Yellowstone. Our nation’s 1st national park is home to the famed Old Faithful geyser, and thousands of bison. The large amount of geothermal features (geysers, fumaroles, hot springs & mudpots) are due to the fact that Yellowstone is actually a super volcano whose caldera spans 35-50 miles wide! While these facts are somewhat well-known, most people actually have no idea that the park includes much more – including it’s own grand canyon, petrified wood, scores of wild life viewing opportunities, and a plethora of fishing & hiking spots.
The lesser known Grand Teton National Park is actually located a short 30 minute drive to the south of Yellowstone & features craggy peaks, hikes through canyons & divides, grassy fields with bison, beautiful lakes, and even glaciers! The Tetons were named by French trappers for their resemblance to boobies – with Grand Teton actually translating to “the big tit”. Ha!!
We chose early fall to visit these parks due to lesser crowds (kids back in school), fall foliage in Teton, and better wildlife viewing opportunities, including being peak elk rutting season (they make a high pitched sound called “bugling” while in rut). Spring is another good time to avoid crowds and see wildlife, however, for hikers it is better to wait until later in the year due to snow coverage in the mountains.
Crowds & wilderness alert: Most people who visit Yellowstone rarely venture far from roads and popular destinations… and they create crowds that defeat the purpose of a trip like this in my opinion. Unless you are physically unable to get off the beaten path, I do not recommend sticking to the tourist hotspots. The real Yellowstone is seen by foot where no roads travel. In fact, the most remote spot in the lower 48 is located in this park!
Trip Length: 8 days
Dates: Sept 9th-17th, 2nd week of February
Driving Mileage & Time:
- expected –> 950 miles (19 hours) flying into Salt Lake City
- expected –> 350 miles (9.5 hours) flying into Jackson Hole
- our actual —> 1,230 miles (24 hours) due to weather related road closures
- Fly into Salt Lake City International Airport & drive to Jackson Hole, WY (5h)
- 1 night in a hotel in Jackson Hole
- 1 night camping at Jenny Lake Campground (1h)
- 1 night back country camping on the Paintbrush/Cascade Canyon loop
- 1 night
camping in Lewis Lake Campgroundhotel in Cody, WY (5h)
- 2 nights camping in Pebble Creek Campground (3h)
- 2 nights in a hotel in West Yellowstone, MT (5h)
- Fly back out of Salt Lake City International Airport (5h)
Recommended Daily Itinerary (for an active person):
- Sightsee the major tourist spots in Grand Teton & camp at Jenny Lake (check out Mormon Row, visit one of the lakes (kayak) or take a trip down Snake River!)
- 1st day backpacking (I recommend Paintbrush/Cascade Canyon loop)
- 2nd day backpacking
- Drive to Yellowstone – spend the day on the South side of the park to see Yellowstone Lake, Lewis Lake. Camp either at Lewis Lake or somewhere near Fishing Bridge.
- Drive towards Canyon Village & spend the day sightseeing in that area (Inspiration Point, Artist Point, Upper & Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone). At the end of the day, drive to Pebble Creek campgrounds and stay there for 2 nights.
- Drive back West for the day to animal watch, hike Mount Washburn, and explore Lamar Valley. Spend the 2nd night in Pebble Creek.
- Drive East to stop by the Mammoth Hotsprings area with a focus on geothermal features (Norris Geyser Basin, etc) for the day. Either stay in a hotel in West Yellowstone, or camp on the West side of the park.
- Spend the day seeing geothermal features from Lower to Upper Geyser Basin.
We usually take evening flights to our destination in order to avoid wasting a day of vacation. It has it’s pros/cons but for us we are time/vacation poor.
Highlights of our trip:
- Mormon Row
- Jenny Lake
- Paintbrush Canyon backcountry
- Pebble Creek
- Lamar Valley
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Old Faithful
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Biscuit Basin
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Mount Washburn
- Extra – Winter Wonderland on a snowmobile!
- Expect any kind of weather! Bring layers, ESPECIALLY ones for snow. We dropped $250 extra on clothes we didn’t pack because we weren’t expecting it to snow in mid-September.
- Start checking the NPS website for the park you’re visiting a few weeks ahead so you know of any closures or events happening.
