Recently, I returned home after from spending the better part of two weeks in Wyoming and Colorado. I had been planning this trip for several months. I also had a pass to visit Yosemite National Park, but with so many wildfires in northern California, I changed my plans.
Earlier in the fall I had followed the Oregon trail through Nebraska and into Wyoming. I picked up the trail at Fort Laramie and then stopped at the National Trails Interpretive Center in Casper. I also visited some other trail landmarks between Casper and South Pass where the Oregon and Mormon trails cross the continental divide. West of the divide the Mormon Trail turns south-west toward the Great Salt Lake and the Oregon Trail heads north-west to Oregon and the Columbia River.
Leaving the Oregon Trail I found a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground in the Green Mountains. BLM campgrounds are popular in autumn with hunters and people like me who are looking for relatively remote settings and simple amenities such as a picnic table, a fire ring and clean vault toilets. The fall colors were gorgeous and night sky spectacular.
I spent the next five nights at Gros Ventre campground at the edge of Grand Teton National Park near Jackson,Wyoming. It is a large first come, first serve campground. When I arrived in the afternoon the campground was full, but the attendants allowed me and other camping units to park in the amphitheater parking lot at no charge so we could be first in line the following day. The staff at the campground was very pleasant, and many staffers appear to be retired seniors like me. The tent and RV pads are comfortably spaced apart and surrounded by Narrow Leaf Cottonwood trees and sagebrush. During my visit a variety of wildlife including moose, deer and moseyed through the campground.
Perhaps in part because of the Covid pandemic, the modern restrooms ( i.e. running water and toilets) were kept spotless. While there are no showers on site, hot showers and laundry facilities are available at another campground about 30 miles away.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, my National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass is just about the best purchase I have ever made. The pass allows access to all National Parks and Federal recreation areas and reduced campground and other fees. I paid as little as $3 at BLM sites, and not more than $15 at National Park campgrounds. There is no charge at some BLM disbursed camping sites.
While there are many breathtakingly beautiful sites in the Rockies, I find the Tetons to be particularly grand. The mountain range is surrounded by lakes and the peaks tower sharply and dramatically above the arid plateau. I love to photograph layers of color-on-color, and such layers can be found in abundance in the Tetons. Hiking along trails I photographed compositions of sunlit aspen groves against multi-colored leaves and foliage a granite mountain backdrop. For several days a smoke haze hung low over the mountains. On those days I mostly hiked the trails and didn’t worry much about taking photos.
I also spent a day at neighboring Yellowstone National Park. The majority of the campgrounds at Yellowstone were closed for the season and the remaining campgrounds were full. Yellowstone is a huge park which eats up a lot of driving time. I have visited the park several times before, so I stopped at just a few of my favorite sites. One of these is Grand Prismatic spring. I absolutely love the vantage point from a trail that overlooks the spring, and I can’t imagine visiting the park without making a stop there.
I visited the park on a Saturday, but the parking lots and the road traffic was not bad compared to previous visits. Due to pandemic restrictions, there were few if any tour busses running and many of the popular amenities were closed for the season.
Leaving Jackson and the Gros Ventre campground I again spent a night at my BLM hideaway in the Green Mountains and then on to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). The only advanced reservation I made ahead of time on my trip was for a campsite in RMNP. All but a couple of the campgrounds in the park are closed. Due to dry conditions no open fires are allowed. My campsite entitled me to the day of my reservation and the day following my reservation in the park. I also spent one night in a campground just outside the west entrance to the park.
On the night I arrived, I could see a big mushroom cloud of smoke above the mountain range. As I drove to the summit of Trail Ridge Road I could see the billows of smoke from the Cameron Peak fire on the northern boundary of the park, A ranger told me that the huge cloud of white smoke was from a controlled burn or back burn to stop fire from spreading into the park. As of last week, the Cameron Peak fire had burned well over 200,000 acres making in the largest fire in Colorado history. Multiple fires have resulted in the closing of national forests from west of Denver to the Wyoming Border. As of last Thursday, the fire had spread across the continental divide and parents of Estes Park were under evacuation.
I arrived at the park bit late for optimum leaf peeping, but not too late for the elk rut or mating season. In early fall bull elks descend to the mountain meadows to gather harems and vie for the attention and affection of females in heat. I am not a particularly knowledgeable wildlife photographer, but I do love spectacle, and the annual elk rut is definitely a spectacle.
I always remind myself while traveling that the journey itself is the prize, not the destination. Weather, bad roads, closed facilities and many other circumstances may affect the trip, but that is what makes each adventure unique. When all is said and done the weather, equipment failures, mechanical break downs and missed opportunities may make for some great stories to tell friends and family back home.