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Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop

By Debbie Macdonald

Touring the nation’s crown jewels

A scenic lap of a lifetime

Idaho Falls, Idaho, Sept. 10–14— Snow? I could not believe the e-mails that I was getting as I prepared for my trip to Idaho for round two of Cruising the Loop. Yes, it was snowing on the pass that we would be riding on our way to Yellow­stone. Nothing was going to curb my enthusiasm, but I went looking for some long johns to pack.

Thanks to Diane Norton from the Idaho Tourism Board, once again 10 women moto-journalists would be riding for four days along three scenic byways—the Teton Scenic Byway, the Grand Teton Scenic Byway and the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway—for a total of 400 miles. All three byways had recently been combined to form the Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop and we would be the first “official” group to tour what is touted as the “most complete road tour” of the region. It’s also been selected as one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies.

Along for the ride were Anne Tattersall, Genevieve Schmitt, Pam Collins, Mar­gie Siegal, Michelle Baird, Randy Twells, Donya Carlson, Diane Ortiz and Crista Neuhauser. Most had been on the ride last year, but there were some new faces too. Diane Norton was our fearless leader, and Nancy Richardson, also from the Idaho Tourism Board, would be following along in a chase vehicle with our gear.

This time I would be riding a 2011 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, thanks to the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which not only provided the bikes but also a chase truck complete with driver Alan Barsi. Communications Director Amanda Lee would also be along, and both provided support and, in some cases, comic relief.

Day One: Idaho Falls to Yellowstone National Park, 167 miles
We all met in Idaho Falls on Thursday, where our tour was to begin, arriving at the Hilton Garden Inn, right at the edge of Idaho Falls. There was not much time to do anything more than check into our rooms before we were shuttled off to the Museum of Idaho for hors d’oeurves and a tour. What a great museum for a town, as Director David Pennock put it, “in the middle of nowhere, Idaho.”

Dinner followed at the local dealership, Grand Teton Harley-Davidson. We joined them for the Friday night party they hold for their customers, complete with a live band. It was nice to sit back, have a bite to eat, listen to the music, chat with some local riders and get in some face time with each other. It felt like a reunion of sorts, since we hadn’t seen each other since last year’s tour. But the day was coming to a close so we went back to the hotel for a short meet at the bar to contemplate the four inches of snow on the pass we would be riding over the following morning. One by one we said our good nights and headed off to our rooms.

Our plan for the next day was to meet at 8:30 in the parking lot to go over the ride. The snow on the pass was still a concern, but we were happy to find out that, while there was snow in them thar hills, the roads were clear. It would prove to be the start of a spectacular day.

With Diane leading the group, everyone found their spot in the line of bikes that felt comfortable to them. We hit a bit of road work delay on the way out of town, but that would be all for the rest of the ride. We were on our way to Yellowstone, our country’s first National Park, by way of Grand Teton National Park. It was a crisp, clear morning riding along the Snake River, with incredible views as we wound our way to the top of the pass. As we rounded the curves, the sight of the snow-dusted mountains was so breathtakingly beautiful I had to throw my hands in the air for a second.

It seemed a bit funny to be on an Idaho tour and going into Wyoming, but Yellowstone is shared by Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and we would be hitting all three. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was really hopping when we arrived. Although an art festival was going on, arrangements had been made with the Chamber of Commerce, and we were able to park right in front of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. With an amazing display of Western art, a bar with seats made from saddles and a very colorful past, it fits right in with the whole scene of the town. Our lunch stop, Billy Burger, was right next door, so after a quick walk across the street to check out the art festival and take a picture of the famous antler arches, we sat down for the biggest, juiciest burgers in town.

It is always a challenge trying to manage a group of riders and keep on schedule when you really just want to hang out. But ride on we must, and oh what a lovely ride it was. You could not ask for better weather or better riding conditions than what we had that day as we rode through Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons dominate the landscape, with their spectacular formations jutting abruptly out of the ground and rising to elevations of over 13,000 feet.

We arrived in the park at Grants Village, on the southwest shore of Yellowstone Lake, where we would be spending the night. We barely had enough time to park the bikes and take our riding gear off before we were loaded onto a bus for a trip to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Along the way we stopped by some mud pots and sighted a grizzly as it was grubbing its way through the fields, totally unconcerned about the crazed tourists. All the while traffic was at a standstill, and a park ranger was around to make sure no one got too close. We practically had to drag ourselves back on the bus to continue our tour.

The sight of the Grand Canyon of the Yellow­stone, with the sun setting behind the falls and the Yellowstone River roaring its way down the cliffs, was a wonderful way to begin the evening. As we rode to our dinner destination, the Lake House, we told Yellowstone stories while Tom the bus driver provided some history and tall tales. We were greeted in the parking lot of the Lake House by a herd of buffalo, which would not be our first or last encounter with them on this trip. The ambiance of the restaurant was casual yet elegant, and the food was divine. All of this plus a very nice room in Grants Village (compliments of Wyoming Tourism and the Xanterra Corporation, concessions manager for the park) was way more than I could wish for. I was so tired I did little else but take my clothes off and do a face plant on the bed, to sleep with visions of grizzly bears dancing in my head.

