This past fall, Nathan and I spent some time exploring gems of our national park system: Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone NP. Breathtaking, beautiful, mind blowing. The list of adjectives I could use to describe these two parks would fill a page. Whether you are a hiker, a wildlife fan or just looking to take in some incredible views, each park offers everyone the chance to explore their passion.
I honestly did not know what to expect when we first started planning our trip. I had heard great things about both parks, but it seemed everyone enjoyed them for different reasons. Anyone who knows me well knows I am the ultimate travel planner, especially when it comes to visiting national parks. So I spent some time researching the pros and cons we had been given to plan an adventure we would really enjoy. What we came away with was pretty awesome.
Prepping for a trip like this takes careful planning. What activities you want to do greatly impact the time of the year you go. Nathan and I were interested in hiking and wildlife spotting, but we also dislike large crowds. So we set our sights on post Labor Day hoping that with school back in session, the crowds would be smaller. For the most part they were minus a few of the bigger attractions like Old Faithful. The downside to post Labor Day is that sections of the park begin to shut down for either construction or winter sports prep. The park websites were great in giving estimates of when certain places/roads would be closing. Definitely check them before deciding when to go to make sure you don’t miss anything you really want to see. With sections of the parks closed, that also means some campgrounds and lodges are also closed. So once you decide when you want to go, make reservations ASAP as they book up fast!
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park border each other. The two, combined with several national forest, make up a large portion of the northwest corner of Wyoming and spill over into Idaho and Montana. While the parks take up a huge chunk of land (Yellowstone: 2.2 million acres, Grand Teton: 310,000 acres), they are somewhat isolated. The biggest cities for easy flights will be: Boise, Salt Lake City and Denver. You can also get flights into Jackson Hole, WY; Bozeman, MT and Idaho Falls, ID. No matter what, you will want to rent a car. So which airport you fly into really depends on how much you want to drive and spend on a plane ticket. I played around with flight and car rental prices to find the best deal. We ended up choosing to fly in and out of Salt Lake City (thanks in part to an incredible Southwest deal which had round trip flights from Raleigh for $165). I was also able to find a great deal on a rental car. I always recommend to book rental cars early and check the prices regularly for sales and discounts. By doing so, I was able to rent a car for eight days for just over $200. Even the agent was impressed.
Welcome to Grand Teton National Park! This is the view that greeted us as we made our way into the park from Jackson Hole. It was a breathtaking sight. I could not get out of the car fast enough to begin our hike.
The first order of business was to stop by the main visitors center to check in with the rangers. I can’t stress enough how important stopping into a ranger station is before embarking on a trip through a major park like Grand Teton. During our visit, there were several wildfires burning throughout Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Due to the winds, fire locations changed daily, leading to park and road closures. All of that information was posted at the visitor center. Better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to something as serious as fires. Not to mention, the rangers are a wealth of information. They can recommend hikes and view points that would be perfect for you and your experience level.
We spent a majority of our time hiking around Jenny Lake. Jenny Lake offers great hiking for all experience levels. Trails wrap around the lake in various spots then shoot up through the trees and valleys between the mountains. Out of all the hiking we did on this trip (including in Yellowstone), this was by far my favorite.
Our destinations were Inspiration Point and Cascade Canyon. We parked at the Leigh and String Lakes trailhead and began our hike from there. This trail wraps around the base of String and Jenny Lakes. The views were stunning of course. The only thing I didn’t like was how poorly signed the different trailheads were from the parking lot. We spent almost an hour hiking down the wrong trails and turning around before we figured out which one was the one we wanted to be on. The signs we saw also didn’t match up to the park maps we had. Once we got on the trail that connected to Jenny Lake, we were good to go.
Even though we were only day hiking, we each carried a 30 liter pack. You would be surprised at the supplies you could need if you plan on hiking all day. The biggie: Plenty of Water!! It amazes me how often people forget about water. It is very rare to find a trail with a water fountain. So carrying water is so important! Nathan and I each had one large water bottle. Snacks are also good to carry with you. I like to pack bars, energy crews and crackers. A piece or two of chocolate might also sneak in there. We also had emergency basics just in case (a small first aid kit, a thermal foil blanket, a vest, sun screen).
Another thing to keep in mind while you are in Grand Teton and Yellowstone is that this is bear country. Carrying bear spray is a must. Some also hooked bells or noise makers to their packs.
I also like to pack a layer or two, usually a long sleeve shirt or vest and a rain jacket. Given the elevation, mornings and evenings tend to be anywhere from cool to down right cold. midday can get pretty warm though, especially if you are hiking around. It is also no uncommon for the weather to suddenly change. You don’t want to be hiking and get caught in a rain storm unprepared. If you tend to get cold feet like me, bring an extra pair of socks to switch out during the day. Dry socks equals warm happy feet!
