Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Vacation Weather

You normally assume, making your vacation reservations in February, that the weather in June will be good. We assumed that. And oh, my, were we wrong. The week before we left, my husband checked the Wyoming weather and said, "Wait a minute. There's 42 inches of snow still in Yellowstone." Wasn't it supposed to be summer by now? With this warning, I packed a sweater, a fleece pullover, and several long-sleeved shirts. And wool socks (a good call!).

It was raining when we got into Elko; the next morning when we left, it was raining even harder, and it was snowing maybe 500 feet above us. As we drove through the rain we could see the new snow accumulating on the hills above the town, below a very low cloud ceiling. It was an omen, but we didn't realize it. The rain (and a fiendish cross wind) chased us all the way across Utah (and through the Salt Lake City commute traffic; really bad timing!) to Brigham City.

The drive through Utah and Idaho into Wyoming was generally pretty; I especially liked Logan Canyon. With the bluff tops wreathed in cloud, and its limestone walls cracked into squared off sections and punctuated with pine trees, it looked like the model for a Japanese or Chinese woodblock print, just gorgeous. As we got to the Tetons, it began to rain seriously again, just as the roads deteriorated. Of course, since the speed limit in Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks is 45 MPH, the rain didn't delay us much.

The parking lot at Yellowstone Lake Hotel was slushy, with 4 foot high heaps of old snow, but the roads were clear and so was the sky, so we settled in and made an early dinner reservation for the Old Faithful Inn, the next night. Old Faithful is about 40 miles from the Lake, and the shortest route crosses the Continental Divide twice. We didn't think about that much, but as we began to climb Craig Pass, it started to snow; and then the snow started to stick; and then the snow started to stick to the road. By the time we got to Old Faithful, the ground was entirely covered and the snow was starting to pile up; and we began to wonder about getting back. We had our reservations, though, so in we went for dinner, shaking snow off.

Most of you know that I'm a native Californian; more, a native Bay Arean. Snow is not my thing. I was beginning to get pretty uncomfortable, especially when the folks at the Old Faithful Inn told us the Park Service had just closed the road over Craig Pass, and also one of the only other routes back to the Lake. But there we were, so we had dinner, which I spent peering out the window to see if it was still snowing. Around dessert, it did quit, and by then the word was that the Park Service was plowing the roads, so we went out and watched the geyser; and when we came back in and checked, they'd opened Craig Pass. So we got in the car and headed back to the Lake, before they changed their minds; and it started to snow again, and then the snow began sticking to the road again...

My husband did the driving; he grew up in Wisconsin, and snow doesn't bother him. He said later it wasn't that bad; but as I told him, he was in control. I was sitting in the passenger seat watching the visibility get worse by the minute, and I was pretty damn nervous. In the last couple of miles before we got to the Lake, we couldn't see the sides of the road; we were following a flat space in the snow, and a single pair of tire tracks from a car that can't have been more than 10 or 15 minutes ahead of us. I wasn't cold; I had plenty of layers on; but I kept wondering, if something did go wrong, how long it would take anybody to find us. There is no cell phone reception in that section of Yellowstone. I was amazingly glad to see that hotel.

I talked to at least one man, also staying at Yellowstone Lake Hotel, who had stayed overnight at Old Faithful rather than drive back - I hate to think what that cost him.

The next morning, they said the storm dropped two and a half inches of snow. On June 6.

That storm was actually the worst of it. It snowed several more times while we were in Yellowstone (and thawed twice, too), but never as much again. Snow covered fields make it much easier to spot wildlife; sporadic snowstorms make photography very iffy. (Take my advice: don't try to photograph a geyser going off in a snowstorm. Even with digital, it's not worth the effort.) But we also had some bright, sunny weather, which melted the new snow with amazing speed.

When we left the park on Tuesday morning, the park was snowy and covered with heavy clouds, but on the other side of the pass it was clear, sunny and windy. It was great weather for photographing the little herd of bighorn sheep right by the road (including 3 lambs), and the herd of bison (with seven calves!). We stayed in Bozeman, Montana that night, and the next morning we had to knock half an inch of snow off the car, but the snow wasn't sticking to the road, so on we went, over the Continental Divide again at Butte, and that was the last snow that fell on us. We saw plenty of snow in Glacier National Park but the weather was clear and windy.

