It was cold, drizzling and the sky was gray and gloomy. The six of us in the safari van were feeling a bit guilty, mostly thinking about getting warm.
We knew we should be totally engaged; after all, we were touring Yellowstone National Park for the first time and checking off our bucket lists. This was the year to finally visit because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and Yellowstone was the first U.S. national park.
Sarah Ernst, our driver and a senior guide for Teton Science Schools Wildlife Expeditions, sensed our lack of enthusiasm. A six-year veteran with the renowned school, she knows the park and its resident animals very well.
“As we go into the northern part of the park, we should start to see much more wildlife,” she said brightly.
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Almost on cue, she called out, “Look to your right!,” and pulled over onto the shoulder.
Sure enough, a mama grizzly bear and three small cubs were on the hillside next to us, some 20 feet up. Immediately, the cold was forgotten. It was the dazzling, thrilling, unforgettable Yellowstone moment of which we had dreamed when booking the school’s “Spring Wolves & Bears Expedition” tour.
Our journey took place in mid-May, but it still felt very much like winter, and we were glad we had brought plenty of layers, as advised.
We’d chosen the Teton Science Schools Wildlife Expeditions for its excellent reputation. Founded in 1967, the nonprofit school’s mission is “to connect people, nature and place through education, science and stewardship.” It is Jackson Hole, Wyo.’s original and oldest safari provider, and has educated and trained thousands of children and adults in nature education.
Knowing that 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone had its busiest season ever in 2015, with almost 4,100,000 visitors, we suspected that this centennial year would be even more crowded. It seemed wise to take a guided tour with highly experienced personnel to help us see the highlights of the parks, as well as the most wildlife possible, in our limited time.
The school’s trips depart from the delightful mountain town of Jackson, Wyo., with the towering, iconic snow-capped Tetons as a spectacular backdrop.
Our first night, we stayed at the ‘grand dame’ Wort Hotel, celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Wort is just one block from the famed town square, in the heart of galleries, shops and restaurants.
The hotel boasts its own remarkable Western painting and bronze collection, along with the excellent Silver Dollar Bar & Grill. After eating what was arguably the best burger I’d ever had, we enjoyed the live country/rock band and danced with the regulars, including an old-time rodeo champ still two-stepping like a youngster.
First looks at widlife
After a 6 a.m. pickup, we set out to explore 310,000-acre Grand Teton National Park.
The guide showed us how to use the high-power binoculars, as well as the roof hatches for safe photography, telling us we’d be covering about 400 miles in our three-day journey. Headsets allowed us to hear her running narratives about the landscape, history and wildlife.
“The clouds will help us with wildlife sightings,” Sarah told us. “The sun tires out animals, and the bright light distorts photography.”
Soon, we did spot a young moose peacefully ambling in the short willows, some 30 feet from us. We pulled over to snap some shots, and then noticed a whitetail deer and her fawn nearby in the moss-green sagebrush. As we drove off, a huge bull elk was grazing with a postcard-perfect view of the Tetons behind him.
With one of the largest elk herds in North America, Grand Teton National Park is one of the prime riparian habitats of the valley, with thickets of orangy-red willows contrasting with the greens of the sagebrush, cottonwoods and other vegetation.
Much of the park is actually outside the official entry point, and it was 8 a.m. before we came to the gate at Moose, Wyo. Throughout the morning, we’d seen many elegant, slim pronghorn — the fastest animal in the area and often mistaken for antelope.
Thanks to Sarah’s expert sightings, we’d also seen a black bear with her just-born brown cub about a half-mile away, easily viewed with three powerful spotting scopes.
After a full breakfast at the cozy Signal Mountain Lodge, we left Grand Teton and entered Yellowstone.
While passing long grassy areas, rust-toned willows and low shrubs alongside an alluvial river, out darted a yellow-bellied marmot from a tree stump. Ernst stopped to show us an area in which she knew wolves were active, and sure enough, she found prints as big as her hand in the snowy mud.
Crossing the Continental Divide three times en route, we arrived at Old Faithful geyser in time for the scheduled 3:10-3:20 p.m. eruption. Hundreds of people speaking in a cacophony of languages, hands outstretched with cellphones and cameras, were poised for the magic moment.
Steam rose from bright turquoise bubbling hot springs pools, rimmed with orangy crust. When Old Faithful’s hissing, 150-foot tower of 200-degree water shot up, the only sound that could be heard was the clicking of cameras.
We could faintly smell the sulphuric vapors. And then, the crowd began to clap, in a joint fellowship of wonder.
Exploring ‘America’s Serengeti’
The Lamar Valley, with the looming Bear Tooth Range in the distance, offers expansive views, perfect for seeking wildlife. As we headed on to “America’s Serengeti,” we started to see bison — huge, 2,000-pound bull bison, sometimes large groups, and to our delight, often mothers with babies (one still with an umbilical cord and calf in tow). Bison are the most often-seen wildlife — they are frequently on the road, blocking traffic.
This, also, is where we saw the highlight of our trip: the mama grizzly and cubs, heading north into the Lamar Valley. Even though it caused a dreaded “bear jam” (when cars suddenly appear, as though from nowhere, to park and share the wildlife viewings), it didn’t dampen the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After a night in Cooke City, Mont., we departed at 4:45 a.m. for wildlife sightings at dawn.
“Hey, look, there are two litters of wolf pups in a crevasse,” Ernst called, staging the scopes for us to see. Eight tiny wolves scampered about in the scopes’ range. A bit later, we witnessed two enormous male bison tussling, near enough to us that we could hear their huffing breath. A red fox sprinted past, its bushy tail like a sentinel, and then it sprang up to catch a vole in its mouth.
Ernst took us on a short hike to see an abandoned wolf den, and we saw bison wallowing in a pond nearby. It was another gray day, but the mountains were shrouded in a veil of clouds and the panoramas were lovely, quite evocative of Ansel Adams’ photography.
After another night in Cooke City, we perused Lamar Valley wildlife once again and were richly rewarded.
In the morning serenity, through the spotting scopes, Ernst saw an incredible scene about a mile away. A bear had gone near the wolves’ den, housing eight little pups, and the four adult wolves were chasing the big brute off while the little ones peeked out of the opening.
It was like something out of a TV nature special.
Our last day ended with a tour of the magnificent Lower Falls; at 308 feet, it’s actually taller than Niagara but not as wide.
We stopped in for box lunches and coffees at the sumptuous, historic Lake Lodge, adjacent to enormous Lake Yellowstone, the largest alpine lake in the U.S. Then it was on to our final destination, the sublime Bentwood Inn, an upscale bed-and-breakfast six miles from Jackson.
“These parks are as close as we can get to primeval places in the Lower 48,” Ernst said on the way back. “What an honor to be able to visit the first national park as well as the home of bison rebreeding and wolf reintroduction.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
If you go
The Teton Science Schools Wildlife Expeditions’ spring tours run from late April to early June. There are three “Fall Elk Bugling, Wolves & Bears Expedition” programs, beginning Sept. 15, ending Oct. 8 (three days, two nights each.)
Price for each tour is $1,450 per person, including all meals, use of high-powered binoculars and scope, two nights of hotel accommodations and tour transportation from and around parks in a safari vehicle with top hatches for photography.
More information: 877-404-6626, www.tetonscience.org
How to get there: American, Delta and United all fly from DFW to Jackson. Direct flights are a bit less than three hours.
Good to know: Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks can have wildly erratic conditions all year, so it is highly recommended to wear layers and be prepared for rain, chilly temps and possibly snow — even in the summer.