After 29 weeks in each other's company, Zev and I were set to part ways for the first time.
As with our last trip, we'd spent very little time alone since leaving New Zealand, so it was a little strange to be sorting out logistics for our time apart. Making sure I had the national park pass, and debating who was going to take the toothpaste - we had to be sure that I wasn't going to get to my campsite 4 hours away to find that I still had something important in the car, or that I'd left something important in Zev's bag.
When we were finally as confident as we could be that our assets were correctly divided, we stopped for a quick bagel breakfast before dropping Zev and Charles (his Dad) at their B and B, and said our goodbyes. I managed to hold it together until I made it to the car, but I will admit I was a little teary as I drove off into the wilderness for 4 nights for my first ever camping trip.
From Missoula to West Yellowstone
Soon enough I was back on the interstate, with the miles passing beneath my wheels as they had so many days before. I had 265 miles to cover (about 4 hours of driving) to get to West Yellowstone, not far from where we'd been camping before heading to Missoula. The drive was pretty straightforward, and the 4 hours passed quickly, so I arrived at my campsite in no time at all.
Rainbow Point Campground is not in the national park itself, so there were fewer facilities, and it was quieter than our site at Canyon Campground. I drove in and found my site (there was nowhere to check in, and I'd paid online), which was really nice. Set in the pine trees, close to the toilet block and water tap, and not far from a lake, it was a peaceful spot, but there were lots of families camping nearby, so I felt safe camping on my own.
I set up the tent, inflated the air mattress, and went about sorting myself out some dinner (which I'm not ashamed to say consisted of pasta with cookie butter on it - I'd forgotten to stop for food...). The mosquitos were FEROCIOUS. I was covered from head to toe, and had even sprayed mosquito repellant on my clothes, and they were still biting me. My face seemed to be their primary target, which was a little upsetting. The little bastards were so persistent, they eventually drove me into the tent. In the few short seconds it had taken me to leap through the door, some had managed to get in, so what followed was nothing short of a mosquito massacre until I was sure I was alone.
Speaking of being sure that I was alone, I was very firmly in bear country, which seems a lot less scary when there are two of you (as if I think Zev would be able to fight off a bear for me, should the need arise...). So as I climbed into the tent each night, I made sure my cellphone (useless, I had no reception), headlamp, car keys and bear spray handy. I figured the bear spray would also be useful in fending off less ursine, more human predators, who had perhaps noticed a young-ish lady camping alone, and thought she might be an easy target.
I settled in to the tent with a steady stream of downloaded Netflix ready to go (I have a lot of trouble sleeping alone, and didn't expect it to be any easier when sleeping alone in the woods), and actually managed to get a relatively decent sleep. I was sure I heard footsteps a few times during the night, but I was confident that it was unlikely to be anything my bear spray couldn't handle.
Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park
After breakfast in the morning, I head back into West Yellowstone (the town bordering the West entrance to Yellowstone) to try to formulate a plan for the day. I was interested in checking out Grand Teton National Park, but it was a 3 hour drive away, so I wasn't sure if it was going to be worth a 6 hour return trip to spend very little time in the park. I thought about going to do a hike in Yellowstone, but they don't recommend hiking alone (bears), so I wasn't sure what my best option was. In the end, I spent about 2 hours in West Yellowstone yelling at my cellphone company on the phone for their terrible coverage and impossible billing system, before forlornly wandering the shops, feeling a little sad, lonely, and sorry for myself.
I decided I probably just needed to eat, and sure enough, some lunch perked me right up. I jumped back in the car and decided to drive to South Yellowstone, the only area of the park that Zev and I hadn't made it to. From there, I'd drive around some of parts Zev and I had seen the most wildlife in, around the Hayden Valley, and stop as the mood struck me. With a full belly, and a vague plan, I jumped in the car.
Although the distance I was covering was short, the speed limit in the park is 35-45mph, and your progress is heavily impeded by slow moving tourist traffic and inconsiderate bison. It took me a couple of hours to reach West Thumb Visitor's Centre, near the Southern end of the park, but the drive was spectacular. As I got out to look around, I noticed a sign: Grand Teton National Park 22mi. I was so close.... Bugger it, I thought, and got back into the car.
Of course, as I headed down the road to Grand Teton National Park, I knew that 22 miles would probably take me close to an hour, and that was just to the entrance of the park. But since I'd only planned to spent the day driving around Yellowstone, it didn't really seem to matter that much. As I left Yellowstone, I passed directly into Grand Teton. As I made my way further into the park, the scenery changed pretty dramatically. On my right, a huge lake surrounded by stunning and imposing mountains appeared, and it was clear that the park was aptly named.
I made my way into the park as far as the first visitor's centre, where I got out for a quick walk around. Looking at my watch, I knew I didn't have much time to kill (it was now 3.30pm, and I had about a 3 hour drive back to my campsite), so I jumped back in the car, stopping for a quick selfie on the way out of the park.
