Joyce and I both had very influential grandmothers. I was blessed to have a grandmother who took me on some amazing trips, including Alaska and Hawaii. Joyce’s grandmother was not able to take her on trips, but she instilled the love of travel in Joyce by telling her about the remarkable places she had visited. She also had one of those wonderful View-Master viewers with the circle slides so you can see these enticing places in 3D. My grandmother also had one and would purchase View Master slides wherever she traveled.
Joyce received a “bucket list” from her grandmother of the places that she hoped she would travel one day. The bucket list included Niagara Falls, Yosemite Park, the California Redwood Forest, the North Carolina Smokey Mountains, New York City to see Broadway plays, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park. Joyce only had one more place on the list to fulfill—Yellowstone.
My grandmother took me to Yellowstone Park 53 years ago. We stayed at the historic Old Faithful Inn. I remember eating in the gigantic dining hall at the Old Faithful Inn, seeing Old Faithful, and the sulfur smell around the geysers. I’m not sure how many nights we stayed, I’m thinking it was at least 3 nights, but I never think of Yellowstone without remembering my grandmother.
The memory of two wonderful grandmothers converged in the planning of this Sabbatical when we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park. I read how crowded Yellowstone was and how hard it was to book a room at the Old Faithful Inn. A year in advance, on the first day we could make reservations, we booked and paid for a room at the Old Faithful Inn for four nights. I combined this with another life-long dream, a cross-country train trip, and I knew that this part of the Sabbatical would be making dreams come true.
When I came to Yellowstone 53 years ago, we did not visit Grand Teton National Park, but I decided that since we were so close we needed to add the Grand Tetons to the itinerary. Then we would have a very short drive up to the South Entrance of Yellowstone Park.
Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful. It would be the perfect day to visit the Grand Tetons. We drove about ten miles north of Jackson, past the Jackson Hole Airport, to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center. We saw several cars stopped just as we turned on the road to the Visitor’s Center. There was a large Moose enjoying some underbrush for breakfast, which was most appropriate since the Visitor’s Center is located in Moose, Wyoming. We would become accustomed to seeing wildlife over the next few days.
It was Jr. Ranger Day and there were a number of exciting events going on for the children. We found a couple of books on Yellowstone that would become very helpful and talked to the Park Ranger about driving around the Grand Teton Loop—a distance of 42 miles. She said it was a perfect day to take the tour. We did not know that the loop had just opened a few days before from the long winter season. We would be among some of the first visitors for the 2019 season. This Visitor’s Center was first class, a fine tribute to the National Park Service.
It cost $35 for a private vehicle to enter a National Park. We would pay $35 for Grand Teton and an additional $35 for Yellowstone. But if you are 62 or older, which both of us easily qualified, you can purchase an annual Senior Adult Pass for $20. So rather than paying $70 for visiting both parks, we were able to visit both for $20—and we have a pass that is good for another 12 months! Getting old does have some advantages—besides Sr. Adult coffee!
I am having a difficult time putting into words the feelings we have experienced at both Grand Teton and Yellowstone. How many different ways can you say: breathtaking, awesome, beautiful, majestic, inspiring, stunning, amazing, unbelievable, incredible, glorious, and spectacular. We have been blessed to travel the world, but no other place on the planet can outdo Grand Teton and Yellowstone for natural beauty and breathtaking majesty! I think of the words of one of our most beloved hymns: “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Christ, our Lord, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise”
Our first stop in the Grand Teton National Park was a church, the Chapel of the Transfiguration. This simple little Episcopal Church has services every Sunday during the summer. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton attended worship here while they were president. The unique thing about the church is a large window behind the altar that gives you an inspirational view of the Tetons. There is a cross in front of the window, so you are seeing these powerful mountains through the cross as you worship.
Our next stop was South Jenny Lake. This is when we realized just how much snow was still on the ground. Many of the trails and walkways were still covered with over a foot or more of snow. In order to get down to see Jenny Lake, we had to walk through a lot of snow, and we walked very slowly! But it was all worth it once we arrived at Jenny Lake. The lake remains frozen! Seeing the majestic Tetons in the background beyond the frozen lake surrounded by snow was truly breathtaking. We kept thinking that we couldn’t possibly see a more awe-inspiring sight, but then there would be another one!
We were overwhelmed by each new view of the Tetons. We saw the glacier, the Cathedral Group, the views from Summit Mountain, Lake Jackson which was also covered in ice, Snake River, and more. We understand why they call these Alpine Peaks the “Mountains of the Imagination.” Few places in the world are more striking or memorable. Words are simply not adequate to describe what we experienced on this glorious day. I’ve always heard that Heaven will be a place of incredible beauty. I think we had a glimpse of glory today. I can’t imagine how much more glorious Heaven will be!
Sunday morning, May 5, 2019 dawned bright and beautiful. Today, Joyce’s dream would come true and I would return to Yellowstone after 53 years. The South Entrance to Yellowstone Park is about 55 miles north of Jackson. You drive through Grand Teton National Park. We left early and drove to the north entrance of Grand Teton which is only about 20 miles from Yellowstone. However, when I presented my pass to the Park Ranger and said we were on the way to Yellowstone she replied, “You can’t go this way. The South Entrance is closed and won’t open until May 10. You have to go back to Jackson, then over the pass to Idaho, then north to Montana to reach the West Entrance. It will take you about 3 ½ hours.”
I had downloaded the official Yellowstone App. There is a section devoted to road closures. If I had bothered to look, I would have clearly seen that the South Entrance was closed. But due to my negligence, we now had a 3 ½ drive in front of us rather than a 30-minute drive.
We did get to ride through Grand Teton National Park again, which was thrilling. And the pass over the Tetons was also breathtaking. We finally rolled into West Yellowstone just before 1 p.m. and found a nice little restaurant to eat lunch. They had some very nice French Onion Soup.
We waited in line about 10 minutes to enter the park. I can’t imagine how long people have to wait in the summer. Once inside the park we started another App I downloaded that has been a great asset. It is called GyPSy Guide and it is like having a tour guide in the car with you. It operates off a GPS signal and triggers the commentary for the exact place you are in the park. It will tell you the “must-see” places, give directions, and it provides excellent commentary on our nation’s first national park, its history, the wildlife, and the amazing sites.
We saw some Bison soon after entering the park. We stopped at “Artists’ Paintpot Trail” and saw our first hydrothermal area with colorful hot springs, mudpots, and small geysers. Then it was on to the iconic Old Faithful Inn.
The Old Faithful Inn, the most requested lodging facility in the park, is a National Historic Landmark. It was built in 1903-4 using all local pinewood and stone. It is the largest log structure in the world. The towering lobby is a destination in itself. There is a massive fireplace and a hand-crafted clock made of copper, wood and wrought iron. You can find bear claw marks on some of the wood. The light fixtures are the same ones installed in 1904. Many of the furnishings are still the same. Some of the most popular rooms are some of the original rooms that even today don’t have a private bath! All of the rooms are still heated with steam. There is no air conditioning in any room in Yellowstone Park. An east wing was added in 1919 and a west wing in 1927. Both wings were added by the original architect and builder, Robert Reamer.
The Inn had just opened for the season two days before on May 3. Our room was not ready—we would have to wait until 5 pm, but that was not a problem because Old Faithful was scheduled to erupt at 4:30. We found a good seat to watch the performance. When I came to Yellowstone 53 years ago, Old Faithful was erupting about every 70 minutes. It erupted every hour until an earthquake in 1959. Today, you can count on Old Faithful about every 90 minutes, give or take about 10 minutes. This afternoon it was right on schedule and we marveled at this great work of nature.
Our room was ready and we walked and walked, and walked down the west wing until we reached the final door. I opened the room door and could not believe what I was seeing. We had a corner room with two large windows! We have a spectacular view of the Upper Geyser Basin. The first morning we woke up to find a Bison walking outside our window.
The room is dated in a good way. It is heated with a steam radiator. The furnishings are old, but the bath is roomy with a full tub and shower.
It was 33 degrees when we went out for a walk on Monday morning. We walked around Old Faithful before coming in for a hearty breakfast. The sun was shining and the sky was clear when we left Old Faithful for the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” Not far down the road we had to stop. Bison were in the road. They slowly walked past both sides of our car. We took some great pictures.
We drove on to the Canyon Visitor’s Center, driving through many acres of forest that are still covered in snow. It was evident from the huge piles of snow in the parking lot that it had been a rough winter with lots of snow. The ranger’s recommendation on seeing the canyon was exactly the same as our App guide. We drove to the South Rim first and stopped at the Upper Falls. Thank goodness they had shoveled a path through the snow, otherwise we would have never made it to the observation point! The Canyon is 20 miles long, more than 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide. The Upper Falls drops 109 feet and was without a doubt, inspirational. But little did we know.
One of the most famous, iconic pictures of Yellowstone is from Artist Point looking at the Lower Falls which drops 308 feet. Thomas Moran’s famous oil painting of the Upper Falls captured the imagination of our nation and led to congress declaring Yellowstone the very first National Park in 1872. Nathaniel Langford wrote these inspired words in 1870: “There is a majestic harmony in the whole, which have never seen before in nature’s grandest works. The fall itself takes its leaps between the jaws of rocks whose vertical height above it is more than 600 feet, and more than 900 feet above the chasm into which it falls.”
We were amazed at what we were seeing. Pictures and paintings simply do not do justice to this breathtaking scene. We paused, we took pictures, we looked at the lovely scene—it didn’t seem real.
After seeing the South Rim we drove to the North Rim and had another spectacular view of the Upper Falls. We also spotted a baby Eagle in her nest. The mother was circling above, keeping a watch over her baby.
After seeing the Canyon, we drove through gorgeous Hayden Valley and followed the winding Yellowstone River. This valley was formed by glaciers in the last ice age, 14,000 years ago. Past the valley we stopped at Mud Volcano. This is the remnant of a massive volcano eruption over a century ago. Early explorers to Yellowstone described this as a “most repulsive and terrifying site.” The volcano later literally blew itself apart. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this area of Yellowstone is the Dragon’s Mouth Spring. This looks like a cave with a mighty dragon inside blowing smoke and making deep, ferocious sounds.
We continued on our ride until we reached Yellowstone Lake. The oldest of the Park Hotels is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel which opened in 1891. It is a beautiful, sprawling old structure that is still painted yellow, its original color. It overlooks the massive Yellowstone Lake that is still frozen solid. This hotel will not open for the summer season until May 10. It has a gorgeous view of the frozen lake, surrounded by snow, with the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
On the way back, we stopped at Norris Geyser Basin which contains the hottest and most acidic of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas. This area sits on the intersection of three major faults and is a very active earthquake area. There is more change and diversity here than any other part of the park. We saw Steamboat Geyser that is the world’s tallest active geyser, although the last time it erupted was September of last year.
We made a stop at Gibbon Falls that drops 84 feet. It is not as spectacular as the falls in the Canyon, but it is nevertheless worth the visit. There was one more stop at Beryl Spring, one of the hottest springs in all of Yellowstone, then we made our way back to the Old Faithful Inn.
I had been watching the weather for a couple of weeks and the forecast for our time at Yellowstone did not look encouraging. A few days before we arrived it was calling for rain each day. Then it changed to rain Monday and Tuesday, then changed to rain starting late Monday. But it looked like Tuesday was going to be a washout.
Sunday and Monday turned out to be beautiful days. We could not have asked for a better day to see the Canyon. Before we went to bed Monday night I noted they were calling for rain and snow showers overnight, but rain all day Tuesday.
It was rainy when we woke up Tuesday morning. As we looked out at the steam rising from the Upper Geyser Basin in the mist of the morning rain with a bison strolling merrily along, it was another awe-inspiring sight. Not long after we woke up we noticed that the rain had changed to snow. It did not stop snowing until afternoon. For the next several hours it was snowing big, flakey snowflakes. It was like a scene out of a movie.
