When I was planning my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, I browsed endless sites telling me that I couldn’t experience everything Yellowstone had to offer in one trip. People far and wide have visited Yellowstone on several occasions and still hadn’t crossed everything off the list. Well, when I plan a trip I don’t do it with intentions of having to come back. The world is full of spectacles demanding to be seen. I don’t want to succumb to the reality that I will never be able to do it all. So I don’t.
If you like to take your time, tinkering around one or two attractions a day, then this agenda probably isn’t for you. But if you are like me and you want to experience all of the highlights with a good dose of off-the-beaten-path, then this itinerary will let you see more of Yellowstone than you can find anywhere else.
For a thorough trip, I recommend planning 6 or 7 days, depending on how long your drive/flight takes you to arrive. If you’re flying, be sure to check all surrounding airports, not only for saving a buck on your flight, but also to check out the costs of car rentals. I decided to fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho for four reasons:
- The arrival time (12:52pm) and departure time (3:16pm) allowed me to maximize my days
- Car rentals from the Idaho Falls airport were ~$100 cheaper than at other local airports
- Drive time to the West Yellowstone entrance and Jackson, Wyoming were both a manageable 2 hours from Idaho Falls
- It allowed me to cross another state of my bucket list (true story)
It’s important to look at the first two of these together. I originally thought I would be getting the best deal by flying into Bozeman, MT. However, after realizing my flight arrived at 11pm when all car rental places were closed meant I would have to stay the night in Bozeman. Not a big deal, I thought. I could just get up early, pick up the rental car and kick off my adventure at dawn. Not so. The car rental did not open until 7am, and if it was anything like car rentals from past experiences, it would have a line 5-6 deep by the time I got there. Also, my return flight from Bozeman to Cincinnati departed at 6am, which meant I would have to either drop off my rental car “after hours” and pay an additional fee, or drop it off by 9pm the night before and lose more precious time that could be better spent. Which brings me to my next point. The cost of time. After mapping out drive times from Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Jackson, and Denver, Idaho Falls offered the shortest and most even drive times considering we planned to visit the northern most part of Yellowstone all the way south to Jackson. Flights were easily half to a third of the price from Salt Lake City and Denver, but our trip purpose was to experience the great outdoors, not the cramped interior of the cheapest rental car we could afford.
Yellowstone National Park divides into four primary hotspots: Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and Southeast. I find that it is easiest to tackle the expanse park by cutting it up into these manageable sections. The route you take through the park is entirely up to you. Depending where your starting hub is, you’ll probably want to start by whichever one is closest to you. Since we came from the western entrance, we started at the southwest section first. This allowed us to do a big clockwise loop through Yellowstone before heading south to Grand Teton National Park. And since the southwest is full of geysers and other geothermal features, we didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of what was in store for us.
The southwest section is chock full of places to go. You’ll want to spend your day visiting the 3 geyser basins. Start at the Upper Geyser Basin, the southernmost of the three. Here you will immediately get to see what most people travel to Yellowstone to see, Old Faithful. Between eruptions you can tour the Old Faithful Inn, the oldest standing hotel structure in the park. Its hallowed halls reminded me of what I envision the Titanic must have looked like. You can also walk the boardwalks and trails and see many, many more features. Each of these are unique in their own way, so don’t just gawk at Old Faithful and call it a day. Bike rentals are available though I discourage them because they aren’t allowed on the boardwalk, which means you don’t get to access much of what you’re there to see.
After checking out Old Faithful, make your way north to the Midway Geyser Basin. We were largely unimpressed by this one, primarily because the Grand Prismatic Spring is the key attraction and it’s difficult to see when you’re so close to it. Optimally you would get to view it from above. You can get a better view by taking the Fairy Falls trail (photo below); you only have to go about a mile to get the best view. The Midway Geyser Basin was also a heavy tourist destination. Busloads of people were there which made it hard to enjoy.
The Lower Geyser Basin is the least touted and touristy of all of the stops, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit. It isn’t very big, and you can walk the boardwalk to see the Fountain Paint Pots and geysers. Given that you can see all of the sights here in less than an hour, you should make it a point to take it in before moving on. We finished off our day watching Old Faithful erupt from the upper deck of the Old Faithful Inn while having a local craft beer.
On your second morning in the park, start driving north toward Mammoth. On the way, drive through the Firehole Canyon and take in the waterfall. It won’t take but a few minutes to drive the loop and be back on the main road. Next, stop at the Norris Geyser Basin. You can never see enough geyser basins! We felt this one was pretty unique and underrated. The Porcelain Trail took us right through the heart of the basin with much to take in. We did this trail early in the morning which made for quite an eery feeling. Whatever time of day you pass through, be sure to stop.
