Why I Took My Son on a Classic Adventure Through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
I boarded the Greyhound from Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal in late spring, with a one-way ticket to Montana. My friend Susan took the window, I took the aisle, and for the next 40 hours we sped west through America, watching blue-collar cities flash before our eyes: Pittsburgh, Columbus, Fort Wayne. Then came the architectural splendor of Chicago, followed by Milwaukee and South Dakota. It was my first time west of Philadelphia, and I was in a state of wonder. Susan and I were 19 years old, and on our way to spend the last summer of our teens working in Yellowstone, the world's first national park.
Finally we reached Billings, Montana's largest city. Stiff from the long journey, we hobbled to breakfast in a diner near the bus station. A man with a leathery face and a white Stetson sat at the counter, talking of cattle and rodeos. We East Coast kids stared in disbelief. This wasn't a John Wayne movie—here was a real cowboy. We were truly in the West. After breakfast, I stood outside and marveled at the height of the sky.
Last August, decades after that coming-of-age summer, I returned to Yellowstone with my only child, Luca, who was then 16. I wanted to share those enormous skies with him; I wanted him to see the Rocky Mountains. We had recently returned to the U.S. after a three-month lockdown in France. Sometime during those months of confinement, as it's known in French, we decided to return to the place where my love of wide spaces, deep forests, and canyons began.
That first summer, long before the advent of the Internet, I had consulted a library map to chart the route from Billings. Susan and I switched buses and made our way to Livingston, then to Gardiner through Paradise Valley, a long, broad stretch along the Yellowstone River that is flanked by the Absaroka Mountains on one side and the Gallatin Range on the other. In Gardiner, the northern entrance to the park, we ordered enchiladas and guacamole: the first Mexican food I had ever tasted. An employee bus then took us to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, where we would work for the next few months.
When I returned last summer, the trip was easier. Most of the park lies in Wyoming, but it also extends into southern Montana and eastern Idaho. It is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, so a car is necessary to explore it properly. But the logistics are relatively simple: Luca and I flew in to the resort area of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, picked up a rental car at the airport, and soon enough were blasting the Grateful Dead while speeding north on Highway 191 to reach Yellowstone by sundown.
The colors of that late afternoon drive—the deep blue of the lakes, the yellow-hued meadows—were invigorating and transported me straight back to my 19th summer. Just outside Jackson, Luca and I scanned the horizon for wolves, which were reintroduced to the area in the 1990s to balance the ecosystem. Instead we spotted the dark, enormous shapes of bison, grazing in the fields and taking baths by rolling in the dust.
We reached the Lake Yellowstone Hotel in the early evening. The property was constructed in 1891 for park visitors who arrived on roads recently built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's a grand, pale-yellow building, with a rather incongruous Colonial Revival design, that looks out over the second-largest alpine lake in North America. Luca and I climbed out of the car into a high wind coming up from the shore. From the front porch, we could see the crystal-blue lake, more like an ocean, with thrashing waves and, farther out, a small island. As we walked down to the edge, I explained to him that though the lake is too cold for swimming, it's a popular spot for fishing. I recounted how, as a waitress in the hotel restaurant, I would carry trout caught by customers into the kitchen, where the chef would gut and sauté them for the fishermen's dinners.
The restaurant was closed because of the pandemic so there was no trout for dinner, but the next day I met with Rick Hoeninghausen, of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, which runs the park's concessions. He arrived at Yellowstone from the East Coast to work the same year I did. He met his wife that summer, and never left; today he is one of only a few dozen people living inside the park boundaries. Together we took a tour of the hotel, through the old kitchen and the dining room, which looks out on the lake, where I once served countless platters of prime rib.
He gave us directions for a short hike to Storm Point, where we ended up on a cliff overlooking the lake. Later we ate our lunch at a picnic table on the shore and watched the wind turn the waves into whitecaps. Gulls circled.
"It's like being at the edge of the Atlantic," Luca said. "Or the edge of the world." We talked about what it must have felt like to be a Native American, or an early trader or trapper, seeing Lake Yellowstone for the first time. Wonder.
When I wasn't working as a waitress that 19th summer, I usually had three consecutive days off, so I could go exploring. I would finish the breakfast shift and set off to hike the North Rim Trail, or Fairy Falls, or Pebble Creek. Early on, Susan and I were cautioned about grizzly bears—each season there were reports of tourists being mauled or eaten. To counter any attack, we'd sing loudly and badly on the trails so as not to startle the bears. We learned what to do if we did encounter one: walk slowly backward and, if attacked, play dead. We'd return from those hikes with blistered feet, sunburn, bug bites, and a sense of ultimate freedom.
