Guest post by dzr1107
Map tips: each color represents a different day. Click a marker to learn more about the spot, and click the star in the map header to save the entire map under Your Places in Google Maps.
Must-see park. Our favorite sights and memories are from the eastern side of the park (Lamar Valley down to Yellowstone Lake) and on a return trip, we would focus entirely in this region with accommodations at Canyon and Lake Villages. However, if it is your first visit, it’s a must-do to see the popular attractions on the south west side of the park (Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, etc.).
Grand Teton Summary:
Must-see park. We found this to be much more hiker-friendly and on our return trip will spend more time here so we can do more hiking. But, the whole park centers on one mountain range (compared to the diverse landscape of Yellowstone).
Note: There are several references to mosquitoes. The season is very short in Montana/Wyoming, we just happened to hit it in mid-June. Any other time you visit, I do not think you will have the same experience.
Day 1: Bozeman to Gardiner, Montana
I flew in from Cleveland the day before and stayed at Comfort Suites, a nice comfortable hotel approximately 10 minutes away from the airport. There is a local Target for groceries and water, and Bob Ward’s Sports & Outdoors for bear spray. It was much cheaper to buy the bear spray outside of the park.
I then drove by Gibson, expecting some Mecca of acoustic guitar goodness. Instead, I found a small non-descript (if not run down) building with no windows and only an employee entrance. I enthusiastically waved hello to the employees on smoke break while I trespassed through their parking lot to turn around. Do not make my mistake, they did not seem enthused.
Once my brother landed, we drove I-90 to route 89 south for approximately 90 minutes to Gardiner, MT. There is a very scenic pull off around Pray, MT that shows off a bend in the Yellowstone River with a backdrop of mountains. Stop for the photo op. Enjoy the air, and get excited.
We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Gardiner. The rooms are nice and have a view of the Roosevelt Arch (North gate of Yellowstone). Since it was mid-afternoon, we drove the few minutes to the gate. We parked at the strip mall of stores, and walked to the Yellowstone sign and Roosevelt Arch. It was remarkably not crowded at this time.
We drove the quick drive to Mammoth Hot Springs, and enjoyed a walk of all the boardwalks. You can drive from the upper to lower hot springs, but once we found parking, it was easier – and more scenic – to just walk. The hot springs are a nice mix of scenic pools and marshmellow fluff. If you have been to Lassen Volcanic National Park (see my trip report here), you’ll know what this is about.
We finished our day by getting cheesy photos at the 45th Parallel of Latitude marker and eating at Iron Horse Bar and Grille, a fun place with a patio that overhangs the Yellowstone River.
Day 2: Yellowstone National Park
- Wraith Falls
- Lamar Valley
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Artist Point
We blew past Mammoth Hot Springs and headed towards Tower Roosevelt. We stopped and did the short hike to Wraith Falls, which can be described more as a wall of cascading water than an actual waterfall. We also pulled off a little dirt road to get out and appreciate the Forces of the Northern Range. While it does not photograph appropriately, it is an amazing 360-degree panorama of distant mountain ranges, wildflowers, and vast fields of beauty that drive us to visit the West.
We also took the turn off for the Petrified Tree. Despite it’s very literal name, we still assumed there would be multiple petrified trees. Plural. Not singular. But it is actually a stump of wood with a fence around it. That’s it. That’s what the narrow drive with no easy place to turn around leads you to. If this is your deal, book a trip to the Petrified National Park in Arizona. If it’s not, don’t bother. However, we did see a mama bear with a cub so I guess it wasn’t all that bad.
At the Tower Roosevelt Junction, they have a gas station and the infamous national park bathrooms. We stopped there, mostly because there was a large herd of bison across the street. It was very obviously our first day because we got very excited about this herd and treated it as if we may never see another bison in the park. Spoiler, we did. Hundreds.
