Monday, July 27, 2009

5 Mistakes to avoid when touring the Western National Parks

I was going to save these tips about touring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks until the end of this series. But it occurred to me that they might be helpful to understand our experiences before you read about them. There also is the very real possibility you may not be engaged enough to read to the end of this series.

So, here goes:

1. Do not rent an underpowered car. This is not a mistake we made, but only by the most fortunate of circumstances.

My travel strategy always has been to reserve the smallest rental car offered. It usually is the least expensive. Moreover, it is the first car to be taken at most rental locations. If so, they will upgrade you to a next larger available size, at no increase in rate. You often get a mid-size at a compact rate.

It didn't work out this time. Our agent at Alamo was processing our reservation when he nicely asked where we were going. When I told him our destination was Grand Teton and Yellowstone, he politely asked if I had thought about the ability of a small car climbing the mountains. I had not. He suggested an upgrade for $7 more a day.

Now I am used to all the upgrades that car rental agents try to promote when you pick up your car. I usually decline them all. This time I went along with his suggestion.

It was a wise decision. On more than one occasion, while poking along behind a
huge, estate-home-on-wheels RV, it was nice to be able to take advantage of the rare break in the "no passing zone" and put the pedal to the metal to get around the lumbering jumbos.

2. Observe speed limits inside the parks. We were warned that, when it comes to
just a couple miles over the posted limit, the normally pleasant, helpful park rangers are no-more-Mr-nice-guy. More important, speeding leaves you little braking room if a giant buck elk and family spring from the roadside underbrush, or a ton of American Bison decides he owns the road in front of you.They make lousy hood ornaments. Not to mention, you lose the contest.

3. Do not be put off by low rates for in-park lodging. We chose lower-end
properties since there were three of us and we had to minimize expense. We quickly learned that the lowliest of National Park lodgings were more than adequate, in a rustic sort of way. After all, these are nature"parks", not theme parks. On the pecking order of "indulgence", we still were up a notch from the tenters and trailer campers in the campgrounds, and there were hundreds of them.

If you insist on some indulgence, and why not, you can day-visit the poshest of lodges and inns, enjoy their dining rooms and public lounges and hang out with rich and famous without having to sleep there. When the lights go out, they are all just a dark room with a bed in it.

4. "Be bear wary" is not just a clever saying. We saw two grizzlies during our ventures. Both were a safe distance from the road. Even then, these are some immense wild animals.
I do mean "wild". Despite the TV shows with cuddly bears affectionately playing with humans, unless you raised them from cub-hood, you are just a piece of meat to them.

They have a sense of smell 10 times sharper than a dog's. They can sniff a dead carcas from four miles away, which is why park rangers are quick to clean up roadkill. It will attract hungry bears to the road side. It's also why not to keep food in your car overnight. A car is no match for a hungry grizzly.

5. Do not skip Grand Teton National Park. We almost did. With limited knowledge and the tendency of Yellowstone National Park to overshadow its neighbor to the south, we made back-up reservations in Yellowstone for the same two first nights in Grand Teton. (Of course, we reserved back in January, so rooms were available in both places.)
We were prepared to by-pass Grand Teton and go straight to Yellowstone for four days. Before leaving for our trip, we cancelled the first two days of our Yellowstone reservations and spent those nights at Grand Teton.

Not as exotic as Yellowstone, Grand Teton is a serene, relaxing, incredibly beautiful setting. The soaring peaks, everpresent on the horizon, are constant reminders of the greatness of the land and of its Creator. We were soooo glad we started in Grand Teton National Park.

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