Speaking about clothing, it is very important to pack smart for a trip like this. While on this trip, we saw a high of 90 degrees followed by a day of snow. While that might be a little extreme, knowing what the weather could be like and planning for those possibilities before your trip could be the difference between a fun trip and a miserable one.
I spy a nest!
What I loved best about hiking around Grand Teton was the variety of things you would see on each hike. Go from the edge of a lake with bright, colorful trails to a massive, green forest. After crossing over a few streams, we reached Cascade Canyon.
Keeps your eyes open! You never know who or what you might come across on your hikes! This little guy is an American Pika. We spotted him in Cascade Canyon.
We circled back around and hiked up to Inspiration Point, which overlooks Jenny Lake. Wow, what a view! The highest point in the park is Grand Teton Mountain at 13,770 ft. Inspiration Point gets you over half way up that at 7,200 ft.
If you are looking for an easier hike up to Inspiration Point, you’re in luck! There is a shuttle ferry that will take you across Jenny Lake and drops you off at the beginning of the Cascade Canyon trail. While it is still somewhat strenuous, it is shorter and better maintained than the trails we took.
Sunset over Grand Teton NP is pretty spectacular! After asking around for the best spots, we decided to watch sunset from Teton Point turnout. Not the least bit disappointed with the view. I highly recommend taking in a sunset here!
If you are interested in spotting wildlife, dusk is a great time to hang around Antelope Flats. You will know where you are at the right spot as the road will be lined with photographers and wildlife watchers.
Yellowstone National Park, a crown jewel of our national park system. In fact, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park when it was established in March 1872. The park contains over 1,000 miles of trails, of which only 8% can be seen from the road. That means most of the park is considered back country. I cannot stress enough how important being prepared and checking in with rangers is if you plan on doing any camping or hiking in Yellowstone.
Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton have entrance fees. Passes to each park are good for seven days, and dual passes are available. However, I strongly recommend getting an America the Beautiful annual pass. For $80, this pass will get you into any national park in the country for a year! Considering the dual Yellowstone/Grand Teton pass will run you about $50 for a week, it really is a no brainer. Permits are also required for different activities. Those are not covered by the annual pass.
There are so many wonderful place to explore in Yellowstone, each offering up different experiences. Most folks come in and drive the two road loops to the biggest attraction. If this is your intention, I highly recommend downloading the Yellowstone NP app. It gives you traffic info and times on attractions like Old Faithful and other events that are going on in the park. Cell reception comes and goes throughout the park. So I recommend not relying on the app as your sole source of getting around, but it is a helpful addition to the park maps.
Old Faithful! She is quite a sight to behold. Erupting every 60 to 110 minutes, Old Faithful draws crowds all day long. If you would like to get up close, the best time of day is usually earlier in the morning or later in the evening. There is a large visitor center located near by with a boardwalk that extends out towards the geyser. It gets packed pretty quickly, especially in the summer months. For a different perspective, take the Observation Point Trail. This 1.1 mile trail offers up some nice, in the distance views of Old Faithful.
One of the most popular trails in Yellowstone is the Midway Geyser Basin Trail. Midway Geysers Basin allows folks to get up close to some of the most incredible geothermal sights in the world, including the very popular Grand Prismatic Pool. Rotarua, New Zealand, is the only other place in the world where I have experienced this much geothermal activity in one spot.
Parking around Midway Geyser Basin Trail is rough. It is a smaller parking lot with a lot of people coming to take in the sights. So please plan ahead and be patient! The views are worth it!
The Midway Geyser Basin Trail is made up of a series of boardwalks that take you around to the different pools. It is an easy walk. So everyone can enjoy it! My little caution warning here. Please be smart and careful while walking around the boardwalk. There are no handrails along the path. People have fallen into the pools and died because they were either not paying attention or doing something they shouldn’t have been doing (like trying to stick their fingers in). While beautiful, these pools are super hot and dangerous. So please be mindful of where you are and what you are doing so that you can enjoy these incredible sights without getting hurt.
My favorite part of Yellowstone was the wildlife. Oh goodness, I loved it! There are so many different types of animals that call Yellowstone home, and they are not too hard to find. There are 67 different species of mammals found in Yellowstones ecosystem. The big wildlife attractions include the grizzly bear, the black bear, wolves, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and bison. Badgers, otters, foxes and coyotes can also be found in the park along with a variety of birds. Moose are becoming increasingly rare at Yellowstone. When I spoke with one of the park rangers about it, I was told that wildfires over the years have decimated the population of plants most favored by the moose. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be found in the park. I will be so jealous if you do find one though!
