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Aug 9, 2009

Our last-minute vacation in Yellowstone National Park

As I unexpectedly got a week off in the middle of the summer (due to changing jobs), my husband and I decided to take a quick vacation to a place we had wanted to visit for a long time: Yellowstone National Park.

We started planning one week before our trip, in the middle of the summer vacation time, so we were concerned about the logistics. Fortunately, we were still able to find accommodation in the park itself, although this meant we had to change hotel every day. This turned out to be a good solution, as it allowed us to visit all parts of the park without having to backtrack to the same corner every night. Also, once we were there, we learned of the major roadworks between Grand Teton and Yellowstone. We were glad we didn't go with the solution of staying in Grand Teton for the whole time and "commuting" to Yellowstone, which we had considered at some point. (even without the roadworks, I wouldn't recommend)

Booking flights and rental car turned out not to be too difficult: we got the flights we needed at a decent price and didn't have issues with our rental car rservation (although they hadn't prepared the car seat for us when we arrived. We could have done without the additional frustration)

Based on our hotel reservations, our program was as follows (details can be found by clicking on the links below).
Day 1: SFO-Jackson,WY. Drive to Old Faithful via Grand Teton.
Day 2: Old Faithful-Canyon-Lake
Day 3: Lake-Tower Roosevelt-Lamar Valley-Mammoth Hot Springs
Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs-Norris-Old Faithful.
Day 5: Old Faithful to Jackson, WY. Fly home.

Overall, we had a great time. It was very relaxing to be either outdoors hiking, driving in beautiful sceneries, or having dinner in old restaurants with nice views. And we didn't have cell phone reception for most of the time, so no risk of being bothered with email:-)

It was a good experience for Daniel too, as he learned a lot of new words (he is an expert in "steam" and "bison" now), saw big animals and played in rivers. He did well despite spending so much time in the car or in a carrying backpack. He is at an age where we can be entertained with stories or crayons (at restaurants). This made it easier than it would have been a few months ago, I think. However, he missed his friends from daycare, as he kept asking for them all the time. Good it was only a few days and he is now back into his happy routine.

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Yellowstone vacation, Day 4-5

Our final day in Yellowstone was focused on visiting the geysers between Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. We woke up early to visit the Mammoth terraces before the crowds (but also before the sun came out, unfortunately). Still, we were impressed. They look so fragile, yet so powerful and steady (they have obviously been around for many years!). The combination of colors and forms, and the steam coming out give the terraces a surreal look. Very unique.
Mammoth terraces
Mammoth terraces Yellowstone
Mammoth terrace Yellowstone
After a late brunch, we headed back South. Our first stop was at the Sheepeater Cliff, a cliff with interesting rock formations. However, the main attraction for us (particularly Daniel) was the river closeby. He enjoyed playing in it, walking, throwing stones, etc...
Daniel playing in the river at Sheapeater Cliff
Wyoming river at Sheapeater Cliff, Yellowstone
After at least 30 minutes, we somehow managed to get him back in the car with limited complaining, and drove to the Norris Geyser basin. It was great timing for Daniel's nap, and once again, our little boy did a great job with his sleep schedule, waking up right after we parked at Norris.
The large Norris basin was also very interesting, another large collection of geysers of all shapes and forms.
Norris basin
Norris Basin, Yellowstone
Norris Basin, Yellowstone
Norris Basin, Yellowstone
Norris Basin, Yellowstone
We also visited 2 "paint pot" areas (Artist Paint pot and Fountain Paint pot), known for their colorful, boiling mud geysers. They are fascinating to watch, entertaining adults as well as kids for hours...
Artist Paint Pot
Artist Paintpot, Yellowstone
We ended our visit with the Grand Prismatic Spring, which we found was the highlight of all our geyser visits. The colors in the late afternoon light were just perfect and the size of the formation impressive. This geyser section should definitely be on everyone's list.
Prismatic geyser
Prismatic geyser, Yellowstone

We made our way back to Old Faithful, where we enjoyed our last evening, eating bison and yummy chocolate cake.

Appendix, Day 5
We left Old Faithful early the next morning, to make it in time for our flight in Jackson, and drove through Grand Teton once more. The view of the Grand Teton mountains coming from the North is even better than coming from the South. It was a really great drive. We also saw a fox, not quite the moose or wolf we wanted to see, but at least something different than a bison.
Our flights went well. Daniel slept in both (because we had delay again on the 2nd one, and we found a playground in the Salt Lake City airport to keep him busy - and tire him out as it seems). We arrived home in the early evening, refreshed and excited, with a lot of photos and memories.