We took the northeast extension towards the Beartooth Highway. I did not research and assumed the Lamar Valley would have a posting or an off-shoot scenic drive, however it does not. Despite entering the valley around 10-11 am, we still saw plenty of wildlife – including a bison jam caused by a male leisurely sauntering across the road in front of us, a black bear, and a cinnamon grizzly bear. Lamar Valley is very beautiful, and on my return trip I would plan more time in this location to just sit and watch as well as an earlier start.
We drove out on the extension to Barronette Peak, however unless you have reason to see the Beartooth Highway (and if we had more time, I would), you can turn around at Soda Butte. This was actually my plan, but my brother encouraged me to keep going and then unbeknownst to me, fell promptly asleep. Not that I’m still bitter.
We drove down to Canyon Village, our lodging for the night. Word to the wise, I planned this trip about 3 months out. I got lodging entirely in the park by checking the park lodging website daily and booking open rooms (no cancellation fee) until I found accommodations that worked for us. Numerous other sites told me to call daily for reservations to have success, but that’s not how my generation rolls. Anyways, Canyon Village has very nice accommodations. I would book multiple days here if possible as a good base for Lamar Valley and the eastern side of the park. There are also gas, snacks, and gift shops.
We took the North Rim drive (a one way loop) to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. When you first turn in there is a large parking lot, trails, and a very popular set of portapotties. Surprisingly, if you look to the other side of the parking lot, nestled in the trees, is a large nice restroom with running water. Be smarter than your fellow tourists.
The north rim has three hikes down to see the falls. The first one takes you right to the top of the falls, which is pretty impressive if you have never had this vantage point. It’s a short trail, but it is continuous downhill, which means it’s a killer uphill. We did see hikers of every fitness level; so do not let this deter you. The second trail leads to an okay view of the falls. If you take the North Rim Trail between the two trails (instead of driving), there’s a better view of the falls from an outcropping. I’d walk this trail and save the second descent. You can continue walking on the North Rim Trail to the third trail down to the falls, but we opted to drive. The third trail, Grand View, is also just alright. Inspiration Point was closed.
We then drove down to the South Rim drive. You cross a bridge over the Yellowstone River, which is worth pulling off into the parking lot just past it and getting some photos. This is also parking for a few different trails. As we were checking out the trail postings, a nice couple approached us and suggested hiking together for safety in numbers. After I convinced myself they were not serial killers, this was a splendid idea. The trails were wide open with no protection from surrounding bison, bears, (lions and tigers, oh my!) and other critters. We would not have hiked as far as we did if it was just the two of us. We started down the Wapiti Lake Trail with a goal of Ribbon Lake, but were met with a large bison blocking the trail. Reason prevailed, and we turned around and hiked to Clear Lake instead. It was a gorgeous lake, but with the thicket of mosquitos, we did not stay long. On a return trip, I would hike many more of these trails – you instantly feel miles away from the crowds of people and are surrounded by your hiking party and vast fields of beauty (and wild animals).
This unexpected delightful hike caused us to get to Artist Point at 7 pm. There were only a handful of people there and the setting sun caused the colors to pop. It’s certainly the way to go.
Day 3: Yellowstone National Park
- Mud Volcano
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Old Faithful
We started heading south, because someone told us Mud Volcano was really cool to see. It also let us drive thorough Hayden Valley, a very pretty stretch with a lot of wildlife. We stopped at Sulpher Caldron, which does not smell that horrible. It was also cool to see a little sinkhole in the parking lot that is just fenced off. Mud Volcano is pretty interesting. We walked the whole boardwalk in a clockwise fashion. Our favorite thermal feature was the Dragon’s Mouth because the steam output was vertical instead of horizontal.
We then backtracked and drove to Canyon Village and over to Norris. The stretch of connecting road was relatively non-descript. We stopped and did the one-way road of Virginia Cascade. It was a nice stop, but I’d easily blow past it and not think twice.