As I approached the entrance to Yellowstone, I was met with a queue of traffic. Apparently this was rush hour... I sat in the queue for close to an hour, and I still don't know what the hold up was really. When I got to the front of the line, it looked like one of the ticket booths was out of order, which may have gone some way to explaining the craziness.
As soon as I was through, the traffic dissolved, and it was back to driving through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. As planned, I headed back through the Hayden Valley towards our old campground in the Canyon area of the park, and then headed back to the West entrance of the park to the campsite.
By the time I got back, it had really started to rain, and in the chaos of driving for close to 8 hours on a day that I was supposed to be resting, I had yet again forgotten to buy food. I think it's clear from this information who is responsible for the food management in our household. So dinner was a pop tart in the car in the rain...
West Yellowstone to Estes Park
The trip from West Yellowstone to Estes Park, on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park, was rife with difficulty. First of all, it was a long drive: about 10 hours. Second of all, I had no data reception on my phone, so couldn't get the GPS to route me. I had a paper map, which was great, but it was hard to tell which way was going to be the fastest - some roads were more direct, but went through national parks with low speed limits, while some roads were less direct but were faster interstates. Without much to go on, I headed in what I thought was the right direction, and crossed my fingers that I'd get reception soon.
About an hour later, I finally had service. My GPS told me I was 9 hours and 40 minutes away, so clearly I had not been going in the right direction. I spent the rest of the day frustrated as I was routed down roads with 35 and 45mph speed limits, and extensive roadworks. When I finally pulled into the campground, I spent 20 minutes driving around completely lost, unable to find my campsite. Eventually I found my spot, pulled in, set up camp, and gratefully got into bed.
Rocky Mountain National Park
I awoke quickly to scrabbling around the door of my tent. I grabbed the bear spray. This was the moment I'd been training for. I poked my head out the door and was greeted by a curious squirrel. It seemed the bear spray would be unnecessary.
The squirrel continued to hang around during breakfast, coming close and then darting away, presumably in the hopes that I would drop a little cereal. He disappeared as I packed up the food, knowing the kitchen was closed.
I climbed back into the car, far more excited by the prospect of the drive into Rocky Mountain National Park than I was by the previous day's drive. After a short drive through beautiful Estes Park township, to which I hope one day to return, I found myself in a large queue to get into the park. Once through, I opted to veer left towards Bear Lake, with a plan to get out and go for a walk around. After driving all the way to the carpark, it was full. I thought I'd head back and stop at one of the smaller park areas. They too were full... Looks like the park was pretty busy!
Since the Bear Lake part of the park seemed to be full, I instead headed to Alpine Visitor's Centre, at the highest point in the park. As I wound my way up the mountain, the temperature steadily dropped, and at points, there was snow near the side of the road (in the middle of Summer!). The views were breathtaking. I felt like I was in the opening scene of The Shining.
I got to the visitor's centre and stopped for lunch and a coffee, darting inside to avoid the brisk wind. Refuelled, I headed back down the road, intending to pull over at the viewpoints to take some photographs, but again, all the carparks were full. While there weren't as many people at Rocky Mountain as there had been at Yellowstone, it was much smaller, so it definitely felt more crowded. In the end, I settled for a day of scenic driving, and headed back into Estes Park.
I stopped at the supermarket to pick up ingredients for my first proper dinner since Zev and I had parted ways (again, this is not unusual - if he ever left me, I'd die of malnutrition). I headed back to the campsite to take advantage of the later afternoon sun, doing a couple of loads of laundry and hanging them out by my tent to dry while I listened to podcasts, read my book, and played with my new squirrel friend. Eventually, I chowed down on my broccoli and cheese soup for dinner, before climbing into bed.
Estes Park to Albuquerque
I had an early start the next morning, packed up camp, and sorted myself out for breakfast, before hitting the road to Albuquerque, where I was meeting Zev's mum Tana before Zev and his Dad arrived the following day.
Again, I spent the day driving (although this time at least I was confident that I was going in the right direction), arriving in Albuquerque in the middle of the afternoon. I headed to the hotel that Tana had organised, and tried to check in. They had no record of our reservation. They tried calling Expedia, but they had no record of the booking either. Tana was on a plane, so couldn't tell me the booking number, and besides, they didn't have any rooms left anyway. I was tired and frustrated, and really looking forward to a shower, so could only imagine how Tana would feel, arriving after 17 hours of plane travel. After some emergency discussions with Zev and his Dad, I made the executive decision to book an airport hotel.
After checking in and having a long overdue shower, I walked across to the airport to meet Tana. I explained the situation, and she was happy we had somewhere to stay, so we went back and enjoyed a nice long catch up over dinner, excited to see Zev and his dad the following day.
Lots of love,