View other parts of our trip here
Day 1: SFO-Jackson,WY. Drive to Old Faithful via Grand Teton.
Day 2: Old Faithful-Canyon-Lake
Day 3: Lake-Tower Roosevelt-Lamar Valley-Mammoth Hot Springs

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Yellowstone vacation, Day 3

Our plans for Day 3 in Yellowstone included a lot of driving, with the aim to spend the night at Mammoth Hot Springs to the very north of the park. We left early, stopping quickly at the Visitor Center in Fishing Bridge and letting Daniel play in the lake for a few minutes (although he would have loved to stay there all day, I think). On the way North, we drove by a plain where over 100 bisons had gathered, including a lot of young ones. We decided to try to get closer to the herd, and we ended up hiking for 30 minutes and watching the bison activities along the way.
A herd of bisons by Yellowstone Canyon
bisons in Yellowstone
It really felt like we were in the movie "Dance with wolfes". The plain really looked like in the movie, and we were almost on our own in the wilderness (we can really close to a bison in his way to reunite with the herd).
bison in Yellowstone
As we came back to the car, it was Daniel's nap time and he fell asleep right away. We continued our way North. We first visited the North Rim of the Canyon, since we hadn't been able to do it the day before due to the weather. Parking is somewhat easy on the North Rim, and there is very little walking to do to get to the sightseeing spots. My husband and I alternated checking out the sights while the other watched Daniel nap in the car.
Yellowstone Canyon, North Rim
Yellowstone Canyon, North Rim
Yellowstone Canyon, North Rim
Yellowstone Canyon, North Rim

Later, Daniel once again woke up right on time for our next adventure. We quickly stopped at the trail head to Mount Washburn, but we didn't do much hiking. It was very windy, cold and it was already getting late given our heavy program. We visited Tower Fall quickly (although still took the time to eat ice cream), and continued our journey to find wildlife. We were hoping that the Lamar valley (to the North East) would be the place to spot all the animals we had come to see. Our next 2 stops were disappointing: we excitedly parked on the road next to about 25 other cars that had already gathered, just to find out that we had missed a grizzly and then a black bear. How sad!
The next encounter was better, though. We came really close to a herd of bisons who were crossing the street and stopping traffic. Very fun to watch all the interactions in the herd.
Bisons crossing the road
bisons in Yellowstone

Our drive in Lamar Valley didn't lead to as much wildife as we had hoped (a few deers, gazelles, and a bear family that we just saw for half a minute). But the drive itself was fantastic. Watching the river valley, surrounded by the mountains, in the evening light, was spectacular.
Views from Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley Yellowstone
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone
gazelle in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone

Daniel got tired of sitting in the car for that long, but we managed to keep him entertained for a while by teaching him words and counting, and singing a lot of kids songs (the joys of parenting!). Eventually, he fell asleep quietly at sunset, and slept until we arrived at the hotel... late (just in time for us to buy a few snacks for dinner before the grocery store closed). We had a great family dinner in our room, though. Daniel was so happy to be "home" (in this case, this meant "not in a car seat and able to play with the trains we had brought along") and so relieved he didn't have to sit in a high chair for yet another long dinner. He was so much fun, and a great end of a long and eventful day.

View other parts of our trip here:
Day 1: SFO-Jackson,WY. Drive to Old Faithful via Grand Teton.
Day 2: Old Faithful-Canyon-Lake
Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs-Norris-Old Faithful.

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Yellowstone vacation, Day 2

Our second day at Yellowstone started with a hearty breakfast at our hotel, the Old Faithful Inn (large, old, wooden building... beautiful), and an encounter with a bison. One of many during this trip.
Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Inn
We then proceeded with a 1.5-hour hike along the geysers in Old Faithful, a very interesting collection of various geological formations: big, small, active, dormant, predictable, irregular, etc...

Hike around Old faithful geysers
geyser at Old Faithful

geyser at Old Faithful
By the late morning, we started our drive to the Lake Area via Madison and the Canyon. Daniel fell asleep in the car per his regular nap schedule, and we were able to do some sightseeing from the car. Daniel was well refreshed when we arrived at the Canyon section (although I inadvertently woke him up a few miles before when I spotted a bison by the road).
Bison by the road
bisoon at Yellowstone
So we went to visit the South section of the Canyon. The sights from the Artists Point at the very end are fantastic: a big waterfall in the distance, yellow shades on one side of the canyon, pink-reddish colors on the other. Unfortunately, we caught a thunderstorm while we were there, so we probably didn't see the canyon with the best light. Still, it was beautiful.

Yellowstone Canyon, Artist Point
Artist Point, Yellowstone Canyon
Artist Point, Yellowstone canyon

We continued our drive towards the lake while the drizzle continued. We stopped by Sulphur Canyon (which seems to be a great spot for bisons... we could see many of them both times we passed by) and Mud Volcano.
Sulphur Canyon and a bison family
Sulphur Canyon and bisons

Given the weather, we went straight to our hotel by the lake after these visits. We enjoyed a nice, relaxing evening inside. The hotel has a great view to the lake (by then, the weather had cleared up a little), and a string quartet was playing in the lobby while we could enjoy drinks and dinner.