Some nights we would go hot-potting—swimming in thermal baths near Mammoth Hot Springs—with new friends from Alabama, Texas, or Kentucky, who worked at the park's lodges. On one excursion to West Yellowstone, in the Montana portion of the park, a local man cautioned us about the baths. "You'll get boiled alive," he warned, explaining that Yellowstone sits on a supervolcano that erupted millions of years ago. (The park contains more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, from hot springs and mud pots to geysers, all heated by magma beneath the earth's crust.) After that conversation we never stayed long in the hot pots, fearing not only the boiling water but also the bears and wolves lurking nearby. After a brief dip we would hike back in darkness, our path lit up by a sky bright with stars.
On our first morning in Yellowstone, Luca and I decided to explore the Upper Geyser Basin and see Old Faithful, the hot spring named for its frequent, predictable eruptions by the 1870 Washburn expedition, an important early survey of the region. I never made it to Old Faithful that first summer, so I felt I had to see it—though it was probably the most touristy thing we did on the trip.
Luca and I joined a crowd of about 100 other visitors on a viewing platform and waited. When it erupted a few minutes later, the sight of thousands of gallons of water shooting more than 100 feet into the air took our breath away.
Later, we drove to the Lower Geyser Basin to see the Fountain Paint Pots, bubbling, mud-filled hot springs colored vivid shades of red, yellow, and brown by chemical and bacterial components. At the edge of one startlingly turquoise-colored pool, our guide in Yellowstone, Jeff Lestitian, pointed to the water.
"About three years ago, a dog accidentally ran into one of these," he said. "He was instantly boiled. His owner jumped in to pull him out, and got third-degree burns." I shuddered to remember my ill-advised late-night dips and felt grateful we had never tried to swim there.
Luca and I also hiked toward Artist Point, on the south rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. What I saw amazed me. Ribbons of pastels—pink, yellow, and orange—in the rock above the falls, which seemed to give off steam as it plunged some 300 feet into the canyon. This is what inspired the Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran, who captured the scene in The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Moran, born in Britain but transplanted to Baltimore, had been part of the 1871 Hayden expedition, which explored the sources of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Native Americans had lived in Yellowstone for thousands of years and, along with trappers, had made tracks throughout the park. But the federal government—and generations of history books—credited the geological surveyors who traveled there before the Civil War with "discovering" Yellowstone.
Accompanied by a team of zoologists, ornithologists, geologists, and surveyors, Moran spent 40 days sketching in the area. His paintings, along with photographs taken by his fellow explorer and surveyor William Henry Jackson, were later used to persuade Congress to create a national park at Yellowstone, rather than allow post–Civil War speculators to use the land for private gain. On March 3, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation designating Yellowstone the first national park.
Moran didn't actually sketch from Artist Point, which is now one of the most popular sites in Yellowstone; he drew the place where the canyon hits the Yellowstone River from a north-rim lookout now known as Moran Point. But it hardly matters. For lovers of natural history, staring at the sand-colored gorge, and at the deep-green river coursing through it a thousand feet below, feels like seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time.
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One late afternoon Luca and I drove to Grant Village, a point on the southern shore of Yellowstone Lake. There we met Matt Hergert, a gentle ski and kayak guide who had grown up on the great rivers in Washington State. We slipped our kayaks into the lake just as the air began to cool and paddled toward West Thumb Geyser Basin. As we paddled, the first stars appeared; on the lakeshore, we saw campfires trailing woodsmoke. We paddled without talking, just listening to the birds, the sound of lapping water, the stillness.
We rose early the next morning, met Lestitian, and set off on the 35-minute drive to Grand Teton National Park. There, the air was cooler, the sky a pale lavender. On the back road leading from Jackson to the entrance, he told us about the park's grizzly population, their hibernation patterns, and how females are able to give birth during their long winter sleep.
Then, just as the first rays of sun poked through the clouds, we saw a group of bison and elk paused beside the road near Jenny Lake. A pack of grizzly followers stood nearby. Earlier that morning they had spotted one of the best-known bears in the park, who is referred to by the number 609, with her cubs. She is the daughter of 399, a 350-pound bear who is herself is so famous that she has her own Facebook page. Lestitian explained that the bears have become so used to tourists and photographers that they often roam close to the road.
We got out of our car and joined the tourists and bear-watchers—many of whom, we learned, had traveled from around the world to see 399. We didn't have to wait long before we spotted an adult female, enormous and protective, bending over her babies. It was 609, Lestitian said. She was clearly used to encountering fans in the park and seemed utterly unconcerned with our presence. Luca and I, on the other hand, were frozen in our tracks, in absolute amazement at seeing a bear so close up.
