Sunday, June 25, 2017

Vacation Days 3 & 4: Big Sky, MT and Yellowstone

We were woken at 8 a.m. Monday morning by a bright and sunny Montana sky. As I mentioned in the previous post (read the beginning of our adventure here), we got into Big Sky, MT at 11 p.m., when everything was completely black. When we open our eyes, we were greeted to this beauty right out our window (this was taken from our bedroom window)! Lone Mountain overlooks Big Sky and is amazing! Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate and we didn't get to enjoy the mountain activities available, but we did get in one good hike on the mountain Monday morning after inspecting our views out the condo windows.

This was our first time using Airbnb and we were so impressed with everything! Booking is easy and you can see everything that is available for the area. We chose an affordable condo near Big Sky Resort. The condo had everything we needed and more: two large bedrooms (the condo slept 8), living area, fully stocked kitchen, washer and dryer, games, WiFi, Netflix, and more. We only had to worry about bringing warm clothes, hiking clothes, and proper shoes. We absolutely loved the area we stayed in. I would happily go back to Big Sky and stay in this condo again.

We were unsure of the minis climbing abilities in the mountains and didn't want to attempt any trails that were too long (plus, we had the worry of bears, especially grizzly bears). I did some research about appropriate trails in the area and this one caught my eye. Ousel Falls Trail was a beautiful 3 mile hike to a waterfall (and a bit beyond for us) that was an easy level. We had a gorgeous hike and even got to splash around in the Gallatin River. Lone Mountain had great hiking options that hopefully we'll get to explore in a few years!

Gorgeous forest views!

Ousel Falls was one of my most favorite hikes we've ever done! 

We had been keeping an eye on the weather via our weather apps on our phones (when we had cell service that is. Service was spotty in the mountains, unless we were in a town or in certain areas of the National Parks). We knew rain and snow was on it's way, so we decided to head into Yellowstone National Park while the skies were still blue.

Our drive from Big Sky to Yellowstone every day was anywhere from 45 - 65 minutes (2 hours to Tetons). That drive every day to the west entrance to the park was filled with amazing views. Those views will forever be etched into my mind.

The low clouds and the high mountains made for amazing photo ops.

Our first stop for the day was to the Yellowstone Visitors Center for park maps and some general park info. We couldn't get out of the parking lot without tears....all because mom put her hair up.

Our first 45 minutes in the park was spent in a bison jam (they were taking their time crossing the road and traffic was at a stand still).

On this day we did the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Tower Falls, and drove the main loops. We had hoped to see Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful, but the traffic was CRAZY (think rush hour, stand still traffic) and opted instead for several of the other big sites. Thankfully, this seemed to be the right move because the weather quickly changed on us, shutting down a few of those high elevation roads for the other days we were in the park. 

You can feel the heat from the springs as you walk through. It felt like a sauna as we walked through the steam.

I loved watching the storm come over the mountains. The lower elevations saw nothing from the storms, mid elevations got rain, and the higher elevations got snow. Driving in and out, up and down the mountains brought us all of these conditions. I was amazed how much difference 1,000 feet can make.

I was amazed at how great these three were! They were fantastic in the car....and crazy the moment they stepped out of the vehicle. The words "hands and bodies to yourself PLEASE!!" were said a lot.

Those storm clouds!

Skipping down the boardwalk, happy as can be. As beautiful as all of the sites were, this was my favorite to see.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I really wanted to do Uncle Tom's Trail, but snow began falling just as we pulled into a parking area (I was also unsure if the minis could tackle it). Instead, we did a more simple trail along the ridge.

A mix of snow pellets and sleet fell on us as we hiked. The temperature also rapidly dropped at this point.

I'm glad we made the last minute decision to drive Canyon Road because that road was closed the next day due to snow and ice.

As we traveled up (up to higher elevations) Canyon Road, we found several inches of snow. People were actually getting sleds from their cars and sledding down the mountains! It looked to be so much fun. Of course, after getting snowed on during our hike, the minis didn't want to leave the warm car. So Hubs and I got out and had a snowball fight (and threw them at the car to get a rise out of the minis).

And then back down a few hundred feet to no snow. While I completely understand, it still blows my mind that the weather can vary with a slight change in elevation. I've been to the mountains enough to know to pack for various climates, so we had our winter gear in the back of the car. That sure came in handy!

Our walk to Tower Falls was chilly, but rain and snow free.

The minis played in the car while Hubs took it slow in the blowing snow. Happy to have the GMC Acadia for our week. It maneuvered great on the mountain roads and through the snow.