At Norris, we spent a large chunk of time at the Norris Geyser Basin, partially by mistake. There’s a series of three loop trails. The first one around the Porcelain Basin is a must: it’s an easy quick walk and gives you the highlights. We then planned to hike the shorter Back Basin loop, but missed the turn off and ended up hiking the entire thing. It’s still lovely, because you have the constant anticipation that at any moment something could blow. The trail is entirely in the sun, so be smart with your sunscreen and water intake. By the end of it, you have pretty much met your quota of geysers, pools, hot springs, etc. They all mostly look the same after awhile, right? The most popular geyser here is the Steamboat Geyser because it erupts every few minutes. If nothing else, go see it after the Porcelain Basin trail.
After a few hours at Norris, we stopped at the Artist Paintpots. It was a nice stop, but actually the pictures made it look more impressive than it did in person. It’s an easy hike back and a user-friendly boardwalk loop.
We stopped at Gibbon Falls, which is a pullout right off the main road. It’s worth walking down the sidewalk to get a view looking back at the falls (instead of just the pain viewpoint). We also did the Firehole Canyon Drive south of Madison. It was a cool side route, and is apparently a popular place to swim. We did not, but probably would have if time permitted.
Having seen a plethora of geysers at Norris and being behind schedule, we skipped the Lower Geyser Basin. We were going to skip the Midway Geyser Basin until we realized that had the Grand Prismatic Spring. Be prepared to ditch your car far away and walk. It was crowded, but we were able to get pictures of the spring without other individuals in them. It is interesting to get the view of it at a ground level.
However, it is not enough to just do that. If you drive further south, there is a small road and parking lot for Fairy Falls Trail. Cross the bridge on foot, and walk approximate a mile on flat road to a trail offshoot that goes uphill. Take this path and after battling mosquitoes, you will see an overlook that gives you a birds-eye view of the spring. THIS is the photo op you want.
With night approaching, we floored it straight to Old Faithful in hopes we wouldn’t have to wait long to see it erupt. It was approaching 8pm, and while there were still several people there, it was relatively uncrowded around the geyser – which is straight out back from any of the hotels or visitor center. I would hate to have to watch this midday with the atrocious amount of people who gather. Go early. Go late. No middle ground. You’ll learn in the park that Old Faithful is not the highest erupting geyser nor the most predictable, but it a must see while you are there. The eruption lasted about 5 minutes, with several fake outs before it actually blew.
When facing Old Faithful, the big, famous historical Old Faithful Inn is to your left. It’s worth a visit into the lobby and to get some ice cream or food before you head on your way.
We then booked it Grant Village, our stop for the night. While acceptable for one night, the accommodations were reminiscent of college dorm rooms, unfortunately without the keggers.
Day 4: Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park
- Yellowstone Lake
- Colter Bay
- Oxbow Bend
- Jackson Lake
We had breakfast at the Lake House. The meal itself was lackluster and overpriced, but the view was amazing – peaceful, serene, West Thumb lake. I would imagine it would be a better spot for dinner in an effort to watch the sunset without the swarming death mob of mosquitoes.
We drove up towards Lake Village, with several stops on the road to take in the beauty of Yellowstone Lake. Our best stop was the Gull Point Drive. We could not get to Gull Point (closed), but we stopped at a little campsite. This had a nice walking out cropping on the lake and was popular with several fisherman. Our best photos were from this stop.
The Fishing Bridge was decent. Curiosity got the best of us and we walked up on the giant plateau, hoping for a better view of the lake. Instead we got a large grassy meadow and a sleeping bison around a blind corner.
We continued to Indian Pond, and hiked out past the pond to the Yellowstone Lake view. It was a nice easy trail that was not crowded. We made sure to clap and make noise while hiking through the woods. This hike is worth it.