- Book hotels inside a national park 1 year in advance.
- Fly directly into Jackson Hole.
- Bring a tarp for your tent when camping.
- Bring hand warmers.
- Don’t visit both parks unless you have an entire week. Yellowstone itself deserves at least 4 days.
- Keep 1-2 days unplanned.
- Camp INSIDE a national park if you’re visiting. You truly don’t get to experience as much without it.
- Don’t over pack your backpack.
- Consider the time of year you visit.
- Setup your tent on level ground.
- If you’re ever in the greater Yellowstone area in the winter (I highly recommend the Big Sky area), take a snowmobile tour through the park.
- Stop and observe animals (safely & without invading them) when you spot them.
- Study trail maps and count the turns & their directions.
Grand Teton National Park:
Jenny Lake Campground:
This campground is first-come, first-serve & tent only. For an early arrival & $29/night, you can secure a nice home with a view and plenty of deer to keep you company. This campground notoriously fills up quickly each day. We drove straight there in the morning to secure a spot at 7 am. We scored a site with no shade, but a spectacular view of the mountains:
This trip was our first time camping from a suitcase and rental car & also our first time backpacking. We’ve learned a lot since then (see tips). Our first day was filled with buying more camping gear, rushing to the visitor’s center to obtain hiking permits for our backcounty hike (which is also popular and campsites fill quickly). We did manage to drive to Mormon Row, where we saw our first buffalo of the trip!
I would have liked to explore the area more, but my husband insisted on getting back to the campsite to rest.
As we pulled into the campground, we were immediately greeted by deer. Turns out there’s a ton in the area and we could hear them walking next to our tent in the morning. We probably saw ~20 deer each morning!
That night we were woke by the sound of a rape whistle blasting repeatedly coming from the tent next to us. It ended up being an Asian man who was camping for the first time and was spooked by nighttime sounds who in his own words thought “you were large animarr”. My husband to this day jokes around about the time he put a small Asian man to bed.
The next morning we quickly attempted to pack for an out-and-back overnight backpacking trip. We were so tired from the travels the day before that we didn’t manage to drag ourselves onto the trail until 9 am.
Paintbrush & Cascade Canyon Loop:
This loop is supposed to take you by Jenny Lake, through canyons, up a steep mountain ascent to a divide, stomping through a small snowfield (in summer), and pass by a crystal clear lake and glaciers. However, the largest fire ever in Grand Teton (Berry Fire) led us to cut our trip short the next morning so we ended up only hiking in & out for Cascade Canyon from the backcountry campsites in the South Fork Cascade camping zone. Here’s a good overview of the entire hike (20 miles with a net elevation change of 3,800 ft).
Cascade Canyon is beautiful, especially in the fall. Being from Florida, we never get to see the seasons change so walking through sections with such vibrant autumn leaves shimmering in the wind was so incredibly magical!
This canyon has ample views of the notorious craggy peaks with small glaciers and follows a creek the entire way. With the creek always at your side it will surely provide wildlife encounters! We saw several moose (including a momma and her baby), and tons of deer.
Overall, the elevation gain is a gradual slope. We arrived at the South Fork camping zone around 4 pm and ended up being the first people in the zone for the night – which meant we were able to select a campsite right on the creek bed!
My least favorite part of camping out West in the back country is that usually there’s no open fires so you end up having to only use a stove – which can make for some extremely cold nights. That night we ended up cutting off the top of a monster can and filled it with extra denatured alcohol to burn and hold our hands over while crouching in our snowboarding pants.
Pretty much the entire trip after this night we stayed in our snowboarding pants and jackets – which we actually ended up buying in Jackson Hole because we weren’t expecting how cold it was. My jacket was really just a “thicker” hoodie & I’ve never been so cold in my entirely life as I experienced this trip.
The next morning as we began stirring around our campsite preparing breakfast the smell of fire invaded. Our next door neighbors approached us and asked if we smelled the fire too. After we all discussed/wondered where the fire north of us had traveled and whether we were in danger, we ended up deciding that getting back to the car as soon as possible was the safest plan and also gave us our best shot at being able to drive a short 30 highway minutes to Yellowstone (the 2nd day was going to be about double the elevation change as the first). As we began our trek back we experienced a grand sunrise through the hazy red morning air.
