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Yellowstone & Grand Tetons Part 4: Grand Tetons Wildlife & Yellowstone Lake

This is Part 4 of a planned 5 part series on Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We will spend 5 days and nights exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities; our travels will take us on a circuitous route from Bozeman, MT to Jackson Hole, WY and back again. In Part 4, we'll travel north from Jackson Hole, through Grand Tetons National Park and back into Yellowstone. Along the way, we'll search for a moose, encounter a herd of buffalo, take in the panoramic views at Calcite Springs, visit the Tower Falls Overlook, and spend the night at Yellowstone Lake.

It's day 4 of our vacation, and this morning we've awoken in downtown Jackson, WY. It's also the fourth day in a row I'm awake before dawn which is unprecedented. They say the early bird catches the worm, but what I'm really hoping to catch this morning is a moose sighting. I'm quite determined to see one before I head back east, and this morning seems like my last real opportunity. However, Downtown Jackson is not the ideal spot to find a moose; so we're headed back toward Grand Tetons National Park on our hunt. We've been given a tip on a location that moose like to frequent there in the early morning hours.

A local informed us last night that the best location to spot a moose is at the very south end of the park, near the Gros Ventre Junction. Specifically, we were directed to look on Gros Ventre Rd. in the area between the Gros Ventre Junction and the Gros Ventre Campground. The road there runs parallel with the Gros Ventre River, and moose enjoy feeding on the plants that grow along that section.

Map of Grand Tetons

Source: (you can find the map link here)

It's about a fifteen minute drive form the hotel to the Gros Ventre Junction, so we have to get an extra early start. Once we get there, we slowly begin to traverse Gros Ventre Rd., on the lookout for any movement. I'm nervous that we won't find anything, but almost immediately, my husband spots something large and brown moving in the distance. Sure enough, he's found a huge bull moose! I can't believe our luck. The animal is grazing a little ways back from the road. We get out to get a better look and take some photos, but for safety, we keep our distance. Luckily, the camera has a good lens on it.

The moose seems unbothered by our presence, and we are trying our best to stay still and quiet to avoid frightening him off. At one point, he does appear to look up in our direction, but he quickly goes back to his breakfast. He must be used to tourists gawking at him by now.

I've been dreaming of seeing a moose in the wild since we went to Maine several years ago (I didn't get to see one there). I wasn't sure we'd get lucky enough to spot one on this trip, but I was really hoping we might. I would have been excited to encounter any moose, but I'm twice as thrilled that we've been able to spot a large male with a beautiful set of antlers.

We stay and silently watch the moose for a few minutes and then decide to traverse the rest of the road up through the campground to see if we can spot any additional wildlife. We still haven't been able to see a bear on this trip, and that's next up on the wish list. However, we don't encounter anything else during our animal scavenger hunt. Regardless, for me, this morning has been the most exciting part of the trip so far. I finally got to see my moose!

After we finish traversing Gros Ventre Rd., we decide to head north to Jenny Lake and walk a bit of the lake trail. Wildlife are known to frequent the area along the lake trail in the mornings. I've read Moose Pond in particular is popular in the early mornings (and late afternoons) with moose--thus the name. The pond is only about a 15 minute walk from the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center, on a short turnoff from the main lake trail. We're in no rush today, so we decide the chance of spotting something interesting is worth the detour.

We are not disappointed with our detour! Not far into the Jenny Lake trail, we encounter two kayakers headed to the lake. They ask if we have encountered the mother moose and her calf walking along the trail yet this morning. (We have not.) They point ahead of us and say that the two walked past maybe a minute or so ago. We speed up our pace just a bit, and sure enough, as we round a bend in the trail, we find the moose looking right at us. Finding ourselves a bit closer to a large moose and her calf than we'd planned, we quietly back up a bit and step behind some trees just in case she decides we are a threat. After a moment, though, the pair turn the other way and disappear into the woods in the direction of Moose Pond. We slowly follow at a healthy distance.