We had one last "snow effect" - Jim hadn't bothered to check the status of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, in Glacier National Park. He'd planned to go into the park at West Glacier and take
Going-to-the-Sun Road across the park to Many Glaciers Lodge, where we were staying. Of course it'd be open; it's June. In Missoula, Montana, where we stayed a couple of days between national parks, we learned that the Going-to-the-Sun Road might reopen in July. Maybe. Late July. So we suddenly had to drive an extra 80 miles or so...

I just checked the road status:
Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely open, as of July 2. They don't say how long it's been open, or whether they got it clear in time for the scheduled 75th anniversary celebration on June 27. I guess it must be summer now.


  1. Hedera:

    Oh my. You got caught in a weather loop. I had one similar experience one late September many years ago, while driving South along hiway 20 in Idaho, a route I think you must have taken. I was driving my 1983 Ford F250 HD, with a Six Pack cab-over Camper. The big inboard V-8 engine had a notorious carburetor which acts flakey when the temperature, humidity or altitude-thinned atmosphere depart from a median "seasonal" range. As I climbed up the pass, it began to snow-- (mind you, the sun had been shining, it had been perhaps 80 degrees when I'd left West Yellowstone) --and as I climbed further, the snow thickened. The road disappeared under a blanket, perhaps 4-6 inches thick. The engine slowed, I pushed down on the gas pedal, but the rpm's just kept slowing. I prayed: Please, big, burly engine, don't die! It didn't, but it was agonzing. The air was dry, cold. The carburetor didn't like it! I crept along at 15 miles per hour, then at 10, then at 5. How, you ask, can a big 500 horse V-8 engine act like this? The Holly Four Barrel carburetor, that's how! As I neared the crest, the engine began to sputter. It was snowing heavily now. I was alone. If the engine died out, I'd likely have been stuck for hours. "Locals" in snow country are generally pretty cooperative, but there was NO other traffic at that time. As the road began, tentatively, to descend, I breathed several long breaths of relief. It stopped snowing. The sun came out. The engine revived, and I was sailing along once again. This happened once before, when I was driving up in the White Mountains east of the Owens Valley, when we got above 9500 feet, that weird, nerve-wracking low rpm problem.

    You don't mention the steaming, white-rimmed ponds at Yellowstone. Did you see those? A truly amazing sight is watching these at sunset when the light is nearly horizontal, and reflecting off the smooth surfaces of the water. Like another planet. The water of an eerie blue. And the powerful sulfur smell! Old Faithful is overrated. Every 20 minutes or so it blasts off. Blah.

    Did you make it to Teton Park? Now that's a sight!

    Too bad you don't fly-fish. Montana is paradise for that.

  2. Ah, yes, carburetors. I remember carburetors; I spent a number of hours of my life spraying gum-out into the carb of my 1972 Chevy Vega (that piece of junk). Life is much simpler with electronic fuel injection.

    The car disaster I remember, though, was the 1952 (?) Chrysler my dad had, which vapor-locked crossing Nevada, every time we got caught going up a grade behind a big rig. We'd slow down behind him; you can't pass on most of those hills because they're blind; and then the engine would stop, and we had to sit in 100 degree heat and wait for the engine to cool. This happened at least 3-4 times; this was maybe 1959 and we were touring the great parks (Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon). We finally stopped in Salt Lake City for Dad to buy a length of copper pipe and reroute the fuel line - Chrysler had designed it to run over the exhaust manifold. And Detroit wonders why they lose business.

    We didn't do much geothermal touring this round, although we did go to Mammoth Hot Springs; I was going to do them in another post, but since you bring the subject up: yes they are weird and they smell funny; I've never seen them at sunset, we tend to be back in the hotel then. But what floored me at Mammoth Hot Springs was - they're dry! When we went there 15 years ago the whole place dripped and steamed, but there's been some kind of underground plumbing shift, and Mammoth only has a few hot pools and springs. It was really kind of sad. I was not happy that day; I was relatively lightly dressed (we thought the weather had changed), and the cold wind was chilling me. We parked at the upper lot and walked down the springs, and just as I got about to the bottom, it began to SNOW again, still blowing half a gale and hitting me with little hard snow pellets, and I had to climb all the way back up to the car. With my asthma, I do NOT climb fast, and while I'd now been there about 4 days, we were still at 7,800 feet more or less; so I spent MUCH longer than I liked, panting my way up at least 8 flights of stairs... I got a couple of "blue pool" pictures there, I'm still sorting through the photos. But we spent most of our "geothermal" time at the mud volcano in Hayden Valley.

  3. Anonymous6:02 PM

    (Read this after the most recent post) I really enjoyed the call and response between you two.

    Ah, vapor lock. We knew this well down here in the peninsular state.

    Anonymous David