Although the fire was inconveniencing and changing our plans, it did provide a beautiful morning. On our way back we met 2 groups of fire fighters coming into the back country to setup for duties along the pass. One battalion even had horses/mules!
Our last stop of the hike was up to Inspiration Point for a rather un-inspirational view due to the weather/fire. It was an overcast day and we couldn’t see very much from the haze…
To really cheer us up, we discovered that the road had in fact closed – so we were now forced to drive 4.5 hours extra through the nothing that is Wyoming. We were so tired from the suspenseful day that we decided to find a hotel in Cody, WY and it was probably the best decision we made due to how cold it was that night.
Yellowstone National Park:
The only bear we saw on the entire trip was actually on the drive from Cody to the East park entrance. He was standing in the river by the road and had gathered quite the crowd. My husband refused to stop as he said “He’s not the only bear in Yellowstone. I’m sure we’ll see more”… During this drive it actually started snowing and as we entered the park I realized just how much snow the area recently received! It made our entrance into Yellowstone even grander – fall foliage against the snow – two seasons we never see all at once!! As we neared Yellowstone Lake, the bison started to appear, and gosh I just have an animal crush on these creatures. They are so calm yet fierce – furry cows with horns that freely roam their entire lives. That day we immediately drove to the Pebble Creek campground in the Northeast corner of the park to secure our campsite. We were terrified that Dunraven Pass would actually close due to the snow as people warned at the store in Fishing Bridge.
Pebble Creek Campground:
This is one of my all-time favorite campgrounds. It’s in a secluded area of the park – to reach it you must drive through Lamar Valley. While the amenities are sparse (manual pump wells & pit toilets only), the views and seclusion are worth it. Not to mention the fact that each morning bison were walking around right outside our tent!! There’s even a trail you can take along Pebble Creek that is a fun adventure and even has some alcoves to climb into.
This vast valley is in the northeast quadrant of Yellowstone and has spectacular views of the grassy valley surrounded by rolling hills and heavily populated with bison. Not to mention that a large portion of the road follows rivers and creeks. The drive through this valley, however, will include some traffic jams – that are literally bison strolling along the roads, sometimes 20 standing there for a few minutes. That’s okay though – that’s what this area is for – getting near bison in their home.
Dunraven Pass & Mount Washburn:
While driving through Dunraven Pass we managed to see two mountain goats. They are commonly spotted in this area so keep your eyes open!
Mt. Washburn hike: 6.2 miles, 1,400 ft elevation change
I would say this hike is mostly for the view from the summit as there’s nothing super fantastically unique about the trail other than the opportunity to see wildlife. It was a rather popular hike, and at the top there’s a neat ranger observatory with a small indoor room you can eat or rest at. The summit offers great views in every direction of Yellowstone and is the best location in the park for this.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:
This area should not be missed. The canyon’s depth & colors is truly spectacular, especially seeing the puffs of steam from hydrothermal features in the canyon walls.
Other than the geyser basins, this area was the second most crowded. There’s plenty of day hikes in this area that do provide some relief from the tour bus folks, but do not expect to be by yourself or not waiting for people to move for good views. If we had more time we probably would have taken a longer day hike in the canyon to escape the crowds.
Upper Geyser Basin:
This is home to the famous Old Faithful, and includes many thermal features, some of which also have predicted eruptions. If you have cell phone service, you can call this number for daily geyser prediction times: 307-344-2751. If you’re wondering why I’d give you a phone number you’re either a) not aware that you’ll likely not have internet access to look times up or b) aware that you likely won’t have cell phone service either & know this phone number may be just as useless as a website. I would still recommend saving this number prior to your trip in case it helps you. If you do have internet, this site gives predicted eruption times as well for the day of: https://geysertimes.org/predictions.php
If you find you don’t have cell phone or internet service the day before your visit to Upper Geyser Basin – no worries. The Visitor’s center posts these times and with all the hiking around the geothermal features, you can plan your routes and times when you get there (what we ended up doing).
After viewing Old Faithful up close, we took the 2.3 mile hike up to Observation Point & timed it so we could see a 2nd eruption from a different view.
Midway Geyser Basin: