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Yellowstone National Park splendor

Derrick’s tow truck

Minivan camping

—Bunny Bowen

After enduring a summer of record-breaking heat, low moisture, and smoky skies, with the worst forest fires in recent New Mexico history, my husband Leland and I needed to be somewhere cool, green, and wet. We decided to take two weeks in September to retrace some of our past trips to Dinosaur, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.

Our typical lack of long-range planning required this to be a camping trip, as any “lodging” inside the parks should have been reserved far in advance. No problem; we enjoyed camping often as a young family and we still do.

In fact, one of our more memorable adventures was an early April trip to Browns Park and Dinosaur National Monument in our little 4WD Ford Ranger ten years ago. All went well until we attempted a shortcut to Flaming Gorge across Diamond Mountain. A few minutes after we high-centered the truck in a snow drift high up in sagebrush/aspen country, we were thrilled as about sixty elk bounded two-by-two over a high fence not thirty feet in front of us.

“Well, anything that happens next is worth seeing that,” said I.

That night we slept in the truck, with temperatures down to 15 degrees and a constant wind that must have been at least 40 mph. Our water bottles froze solid. The next morning we hiked out through the snow, flagged a ride to Vernal, and paid a tow company big bucks to rescue the truck.

Thus it was the wiser for such experience that we set out in an old minivan September 11, camping the first night in a driving rain north of Silverton. Thanks to a last-minute decision (remembering Diamond Mountain) to throw in a down comforter, we stayed warm and dry. The next morning we woke to see snow on the peaks just a bit higher.

So it went for the next several days: an overcast day on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument was spent climbing up sandstone trails to photograph magnificent Fremont petroglyphs, followed by a stay at the remote Gates of Lodore and  a frosty night on the Hoback River below Jackson. We spent two rainy days in the Grand Tetons, which afforded great shots of clouds tickling the peaks. There were bison, antelope, and bugling elk, as well as raucous ravens.

The problem with camping in popular national parks is that campsites are “first-come-first-served.” This causes a fair amount of angst in securing a space before the campgrounds fill. Some were already closed for the season, which increased competition for the remaining spaces.

We left GTNP before breakfast to find a campsite in Norris, a central location 72 miles from the Yellowstone south entrance. As we checked in about 11 am, we saw a sign warning of grizzly bears in the area, above a cardboard box of bear scat. (Another camper wondered how they trained them to use boxes...)

We paid for two nights, then set off for a day to see geysers. We made the loop around the Norris basin, stopping to see Old Faithful.

Old Faithful Inn is a national treasure, and it seems to be well maintained and preserved. All of the parks we visited were undergoing major improvements, particularly road work. Beautifully designed new visitor centers at Old Faithful and Canyon offer wonderful interpretive exhibits, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability.

When we returned to our campsite, a grizzly had been sighted nearby a few hours before. This was becoming a common thread… I had hoped to see lots of wildlife, particularly to hear wolves and see bears, but every time they were seen one place we were somewhere else. We would pull up to a traffic jam of cars, people, and giant tripods, only to hear that “a 7x7 bull elk just disappeared into those trees” or “a wolf just chased an elk across the river RIGHT THERE.” 

Buffalo, at least, were everywhere.

We planned to spend the next two days up in the more remote Roosevelt area and the Lamar Valley, where one is more likely to see wolves and bears. As we climbed up Dunraven Pass, the van began to overheat. Leland pulled off, and discovered that we had become the newest Yellowstone geyser. After the radiator had cooled enough, he added water, and we set off again. The same thing happened, and the sun was getting lower.

After a number of stops and starts, we made it by sundown to Roosevelt Lodge, which was already closed for the winter. The “gas station” was two self-service gas pumps, an outhouse, and, amazingly, a weathered pay phone.

Between us we had enough quarters to call AAA, relieved that we had just upgraded the membership to include 200 miles of free towing. Unfortunately, AAA informed us that they could not help us inside the Park. Instead, the garage at Canyon Village (20 miles away) sent a pleasant young man named Derrick with a giant tow truck.

As Derrick winched our van up onto his truck I snapped a picture. It was Diamond Mountain all over again. Since we were camping in the van, he invited us to spend the night in his garage parking lot at Canyon.

In the morning we tumbled out of our sleeping bag, put the van back in order, and walked over to Canyon Lodge for a hearty breakfast. Derrick, meanwhile, found that our problem was a failed radiator cap. It would take several hours to get another from West Yellowstone, but the van would be ready by early afternoon.

We were actually back on the road soon after noon, having paid a hefty price for what would, anywhere else, have been a simple fix. The rest of the day we continued our quest for wildlife, although our (bad) luck held as far as wolves and bears were concerned.

After another night in Yellowstone, we headed back down through the high rolling sagebrush country of Wyoming to Boulder, for a short family visit before returning home. That included a loop through Rocky Mountain National Park, making it six parks/monuments in twelve days: Colorado National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, and Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Parks.

I kinda wish we’d asked Derrick to initial that fancy radiator cap.




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