What I thought would be a miserable, rainy day had turned into a fantastic snow day at Old Faithful Inn. We enjoyed breakfast and then had a very informative historical tour of the Inn. We learned the amazing story of how Robert Reamer and a team of around 50 carpenters built this massive wood structure in only two years using all local wood and volcanic rock. We saw the open perch where a stringed quartet would entertain diners each night before climbing the very top of the lobby where they played on a very high platform while the guests would dance six nights a week—never on Sunday!
We saw one of the original rooms, learned how the earliest guests came by stagecoach and could stay for $4 a night which included 3 meals a day. The flag hanging over the great lobby only has 45 stars, the number of states in the Union when the Inn opened in 1904. I told our guide, who didn’t look to be over 30, that I had been here 53 years ago. I thought she would be impressed, but I think she considered me just another historical artifact.
After the tour we found two seats on an outdoor covered walkway with a great view of Old Faithful. We watched Old Faithful erupt in the snow! Then we walked through the snow to the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center where we enjoyed a number of great educational exhibits and two wonderful movies on Yellowstone before watching Old Faithful erupt once again in the snow from the big panoramic windows in the Visitors Center.
In the afternoon we sat on the balcony level of the historic lobby, watching a roaring fire, listening to a young violinist serenade us with gorgeous music, drinking hot chocolate, Joyce knitting while I wrote on my laptop. It has been another perfect day!
This day brought back memories of two other perfect days. One was the first time we visited Lucerne, Switzerland. We had been to the Holy Land and stopped in Switzerland on our return. Even though it was January, we were told there had been almost no snow. That afternoon, it started snowing. I will never forget walking on the iconic covered bridge across the lake with huge snowflakes falling—it was like a scene out of a movie. Today brought back that special memory as the huge snowflakes fell on this gorgeous old log building.
I also remember a “snow day” during our last Sabbatical. We were staying in an ancient farmhouse north of Assisi in Italy. The day was damp with a little snow. The staff built a nice fire for us and we sat in front of the fire, Joyce was knitting and I was reading. We enjoyed hot chocolate on that perfect day as well!
It stopped raining late in the afternoon. We went for a short walk outside and saw Old Faithful erupt for the 4th time today! This time it was from a different angle and we watched as the geyser expelled almost 8,000 gallons of boiling water.
At dinner Tuesday night we met a nice couple from Virginia. When they found out we were from Lexington they asked if we knew anything about the Barbecue Festival. After telling them that I had given the blessing for the Barbecue for the past 20 + years, we talked about how unique it is to still have an official prayer before a major event. The man from Virginia happily told me he was a NASCAR fan and yes, they still have official prayers before each race.
The sun was shining Wednesday morning but it was cold—27 degrees. A big roaring fire was burning in the huge fireplace. The staff enjoys keeping the fire burning on cold days.
We had planned to drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs, but this time I did check the App and there was road construction that would delay us, so we decided to start our day at the Midway Geyser Basin where Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, the Grand Prismatic Spring, is located.
Today was the reason we packed our heavy coats, scarfs, gloves, and toboggans. When we got out of the car at the Midway Geyser Basin the wind was blowing and with the wind-chill factoring in, it felt like 15 degrees. The two main attractions here are the Excelsior Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The Excelsior Geyser Crater discharges more than 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the Firehole River.
After you see the Crater you walk around a one-way walkway to the stunning Grand Prismatic Spring with its gorgeous colors. On any given day this is an amazing sight, but on this cold, blustery day we were about to have a truly unique and extraordinary experience. The cold atmosphere was colliding with the super-heated water to create an enormous canopy of steam. We were quickly immersed into this warm cocoon of rising steam. Our glasses fogged over, we were blinded by the steam and strangely enough, we were warmed as we were enveloped by this mystical, ethereal blanket on this bitterly cold morning. It was an other-worldly type of encounter. We could barely see as we made our way around the walkway, back into the cold, back into the chilling, frosty morning.
From Midway we made our way back to the Biscuit Basin where the deep blue Sapphire Pool invites you to stand and admire its creative beauty. We saw Jewel Geyser erupt, it puts on a show every ten minutes. We saw one hydrothermal feature after another.