Jackson had changed a great deal since the days I used to go to there on my waitressing breaks to drink at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. This was once a real bar for real cowboys, with saddles for barstools. These days the place seemed like little more than an Instagram opportunity. A bit like Paradise Valley in Montana, Jackson has become a lure for billionaires. The main street now has high-end art galleries, luxury stores, and boutique hotels. The town's population of 10,000 swells to 25,000 at the height of its summer and winter tourist seasons. Locals drive pickup trucks; the imports from Silicon Valley and Manhattan drive Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Teslas.
But you can avoid all that and use Jackson as a base for exploring the Snake River, which originates in Wyoming and continues through Idaho and Oregon before emptying into the Columbia River in Washington State. The Snake was where I first went whitewater rafting, but I could remember little of that first trip except how wet I got and how much I screamed when we hit a section of the river known as the Big Kahuna.
This time, I vowed to be more controlled. There were eight of us in the raft for the 16-mile trip, which was arranged by a local outfitter, Barker Ewing by Jackson Hole Whitewater. Luca and I volunteered to sit in the front to steer, which meant we would bear the brunt of the ice-cold water. "Part of the experience," said our rafting guide, Blake Patterson, as I put on another layer of clothing.
This stretch of the Snake is a Class III river, with Class I being flat water and Class V being the most difficult. The journey started gently. We saw bald eagles perched in the cottonwood trees along the banks. Then we hit Lunch Counter Rapids, on a bend where Little Red Creek and Red Creek flow into the Snake. Huge waves left us both drenched in freezing water. Next came Big Kahuna, which is Class IV, and the raft skidded sideways while our guide screamed at us to paddle-stop, paddle-stop. We reached the end of the run nearly three hours later, soaked, shivering, but exhilarated.
The following day we met Adam "Dutch" Gottschling, the manager of Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures, in the village of Wilson, about five miles outside town. He led us down a wooded path to a bank along the Snake, where he pushed a wooden rowboat out into the water, and Luca and I climbed in. Our guide, Cassie Elliott, took the oars. It was an hour or two before sundown, and the sky was a deep indigo. Elliott pointed out hawks and blue herons as we floated down the Snake.
The water was at times bottle green, at times clear turquoise. The Tetons were darkening by the time we reached Tipi Camp, where an outdoor table was set with a checked cloth, a campfire was roaring, and Gottschling, who had driven along the river bank to reach the camp, was tending bison steaks on the grill.
On our last night we were picked up by Ryan Hennessy, an astrophysicist and stargazing guide. We drove along the darkened highway to Grand Teton and stopped near a field, where a large Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope had been set up, along with a picnic table with wine and cheese and chairs with blankets to keep out the chill.
For three hours we stargazed. And planet-gazed. We looked at the moon, we looked at Jupiter, we looked at galaxies. Hennessy explained with the greatest patience how close the stars are to us, how a light year is measured, how many moons there are around Jupiter, why it has rings, and answered any other questions that came into our heads (including where telescopes of that dimension were bought and how much they cost). His enthusiasm for the night sky was something I have rarely witnessed. "I love my job," he said simply.
Though our trip had been short, the spirit of the West had reenergized me. As our plane took off from Jackson, I stared out the window and listened to Roy Rogers sing the classic cowboy tune "Don't Fence Me In": "Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze / Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees."
I had brought Luca to this extraordinary place because I wanted him to see that being in the wild moved me. When we got home, he told me he wanted to work in a role that involves nature and the environment. I knew then that this had been more than a summer road trip: it had awoken something in my son, something that would inspire him for the rest of his life.
Do Grand Teton and Yellowstone in Style
Where to Stay
Amangani Resort: Set on the East Gros Ventre Butte, just 10 minutes from Jackson, Wyoming, this outpost of the global resort brand has spectacular views of the Teton Range and the Snake River Valley. Doubles from $1,600.
Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole: Use this classic property as a base for exploring Grand Teton National Park and the restaurant sand stores of Jackson Hole's Teton Village. For a one-of-a-kind experience, the staff can book a private stargazing session with the hotel's in-house astronomer. Doubles from $680.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel: The elegant, lake-view dining room of this 299-key National Historic Landmark was closed during the author's trip, but reopened for the summer 2021 season. Doubles from $231.
What to Do
How to Book
Contact her at: melissa firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-514-6018. From $6,995 per person for a six night trip.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Once Upon A Time in The West.