While longing to venture further afield, friends and colleagues, Julia Pirrung and Sunni McBride, were reminded of the bounty in our own ‘backyard’. Eager to hit the road after months at home, Sunni headed north from Aspen to Yellowstone for a week of outdoor adventure with family and friends, while Julia set off from Snowmass and traveled west to explore Moab, Bryce, and Zion. Slick rock, slot canyons, hoodoos, geysers, mud pots, and waterfalls were the ‘sights du jour’ as they traversed National Parks both big (Yellowstone) and small (Bryce).
We indulge you with some of their findings.
O come, all ye faithful.
Remain joyful and triumphant!
Why did you select these national parks to visit?
Sunni: I think Yellowstone appealed as it is not only the first National Park (established in 1872) but is the most iconic. Known for its incredible geothermal activity, most notably Old Faithful, as well as the abundance of unique wildlife (wolves, grizzly bears, and wild buffalo) and endless biodiversity. It’s also drivable from Aspen, which was a key consideration for me with my three teenagers.
Julia: Hot desert sun and a drastically different landscape are what drew me to the southwest. Since visiting Amangiri in 2010 and experiencing the slot canyons and quicksand in Grand Staircase Escalante, I have longed to explore the neighboring parks in Utah. The formations that have resulted from millions of years of wind and water erosion are absolutely magnificent.
What were some of your key discoveries?
Sunni: I was surprised most by how fearless the animals are, which allowed us to get up close and personal (where appropriate). One instance was when we saw a wolf, which naturally stopped traffic. We parked and hiked up a ridge to see whether we could locate the wolf and moments later we spotted him! He approached us casually, walking only inches from my son, Jasper.
Additionally, the intensity and diversity of the natural features were spellbinding – from raging waterfalls to explosive geysers. Each day was totally unscripted. For us, the key was hiking between points of interest on boardwalks and paths versus driving. It was a wonderful way to take in the beauty and connect more closely with the natural surroundings.
Julia: Staying inside the park, versus at a hotel outside the park, changes the experience significantly. Similar to the magic one revels in as a guest on the island of Capri, the throngs of visitors by day is drastically different from the serenity one treasures at dusk and dawn. This is perhaps less pronounced in Zion where the town of Springdale, outside the south entrance, has its own character and charm; however, in Bryce, the offerings outside the gate are infinitely less appealing.
I also found it remarkable how each National Park, even in the same state, operates independently. For example, in Bryce, the Lodge was closed for the season, but the shuttles were still operational, while in Zion, the Lodge was open, but the shuttles were parked. This produced significant challenges with traffic and parking. Furthermore, many hikes and sights like Angel’s Landing and Weeping Rock were closed, which funneled the masses into other attractions like the Narrows – requiring an early sunrise start to avoid congestion.
What guidance would you share in hindsight?
Julia & Sunni:
- Prepare early as camps, RV sites, and lodges inside the park book up months ahead of time and oftentimes up to a year in advance. There is still some availability to be found yet this year, which can require hours if not days to couple together.
- Provision thoughtfully as food sources are somewhat limited. Exiting Yellowstone to nearby towns can be a multiple-hour drive. There are some take-out only options (due to COVID-19) and a handful of markets, but we prepared most food in advance (many things like chili, pot pies, Pad Thai, and more were cooked and frozen prior to departure).
- The shoulders along the main road are very narrow, so riding bikes can be a bit treacherous; however, it would make accessing the geysers easier versus hiking all day.
- Layering is a must. We visited late June, shortly after Yellowstone had reopened, so shaded areas still showed signs of snow. The temperature varied by nearly 30 degrees during the day and the weather could be wet and/or windy.
- Wildlife is best observed at sunrise and sunset, similar to Africa.
- Bring bug spray – you will need it, especially around Old Faithful!
- Do not expect to have any connectivity. No cellular. No Wi-Fi. Be prepared to unplug!
What impact did COVID-19 have on your experience?
Sunni: All the Xanterra National Park lodges were closed within Yellowstone, so we were strictly camping, but also enjoyed the cabins near Old Faithful. Further, there was obviously no dining indoors at any of the restaurants that were operational. Without international arrivals, the crowds were lighter and there were no tour groups traveling by coach, which preserved the peace.
Julia: Many public services are closed, like the showers in Bryce. We also discovered that the parks seemed to be under-staffed and had hired new talent as a result of layoffs. Thus, the intelligence of the park rangers and cleanliness of the facilities was highly inconsistent. That said, the months of closure had allowed the parks to breathe, so the hiking paths and natural features somehow felt restored and less weathered.
In hindsight, would you have structured your itinerary differently?
Sunni: If you really want to see the entire park, ten days would provide ample time without rushing, but one could easily spend two weeks. We allowed seven nights, which was sufficient but did not give us time to explore things off the beaten path like swimming holes, Mammoth hot springs, etc. I also wish I would have organized horseback riding in advance as it would have been a cool way to explore the park.
Julia: We could have easily continued for a second or third week combining Amangiri and environs (Lake Powell and even the Grand Canyon) with 3-4 nights at Blue Sky Lodge (outside of Park City) to revel in ranch-style activities before traveling north to Jackson for a few nights at Amangani to explore Teton National Park and then on into Yellowstone. From Amangiri, another option would be to head south to Sedona and continue on through Arizona to Tucson. Essentially, within 4-6 hours, one can easily combine world-class resort destinations with easy access to National Parks for an entire month of exploration. There is so much world to explore!
As we head into the holiday weekend, we wish you memorable moments with family and friends, as well as good health and bold dreams!