If wildlife spotting is your thing, be sure to head to Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley offers up some incredible opportunities to see bison and bears. It is also regarded as one of the best places in the world to see wolves. If you go in the winter time, head down toward the Midway Geyser Basin Trail and Old Faithful areas. Many of the animals start to migrate to this section of the park in late fall to take in the warm of the hotsprings and geothermal pools during the colder months.
This osprey flew overhead for several minutes. I think he knew I was trying to capture a good photo of him.
The majestic elk! These guys are everywhere in the park. But if you haven’t gotten the chance to see them, spend an evening up near Mammoth Hot Springs. They love to come out around dusk and eat. This is also a good place to remind you of the importance of respecting wildlife and keeping a safe distance. While these guys will come very close to human areas, they are still wild animals and will treat you as a threat if you come too close.
The park recommends coming no closer than 100 yards from a bear or wolf and 25 yards from all other wildlife. The key words there being No Closer. I seriously can’t stress this enough. Far too many animals have been hurt or killed over the last few years due to humans not heading this warning.
A pronghorn outside of Roosevelt’s Arch.
A fox poses during a rain storm.
Black bears can easily be found throughout the park. We came across this guy as he debated the best to climb down the tree. If you have never seen a bear climb down a tree before, you are missing out. It was hilarious!
Bighorn Sheep can be hard to spot. They don’t hang around long if people are around. So this was the best shot I could get as this guy ran away from us.
If you are lucky, you will even come across the elusive chipmunk!
Just a friendly reminder they are everywhere! I highly recommend carrying bear spray. It’s something that you will probably never need, but if you do, you will be so happy you have it. Since you can’t take bear spray on a plane, most folks end up buying it once they get there. That will run you around $40 to $50 depending on where you go. Just remember, if you are flying home, you won’t be able to take it with you. Yellowstone does rent bear spray. So if you don’t want to buy it, you have another option. They will even show you how to use it.
An absolute must see attraction while visiting Yellowstone is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It is exactly what the name would lead you to think. The views are stunning! There are several different observation points around the canyon that are paved and easy to walk to. If you are looking for some good day hiking, the trails along the rim are great and offer up some amazing views.
If you are up for a challenging climb, I highly recommend Uncle Tom’s Trail. As the picture above shows, this trail is made up over 300 steps going three quarters of a mile straight down. Of course, going down is not the issue, it is the climb back up that will get you. There are ramps with benches along the climb for you to stop and take a rest, and we took full advantage of them on the way back up.
Why endure such a miserable hike? For the view of course! Uncle Tom’s Trail is the closest point to the canyon falls. It’s spectacular! Again, I must stress though that this is not an easy trail. There are several signs suggesting people with certain health issues or those with a fear of open heights to avoid it. So please consider this before starting down as there are no elevators to take you back up!
The evening, that golden hour, is such a wonderful time to be in the park.
Yellowstone Lake is well worth the drive to the southern part of the park. It is massive and offers up some amazing views. We decided to have dinner at the Lake Lodge Cafeteria then walk around the lake. It was a lovely spot to watch the sun start to set. The lodge has rocking chairs that overlook the lake. Grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and spend a few minutes relaxing and taking in the beauty.
I’d like to take this moment to remind everyone how important it is to follow all fire rules and precautions. Wildfires are very serious and can change directions very quickly. There were several fires burning within Yellowstone during our week there. Sections of the park would be open one day and closed the next depending on where the fires spread. So checking in at ranger stations and following area closures is very important.
Since wildfires are a natural process, fires within Yellowstone, for the most part, are left to burn themselves out. It can be hard to watch the smoke rising over the park and not feel depressed. But remember, from the ashes comes new life. It’s a beautiful thing!
Star gazing in Yellowstone is amazing! Since there is really not much around, there is very little light pollution, allowing you to see thousands of stars. The best places for star gazing are Fountain Flat Drive and Blacktail Plateau Drive. The big thing to keep in mind is that driving is very slow at night. While there aren’t a lot of people on the roads, there is an abundance of wildlife that comes out at night. They will cross the road right in front of you. So go slow to avoid any accidents.
Our last hike of the trip was at Bechler Ranger Station Trailhead. Located all the way in the southwest corner of the park, the only way to get to Bechler is to go out of the park, drive south through Idaho and take dirt service roads to cross back into the park. The bumpy ride is well worth it though. Even on this snowy day, the falls were spectacular! The best part though, no crowds! The trail is pretty easy, but with it so far out of the way, few people go there.