National Parks Motorcycle Touring: Grand Tetons and Yellowstone
Story and photography by Donya Carlson
[This Yellowstone National Park Motorcycle Tour was originally published in the January 2011 issue of Rider]
As a native Southern Californian, I’m used to mountains. But riding over a crest along Teton Scenic Byway 33 outside of Ashton, Idaho, and seeing the snow-covered Teton Mountain Range spread out like a huge tapestry took my breath away. From the seat of a Harley Heritage Softail Classic I watched the rolling scenic road weave among miles of golden wheat fields that were rippling in the chilly breeze. In the distance puffy clouds hovered over the mountain range, which rose sharply from the valley floor. Our group of women riders—all aboard Harleys—had seen the youngest range of mountains in the Rockies earlier in the trip, but this view of the Tetons was from the “quiet side,” as some Idahoans say.
We’d entered Grand Teton National Park three days earlier and had been riding on mostly two-lane roads through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. I was one of 10 women motojournalists invited by the Idaho Division of Tourism to ride the Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop, one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies. Leading us on our excursion was Diane Norton from the tourism department aboard a Harley SuperLow, with Nancy Richardson driving the chase van. Harley-Davidson had provided us with 2011 motorcycles, with Amanda Lee, manager, product communication, aboard a SuperLow. Manager, Fleet Center, Alan Barsi followed along in his truck and had the know-how to fix anything should something go amiss. Nancy and Alan were also known as our “camera trees” because a dozen camera straps were slung around their necks by our enthusiastic group at every stop.
Idaho Falls was the starting point, where we’d been treated to an after-hours private tour of the Museum of Idaho. Leaving there on a crisp September morning we rode along Highway 26 with farm fields on either side of the road, meandering parallel to the Snake River. The flat landscape changed into a valley with trees, and then we were up over 8,431-foot Teton Pass where, at the top, we had to step over a mound of snow packed there by a snowplow to get a good view of Jackson Hole far below. We descended into town leaning our Harleys into long, sweeping turns. It had been a while since I’ve been on a Heritage Softail—adding to comfort was the stepped-up passenger seat to lean back against that provides good lumbar support. Its stock saddlebags were handy for carrying cameras and video equipment, too.
In the Western town of Jackson our group filled every inch of available counter space at ’50s-style Billy’s Giant Hamburgers. If you like burgers, this is the place to get one of the best, and a half-pound one at that. While waiting for lunch, I crossed the street to see one of the four antler arches that are placed at each corner of the town square. Each arch reportedly weighs at least 7,000 pounds and consists of more than 2,000 shed elk antlers gathered from the elk refuge.
We entered Yellowstone at the South Entrance, and rode by steaming ponds and mud pots. Our country’s first national park has 200-250 geysers that erupt every year, giving it the highest concentration of active geysers in the world. Leader of our pack Diane had arranged for a late-afternoon bus tour, so we had just enough time to toss our luggage into our rooms at Grant Village and meet back outside. Knowledgeable tour guide John answered every question about Yellowstone we threw at him, and was practically stampeded when we spotted a grizzly bear and made a mad charge for the door. The grizzly wound his way through stopped cars to cross the road and continue about his business of digging up roots, seemingly oblivious to the crowd of people gawking at him. One over-zealous tourist actually ran after the bear, trying to get a close-up photo, but stopped dead in his tracks when a park ranger called out, “Sir, it’s a grizzly!”
Our dinner at Lake Yellowstone Hotel was far tastier than the grizzly’s meal, and when we came into the parking lot, bison were wandering around. The hotel dates back to the late 1890s, and guests visiting Yellowstone then arrived in stagecoaches. The solarium and dining room are spectacular with their high ceilings, colonnades and more windows than walls.
Our planned 9 a.m. departure for Old Faithful the next morning was delayed by an hour because there was ice on the pass—our bikes were covered with it on this 28-degree morning. Waiting for the road to thaw out cut our time short at Old Faithful. The famous geyser can shoot scalding water up to 185 feet high and, fortunately, did so faithfully two times within 90 minutes, so we got a chance to view the spectacle twice.