We stopped at Lake Village, and had some ice cream overlooking the lake. On a repeat trip, I would try to get accommodations here instead of Grant Village. On our way south, we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin. This was pretty cool because you have the stark contrast of the pale blue geyser water and the deep blue of Yellowstone Lake. There are also several geyser mouths in the lake.
Our first introduction to the Grand Tetons was stopping at Jackson Lake Overlook. It’s easy to drive by, but worth the stop to look down and see Jackson Lake and the Tetons rising from one side. We also happened to stop during a thunderstorm, so we could see the rain clouds and lightning come out of a break in the peaks and move across the lake – all while basking in the warm glow of sunshine.
We then went to Colter Bay Village and walked around the marina. My brother did a loop trail to the north of the marina, and said it was a nice relaxing hike, but I didn’t miss out on too much. There are several boat rides and tours from this area, and if we had more time we probably would have taken a boat tour.
We drove down to Oxbow Bend, but quickly realized this was a better place to stop in the morning when the light would be hitting the mountains and not backlighting the photograph.
Our accommodations for two nights were at the Jackson Lake Lodge. We stayed in a cottage, and it was delightfully pleasant and relatively spacious. We ate both nights at the Pioneer Grill, a restaurant with a long winding bar that you just go and sit down at. It’s a nice way to meet fellow travelers if you’d like, but you can also still eat in peace. If we were fancier people, we would have tried the Mural Room Dining Room. Both nights we watched the sunset from the Southwest Terrace Viewing Deck and visiting the Blue Heron Lounge – a great place for a nightcap and music.
Day 5: Grand Teton National Park
- Mormon Row
- Kelly Warm Spring
- Teton Park Road
- Signal Mountain
After a much better stop at Oxbow Bend, we left the park and traveled down 191 south towards Jackson. There are some great pullouts to capture the Tetons from a distance and worth the pulling over.
There is a parking lot at the intersection of Mormon Row and Antelope Flats Road and about half a mile down on Mormon Row Road. We parked here and walked down Mormon Row part way and then went back and saw the buildings north of Antelope Flats. We hit this in the morning and there was practically no one around; however, we noticed tour buses visiting as it got later in the day.
We continued driving the back country roads and found ourselves at Kelly Warm Springs. I was on a quest to find a nice hot springs with a gorgeous background; however this was not it. It is plenty scenic, but the warnings about “swim at your own risk: e coli is present” made me want to quickly move on.
Moose Junction and Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center is worth a stop to learn more about the park and get additional information and passes.
A ranger at Colter Bay recommended the Taggart Lake trail, so this was our next stop. We got there mid-day and the parking lot was very crowded. We hiked starting to the right, for the 1.5 mile trail to Taggart Lake. We shared the trail with a number of fellow hikers, but it was not obnoxiously crowded until we got to the lake. Every alcove off the trail was claimed by swimming or picnic gear and we could not find a good place to sit and take in the scenery. It does look like a very popular swim spot, so keep that in mind. We decided to move on and hike 1.5 more miles to Bradley Lake. This portion of the trail was much less crowded and we hit numerous switchbacks to climb over the mountain ridge. The forest and lake views were worth it (and I was happy to have bear spray). We did not spent much time at Bradley Lake and it was hard to get a panoramic lake view. We were glad we hiked it, but if you are pressed on time I would skip this.
We took the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive and stopped at String Lake, a popular (but not crowded) spot to swim and kayak. There were many other nice pulloffs on this drive, and I’d recommend taking it as a detour.
Signal Mountain Road is a must-do, provided the weather is nice. You can hike up or down the mountain, but we opted to blast the AC and drive it. I think we made the better decision, but to each their own. There are two scenic points on the drive. The first one had a little trail and gives you a panorama of the Tetons and Jackson Lake. The second gives you a 360 panorama of Jackson Hole – the valley, the Tetons, and the Snake River. Both are beautiful in their own right. We hit this towards the end of the day and the sun was coming from behind the mountains. This is probably a better stop in the morning.