Day Two: Yellowstone Park to Island Park, 95 miles
It felt great to be waking up in Yellowstone National Park. I was more than ready for our ride to Old Faithful and the chance to see the new visitors center and the Old Faithful Inn, but as I walked out the door of the hotel I was hit by a blast of freezing air and noticed that the steps were dusted with salt to counteract the slick coating of frost. Our bikes looked like popsicles. I met with some of the girls for a walk to breakfast as we contemplated the brisk ride we would have. As everyone else filtered into the restaurant, the decision was made to postpone our take-off to let the sun rise a bit higher, warming up our bikes and freeing the roads of black ice.

A walk down to the visitors’ center was in order, and we viewed the exhibit on the park’s catastrophic 1989 wildfire. By 10 o’clock the temperature had risen and the roads were deemed clear for takeoff. As we rode out of Grants Village to Old Faithful, we could observe how the terrain is recovering from the fire. There has been 10 to 20 feet of tree growth in the decades since the burn, with nature doing what it does best.

At our next destination, Old Faithful delivered. We arrived about 20 minutes prior to blast-off, enough time to take a quick look around and then take a seat in the bleachers. The eruption occurred on schedule, and the crowds came and dispersed as faithfully as the geyser. We spent a little time exploring the geyser basin, the amazing visitors’ center and Old Faithful Inn, an impressive building with huge timbers and the feel of a hunting lodge.

We rode out of the park toward West Yellow­stone, with one more stop for a photo op where we encountered a lone buffalo walking down the road. It was a bit daunting when we realized we would then have to ride right by him, but he was not at all concerned with us and we passed without incident.

We stopped for a quick break and walk in West Yellowstone, Montana, another Old West-type town. Then it was on to Island Park, along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. We saw many fly fishermen taking advantage of the best trout fishing in the world. We rode along a very long stretch of road, which turned out to be Island Park’s claim to fame as the longest main street in America (almost 35 miles long).

We spent the evening at The Pines, a time-share resort of beautifully-appointed three-bedroom log cabins, each with a loft and a hot tub. I made a beeline to my room and my bathing suit and without a by your leave commenced relaxing with a glass of wine in the hot tub, jets on high. I was soon joined by my cabinmates Randy and Pam, and then by Genevieve and Donya. We were soon soaking our way to oblivion until reminded that we had to get ready for dinner at the Lodge Pole Grill, with Mayor Tom Jewell. He is quite the character and thought himself very lucky to have our attention for the evening. He regaled us with many tales of the town’s beginning. We enjoyed an almost-like-home-cooked meal. It was a fun evening, but I was soon ready to hit the sack, and one by one we meandered back to our cabins in the woods.

Day 3: Island Park to Victor, Idaho, 80 miles
Once again the morning came too soon and after a sumptuous breakfast at the grill, we got on the road for our ride to Mesa Falls in the Targhee National Forest, on the rim of the nation’s largest volcanic caldera. A 28-mile ride down into a canyon brought us to a paved walkway and boardwalk viewing area around the Upper Falls. We took in a spectacular view of the 114-foot falls, sporting a rainbow that hung in the mist. It was hard to get back on the bikes as the weather was perfect and the thunder of the falls was very comforting, but the thunder of Harleys was on the schedule, so we all grabbed our bagged lunch to eat on the road and left in two groups, the fast and the slow. This would not only give some of us a chance to put some speed on and get a better handle on the bikes we were riding, but also the chance to ride in a smaller group.

We got back on the road for our final all-day ride along the Teton Scenic Byway with a constant view of the namesake mountains in the background of the most beautiful fields of golden wheat I have ever seen. We tooled along a nice two-lane road with sweeping turns and golden vistas for the rest of the day. It’s not that I wanted the day to end, but I knew we were heading to Teton Springs Spa in Victor, Idaho, and I had an appointment with a masseuse!

I could have stayed there for a week, between the sumptuous suite I was staying in, and the saline pool and spa with every kind of treatment you could imagine. We definitely did not have enough time to fully take advantage of the place, but I tried my best to lie by the pool for an hour and fit in a massage before we had to head out to Linn Canyon Ranch for dinner.

Linn Canyon Ranch is a family-owned working ranch for pack rides, so as you drive up there are pastures of grazing horses, a large garden (where they grow the vegetables that we would enjoy for dinner) and a nicely renovated farmhouse with a wrap-around porch. We were met by Gene, the owner, who serenaded us on his guitar while we had hors d’oeurves and drinks before our absolutely delicious dinner, prepared by Gene’s wife Ellen. It was a magical evening as we sat around the table enjoying our meal and wine, talking about the day’s riding, the scenery, the people, the places and the wildlife. As much as we didn’t want it to end, we knew that this was to be our last night together and wanted it to last as long as possible, but the shuttle van was waiting to take us back. It seemed like our trip had just begun and we were already at the end.

The next morning was kind of somber, knowing we would soon be riding the final 66 miles back over the pass we had started out on to Idaho Falls. Once there, we dropped off the bikes, grabbed our bags and prepared to head to the airport. Goodbyes flew around the hotel lobby as a last group shot was taken. Then the shuttle buses were taking us all to the airport to head back home, but not before we promised to meet again next year for another Idaho tour. Right, Diane?

For more information on my trip, check out these sites:

www.visitidaho.org/cruisingtheloop

www.drivethetopten.com

www.visitidaho.org

www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com

www.linncanyonranch.com

www.tetonvalleychamber.com

www.tetonspringslodge.com

www.pinesislandpark.com

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