With the shots in our arms and more than a year of being mostly at home, we were ready for the hot vax summer of 2021. Our possible destinations were still limited internationally, but there are plenty I wanted to see in the United States, specifically the state of Wyoming. For something new, it was about time that I visited Yellowstone National Park, the first national park established in the United States in 1872. And for something loved, I looked forward to returning to the Wind River Range where we had a grand adventure the first time around. Of course with any good trip, there would be something unplanned and surprising as well.
This is the first entry of our Wyoming trip series covering our pre-trip planning (1). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
click to expand
|1 planning & research|
|1.1 the decision|
|1.2 planning & research|
|1.2.1 coordination with travel partners|
|1.2.2 backpacking plans|
|188.8.131.52 Yellowstone National Park|
|184.108.40.206 Bridger-Teton National Forest & Shoshone National Forest|
|220.127.116.11 early season snow & conditions|
|18.104.22.168 camping & boondocking|
|22.214.171.124 hotel sweet spots|
|2 Yellowstone National Park – Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin|
|3 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking Hellroaring Creek & Yellowstone River, 4 days|
|4 Yellowstone National Park – Mammoth Hot Spring|
|5 Yellowstone National Park – Grand Prismatic Springs|
|6 Gallatin National Forest – Lava Lake|
|7 Bridger-Teton National Forest – backpacking Gros Ventre Wilderness, 3 days|
|8 Bridger-Teton National Forest – Crest Rim|
|9 Bridger-Teton National Forest – backpacking Cirque of the Towers, 3 days|
|10 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, 2 days|
|11 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking Lamar River & Mirror Plateau, 5 days|
|12 Wyoming final impressions, top 5, & budget|
There was no decision I was going somewhere after the jab and not for a short time either. If there is any positive that came out of the pandemic it was that I could work remotely with ease and I had a lot of time off saved up. The questions of where we’d go was dependent on the time of our travel, which was mostly through the month of June. June is a tricky month since most of the higher mountains and mountains further north are typically still covered in snow, but that also mean possibly less traffic. So Yellowstone National Park, being lower in elevation seemed like a good destination.
It was a place that I have yet to explore so this was the perfect time. As snow melts toward the end of June, it would also provide me with a chance to return to the Wind River Range or Grand Tetons if the permit gods were graceful to me.
planning & research
coordination with travel partners
My current job allows me the convenience to work remote, which allows for me to stay out in the west for a month without burning all of my vacation days. I was able to test this out in 2020 while we podded with our friends in the Adirondacks. However Meg didn’t have as much freedom with her job switching more in person. Neither did my naturalist friends Brenna and Bradley. Brenna and Bradley flew in with me and we would travel together for over a week.
Meg would fly in during the last couple of weeks I had out west. In between I was on my own, or as luck would have it, I would meet up with Richard from the Backcountry Post forum. Since I was out there for more than a month and I could just work during the weekdays, it was pretty easy for me to meet up for an adventure.
Yellowstone National Park
When you think about Yellowstone and how popular it is, the easy assumption is that permits are hard to come by. However the opposite is the case since most of the crowd stay in the front country at the popular spots or day hikes.
backpacking permits (NPS – including complete up to date information) are needed to camp in the Yellowstone backcountry and the reservations are for specific designated campsites with no disperse camping allowed due to Grizzly activity. Each site has a bear hang or a bear box to allow easy food storage. Only one group may occupy on campsite per night with limit of 4 to 12 people, so you’ll have solitude for sure. A map of the campsites is available here.
There are several stages of campsite reservations, but for most will be concerned with the peak season. Specifically early access lottery entry and Peak season general on-sale date (see below from recreation.org). The major change for 2022 is that general reservation is now on the for mentioned recreation.org and can be made 3 days ahead of time.
For my last minute planning and a very strong point of the backcountry permitting system of our national parks are the walk-up permits. In Yellowstone, a certain number of permits are held for walk-up, indicated by a “W” or a number in the availability field. Walk-up permits can be claimed in person 2 days ahead of time at the Central Backcountry Office. In 2021, the offices were closed due to COVID, but I was able to call in my walk-up permit reservation. For my trip, I was able to book most of the campsites I wanted that were accessible. Other than a few highly restricted sites for bear management (such as the ones on Mirror Plateau) or very popular spots (such as Dunanda Falls). It was pretty easy to string together the campsites that I was interested in both for my multiday backpacking adventure or an overnighter to a campsite closer to the road to save a night in the hotel.
At the time of writing, the permit fee are as follows:
Early Access Lottery Application Fee: $10 non-refundable. The application fee is charged for all applications to the Early Access Lottery regardless of success.
Recreation Fee: $5 per person, per night plus a $10 reservation fee. The recreation fee and the reservation fee is charged year-round for permits secured through Recreation.gov or in-person at a backcountry office. The $10 reservation fee is charged for all permits except those acquired during the Early Access Lottery.
Bridger-Teton National Forest & Shoshone National Forest
For my other backpacking adventures on the trip, I ended up in the Wind River Range and the Gros Ventre range. The national forests that cover these areas does not need permits for wilderness backpacking in the backcountry (Forest Services USDA: Shoshone National Forest, Bridger-Teton National Forest). Please follow LEAVE NO TRACE principles when camping here.
early season snow & conditions
My trip started and the end of May and ended the first week of July. While this time is the beginning of summer across the country, the snow pack on the mountains is still in the process of thawing out. So part of the planning phase is to look for trail beta of snow levels, the condition of the snow as in if they are solid enough to walk on or will it be a soft post-holing mess, and the possibility of navigating across snow fields that can cover the trail. Additionally, the high water levels of any crossings from the snow melt may mean certain trails will become impassible.
Part of the process in national parks are to check with the rangers in the wilderness backpacking permit office. However in the lesser maintained national forests, especially the wilderness area, I learned from Richard to explore and rely more on up to date satellite photos and different topo options available in caltopo. This is by no means an adequate solution and is not sufficient to plan a trip, but any beta is helpful.
My flights for this trip was pretty simple for the trip as I flew from the D.C area to Denver via Southwest Airlines. Southwest is my preferred continental US airline since I typically have the companion pass (Frequent Miler guide), which they extended an additional year due to COVID. For this trip, I switch my companion to give Bradley & Brenna a free ticket outbound before switching it back to Meg for our return from Denver.
The second reason I fly Southwest is that they are one of two airlines that allows me to use my AMEX airline incident credits the easiest (Frequent Miler). Lastly, a bonus of Southwest for backpacking is their included 2 checked bags all their fares. There are plenty of negatives with Southwest such as not the most direct flights, no seat assignments, or lack of status benefits outside of the companion pass, so it’s still good habit to check other flights if flighting solo.
I would be spending over a month all together out west, so a rental car was necessary for this trip. With car rentals, it was well worth it to book ahead of time since you can always cancel the reservation and rebook. This is essentially how autoslash.com works as they will track the rental price for you.
I was fortunate to book my car early before everyone else also decided to head out for the hot vax summer trip. I even decided to spend a little extra for a minivan, which I planned to spend a few nights boondocking. The total cost for 38 days was USD$1302.78. Unfortunately, the rental car shortage coming out of the pandemic supply chain shortage meant the minivan wasn’t available for me when I arrived. My choices ended up being a mini SUV or pickup truck. For the purpose of gas efficiency, I went with the mini SUV.
Over the course of my 40 day trip, I stayed 12 nights in my tent, 7 nights at an Airbnb, 2 nights boondocked in a car, and 19 nights in hotels. This included 10 nights using choice points including purchasing extra points, 4 nights at Vacasa properties (airbnb like apartments) using Wyndham points, 2 50k certificates at Marriott hotels, 1 stay at a Holiday Inn with IHG points, and 6 paid hotel nights.
camping and boondocking
Camping and boondocking were the cheapest options, especially in the national forests where it is free. Please practice LEAVE NO TRACE principles (NPS) if you do. As mentioned above iOverlander and FreeRoam are useful apps to have for spots even outside of the national forest. You may even see a wolf run by when you get up in the middle of the night to pee in Jackson’s Albertson’s Parking Lot.
While in Yellowstone National Park, boondocking is not allowed. However there is plenty of frontcountry campgrounds you can make reservations (NPS). Fees range from USD$20 to USD$83 for RV park, see the NPS page for more details. In a pinch, you can even find a backcountry spot close to the road to reserve last minute and hike in for the night (see above for Yellowstone backcountry camping information).
hotel sweet spots
I had hoped to utilized a minivan for more boondocking, but the rental car issue (mentioned above). However was able to take advantage of couple hotel point sweet spots to stay at hotels for cheap, the Choice Hotels and Wyndham Hotels. A big benefit of staying in the hotel was that it was much easier to work remote when I didn’t have to hunt down coffee shops with reliable internet. Zooming remotely from an coffee shop can be problematic with background noise.
With Choice Hotels, I’ve found tourist or remote area having decent redemptions (see Nerdwallet summary) and personally used their points to save in places like the Canadian Rockies during peak tourist season. I’ve found Choice hotel points worth picking up if it is around half a cent per points such as during U.S. Travel Association Daily Getaway (Frequent Miler analysis). Since my trip, both Citi Thankyou Points (2:1; Frequent Miler analysis) and Capital One miles (1:1, Frequent Miler analysis) are transferable to Choice Points though Citi has the much better rate.