We drove past Old Faithful to Kepler Cascades. We had to walk through some more snow to get to the lookout area, but it was a spectacular sight watching this powerful waterfall descend 155 feet over multiple different drops into the Firehole River. Joyce and I were the only ones standing to watch this magnificent waterfall. After celebrating the stunning Upper and Lower Falls at the Canyon, and seeing the powerful Gibbons Falls, these cascades seemed almost like an afterthought, yet we stood all alone marveling at their exquisite beauty.
In 1871, the US Secretary of War, Gustavus C. Doane, was a member of a discovery expedition to Yellowstone. He described Kepler Cascades this way: “These pretty little falls, if located on an eastern stream, would be celebrated in history and song; here, amid objects so grand as to strain conception and stagger belief, they were passed without a halt.” The falls were named for the 12 year-old son of Wyoming’s territorial governor in 1881.
We made our way back to the Old Faithful Inn where I saw Old Faithful perform one more time! We enjoyed a cup of hot apple cider while sitting on the balcony of the epic Old Faithful lobby. After lunch I embarked on a walk that would become a “Walk to Remember.”
One of our hotel room windows looks out over the massive Upper Geyser Basin. It is truly massive!
I walked past the General Store and down a paved walkway until I reached Castle Geyser, with a unique cone that is thousands of years old. When it erupts, approximately every 14 hours, water can burst up to 75 feet high with an eruption lasting almost 20 minutes.
It was hard to believe as I walked along seeing one geyser and hot spring after another, that this small area surrounding the Old Faithful Inn contains the majority of the world’s active geysers. I continued on to Daisy Geyser and then up a small hill to the unique, Punch Bowl Spring. Here the paved path ended, but I walked down a gravel path that was still covered in snow in places to the beautiful Black Sand Pool. I had reached the end of the trail.
I started back and turned left at the fork to walk through a lovely section with pine trees on either side. As I was walking it started snowing, not a heavy snow, but small, gentle flakes. It was another ethereal moment of past memory and future hope, a spiritual blessing as I walked through a pristine forest as fresh as the first day of creation, with snowflakes falling and the silence of the forest speaking in powerful ways. Here I was returning to a place that has always been lodged in the memory of my childhood, returning over half a century later at the end of a long and fulfilling ministry, returning in a Sabbatical to find renewal and rest for my soul---here it was in one magical moment, walking through one of the world’s most amazing geological displays, walking over an active volcano that could any minute erupt with cataclysmic transformations, walking over a power that is much greater than I.
“When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man?” Who am I?
I emerged from the forest to hear a loud roar and saw that a great geyser was erupting. It was Grotto Geyser that is perhaps one of the most unusual geysers. Geologists believe that 1000s of years ago this geyser emerged from a stand of dead trees. Through time the shape of the geyser developed from the shape of the trees. The geyser was in the middle of an eruption. I witnessed it all alone.
My walk continued past many more small geysers, hot springs, prismatic pools, and then reached the Grand Geyser. This is the tallest predictable geyser in the world. It erupts with powerful bursts rather than a steady stream like Old Faithful. An average eruption last 9 to 12 minutes with bursts reaching as high as 200 feet. I would have loved to see it erupt, but the projected time was over 3 hours away.
I kept walking into the area above Old Faithful. A lone bison was standing in front of Old Faithful Inn. I walked through the great lobby and back to the room. I had walked around five miles.
We were about to leave for dinner when I saw something majestic in the distance in the Upper Geyser Basin. It was the Grand Geyser! We stood at our window and marveled at its power. We were watching this magnificent display out of our hotel window! What a serendipitous treat! There are only six rooms in the Old Faithful Inn at the end of the West Wing that have a view that includes the Grand Geyser. How blessed we were to have one of those rooms.
We went for our final dinner at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. When our waitress came to take our order for dinner I said, “Before I order, I have a story to tell you.”