Day 6: Grand Teton National Park
- Jenny Lake, Wyoming, USA
- Cascade Canyon Trail, Alta, WY, USA
- Idaho Falls, ID, USA
We took the boat across Jenny Lake and hiked into Cascade Canyon, then turned around. A beautiful hike – you can go as far as you’d like and turn around at any point. We then drove to Idaho Falls to stay the night.
Day 7: Idaho
- Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
- Redfish Lake
The next morning we drove out SR 20 to SR 26 and ended up at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. I was on the fence on if we should stop, but it was interesting to see. I would not go terribly far out of my way to visit, but if you’re in the area it’s pretty cool. It is a large section of lava, but there is no volcano – it oozed up from deep cracks in the earth. We spent about 1.5-2 hours there, and I don’t think any more time is needed to drive the scenic road and do some of the smaller hikes. The only exception is if you are visiting the caves, in which you’ll need a permit at the visitor center.
In Ketchum, we did a little shopping and walked to Christiania’s -where Hemingway had his last meal, and three of his favorite bars: Whiskey Jacques’s, The Sawtooth Club, and the Casino. If we had more time, we would have gotten a drink there but the booze-friendly travel companion was unfortunately the one driving.
We drove up Sun Valley Road a short distance to Sun Valley. We mistakenly thought this was a swanky ski resort for the rich, but the only legitimate ski slope is on the western side of Ketchum. Nonetheless, it was a very pretty area to do some more shopping, grab ice cream, and stroll around. Before leaving, we drove about a mile further on Sun Valley Road and pulled off in a parking lot on the side of the road. From here, we crossed the biking path and saw the small tribute to Hemingway with a reflection pond, a statue, and a view of the neighboring golf course.
We then ventured into the Sawtooth Mountains. It was poor planning on my behalf, but I did not have any specific hikes or things to see along the way. I thought we’d just miraculously find gems of beauty. I think we missed out in this area (although by reading the Smart Route, you’re already one step ahead of me). We did stop at the popular Redfish Lake. There is a place to stay, a restaurant, and several trails. Many people were camped out on the lawn in bathing suits and drinks. There was also a place to rent paddleboards and take a shuttle boat across the lake. We attempted to hike on the southern edge of the lake from Sockeye Campground, but we kept losing the trail. It would be a lot of fun to spend more time in this area and relax in nature.
We stayed in Stanley, ID at the Mountain Village Lodge. The rooms were nothing special, but were perfectly fine for a night. There was a bluegrass concert just outside of our room, which admittedly, started to grow on you after awhile. We ate next door at the restaurant. Our hotel only had wi-fi in the lobby, and while I encourage you to unplug and take in Idaho, sometimes there are emergencies that dictate Internet usage. Our emergency was that my brother had never watched Caddy Shack. After driving around searching for Internet, we found unsecured wi-fi at the local library accessible from their parking lot. Just saying.
Day 8: Big Sky, Montana
Our original plan was to continue up SR 93 and stop at Goldbug Hot Springs. We found the parking lot to the springs, which is at dead end surrounded by a farm and a few houses. There were several cars already there and no place to change. Surprised at how crowded, we wimped out and continued driving, although Google review say it’s amazing and we should have stopped.
We continued up SR 93 to SR 43 and found Wisdom, MT, where the mosquitoes could eat you alive. The stretch of SR 43 was very pretty and we stopped several times to take pictures. We decided to go down to Big Sky over spending more time in Bozeman, so we detoured down SR 191.
The road up to Big Sky is very curvy and I would not feel comfortable driving it in any inclement weather. There are several white crosses along the road to validate my concerns. Nonetheless, it is the “biggest skiing in America” and the runs cover several mountain peaks. It was a gorgeous day and we hit several of the stores, mildly crashed a wedding, and plotted the return trip in winter.
We finished our day back in Bozeman, where we stayed overnight and flew out the following morning.
Traveled in June 2017