For this trip, I found a hotel in Pinedale, WY (The Lodge) that just converted into a Quality Inn & Suite (Choice, tripadvisor). It was a basic hotel and the guys (Sean and Kevin) was busy updating it, cleaning the rooms, and working the front desk. As with all placed during the time, they were understaffed and in the process of trying to hire people. From a working remote perspective, the internet was good during the work day. With all this, the cost per night was only 8000 Choice points (Frequent Miler Reasonable Redemption Value: USD$54.4, USD$0.0068 per point), which is now up to 16000 (USD$108.8 equivalent). I didn’t have much Choice Points when I began, but was able to buy them at roughly USD$0.0076 per point with their 30% bonus make my stay per night USD$60.92 per night.
At the end of my trip, I even bought a bit more points at about a cent each to stay at The Ridgeline Hotel (Choice Hotels, tripadvisor) in Gardiner, MT because the point price was far lower than the paid price (see Frequent Miler’s writeup on Choice’s Ascend Collection).
Using Wyndham points, I was able to book airbnb like 1 bedroom places for 13.5k Wyndham points per night through Vacasa (Frequent Miler analysis). Wyndham charges the cost of 15k per night per bedroom for a place roughly under USD$325-350 (I receive a 10% discount with my Barclays Wyndham Business Card – Frequent Miler analysis). I have also found that 2 night is typically required for a stay. I was able to book 2 nights on 2 occasions at the Shoshone Condominium Hotel in Big Sky, MT (Vacasa, tripadvisor). Our “1 bedroom” could have accommodated 7 people and the place had a full kitchen, laundry facilities, and a nice pool. The view from our penthouse balcony was decent too.
Lastly, I used a couple of 50k Marriott Certificates for last minute bookings at the Marriott Springhill Suite when the per night cash cost was up to around USD$1000. I think I did alright on those.
During my 40 days out west, I was living out of a couple backpacks. With previous experience, I minimized my luggage with my backpacking gear as a check bag and a travel weekender bag for everyday clothing, laptop, and electronics. Below is my loadout for the trip, while the specifics I took on each foray into the backcountry was dependent on the specific conditions.
Since June is early in terms of snow pack higher up in the mountains, a big part of my contingent gear was for snow. I included my ice axe and traction options, such as my light crampons and nanospikes. Since higher up in the mountains were often without cover, I also brought my umbrella. It allowed me to deal with rain and sun.
For this trip, I make a couple major changes to my loadout. The first was a new (to me) backpack, the Zpacks Arc Haul Zip 64 (sectionhiker review, switchbacktravel review). This was my first ultralight backpack and I bought it on Facebook Backpacking Flea Market. Zpacks are know to be customizable with additional attachments, but I only had the base pack for this trip. I had no issues with the base setup since I don’t snack much while I hike anyways, so I didn’t need any quick access pockets. I am also use to pulling my water bottle out of the side pockets so it was no different than my previous pack. Only after I added a second lens for my camera midway though my trip did I find a need for additional quick access pockets, which came in the form of a fanny pack. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the set up since I felt too much overlapping bands around my waist. While the medium hip belt works for me, a large would hug my waist much better. Since then, I’ve added a hip pouch, a shoulder pocket from a water bottle that I use for my phone or extra lens, and the dual top strap that holds a bear can or other items better on top. Otherwise, I have yet to have the pack actually arc as designed, it seems like the medium torso fits me just right? The carbon fiber frame are started to wear out also after some extensive use. Lastly I’m had a few small holes I’ve repaired, but most from checked luggage so a travel duffel is recommended with this pack.
My other big change was my sleeping quilt. Having learned from my first quilt, a 40°F regular sized Jacks’R’Better quilt, I went with a long and wide version so that I can still burrito while stretched out. I went with Enlightened Equipment because their stitching was up and down meaning the down won’t accumulate on the sides during the night and they were in stock. I went with a 10°F with the idea that it will set around 20°F with natural down loss, making it evenly spaced between my 40°F and my 6°F mummy bag. I was very happy with the quilt as it kept me warm when needed and I could just open it up when it was too hot.
Though the course of my trip, I picked up gear here and there. The main equipment was a zoom lens for my camera, a fanny pack to hold the lens, and replacement insoles I found on sale to replace the ripped ones, The Amazon Prime dropboxes were useful for a couple items. I also couldn’t resist what I saw among the REI garage sales I passed, though they didn’t have a direct effect on my hikes this trip.
Lastly, I didn’t know what all my backcountry plans were before I headed out and I wanted to be able to send a check in with Meg. So I activated a month of my Garmin InReach Mini (Amazon affiliate link). Do note that the cost of such devices go beyond the device itself as you have to subscribe to the satellite service.