Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Henry’s Lake, and Lewis and Clark Caverns…OH MY!

Turns out, blogging without a reliable internet connection is difficult! Since my last update we’ve been to Grand Teton National Park, Henry’s Lake State Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. We are currently stationed just outside of Glacier National Park, so it looks like I’ve got some catching up to do. Three…two…one…go!

Grand Teton National Park:

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Generally, RV parks in the Grand Teton/Yellowstone vicinity are super expensive and overcrowded during summer. Back in April when I was making reservations (yup, I had to book that far in advance), I found that many campgrounds were already filled to capacity for the busy summer season and what remained had a going rate of $70 to over $100 per night. For perspective, when we pulled the trailer out of storage back in Austin, TX and booked out first RV park, we paid approximately $20 per night plus metered water. Many RV parks offer discounted rates for longer stays. The daily rate is usually highest, but if you book a full week, or even month, the price is reduced. Typically, I look for sites that fall under $40 per night for full hookups, so the going rate of $70+ per night just wasn’t going to work for us. I expanded my search area to neighboring communities and found the perfect RV park in Swan Valley, Idaho. This little hidden gem, in a town with a population of just over 200, was the smaller, quieter place we were looking to relax in after facing the crowds and traffic between Denver and Salt Lake City. With shaded RV sites, full hookups, free wifi, and only an hour’s drive from Grand Teton National Park all for around $35 per night, it felt like a bargain.

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Grand Teton National Park is gorgeously rugged, surrounded by lakes, ponds, tall trees, and green meadows. Wildflowers were blooming in every color and growing just about everywhere. There was something beautiful to marvel at around every single corner. I found myself soaking it all in and realized after our trip I didn’t take many pictures. Despite all the feelings of awe I managed to capture a few, at least.

When we passed through the entrance station for a park map, I was a bit concerned when I saw the map and its legend did not include wheelchair accessibility icons. I learned that the park has a separate accessibility guide that is available on request and includes information on accessible facilities and trails. We hiked the Jenny Lake trail and trail near the Jackson Lake Dam which were partially accessible, paved in areas closest to parking lots, and provided grand views. We also saw accessible parking and restrooms during our visit. 

Henry’s Lake State Park and Yellowstone National Park:

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Our next stop was Henry’s Lake State Park. I chose this park because I wanted something affordable that was still close to Yellowstone National Park. Henry’s Lake sits only 20 minutes away from the West Yellowstone entrance station for half the price of the private RV parks in the area. I wasn’t expecting much since Yellowstone is considered the gem of the region but Henry’s Lake was surprisingly beautiful and very quiet. Our campsite, like most in the campground, was right on the water. Every night we were treated to some of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen and we had an awesome view of the lake from our dinette. The campground was also very clean with new showers and restrooms. 

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Accessible campsites, parking, showers, and restrooms are also available. A paved trail runs the length of the campground along the shore and continues as a thin rocky single-track trail through the grass. We took Gaius out on the trail for a bike ride one afternoon. 

Not far from Henry’s Lake State Park is Mesa Falls. This place was stunningly beautiful and I was so glad we made the trip. Accessible trails lead to the falls overlook but unfortunately getting closer is only possible via stairs. When we reached the upper falls we were treated to a magnificent rainbow.

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We made our first trip into Yellowstone during the late morning and realized quickly the mistake we had made. We sat in long lines of traffic and struggled to find parking at every turnout and parking lot. I worked hard to capture pictures without cars or other visitors in the frame. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect during the park’s busiest month during the busiest time of day, but now I knew. It was bad. The crowds wouldn’t have been so bad on their own, but what ruined the experience was seeing how people completely disregarded nature and each other.

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I try to keep things positive, in life and on my blog, but let’s be real, life isn’t always positive. Social media is tricky because it’s easy to make it appear that life is always peachy, but we all know it’s not. Although I am grateful my experiences out on the road, I would be lying if I said every day has been perfect, happy, and fun. We have down days and off days and plain old BAD days just like everyone else. Our initial visit to Yellowstone was was of those days. It was disheartening. We saw visitors honking and narrowly avoiding altercation over parking spaces, people smoking cigarettes and bringing pets (not service animals) in areas where they are not allowed, litterbugs tossing their rubbish on the ground instead of taking it to one of the many trashcans, eager sightseers ignoring posted signs and running across protected areas that were closed for restoration, cars speeding to get to the next attraction with no concern for pedestrians or crosswalks, and far too many folks jumping out of their vehicles and getting way too close to wildlife. Instead of people taking care of each other and the park, it felt like it was every man for his selfish self. Mitch described the experience as “drive-thru nature for people who don’t care about nature.” It did feel like that and it was draining. I begrudgingly snapped photos as we toured the overcrowded park. 

Of course this was just one experience and we knew it wasn’t representative of all people, the world, or the park as a whole, so we decided to head back into Yellowstone another day, this time in the evening when we hoped for smaller crowds. At this hour things were much more peaceful and we were able to really enjoy the beauty of the country’s first national park and its rich ecosystem. We saw colorful geothermal pools, steaming geysers, bubbling pots of boiling mud, waterfalls of every variety, massive canyons, vast green valleys, and plenty of bison, dear, elk, and moose.

Most of the park’s major attractions are also accessible, allowing everyone the opportunity to enjoy. Visitors can request a detailed accessibility guide from any entrance station or visitor center. Accessibility information can also be found in the National Park Service’s free Yellowstone National Park app. The park has accessible parking, restrooms, dining facilities, campsites, picnic areas, gas stations, fishing piers, and an accessible boat launch. Most of the park’s major attractions are accessible and many of the park’s trails have accessible routes. By reading the accessibility guide I learned that loaner wheelchairs are available from visitor and medical centers within the park for “$15 per day, with a $300 refundable deposit (cash or credit card).” This price seemed a bit steep considering that wheelchairs are necessities, not options, for most of the people who need them. The deposit also seemed steep since the wheelchairs provided appeared to be in the hundred-dollar range. I saw more people using wheelchairs in Yellowstone than any park we had been to but I was saddened when I came across a man who was sitting in a loaner wheelchair on the side of a trail. Evidently, his family members were taking turns pushing his chair but had become tired and continued on the trail without him. I thought, why aren’t wheelchairs free to use for people who need them, and better yet, why aren’t all-terrain power chairs available for rent? Someday I would love to start a non-profit organization and this might just be the perfect cause. Stay tuned. 

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park:

I love visiting a good cave and did not want to miss Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana’s very first state park. Entrance to the caverns is only permitted through the park’s guided tours. Three tours are available- classic ($12), paradise ($12), and wild ($30). After a moderate hike up a paved switchback trail, the classic tour guides visitors through the lighted cave along mostly paved pathways and stairs. The paradise tour is accessible and follows a level, paved pathway to the cave leading into the large paradise room. The wild cave tour is conducted in the dark and travels through areas of the cave not visited in other tours.

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Hoping for an adventurous and more private experience, we opted for the wild cave tour which involves a lot of climbing and crawling and is limited to 10 visitors. Admission for the 3-hour excursion includes use of coveralls, kneepads, gloves, helmet, and headlamp.

We had a blast getting dirty, crawling around on the cave floor, and climbing through narrow passages. We also learned a lot about the cave’s history and some of its prominent geological features.

The area surrounding the cave was also beautiful and when we emerged from the tour around 8:30 p.m. the sun was just setting. We camped for the night in the park’s campground, a great place for families with fire pits, picnic tables, restrooms with showers, a playground, and accessible campsites. Our next destination- Glacier National Park.

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Thanks for reading.

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