We got back to the condo late and had a quick dinner. We kept our meals simple: oatmeal and fruit each morning, deli sandwiches (that we packed and took with us), protein bars, veggies, and crackers for lunch, and chicken and veggies for dinner. This really saved us a lot of time (so we didn't have to stop for food) and money (all of the places to eat in the park can be costly, and not all healthy options). We woke the next morning to over 6 inches of snow (and still steadily falling) on the mountain. We decided to stay put until after lunch. 

Our morning relaxing in the condo was perfect. We slept in, watched a movie, played with the toys at the condo (yes, our condo had toys and markers provided), and planned our day. Once we knew the roads we okay, we loaded up the minis, snacks, and sleds (yep, condo had those too!) into the car. We envisioned sledding down part of the mountain (that wasn't crazy steep), but we found that 1,000 feet lower had no snow on the ground! We were bummed, but we shouldn't have been surprised because that's how it goes in the mountains.

Remember that clear, beautiful mountain view from our bedroom window at the beginning of the post? Same view, different day.

The minis made a fort out of the pull out sofa bed.

The bunk beds in the mini's room was great! All three slept in the same room and (shockingly) did well.

They're "hiking on a mountain ridge. Grab your bear spray!"

We went to get into the car and realized we had nothing to clean the snow off of it with. We got creative and used sleds. Of course, as we drove down the mountain (about 1,000 feet lower), the temps got drastically higher and no snow was on the ground at all! We may not have gotten to sled, but they were well used!

Notice how as we went down, there was less and less snow.

The weather may have been cold and dreary, but this was definitely the day to do Yellowstone! There weren't as many tourists around, making things much more enjoyable. Of course, the tourists that were around, well, were equivalent to the first snowfall drivers in Iowa (for those of you not from Iowa and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me sum it up for you: during the first snowfall of the season, drivers act like they've never seen snow before, like they can't drive all of a sudden, and do really stupid things). I was hoping that the craziness was from the weather, but I was proven wrong again and again throughout the day and the rest of the trip unfortunately. 

Good news: we got front row parking for Grand Prismatic Spring. Bad news: it was so chilly out that the steam rising from the hot springs blocked a clear view. Everything was still amazing to see.

When I first saw this sign outside of Old Faithful, I couldn't stop laughing. My thought was "they really needed this sign???" After seeing how some of the tourists acted and blatantly disregarded all safety, I can understand why. However, please take a moment and see how one kid is on top of a geyser, the sibling is pointing "oh no Billy!" at the little boy, and the parent is casually walking away paying attention to none of least this is the story I concocted in my head, making the sign so funny (I also had a few families in stitches with my interpretation of the sign).

Freezing, but still hiking. The area around Old Faithful had nice paved trails to view the other geysers in the area. It was a great way to pass the time as we waited for Old Faithful to erupt.

It was COLD waiting for Old Faithful. We almost left, but I kept us going with dancing in place and telling stories.

 The crowd of people all around.

The minis were happy to be back in the warm car after Old Faithful. To keep themselves entertained on the way to West Yellowstone for dinner, the minis played with band aids (yes, I let them). Everything was fine until the oldest wrapped a band aid too tightly around his finger. To shorten the story: his finger turned purple, he panicked when he couldn't easily get it off, there were tears, and the band aids were taken away "for the rest of the trip....unless someone is bleeding. Heavily" (my words).

For dinner, we ate at Slippery Otter in West Yellowstone. This restaurant came recommended to us, but also, how can one not eat at a place called Slippery Otter? The food was good, the service was good, and the back of the menus had Yellowstone facts that kept the kids entertained while we waited for our food.

While I'm sooooo happy we got to take our kids to Yellowstone and experience it's uniqueness, I was rather shocked about some things. We've been to a few National Parks, but this was by far the most touristy that we've ever been too. There were hotels, glamping cabins and tents, restaurants, and gas stations within the park. It has a completely different feel and vibe to it than any other National Park.

I COMPLETELY understand the warning signs about staying off of certain areas because they are "hot zones." Apparently, it's not unheard of for people to wonder or fall into the hot springs or ignore all signage altogether. Same with the wildlife warnings. We went in what is their spring time, meaning a lot of the wildlife has babies, which makes them protective and more aggressive than usual. We made sure to take the Yellowstone Pledge, especially regarding the animals. I was shocked to see tourists attempting to pet the elk as they grazed (again, with their young), chase the big horn sheep, walk right up to a bison for a selfie, and a park ranger told us it's not uncommon for people to chase after the bears for a photo. I was dumbfounded by the stupidity. 

Although we did half of a day in Yellowstone Thursday, I was happy to (mostly) be done with the park. I was very disappointed to see how others treated the park and was a tad surprised by the touristy aspect of the park (something we did not experience last summer in Great Smoky Mountain National Park).

Our next day was spent in the Grand Tetons (post to come soon) and was absolutely fabulous!