Riding at an easy pace along Highway 89 through the park, we came around a bend to find cars stopped for a bison. Funny that despite having miles of grasslands to roam with his buddies this bison instead chose to amble unconcerned down the two-lane road among the cars. Riding by on a motorcycle and looking up at those horns no more than 12 feet away was rather disconcerting. This beast smelled rather unpleasant and had a head the size of a Greek warrior’s shield, and was probably just as hard to dent.
Highway 89 leads to Highway 20 at Madison Junction and the West Entrance to the park where we pointed our bikes, crossing over Nez Perce Creek. The Firehole River parallels the road, and fly fisherfolk stood thigh-deep in the water, gracefully casting their lines over their heads and into the water. The Firehole is one of several in the park known for trout fishing, and the water is warmed by a series of hot springs located in geyser basins that the river passes through.
We were still on a high from seeing Yellowstone and the wildlife when we arrived in Island Park, Idaho. Our secluded lodging for the night was lavish, family owned, three-bedroom cabins nestled among lodgepole pines in the Targhee National Forest. The mayor of Island Park, Tom Jewell, who’d recently bought a Harley Ultra Classic, joined us for dinner at The Pines that evening and good-naturedly put up with all the chatter. Each of the cabins had hot tubs on the decks, and after dinner five of us spent a delightful evening bonding in the clear, cool night air. Genevieve from womenridersnow.com and I were bundled up in our warmest gear, while the younger set—that would be 20- and 30-something-year-olds—Amanda, Anne and Michelle steamed in the hot tub. I was lying on my back on top of the picnic table looking at the spectacular shooting-star presentation going on overhead—with a sleeping bag I could have slept quite peacefully out there.
Heading south on Highway 20 for our final full day of riding before heading back to Idaho Falls, we turned off onto Highway 47, Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, where pine trees abounded. Corby at The Pines had packed us picnic lunches, so when we arrived at Mesa Falls I carried my munchies with me while walking down the trail. Mesa Falls is nestled in a canyon with sheer rock cliffs where pine trees are densely packed in and grow up the walls. Several viewing platforms jut out over the edge for an unimpeded view of the falls, and a full rainbow glowed across 114-foot Upper Falls.
We rolled into Teton Springs Lodge & Spa, a luxurious resort on 780 acres in the Teton Valley. This is one place I plan to visit again. My room was a one-bedroom suite decorated in a Western theme and had the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve slept in. From the balcony, the peaceful view of meadows, trees, stocked fish ponds and cabins was one of which I would never tire. The management had thoughtfully stocked our refrigerators with a couple of complementary local beers, “Continental Divide” and “Bitch Creek.” Hmmm, was the latter someone’s humorous commentary on our all-female group, perhaps…?
I had time to do some laps in the large, heated pool and check out the grounds before the fine folks at Teton Springs whisked us off to dinner at Linn Canyon Ranch in the foothills of the Tetons. Our evening started with wine and five-star-quality hors d’oeuvres served outside on the wraparound porch while owner Gene Linn played guitar. We looked out over acres of meadows with horses grazing and the sky ablaze with reds and oranges from the setting sun. Anne from EagleRider Motorcycle Rentals in the Netherlands presented Diane and Nancy with her helmet, which we’d all signed—“One less thing to carry back on the airplane!” she announced.
Thinking back to our last evening together at Linn Canyon with dinner inside the cozy, rustic dining room, I see everyone glowing and smiling. So many good memories stand out, but a few snapshots are permanently etched in my mind: The grizzly bear in Yellowstone; Amanda’s grinning face barely visible through a face shield plastered in bugs after emerging from Scenic Byway 33; Diane and Genevieve’s heads bowed together figuring out a helmet intercom system; Debbie’s expression when gazing at the Tetons; lying on a picnic table and watching a night sky so clear I could see the Milky Way; bird-of-prey nests spilling over the top of power poles; and new friends holding up their wine glasses for a toast. Oh yes, and those breathtaking Tetons that I must see again.