As we continued north, we got our first sighting of elk and bison. We couldn’t contain our excitement as we pulled over, put on our 4 ways, and jumped out of the car. Little did we know this was just the tip of the iceberg for our wildlife sightings. Of course no one is guaranteed to see wildlife, especially from within site of your car, so don’t hold back expecting to see something later.
When we got to Mammoth we drove up to the hot springs since they’re on the south side of the historic district. Up there we found another amazing view of natural wonders, this time with the town of Mammoth below. Terraces of calcium deposits highlighted by colorful bacteria and algae had us wondering if we were on another planet for a moment. After making a brief stop to the visitor’s center, we started on the Beaver Ponds Trail. The is quite steep at the beginning as the trail is shared with the Sepulcher Mountain trail. Keep at it and you’ll be glad you did. The views were magnificent! We could see all the way up to the Boiling River and beyond to Gardiner, MT. We saw 4 elk along the trail and were told by others we passed that we just missed about 30 more. The trail is about 5.5 miles, which took us about 3 hours. It was time well spent! As we approached the town, we stumbled upon an elk grazing on the lawns of the town buildings.
a few miles north of Mammoth are the famed Mammoth Hot Springs. We parked at a lot and walked down a riverside trail to the springs. Clothes draped over fences along the trail indicating we had reached the springs. Many were brazen enough to enter the cold water, easing their way to the mouth of the Boiling River where the two rivers converge. Regretfully, we retreated back upstream without taking a dip.
Head east on the Grand Loop Road over to the Lamar Valley. The Lamar Valley is known for the hundreds of bison that graze through the valley. The solitude and sanctity made it one of my favorite places in the park. Drive east about 32 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs until you get to the Lamar River trailhead. This trail goes ~7 miles out and back through the cutting valley. We were fortunate enough to see at least 50 bison along this trail, with one sitting all alone right on the trail and another moseying down the mountain as we rested on a log. At first we couldn’t tell if the speck at the top of the mountain was a bison or not. After it began moving downhill, we were certain it was, so we decided to stay put and see how close he would pass by. The bison made quick work of traversing downhill! Before we knew it he was observing our presence, deciding what to do. We were all a little nervous even though he was about 25 yards away. Eventually he decided to swing around us in an arc, keeping our attention throughout. We were delighted to get to see some bison in their natural habitat instead of along a road which had started to become a common occurrence. Be sure to stay at least 10 yards from them as they are dangerous, although their constant, peaceful presence can convince you otherwise.
On our return journey, the clouds lifted and we were able to see the gorgeous valley we’d been hiking through in all its glory. The sun brought out all the colors of the blue sky, green trees, and yellow grass. We spent some time just taking it in.
After finishing the Lamar River Trail, make your way west and south to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The 24 mile long canyon offers yet another uniquely impressive sight. Cutting through the canyon, the Yellowstone River curves its way south until it flows into Yellowstone Lake. Follow signs to the South Rim of the canyon. Take the South Rim trail which partners with Uncle Tom’s Trail and Artist Point. The South Rim trail is a fairly flat and easy 2.5 mile hike that takes you along the canyon rim to Artist Point. You will get some of your best photos of the canyon and the waterfall at Artist Point which truly resembles a painting, but be warned, tourists and tour busses are everywhere. If your legs aren’t exhausted, take Uncle Tom’s trail into the canyon. On a sunny day you’ll catch rainbows created from the mist of the powerful waterfall. There is nothing more than a small landing at the bottom of the steps, so it can get quite crowded, but you’ll get your closest shots of Yellowstone Falls if you’re patient.
While we were hiking the South Rim trail, my mom stopped to talk to a girl wearing an Ohio t-shirt. She originally said she was from Dayton, the later refined her homeplace to Tipp City, a place not far from where we were from. Since we’re from a very small town in farm-country Ohio, it’s enjoyable to meet people from nearby towns, even though “nearby” can be an hour or two away. Meeting this girl 1500 miles from our homes was a pleasant reminder of how small the world can be sometimes.
