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Spences Go West 2015 | Day 12 | July 28 | Yellowstone to Casper, Wyoming

Today it was time to leave our favorite national park, Yellowstone, and begin the long trip toward home. On our way south, we passed through Grand Teton National Park one last time, and watched the peaks fade from our rearview mirrors.

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Our plan was to head east through Wyoming. Along the way, amazing scenery cropped up again. We traveled the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway through the Wind River Indian Reservation and marveled at the landscape the whole way.

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A few hours later, we wound our way down some seriously small, twisty dirt roads to make it to historic South Pass City, a significant stop on the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail, and a city that played an important role in the pioneer days. It is known as Wyoming’s biggest boom and biggest bust town.

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In 1866, gold was discovered in the vicinity, and prospecting began in the area soon after at the Carissa mine. By the mid-1870s, though, folks realized that there was not much gold to be found here, and it quickly became a ghost town.


This general store carries some great historic items and also serves as a FedEx pickup spot for hikers. The truck arrived when we did, and some dirty, haggard folks opened big boxes like it was Christmas. We picked up some gold panning supplies here and headed across the street to the creek…



It was an arduous, and semi-frustrating process.



But it was worth it, right?! Just look at all that gold that Jackson found!


Phoebe fared a bit better (due to Dave’s help). Both kids kept asking how much their gold was worth if they would sell it…

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On our way out of town, we spotted the Carissa Mine, just up the road. Then it was on the road again. We intended to make it to Cheyenne, Wyoming tonight, but opted to stay instead in Casper for a bit less driving. We found a campground that looked great online, and had spots available! Sadly, the actual spot did not live up to the photos. But it was just a place to rest our heads before another day of adventure…

Spences Go West 2015 | Days 10-11 | July 26-27 | Yellowstone National Park

Our first stop after setting up camp at Yellowstone National Park’s Grant Village was Old Faithful, of course. How could we resist this icon? As luck would have it, we arrived only about 20 minutes before the next predicted eruption. We quickly browsed the lovely visitor’s center (new since our last visit in 2007, with baby Jackson) and then headed outside with our Junior Ranger program booklets in hand, ready to earn a new patch.

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I love this old-fashioned prediction clock, in the Old Faithful Inn.


We’re plotting a stay at the inn the next time we visit… it has so many lovely, old details. We can’t resist.

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After the eruption, the massive crowds dissipated, and we headed out on the boardwalk trail to see more geysers and other hydrothermal features at the park, until the next eruption (which we were predicting for about 8:03 p.m., according to our handy chart in the Junior Ranger book; the “real” rangers predicted an 8:21 eruption).

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Yes, Old Faithful is a must-visit, but the other geysers and hot springs nearby are equally amazing.

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Jackson and Phoebe spotted a bunch of bison scat near the hot springs. We found out later that the bison do like to sleep near the hydrothermal features in the park, to keep warm at night.

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It turned out that neither of the predictions were correct. Old Faithful kept us waiting for its next eruption until 8:35 p.m.!


 It was getting very dark and cold, so we grabbed a bite to eat then headed back to our campsite, a 40-minute drive away.

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 The next morning, we prepped for a day in the car, exploring as much of Yellowstone as we could in one day…


We started at our campsite in Grant Village then headed northeast through West Thumb and toward Lake Village. We decided we could easily cover the bottom circle of the figure 8 that makes up the main part of the park and be back by dinnertime.

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Our first big stop was the mud volcanos at the Hayden Valley, where we encountered more than a dozen bison, grazing and hanging out near a trail. Two park rangers were posted nearby and prevented anyone from getting too close to the animals.


What amazing creatures. They seem cow-like, but grunt and groan and roar almost like a calm lion. From far away, they seem docile, but up close, they are quite imposing.


After awhile, this guy got very close to where visitors were standing (including Molly and Jackson). The park ranger shouted for everyone to get back and crouch behind a car if they could. Yikes!


These two seemed to be conferring with each other, debating about whether to get up on the boardwalk where the humans walk, then jumping off together toward the other bison.

Several of the animals took long drinks from the hot springs. We asked a ranger whether that was healthy for them, and he said their digestive systems were equipped to handle the hot liquids and that they got vitamins and minerals from the water, too.

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One of our favorite spots here was the Dragon’s Mouth hot spring, where steam breathed out of a cave regularly, as if a dragon was trapped inside.