I have a vivid memory of being here with my grandmother 53 years ago. We were in this dining room at the Old Faithful Inn and I was looking at the menu. I told my grandmother that I wanted steak for dinner. She told me to find something else, steak was too expensive. A waiter overheard the conversation and noticed that my grandmother had vouchers to pay for the meals. He said, “Lady, with those vouchers he can have anything he wants on the menu.”
Joyce and I both ordered steak which was good, but I’m sure it was not nearly as good as that steak 53 years ago!
A very cold 25 degrees greeted us our final morning at Yellowstone National Park. We enjoyed an Old Faithful Inn specialty before checking out, Huckleberry Pancakes. A few miles away from Old Faithful we were greeted by a bison, slowly walking down the middle of the road, not at all concerned about the car behind him. We also saw some baby bison, called Red Dogs because of their color.
We exited the West Entrance and had an uneventful 5-hour drive to the Salt Lake City Airport for our return flight to Charlotte. Ella Rae loves animals and especially otters. Joyce found an otter hand puppet in the Old Faithful Visitor Center that looks just like a real otter. She put the otter in her carry-on bag with his head sticking out. When we boarded the Delta jet in Salt Lake City, Joyce, who was seated on the aisle, placed her carry-on bag under the seat in front of her with the otter still peering out. One of the flight attendants walked by, then stopped and put her hand on Joyce’s shoulder and nervously asked, “Is that thing real?”
Joyce started laughing. Then the flight attendant starting laughing. She went and found two of her colleagues and had them to come and take a look. At this point they decided to play a trick on the flight attendant in the back. One of the flight attendants told her to see what that was under the seat in row 10. She did a double take, thinking this was an undocumented support animal. She rushed to the front and then all the flight attendants had a great laugh together.
They said this had made their flight, then started telling us horror stories of people trying to get on a plane with a “support animal.” One lady even brought a turkey! Before we landed in Charlotte all the flight attendants were taking pictures of the otter who has still peering out the top of the bag, not even mindful of all the commotion he had created!
The second part of our Sabbatical, like the first, exceeded all of our expectations. Yellowstone is one of the most unique places on the face of the earth and people travel from all over the planet to marvel at these mighty works of nature. Over 4 million people visit Yellowstone each year and half of those come in the summer months of June, July, and August.
This was the primary reason I decided to visit in early May. In retrospect, it was the perfect time to visit. We never felt crowded, never had any problems with traffic, never had a problem finding a parking place. Many times, Joyce and I were the only ones visiting a site. The downside is that the weather is cold and there were many places that were still closed because of the snow. But the snow added another dimension to the already exquisite beauty. Seeing the forest covered in snow, watching Old Faithful erupt with the snow falling, standing on the shore of a frozen Lake Yellowstone, experiencing the steam rising from springs surrounded by snow are all extraordinary moments that are not possible in the crowded summer months.
If you plan to visit Yellowstone, if at all possible stay inside the park. West Yellowstone is a lovely village with hundreds of hotel rooms and restaurants. It is more economical to stay here, but each morning you have to re-enter the park and in the crowded summer months, this can take a very long time. Not many people can look out their hotel window and see a Bison or a Bear and watch Grand Geyser erupt! The hotel staff was in awe that we had that experience. You can request a room overlooking Old Faithful if you are willing to pay more. Of course, staying in the park is expensive and you must plan ahead, many months ahead. To stay at the Old Faithful Inn is truly an experience that will last a lifetime. You need to reserve your room a year in advance—but it is worth it!
We were also impressed with the friendly, engaging young people who worked in the dining room and provided housekeeping services. Many of these are college students who spend their summer working at Yellowstone. They stay in dorm like facilities. They all wanted to know where we were from and how we were enjoying our time in Yellowstone. We enjoyed talking with them and learning where home was and where they were attending school. I know the experience of working at Yellowstone is one they will carry with them for a lifetime.
Part two of our Sabbatical is now over. We traveled almost 7,500 miles through 18 states. Both Italy and our cross-country train trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks have exceeded all of our expectations. Now we have a week to prepare for the third and longest segment of the Sabbatical. Next Saturday we are flying to Munich!