Moose Pond

Moose Pond is located in a peaceful little clearing, surrounded by green vegetation. The mother moose soon heads into the water and systematically submerges her head to eat the plants growing under the water in the shallows while her calf waits on the bank nearby. Slowly, we circle the pond, keeping a safe distance between us and the moose. It's so exciting to get a chance to see them up close, eating and interacting. If nothing else happens today, my entire day has been made by our morning wildlife encounters!

We decide to follow the Moose Pond hike the rest of the way along its loop, but we either somehow lose the trail or we think we've walked farther than we have (the loop is about 3.5 miles total). Either way, I get a bit nervous that we're lost, so we navigate our way back toward the road and work our way back to Jenny Lake from there, cutting across some fields. On the bright side, it's a beautiful morning, and we're not a concerning level of lost given that we know where the main road is located.

Safely back at the car after our detour adventure, we begin our drive north to Jackson Lake Lodge. Near the lodge, we decide to stop at the Willow Flats turnout to take in the view again. It's still just as pretty as yesterday, and we get a gorgeous glacier view.

Willow Flats Turnout

Shortly after, we arrive at Jackson Lake Lodge. Once again, we stop to take in the panoramic view from the outdoor terrace. It's stunning. We notice that The Mural Room (restaurant) shares the same terrace vistas of the mountains. The restaurant's large glass windows provide quite possibly the best dining views in either park. Given that they're still serving breakfast, we haven't eaten anything yet today, and we're not in a rush for once, this seems like the perfect spot to stop for a meal.

View from Jackson Lake Lodge

The only problem with dining with a view, though, is the possible distractions created by said view. Nearly as soon as we sit down, I'm distracted by some movement out the window to our left. After putting my order in quickly, I run outside with the camera to investigate. Sure enough, there's a large herd of elk congregating off in the distance. I've never seem so many in one place. It's quite the sight. They're a fair distance away, but it's still exciting to get the opportunity to see an entire herd.

As I'm about to head back in from the outdoor terrace, something else moving below me in the willow flats catches my eye. It's a mother moose and her baby! Today just keeps getting better and better. They're fairly hidden by the vegetation, and a bit of a ways off, but I can make them both out clearly. They're grazing their way through the greenery, enjoying the cool morning weather--as are most of the park's other animals today apparently.

Finally back indoors, our much needed caffeine has arrived (coffee for my husband and tea for me). Soon, our breakfasts arrive, as well. I have ordered an egg white dish with spinach and peppers and my husband has opted for scrambled eggs and sausage. Each meal comes with a choice of toast and breakfast potatoes with peppers and onions. It's a lot of food, but we're also starving after a busy morning and a longer than anticipated hike.

After breakfast, we continue our trek north out of Grand Tetons National Park, along the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, and through Yellowstone's South Entrance. We head north to the junction by the West Thumb Geyser Basin and then turn east along Yellowstone Lake. It's a path we've traversed before, but as always in the ever-changing landscape of Yellowstone, we encounter something new along the way.

Map of Yellowstone

Source: (you can find the map link here)

This time, the new encounter comes in the form of yet more animals. Today is clearly turning out to be a wildlife sighting day. We spot several elk grazing off the road in a small clearing. We stop for a quick chance to observe them and snap a few photos. Of course once we stop, other cars notice and follow suit to see what we are watching. So, we move on relatively quickly so as not to start a traffic jam.

The road between West Thumb Geyser Basin and Lake Village skirts along the perimeter of Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake is North America's largest high altitude lake, situated at an elevation of over 7000 ft. At 132 square miles, Lake Yellowstone has 141 miles of shoreline and has been measured as deep as 390 ft. [Source:] The immense lake dominates much of the park's southeast landscape.

Yellowstone Lake

Lake Yellowstone may look calm and inviting from the shoreline, but appearances can be deceiving. The water is freezing, even in summer. The lake's average temperature is only 41 degrees Fahrenheit, making a fall into the frigid waters extremely dangerous. [Source:] Storms can also develop quickly over the lake in summer, making boating potentially dangerous. Hypothermia can swiftly set in for those finding themselves unexpectedly capsized in the water. As such, the lake should be traversed with caution.