One of the most amazing things about Yellowstone is how much and how quickly the landscape changes. (Above, we used binoculars to spot a grizzly bear eating the carcass of a bison.)



Just up the road, a major traffic jam was caused by this guy, who was walking along the middle of the road on the yellow lines, between rows of cars.

A beautiful day for this fisherman.

And for this bison, grazing nearby.

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Next stop was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Dark clouds had rolled in and cold winds followed. Regardless, the falls and canyons were just gorgeous in person.

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After lunch huddled under a tree to shield us from the cold, we moved on… to the Norris Geyser Basin.

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We attended an interesting Ranger Program about the Yellowstone volcano and hydrothermic activity. Specifically, great stories were told about Steamboat Geyser, located here. It is the world’s tallest active geyser and last erupted in November 2014. Its eruptions are totally unpredictable and last for weeks.

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Porcelain Basin Hot Springs were lovely and spooky all at the same time.


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On our way to the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center to claim our Junior Ranger patches, we found another elk in a field.

These folks were getting way too close, and a ranger had to shoo them away. Soon, we arrived at the visitor’s center, attended another ranger program (this one about animals), and took the pledge before getting our badges.

It was a long, full, cold day! In fact, we were told by several rangers to expect snow that night. So, on our way out we bought a winter jacket for Jackson and a warm blanket for the tent. We didn’t see any snow, but temperatures did drop to about 40 degrees!

Spences Go West 2015 | Days 6-10 | July 22-26 | Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

We have arrived! Finally, after many long days on the road, we’ve made it to Grand Teton National Park.

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Specifically, we’re at Colter Bay Group Campsite 5, where we’re staying alongside Dave’s brother, Matt, his wife, Naomi, and their daughter, Ginger; Dave’s cousin Lindsay, her husband, Justin, and their daughter, Teagan; and Dave’s cousin, Erin (Lindsay’s sister).

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All 11 of us are spread out in this one large site, with lots of grass, trees and wildflowers and a great, huge campfire area lined with large logs to sit on.

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The bathrooms are just across the lane, but unfortunately, no hot water or showers are inside. If we want to shower, we’ll have to do a bike ride up the hill to one of our family’s cabins or to Dave’s parents’ RV site, or pay for a public shower ($4.50 apiece). This is roughing it, people!

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Phoebe and Uncle Matt, off on a bike ride to a Ranger Program about cougars.

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Pretty much every night we were together, the whole Spence clan gathered at our group site for an evening campfire, some S’mores,  and lots of chatting.

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Aunt Jan brought chocolate-covered graham crackers — perfect!

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Grandma and Jackson, in deep conversation (probably about books!).

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Every morning, we woke ourselves up over coffee and a campfire.

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Dave’s brother, Matt, brought his awesome boat (handmade by him, of course) and took many of us out on floats on the Snake River during the week. First up was Dave and their cousin, Jamie and his daughter, Piper.


Jamie is an avid fisherman in Western Pennsylvania and this was his first trip to the Tetons. He was super excited to get his hands on some cutthroat trout.

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Jamie, Dave, and Matt: A redo of one of our favorite images from a Spence vacation about 14 years prior, in Wintergreen, Va.


Jackson was itching to try out some fishing himself, and Uncle Matt was a patient teacher.


On another day, we borrowed Kurt’s raft and paddled alongside Matt’s boat on the Snake River.

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Aunt Naomi, rowing a boat full of kids!

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One afternoon we drove south to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and spent some time exploring the town square.


We have another photo of 1-year-old Jackson at one of these arches. And now, the girls.


Next we drove over to the Bar-T-5 Covered Wagon Cookout for dinner. While we waited for the wagons to be ready, Jackson and Piper played checkers.

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Also while we waited, Phoebe’s first tooth decided to fall out. She was terrified and excited, all at the same time.

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Soon, it was time to load up onto our covered wagons and head up the canyon to our cookout.

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Dinner was corn on the cob, barbecue chicken, roast beef, baked beans, rolls, salad and ranch dressing, lemonade, hot cocoa and brownies for dessert.

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The evening’s entertainment included audience participation. Kurt and Marcia were called up to help sing a song. And poor cousin Sydney was manhandled by a “mountain man” who tried to marry her. It was … interesting.

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Heading back down the mountain after dinner, and the cool, rainy weather produced a rainbow!