View other parts of our trip here:
Day 1: SFO-Jackson,WY. Drive to Old Faithful via Grand Teton.
Day 3: Lake-Tower Roosevelt-Lamar Valley-Mammoth Hot Springs
Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs-Norris-Old Faithful.

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Yellowstone vacation, Day 1

Our first travel day started early, with a flight at 7:30am. We (parents) had to wake up before our 18-month old baby, which we are not used to anymore. We left home somewhat late and had some frustrations when checking-in. But we made the flight.
Our flight plan included a stop-over in Salt Lake City. Our first flight went very well. We were able to entertain Daniel with breakfast, watching take-off and landing, and reading the airline magazine (at his age, he now knows enough words to recognize a lot of pictures in travel magazines.. very convenient).
In Salt Lake City, our 2nd flight was delayed and we ended up seeing more of the airport than we wanted. Fortunately, Daniel did great during this whole time, despite the fact that it spanned past his regular nap time: he enjoyed watching the planes come and go, and all the activity preparing for take-off. Then, he fell asleep before we even took off the second time, happy and excited.
Upon arrival in Jackson, WY, we started our drive to the Yellowstone National Park, via Grand Teton. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the scenery a lot. We made 2 stops in Grand Teton: one at Jenny Lake, one at the Grand Teton Lodge overlooking the beautiful Grand Teton Lake.
Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake Grand Teton
Grand Teton from Grand Teton Lodge
Grand Teton
Finally, we entered Yellowstone. We stopped twice to watch and take pictures of the Lewis river canyon and falls. Then, we went straight to our first hotel in Old Faithful (the rest of the drive wasn't that interesting).
We arrived at Old Faithful right before one of the eruptions of the geyser, as the sun was getting down. It was a great, warm evening, and the light was perfect.
Old Faithful
Old Faithful geyser eruption We enjoyed being able to stretch and walk after the long travel. Daniel was particularly happy to have the chance to run around, and to find a group of teenagers who were jumping on benches and became his role models for the evening.
Daniel and a teenager, preparing for the jumping competition

Needless to say that, after all this activity, we didn't have any issues putting Daniel to bed on that day, despite being in a new environment.

View other parts of the trip here:
Day 2: Old Faithful-Canyon-Lake
Day 3: Lake-Tower Roosevelt-Lamar Valley-Mammoth Hot Springs
Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs-Norris-Old Faithful.

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Aug 6, 2009

Delta Airlines needs to rethink their check-in line strategy

For our trip to Yellowstone National Park, we flew with Delta Airlines from San Francisco to Jackson, WY via Salt Lake City, UT. This was the most convenient and a somewhat cheap flight, so we took it, even though we usually fly with United Airlines. We have flown with our now 18-month old baby on lap many times over the last year and a half, and we thought we had gotten the routine down: check in at the counter, ask for an extra ticket for the baby on lap, done... Easy enough.
However, our experience with Delta Airlines this time was nothing short of easy or efficient. They should re-think their check-in strategy if they want to keep happy customers.

The flight was early in the morning, and we were a little late arriving at the airport. My husband dropped Daniel and me in the check-in area, and went to park the car. In the meantime, I was going to get our tickets. Seeing that the line for the check-in counter was quite long, I thought I should be able to get our flight tickets (at least for us adults) through the automated machines first. At least, I would have tickets, so I would be sure we wouldn't get bumped if timing got too tight... Then I could always go back to the check-in counter to get the ticket for Daniel.

As I proceeded to the line for the automated ticketing machine, a Delta Airlines worker saw me with Daniel. Realizing that I was flying with a child on lap, she urged me to go directly to the ticket counter, arguing that I would need to get his extra ticket first. Sorry, no automated ticket for you, miss.
Fortunately, the line there went faster than expected, and I could check-in before Guido had come back from the parking lot. Unfortunately, this meant that the agent didn't want to issue his flight ticket, although I had his ID with me. I also found out that I didn't need any extra ticket for Daniel, as children on lap with Delta are just included in the parent's ticket (which the automated machine can do too).
Since I ended up getting just one out of the 2 tickets that I needed, I went back to the automated machine line, where I could obviously get Guido's ticket alongside mine, no questions asked...

Morale of the story: I had to stand in 3 different lines to get tickets I could have gotten directly from the first line I was in. Each time, a Delta agent urged me to change my plan as it was "their policy", and it turned out to be a disaster. Is it their policy to have their customers spend more time waiting and interacting with their agents than needed? How efficient is that?
Morale of the story #2: If you fly Delta with a child on lap, don't bother talking to an agent... It would be no help. I think I made a comment to myself about this inefficient process, which a Delta employee heard and asked me to explain. When I tried to, she didn't seem to get it. Sigh!
Morale of the story #3: Avoid Delta Airlines all together?

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