Thursday, January 29, 2009

Yellowstone Book Review - Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry

Because my local library has such a pausity of trail guide books on Yellowstone, I've ended up buying my own reference library (and am still adding to it!). This is the first in a series of reports on the books I've purchased.

The first book I bought was Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry by Orville Bach Jr ($16). I got it for Christmas 2007. My wife thought I was nuts as, for a month, I poured over every page, highlighted, and made notes on the interesting features of each trail. Perhaps because this was the first book I got, it became a major planning tool.

Once I narrowed down the trail features I was interested in (geysers, waterfalls, canyons, hoodoos, trout streams, wildlife, etc), I filtered the list based on trail length. I made a spreadsheet, listed the trail, region, distance, difficulty, and rated each trail, and a description of trail attractions. This list gave me a sense of how many days I'd have to be in Yellowstone to see all I wanted to see and knowing the regions where I wanted to hike lead me to making decisions about where to set up basecamps (and make reservations). From this list, I made a rough draft itinerary of trails to hike related to proximity to the basecamps (Madison and Canyon). I refined the intinerary based on other books I'll discuss in upcoming posts.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trail comprehensive book, and found it very useful as a planning tool. As of this date the extended backcountry trip I'm planning came about after reading the description in this book. I would recommend Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry

Some of the cons: I wish this and other trial guides would include trail elevaiton profiles. I think this feature would quickly and easily help the reader assess trial difficulty way more than a third party subjective assessment. Also some of the maps were difficult to read along the middle fold. In a few instances, I couldn't find the trails listed in the text. The trail maps in the book do not include any info on topo. Perhqaps they assume you'll have a park topo map (probably a good assumption). However, these "faults" would not keep me from recommending the book. Buy it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First Yellowstone Nightmare

My Nikon digital SLR battery was dead and I realized I had forgotten the battery charger and spare battery (on the charger). I was in one of the Yellowstone campstores looking for a replacement when I woke up!

In reality, how will I charge batteries using campsites with no electricity? Anyone got some good suggestions? Rely on the kindess of RV strangers? Ranger station? Car charger?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Yellowstone and Grand Tetons itinerary set

The plans are set. The family will fly into Jackson, WY and spend two days in the Grand Tetons. Even though we made reservations in December for a trip in August, most of the accommodations in the GTs were already booked. The lodges and cabins were pricey and the park campground logistics were unreliable (more on that later) so we made reservations to stay in Colter Bay Village in their log and canvas "tent cabins". They have four bunk beds, a wood burning stove, and an outdoor barbecue grill. This set up was appealing since we'll only be staying for two days and we won't have to set up a full camp just to break it down the next day. We'll just have to unpack sleeping bags and perhaps our camp stove.

On the way from the airport to Colter Bay Village, and after picking up our rental car, we'll need to find a grocery store where we can stock up on food, stove fuel, and anything else we'll need that it didn't make sense to fly with.

The first day in the GTs, we'll probably just drive around to get the lay of the land and take lots of pictures of the mountains. Perhaps we'll get in a short hike along the 2 mile Colter Bay Nature Trail or make the pilgrimage up Lunch Tree Hill.The second day we hope to get up early and hike the 2.5 miles around Jenny Lake, then 2 miles round trip to Inspiration Point, and finish with a boat ride back across the lake to our car. We'll spend the afternoon poking around and getting ready for the next day's drive to Yellowstone.

In Yellowstone, our family will spend three days at the Madison Campgrounds (run by the commercial Xanterra Parks and Resorts) and venture out on short day hikes to explore the geyser basins, Belcher, Gallatin, and Washburn sections of the park. So far we've targeted the Upper Geyser Basin, Mystic Falls Loop, a portion of the Howard Eaton Trail and Elephant Back Mountain.

Next, we'll move our basecamp to Xanterra's Canyon Village where the family will explore the Central Plateau Canyon, and Mirror Plateau sections of the park with hikes tentatively planned along the Canyon and Crystal Falls trails, Mt. Washburn, Tower Falls, Specimen Ridge and Avalanche Peak.For our last night together as a family, we'll pack up the camp to get ready for the flight home and spend the night in the Old Faithful Inn (seems like a must-do). After an inspirational overnight, I'll drive my wife and children back to Jackson and they'll fly back home. I will drive back into Yellowstone where I'll rendezvous with a buddy for our backcountry part of the trip. We haven't settled on a destination yet or secured our backcountry permit, but once that's settled, I'll post the itinerary. Of course, I will chronicle a detailed post-trip evaluation of all places visited. After the backcountry hiking, I'll drive back to Jackson to return the rental car and fly home.

You may be wondering why we chose to fly in and out of Jackson. First, it made sense given our decision to spend the first part of our trip in the GTs, but that itinerary decision was driven, in fact, by the cost of airfare. When I was looking in December, the flights into Jackson were over $100 cheaper than flying into Bozeman for the same date range. Flying with a family of four, that had a big affect on our budget. Interestingly, the Frommer's National Parks of the American West guide that I used to do initial research provides information on the Bozeman (MT), Billings (MT), and Cody (WY) airports as the gateways to Yellowstone but does not include information on the Jackson airport even though it's closer than both Bozeman and Billings and an equal distance with Cody - strange. Do your research!

I mentioned earlier that we chose to stay at the commercial campgrounds instead of the park service campgrounds. Initially, we had wanted to stay in the park service campgrounds in both the Grand Tetons and in Yellowstone (Norris and Slough or Pebble Creek), but it was maddening that you could not make advane reservations - reservations had to be made on-site and were granted on a first come/first serve basis. This is not a very accommodating policy for travelers coming from outside the area, with kids, without a detailed knowledge of the parks and campground use, and for those with constrained itineraries (perhaps this is by design to provide deference to locals?). For instance, flying into Jackson, the flights arrive in the afternoon, and yet I was advised that the better campgrounds in the Grand Tetons fill by 10 am so it's too risky to fly in with the prospect of no place to stay. In reality, this seems to force you into commercial campgrounds, like it or not, where you can make advnace reservations. Similarly, travelling from the GTs to Yellowstone, or even from basecamp to basecamp within Yellowstone, with camping slots filling in the morning, it seems like you could be set off on a wild goose chase to find accommodations at a park campground with a vacancy but you wouldn't know if they had one until you got there. Tough policies for this planner. I'd still like to stay at Norris and may try to check on availability once in the park, but it may not be worth the effort to relocate the basecamp for a day just for a change of venue. This is something I will report on post-trip.

You may be wondering how I've been planning. I did some initial research online, but detailed information about airports, accommodations, trails, etc I'm getting from books. My local library was woefully inadequate when it came to books needed to plan, so I started buying books. I will provide additional information on the books I've purchased with a short critique on each in future blogs.

Happy New Year! For us, it's "Yellowstone Year!"