Jackson and his best buddy,  (2nd cousin? 3rd cousin?) Finn


Our only group photo for the trip… Happy 45th Anniversary, Marcia and Kurt!


Another highlight of the week was a 2-hour morning horseback ride.


It was Jackson’s first time on a horse!


It was Naomi’s first ride as well.



Each of the horses wore a feedbag for the entire ride, to prevent them from eating too many wildflowers or other natural features and ruining the trails for other visitors.

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We saw some incredible scenery as we rode past Swan Lake.

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And the guides new the perfect spot for a group photo! Can’t beat those Tetons.


When it was time to leave, we all were allowed to give our horses some treats.

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Later that afternoon, it was Phoebe’s and Ginger’s turn to ride ponies.


For the entire ride, these two talked the guide’s ears off about everything from Farm Camp to princesses to lost teeth. He was a really good sport about it.


On one of our final days at the park, the kids completed their Junior Ranger books by attending a Ranger Program about the animals at the park.


After their books were checked, they were able to choose between a wooden badge (very rare in Junior Ranger world) or a patch (also rare, but slightly less so). Jackson chose the wooden badge and Phoebe took a patch.

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This was our daily view at Colter Bay… not bad.

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Naomi and Molly took the kids out for a hike one day, and got about 10 minutes in before the kids jumped in the water, fully clothed.

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Another day, we drove down to Jenny Lake to do a hike closer to the mountains.

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A giant elk was sitting in the grass, just a few feet off the path.

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On the way to the hike, we spotted another elk in the fields.


All the Jenny Lake hikers, minus Chuck and Jo, who powered ahead of all of us!


We hopped on the boat with Aunt Jan and Uncle Bob for a ride back across the lake.


So happy to get a (rare) photo of these two together!


Dave’s shirt said it all.


We caught up with Chuck and Jo at the falls.


What a beautiful hike and boat ride!

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All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the Tetons! A quick pic with the sign on our way out, and up to Yellowstone!

Kurt SpenceJuly 31, 2015 - 9:20 pm

Yes, we had a great week with all the Spences. And just for the record, Jackson and Finn are 2nd cousins. And good buddies.

Spences Go West 2015 | Day 5 | July 21 | Cody, Wyoming to Grand Tetons National Park

After a long night at the rodeo, we woke up at the Cody KOA surrounded by motorcyclists and tons of free pancakes. We filled up on coffee and breakfast and let the kids bounce on the giant bouncy pillow, then headed to town to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, an awesome set of six museums that is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. It includes a natural history museum, a firearms museum, an art museum, an Indian museum, and an entire museum dedicated to the life of “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

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First stop was the natural history museum, where we tried some horns on for size.

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We learned all about western wildlife, including this cute fella.

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Next, we walked through a ghost-like talking hologram of Buffalo Bill Cody himself to enter the museum dedicated to his life.

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Bill Cody, a man before his time.

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We played a round of a real Buffalo Bill board game after the kids posed among life-size artists’ renderings of the game pieces. Very fun (kinda like Candyland, but with Indians and bison).

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Dave and the kids especially liked the firearms museum, including this fun game, based on an old west saloon game. Phoebe kept looking up Teddy Roosevelt’s guns here (her obsession with him grew from our visit to Mount Rushmore).

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Phoebe chatted up this cowboy, doing a lasso demonstration, and got lassoed herself! (Video to come)

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Outside the museum, we explored this tipi, and Phoebe showed off her pre-birthday present bison purse.


We ventured over to an outdoor Chuckwagon demonstration, where a cowboy was handing out samples of really delicious cowboy coffee and baked beans. (Aunt Lynne has been calling Hurley a chuckwagon for weeks, and now the kids know why!)

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In his Dutch oven, a batch of sourdough biscuits was baking. Once Phoebe heard that, she wouldn’t leave until she could have a sample. So we waited and chatted until they were ready.


She had four helpings. (They were really yummy.) And we took home the recipe.


After a short stop at Sierra Trading Post to buy some new sleeping pads (thanks for the air mattress, Kurt, but after three nights of midnight deflating, we retired it), we were on our way to the Grand Tetons via the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

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Just a few quick jumps out of the car for some neat scenery….



Jackson says he’s ready for adventure with the rest of the Spence Family in the Grand Tetons!

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Cheers to the Spence ladies, and especially to Aunt Jo, on her birthday evening!

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