Flashpacking Yellowstone v.1: West Yellowstone

Mesa Falls, Idaho

Off to West Yellowstone

Remind me to never book a 6 a.m. flight ever again. Ever. And remind me, too, that I’m a little older now and not nearly as energetic as I once was, so I may want to actually take the day prior to my next trip off work. Just to have the opportunity to get my shit together in a sort of non-panic-stricken kind of way. And I have a ridiculous amount of leave accrued, so there’s absolutely no reason I shouldn’t be doing this on a simple flight to West Yellowstone.


Packing Procrastination

I didn’t think it was possible to leave my packing any later after our last trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm, but yes, my friends—it’s possible. I woke up at 2:30 this morning to shower and pack, and we still managed to leave the house late. Why didn’t I do my packing last night or earlier in the week? Because the two of five business days I didn’t have migraines, I was going into work early, and then leaving late, collapsing on arrival at home. Sigh.

But this is the end reward, of course—trips like this. I didn’t even get my relaxing morning cup of coffee. Not really. It was sort of a rushed “make-a-cup-of-coffee-because-that’s-your-morning-ritual” cup of coffee that I never finished drinking. And then we were in the car on the way to the airport.

Unexpected Airport Chaos

Not sure what the hell was going on at the airport. We were certain no one was nearly as dumb as we were hopping a six a.m. flight that requires you to be at the airport at four or five. I’m not even sure if the airport terminals are officially open at four at BWI. But we got there at 4:45-ish, ten-past-five after the parking shuttle, to basically find the TSA line was wrapped all the way down to the international terminal. Completely mobbed.

There was no way we were making our boarding time, and I asked the United lady if there was any way we could get expedited through the line. Her only suggestion was to pay $35 per person for priority access. So, we did.

In the olden days, I feel like you could just talk to customer service or the TSA podium person and people were kind enough to expedite you. But, no, of course, you have to pay $70 for priority access… on top of the $50 you just paid to check your bags. Why wouldn’t you have to pay? So silly of me.

Chicago's Navy Pier

TSA Awesomeness

Well, we couldn’t find the priority line. We approached the TSA Pre-Check guy, and he was a complete a**hole. Jeff had a handful of tickets and receipts and cards and placed our credit card on the edge of the podium to organize himself and find our priority pass. The guy immediately pushed the card to the far corner of the podium and said, “We don’t accept credit cards.” Jeff and I paused for a second, and gave him the stink-eye.

Then, the man looked over our shoulders and asked, “Is anyone ready? Anyone? Anyone at all?” I turned and looked behind me to see one person, an airport employee, standing behind us. I just interrupted the guy’s miserable rant and said, “We need to find the Priority Access line.” I’d’ve preferred to follow that statement up with some sort of creative name for the ever-so-friendly gentleman, but decided winding up in airport lockdown wasn’t really the way I wanted to begin my vacation.

This was such a stark contrast to our last TSA experience (the friendliest TSA staff known to man). I’d say they were just overwhelmed with all the news circulating about TSA’s staffing issues, but I’m pretty sure I saw like six people just standing around.Thankfully, our flights were pretty easy.

Chi-Town Pass-Through & Bozeman Arrival

Two hours to Chicago, where we ate some sort of terrible breakfast for $30. An hour and a half layover, and a three and a half hour flight to Bozeman. (Flew right over Navy Pier on our way out!) You kind of forget how easy flying within the United States can be after constantly flying long, international flights.

I will say the Bozeman flight was a smaller plane and we got tossed around a little towards the end there. Saw some of the mountains overhead, snow still on the ground. The Bozeman airport reminds of Burlington, Vermont’s, if you’ve ever been. It’s like one big log cabin. Little organic coffee and tchotchke shops. Cute.

Getting Our “Bear Hopes” Up

Stopped off at the Yellowstone information center while waiting for our bags. We were viewing the wildlife map (where to see what right now) and there were bears everywhere in the West Yellowstone area, our first stop. The woman told us, “They’re everywhere right now. Sightings every day, all the time.”

Well, good—hopefully, our no-bear-sighting curse will finally come to an end. If we can’t see bears in Denali or Banff, and we don’t see them in Yellowstone in May, when all the babies are making their grand entrance into the world, then I dunno where the hell else to find them. I just hope we see them from a distance… because all I have is a bear bell on me. And I don’t think that’ll do much damage to a grizzly.

The Drive to West Yellowstone

Upgraded our usual compact economy rental vehicle on the fly for just a couple of bucks a day—a Subaru Forrester. It’s been actively snowing in Glacier  (over a foot expected today) and some of the passes have only been open certain parts of the day. Last time we went to Glacier, the federal government had closed down and we couldn’t actually get into the park, so… cross your fingers! It shouldn’t be snowing as heavily towards the end of the week when we’ll be there. Just a periodic mix.