We're safely sticking to dry land on this trip, though. As we approach the turnoff for Lake Village (where we are staying this evening), we find that we still have quite a bit of time left in our day. So, we decide to travel north through the Hayden Valley and check out the northeastern portion of the park, a section we haven't had the chance to explore yet.

The Hayden Valley is well known for its bison ("buffalo") and bird sightings. We have already attempted one drive through this area looking for wildlife during our Lower Loop Road explorations (Day 2) but with little luck. Today, in keeping with our wildlife sighting theme, we are met with significantly more success.

In fact, today our experience is quite the opposite of our first attempt. Shortly after entering the valley, we find ourselves experiencing something quintessentially Yellowstone--a bison traffic jam. The herd is grazing in the valley, scattered along the grassy embankments surrounding the Grand Loop Road. Periodically, a few bison decide it's time for a change of scenery and wander into the roadway with little regard for the traversing vehicles. Traffic comes to a standstill while motorists wait for the bison to pick a side of the road. While we're stopped, all I can think to myself is that it seems like a good time for a "Why did the bison cross the road?" joke.

These traffic jams can sometimes significantly affect park travel times, but today it's not too long before we can get moving again. The stop actually gives us a chance to roll down the car windows and get some good photos of the bison grazing nearest to our vehicle. We take in a wide array of the herd from the largest members to the smallest. On our second attempt, the Hayden Valley certainly has not disappointed!

As we continue our drive north, past Canyon Village, we enter an area of the park that we have not yet visited. Here, the valley opens up to more elevated and dramatic landscapes. Our next stop, Calcite Springs Overlook, showcases this shift in topology. The viewpoint provides a clear view of the Narrows, the narrowest section of The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The Calcite Springs Overlook also offers some rather impressive views of the Yellowstone River, rushing through the sulfur yellow and bleached white landscape below.

Calcite Springs

Calcite Springs is also famous for its basalt columns, dramatic rock formations that look like a row of tall, straight pillars. The basalt columns here are the result of a 25 ft. deep lava flow that occurred about 1.3 million years ago. The age of the Yellowstone landscape sometimes astounds me. The uniform way these ancient columns line up along a large portion of the top of the canyon here makes it almost hard to believe that they are a naturally occurring formation.

Photos: Calcite Springs/Basalt Columns

As we get to the Tower-Roosevelt area, we decide that it's definitely time for lunch. The only restaurant in the area, though, is the Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room. The restaurant serves barbecue fare, which sounds delicious right about now, but unfortunately, there is an insanely long wait for a table (supply and demand). So, we decide to grab something from the Roosevelt General Store next-door instead. It's not a very exciting meal, but we have dinner planned at one of Yellowstone's best restaurants tonight, and we had a big breakfast.

From Tower Junction, we continue east into the Lamar Valley, another famous spot for wildlife sightings. We quickly encounter an enormous herd of bison grazing on the greenery. The bison are apparently out in full force today. We've been told to be on the lookout for everything from wolves to elk here, but the majority of our encounters consist of a whole lot of bison. Not wanting to wander too far to the east since we need to backtrack to get back down to the lake area, we reverse direction after a bit more exploring.

Lamar Valley

As we turn our way back south from the Tower-Roosevelt Junction, we decide to stop at Tower Falls. It's only about 2.5 miles past the junction, and it's on our way. The stop is an easy detour, and the walk out to the falls viewing platform is a short distance from the parking area.

Tower Falls is situated about 132 ft. above Tower Creek, and most of its descent is visible from the viewing platform. After all of the other waterfalls we've encountered on this trip, it's not overwhelming, but it is definitely worth the minimal effort it takes to view it. The pointed rock formations perched above the waterfall are also quite unique.

