaking down to food at $300, fuel $210, car rental $570, plane tickets $20, accommodations $1200, and miscellaneous expenses $300. This trip turned out to be our longest, most expensive, least enjoyable, and most frustrating vacation in three years. Life is such that, despite vacation days, spending money, and detailed planning, both joy and annoyances are part of the journey.

Contents
  1. 1. Travel Guide
  2. 2. Day 0 Flying
  3. 3. Day 1 Hiking in Glacier National Park
  4. 4. Day 2 Change of Plans, Escaping the Haze
  5. 5. Day 3 Hiking in Grand Teton
  6. 6. Day 4 Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  7. 7. Day 5 Staying at Old Faithful Lodge
  8. 8. Day 6 Mammoth Hot Springs
  9. 9. Day 7 Finally Spotting a Grizzly Bear
  10. 10. Day 8 Colter Bay in Grand Teton
  11. 11. Day 9 Kayaking on Jenny Lake
  12. 12. Day 10 Returning Home
  13. 13. Trip Summary