The drive to West Yellowstone was two hours, easy, and drop-dead gorgeous. We followed a river most of the drive, and you could tell the snowmelt was making it extra aggressive. Saw some kayakers, to which Jeff commented that, surely, he could also kayak this river, no problem. (Yeah, right.) Mountains, lots of evergreens. The hiking in Bozeman and West Yellowstone has got to be exquisite, for sure.

I kept an eye out in the plains and rockfall areas for wildlife, but to no avail. We did see pronghorns (or just plain deer) more than once. There are pronghorns in the area, but it seems we forgot our binocs, so I couldn’t really get a good look. Imagine that—I forgot something packing at 2:30 in the morning.

What Happens When You Pack at the Crack of Dawn

I also forgot my nose ring, which would be fine for a long weekend, but it might start to close after ten days. At the very least it would hurt like a bitch getting it back in and my nose would be red and swollen, possible infection (not a good idea). Never fear—I posted on Facebook we’d be making an emergency visit to a tattoo shop to pick one up and my friend, Rein, who we’re meeting up with later, said she had extras. Perfect! Who knew?

Apparently, Jeff forgot his brand new Columbia jacket, to replace the one he already has that he hates. He only has a “waterproof,” thermal Under Armour pullover. That seems like a bigger issue than binocs or a nose ring. We’ll see how it goes…

West Yellowstone Arrival & The Donner Party

We arrived in West Yellowstone and, unfortunately, couldn’t check into our hotel room right away. Finding lodging was a little tricky, to be honest. Between hotels and AirBnBs in Yellowstone, there’s just not a whole bunch available. Book way in advance, folks.

Out and about, we quickly noticed that all the trash cans are bear-proofed. (This is a very good sign.) Did need to remind myself to remove the beef jerky from my backpack, though. 

Went to grab lunch at a kitschy little barbecue joint that had covered wagons, stuffed wildlife, and platters named after the Donner Party. Jeff didn’t know about the Donner Party and me, always into anything macabre, was more than happy to tell him the tale… over our meal.

Quick synopsis: The Donner Party was a group of pioneers trying to make their way west in the mid-1800s via covered wagons. They got snowed in in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism for survival. …The barbecue was pretty bad, by the way. Crossed the street to a place called Bullwinkle’s to wait for Rein after lunch. They had a small casino and a pub with saddles for bar stools. Works for me.

Bullwinkle's saddle stools in West Yellowstone

Mesa Falls Viewing

Rein was one of my besties in Utah for a year and a half and, other than Facebook, haven’t seen her in literally twenty years. (Doesn’t that make you feel old?) We caught up for a bit and took a drive to Mesa Falls in Caribou-Targhee National Forest (Idaho).

On our way, we passed three hitchhikers, young men, who looked desperate and cold. Fortunately, the person in front of us stopped for them because we had the three of us (Rein, Jeff, and myself) and Rein’s two gigantic Great Danes—Jax and Aubrey—in the car. But, the guys had on kayak helmets and life vests, so I can only imagine they lost their kayaks somewhere in the nearby river and were stranded in the middle of nowhere, dripping wet. And it’s not warm out here. At all. And there weren’t very many cars on the road. Dangerous stuff, kiddos.

The Upper Falls and Lower Falls were beautiful. Striking. Great photo opps. Jax and Aubrey got a ridiculous amount of attention from other visitors. They’re sweet, gentle “pups” that weight in at around 135 pounds each and, more or less, resemble horses trotting down the paths in front of us. Gentle giants, for sure.

Mesa Falls quick getaway from West Yellowstone

Good night from West Yellowstone

Headed back to West Yellowstone for dinner at the Slippery Otter Eatery. You kind of have to stop here just for the name. I mean, really. The food was pretty good, too.

Our waiter played a joke on us that literally made my heart skip a beat—when he ran our card, he told us that it came back stolen. I was concerned and not surprised at this statement since we also forgot to call our travel dates into our credit card company, but Jeff, ever so clever, replied, “Guess I’m busted.” Something to that effect. Seems like a messed up joke to play on random tourists, and I wonder if that’s one of the guy’s standard lines, but Jeff was all over it. And it was pretty funny.

Said our goodbyes to Rein and checked into our hotel. It was after 8 p.m. Mountain Time, and we’d basically been awake for twenty hours at this point. Looking forward to our first full day in the park tomorrow. And looking forward to sleeping in.

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Cheers, Jordan