When we got up fog coated all of the scenic areas. Hayden Valley could not be seen, so we took a quick loop around Dragon’s Mouth and soaked in the sulfuric scents that wafted through the air. I say this sarcastically as the smell was almost hard to stomach at times, but it’s a staple of the geothermal features of the park. Hayden Valley was still foggy, so we decided to head north and hike the Mt. Washburn trail. We knew that it would take us a while to reach the peak since it was a little over 3 miles and a 1400 foot elevation gain. The views were supposedly spectacular, though it was a bit of a gamble given the dense fog coating the entire valley. We decided to buy some sandwiches and set out on the hike, knowing we could take our time to let the fog clear. Much to our delight, the fog lifted as we climbed the mountain. Bighorn sheep caught our attention about halfway up the mountain. Once we reached the peak we could see the entire park, from the Lamar Valley to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to Yellowstone Lake to Old Faithful. We could even see the Grand Tetons! It was spectacular! There’s a watch tower at the very top to spot fires in the park, and a ranger lives in the tower atop the mountain. I can’t imagine living in such an isolated location, but the view wouldn’t get old! After conquering the peak, we decided to eat our sandwiches near the top while looking out towards the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake. There cannot be a more magnificent view of the park to have lunch. We soaked it in.
When we originally set out for Hayden Valley first thing in the morning it was because we had seen several signs at the ranger stations that a bear had been spotted feeding on a carcass. Because of the fog, we couldn’t see anything. When we returned, there were plenty of others trying to get a peek at the bear making it hard to park. The reports of the bear had also started more than a week before, which we took to mean there couldn’t be much left to the carcass by the time we arrived. We waited a bit to see if the bear was around before taking off to see the rest of the valley. Sun shining down on the Hayden Valley shows off so many shades of green they cannot all be counted. With the Yellowstone River cutting through its marshlands, it is a truly unique and beautiful sight.
If you aren’t worn out yet, or for some reason you skipped the Mt. Washburn trail, hike Elephant’s Back Trail. It’s only about 3 miles, though it has some pretty steep elevation gains which is very challenging if you conquered Mt. Washburn earlier in the day. Elephant’s Back Trail provides some unique views of Yellowstone Lake, and would be especially neat during sunset. We hiked this trail in the morning and had the sun shining towards us which washed out some of the color gushing from the outlooks along the trail. It was still worth it, but we knew it could have been better.
Our last day in Yellowstone was bittersweet. We had seen so much! All of it surpassed our expectations. Yet we were eager to get to Grand Teton National Park. Before we left Yellowstone, we walked through the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Some people recommended skipping this one, but we hadn’t been to a geyser basin that we didn’t enjoy, so we chose not to skip it. We were all glad we didn’t! This basin was unique in that it was right next to Yellowstone Lake. Many of the geothermal features were right in the lake itself. All of them bursted with superior colors. While we were there, we ran into another person wearing an Ohio t-shirt. When he said he was from Dayton, Theresa pressed him asking if he was really from Dayton or if he was from a smaller town like Tipp City. Turns out he really was from Tipp City and he was in complete shock that Theresa, a person he had not known for more than 10 seconds, somehow seemed to know this. We all laughed at the unlikeliness and shared the story about the girl we had met earlier in the week who was also from Tipp City.
After enjoying the West Thumb Geyser Basin, get some road snacks and head down to Grand Teton. Take the 42 mile drive and enjoy the many vistas and pullouts that give hard to rival panoramas. One advantage the Grand Tetons have over Yellowstone is that there are more pullouts and it is far less crowded. You also have a much greater chance of seeing moose! We followed every road, sign, and pointer that had the word “moose” in it – Moose-Wilson Road, Moose Junction, Moose Ponds, etc. After spending the entire day in the park, we were deflated from not seeing nearly as much wildlife as we saw in Yellowstone and exactly zero moose.
We only hiked one trail in the Grand Tetons, the Jenny Lake trail. It is the most popular trail, and for good reason. The trail is pretty easy while walking around the lake, and there are wildflowers that spot the path. Once we reached the other side of the lake, the trail splits for Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls, each worth viewing. We opted to take the boat back across the lake.
Before taking off and heading back to the airport, we decided to get up early and search for a moose one last time. After spending 2 hours driving around everything named moose again and again, we decided to finally give up and leave the park. Just as we turned onto the main road, we saw two moose at moose junction cross the road behind us! We whipped the car around as quickly as we safely could and watched them mosey across the road and into the woods. Only about 3 carloads were fortunate to get to see them and we were elated to have been one of them. We could finally depart feeling like we had seen everything there was to see.
I haven’t said much about Jackson, Wyoming, a popular vacation destination, because I found it touristy and underwhelming. If visiting endless tourist shops is your idea of a fun trip, then this town is for you. My expectations were too high, and the whole town reminded me of a hotel gift shop. You should and probably will visit just because there’s not many other places to stay near Grand Teton and you should experience it for yourself. Perhaps by better setting your expectations, you will have a different impression. And visiting in winter would no doubt be an entirely different experience as the ski slopes seem to end right into the streets.