From Tower Falls, we decide to call it a day. So, we continue south for about 40 minutes to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel where we are spending the night. The Lake Yellowstone Hotel is situated along Yellowstone Lake in Lake Village. There are other accommodations in Lake Village, but this hotel was my number one pick. I actually flip-flopped our original itinerary (we were going to do a night at Yellowstone Lake first and then head to Jackson) because tonight was the only opening I could find at the hotel. I'm very much looking forward to getting settled into our room.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

Unfortunately, our room is not quite ready for check-in. Check-in is 4:30pm, and it's close to that time, but the hotel staff say room turnovers are a bit behind today. We find a way to kill the time, though. We grab a beer from the lobby bar and sit down on one of the many pieces of furniture scattered throughout the airy space. We also wander through the gift shop and purchase a small souvenir. At 5:15pm or so, our room is ready. So, we head up to drop off our luggage and clean up for the evening.

The Lake Yellowstone Hotel is a Historic Hotel of America. Built in 1891, it is famous for its Colonial Revival style (partly the result of a 1903 redesign). The hotel's historic designation doesn't make it outdated, though; the interior of the hotel was completely renovated in 2014. Our room has a fresh, new feel. It is appointed with a queen bed; an updated bathroom with marble vanity and tile shower; a table with two chairs; a cute side table equipped with all of the fixings for coffee and tea; and even a view of the lake out our window.

After a shower, we decide to head over to the nearby Lake Lodge for a drink on the porch before dinner. It's only a half mile walk, so we go on foot. On the way, we stop off at the Lake General Store to check it out. The store sells a variety of things from camping supplies to souvenirs. It's always fun to explore the different souvenir items for sale throughout the park. Some are significantly better than your typical tourist kitsch.

The walk to Lake Lodge is quite scenic, providing some wonderful views of Yellowstone Lake. Once we arrive at the lodge, we check out the interior first. It's essentially what you would expect--reminiscent of a very large log cabin, rustic yet inviting. The check-in desk is busy with patrons, and there are vacationers lounging on the lobby's comfortable sofas and chairs, relaxing with a drink. There's a small bar there, so we grab a beer, as well.

After, we head out to the many rocking chairs lining the front porch to kick back and enjoy the view with our drinks. While not situated directly on the lake, we can easily see it from our perch. On a trip where we have spent so much time driving and hiking, sitting back and just taking in the view with a drink is always a welcome break. The weather is gorgeous at this time of day, and we just enjoy the peace and quiet for a few minutes.

After, we walk back to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and head to the dining room for our reservation. I have read that the dining room at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is one of the best in the park. I'm excited for the menu this evening and hoping we'll enjoy our meal.

Our server tonight is an energetic young college student spending her summer working in the park, just as her father and uncle did when they were younger. She appears to love both the park and her job and eagerly runs us through the menu items and what's most popular. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

We decide that tonight we're going to order several things and share them--my favorite kind of dinner. We select four items from the first course section of the menu so that we can graze on a few dishes rather than getting larger dinner portions. We settle on lobster ravioli with an asiago cream sauce; a spinach and kale salad with bleu cheese, candied walnuts, and dried cranberries; Montana lamb sliders with mixed field greens and a goat cheese cream; and a charcuterie sampler with Montana cheese. Each is delicious--hands down our best meal in the park. The sliders are particularly flavorful and perfectly cooked. I could eat an entire plate of them on my own!

For dessert (always my favorite course), there are several good options presented, but once our server says German chocolate cake, I'm sold. I'm a sucker for anything with both chocolate and coconut in it. Luckily, my husband agrees with my choice, so we order one slice with two forks. The cake is scrumptious--a perfect ending to a wonderful meal.

After dinner, we decide to call it an early night and head up to our room. It's been another long day, and relaxing in bed with a book sounds heavenly right about now. We have to be up very early tomorrow (yet again) for a photo tour I've booked through the park with a 5:45am departure. So, we will get to make it an even five days in a row up before dawn. So far, being early risers has proven worth it, though. This morning's many moose sightings are just one example of how rewarding it has been to get up and out before the rest of the parks' visitors. Hopefully tomorrow's early morning wakeup call proves just as worthwhile!

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins


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