The Ultimate National Park Road Trip: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Moran

The Rocky Mountains present some of the top destinations for vacationers seeking some of the most beautiful sites on earth. This itinerary has been crafted with two national parks in mind; Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Future blog itineraries will include other regions and parks.

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons are neighboring parks in northwest Wyoming. I would like to caution travelers in this area, do not judge the time it takes to get from one location to another by the distance. In this area, one mile can take a half hour (or longer). Bear jams, bison jams, tourists can impede your travels significantly in these parks.

Where to stay?

This is a critical decision to make. In our itinerary, I recommend two separate locations, one in Yellowstone National Park and then one in Grand Teton National Park. Accommodations within Yellowstone (camping, hotel/lodge/cabins, and RV sites can be found at the following link:

Yellowstone National Park Lodges

If you are bringing an RV, consider Fishing Bridge RV Park (full hook-ups), although I recommend reservations on their May 1st opening (for following summer). Several campgrounds offer tent and small RV sites (no hook ups)– Yellowstone Lake, Madison, Canyon, Grant, Old Faithful, Roosevelt., Mammoth. Lodges and cabins include; Canyon Lodge and Cabins, Grant Village, Lake Lodge Cabins, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, Roosevelt Lodges and Cabins.

Yellowstone can be accessed on a  road system that forms a figure 8. This is known as the Grand Loop Road. Your decision on where to stay should reflect your interest in the park, in terms of proximity. The National Geographic map link below is an excellent resource to bring on your trip.

Yellowstone Lodging

Getting to Yellowstone:

If flying to Yellowstone, the closest major airport is Salt Lake City. Driving north on Interstate 15 and transitioning to US 20 will get you into West Yellowstone. US Highways lead into the five park entrances (US 20 West Yellowstone, US 89 in Gardiner, Cook City (north east), Cody (east), and US 89 from the south (from Grand Teton). Unless you are taking a private tour, your own vehicle is a necessity.

When to Go:

Most people go to Yellowstone from late June through August. Early June and into the fall months have fewer visitors, however, the chance of snow is greater. Some elect to purchase winter packages with snowmobile and snowshoe excursions. Many of these excursions are based out of West Yellowstone, MT.

Sample Itinerary:

Yellowstone/Day One:

Start your adventure with the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT. They charge reasonable fees, and feature rescued animals which can no longer survive in the wild. Besides, if you go there, you are guaranteed to see a wolf and a grizzly bear!

Continue into the park through the west entrance. You will follow the Madison River for several miles until you meet the intersection at Madison Junction.

YNPMap1

During your drive, take your time, as you can often times spot your first Bison and Elk along the river.

From Madison Junction, turn left and travel to the upper geyser basins and Mammoth Hot Springs.

YM2

In this area, you will see amazing thermal features, the historic Mammoth District, and Gibbon Falls. Take some time to hike around the Norris Geyser Basin, Artists Paint Pots, and Mammoth Hot Springs. This will be your first introduction to the lovely aroma of “rotten egg smell” in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone/Day Two:

Today, you are going to see some of the most iconic parts of Yellowstone. We will drive to the Geyser Basins (including Old Faithful), Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Firehole River.

YNPMap 3

Old Faithful’s schedule can be found in the nearby visitor’s center. Old Faithful is not the largest geyser, but the most regular. Several geysers exist in the region, so it is fun to take your time and travel the boardwalks to these features. Grand Prismatic Spring is the most colorful feature in the park, and is arguably one of the most picturesque locations to which you can travel. Parking is not easy in this area!

Yellowstone/Day Three:

This day will take you to the northeast portion of the park. Depending on where you choose to stay, the driving in this day will probably be the longest of your trip around Yellowstone. This day will take you up to Lamar Valley, Tower Falls, and of course the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

YNPM4

On a side note, two valleys, Lamar and Hayden are the prime areas to view wildlife (bears, wolves, bison, and elk). It is recommended that you get to these areas either in the morning or towards dusk. Please exercise caution when driving in the park after dark. Animals tend to come out in these hours, and can be easily hit by vehicles. It is recommended that you bring binoculars or a spotting scope to better view the animals on your trip. The two items linked below are recommended for your trip.

 

Yellowstone/Day Four:

The final day in Yellowstone takes us to the lake area of the park. If you were to drain Yellowstone Lake, the bottom would look much like the surface of the park, with hot springs and geysers.You can take a hike along the shore of the lake near the historic Fishing Bridge, take a short hike to Storm Point, and hike the boardwalks of the West Thumb Geyser Basin. This is an amazing (but often overlooked) area of the park. If time permits, you may even want to rent a boat or go on a fishing trip on the lake.

What many people do not realize is that Yellowstone is actually a super-volcano and that over half the park is in what is referred to as the caldera of the volcano. Not something you would want to think about too much on vacation, but an interesting environment!!

Caldera
This diagram illustrates the location of the caldera, water reservoirs feeding the geysers and hot springs, as well as the gigantic magma chamber lingering under the park.

Four days is not nearly enough time to see Yellowstone and take in all of its magnificence. We have gone to Yellowstone several times, most of the time in an RV, and camping at the Fishing Bridge RV Park. A common pairing with Yellowstone is a visit to its neighbor to the south, Grand Teton National Park. You should devote at least two days to this park, potentially more, if time allows.

Reservations for accommodations can be made within the park at the following link: Grand Teton Lodge Company

The only full hook-up RV camp in the park is at the Colter Bay RV Park. Reservations need to be made well in advance, as sites do sell out. Here are a few images from the Grand Tetons.

GT1GT2Destinations Mountains National Park Grand TetonSnake River Wyoming Grand Teton National Park

I hope you enjoy your vacation to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Make sure you study maps, monitor weather, carry bear spray (at all times when out and about), watch for mosquitoes and keep your distance from wildlife.

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