Last winter, I went up to Jackson for an awesome winter weekend at the Triangle X Ranch just outside of Teton National Park. We did some cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, and ever since I’ve been itching to get back for some summer adventures. But with so much to do up there, planning a trip to the region can be overwhelming. That’s why I was so excited when Bearfoot reader Kim Vawter offered to share her 7 day road trip itinerary that took her through both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Below she shares her favorite spots, photos, and best travel tips for maximizing your time in the area. Sounds like incredible week on the road if you ask me, and with the information she provides, planning a trip up to these two incredible parks is going to be a cinch.
The Ultimate Teton and Yellowstone Road Trip Itinerary
by Kim Vawter
Ever since reading about Bryce Thatcher’s 1983 record for climbing & descending the 13,770 foot Grand Teton I have had a passion to visit the region. With Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park being just 31 miles apart, the two parks make for an incredible weeklong road trip. By following this Teton and Yellowstone road trip itinerary, you’ll hit up a large number of the best sites in the Park in just 7 days without spending too much time in the car.
— Getting There —
There are a couple of options for starting your road trip, depending on where you are coming from.
If you are flying, you can fly into Salt Lake City and enjoy a 5 hour drive to Grand Teton National Park. Or you can fly into the much more expensive, yet scenic Jackson Hole airport.
If you chose the budget friendly version, there are two routes from SLC to Grand Teton National Park which make for a great loop. On your way up to Teton National Park, take I-15 North through Swan Valley and Victor, ID. This route provides a glimpse of the backside of Grand Teton, building anticipation for what’s ahead.
Then for your return home, take US-89 S/I-80 W which follows the Snake River and makes for a nice change of scenery on the way back to Salt Lake.
Be aware that many of the roads close in both parks during the winter season (typically November through early May), including the southern entrance of Yellowstone. For seasonal road closure information, see these pages on the Grand Teton and Yellowstone websites.
— Grand Teton National Park Map —
Get an early start and begin your day at the brand new Grand Teton Visitor Center near the South Entrance. The park video gives you a great intro to the park and after the video make sure to stay seated as they open the blinds to reveal a floor to ceiling window which showcases the Grand Teton. Next head over to explore southeast corner of the park on foot. Start at the Death Canyon Trailhead and hike just over a mile to a gorgeous overlook that peers down 700 feet into Phelps Lake. This section of the trail is easy, gaining just about 200 feet. After taking in the views, continue from the overlook down the switchbacks that drop you into the entrance of Death Canyon—it is neat to see the large canyon walls now loom above you! From here you can stay and hang out at the lake or venture further down into the canyon. Bears also frequent the lake so be on the lookout for a neighbor! Check out this link for a note on bear safety.
Post hike head on over to camp at Jenny Lake for the evening. NOTE: In the summer the campsites fill up quickly, sometimes as early as 8am, so it is vital that you plan to first thing in the morning for a site. While slightly out of the way from Death Canyon, if you are traveling during the busy summer season, it’s probably worth going up to Jenny Lake first thing to snag a spot before heading out for the day to explore. If the campground is full or you’d prefer not to camp, here is a list of alternative lodging in Grand Teton National Park.
Get on one of the first boats across Jenny Lake to the trailheads on the other side of the lake. You’ll find short and simple trails leading you to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Escape the crowds by continuing on past Inspiration Point to Lake Solitude. From the boat landing, Lake Solitude is around 14 miles round trip with 2,400 feet of elevation gain. It makes for a longer day, but traveling below the jagged peaks of Cascade Canyon provides very different scenery from the prior day in Death Canyon. For more information on this trail, see this trail guide. (*We just got word that the segment between Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point has been closed for 2015 trail renovations. However, Cascade Canyon is still accessible via a reroute. Get the latest updates here.)
When you return from your hike, reward yourself with huckleberry margaritas and nachos at the Signal Mountain Lodge—it is a local favorite among all the park staff and a delightful post hike treat! Afterwards drive up the Signal Mountain Road for an incredible aerial view that is sure to impress. For a change of campsite scenery, relocate your tent on night 2 to the Colter Bay Campground which will have you waking up a bit closer the next day to the road that heads up to Yellowstone.
— Yellowstone National Park —
Yellowstone or bust! Be prepared to travel a short distance and see an entirely different world. My friend commonly referred to Yellowstone as “extraterrestrial” or “something from another planet.” On your way into the park, swing by the Grant Village Visitors Center to see the video about the famous 1988 Yellowstone fire that burned a third of Yellowstone—it will help explain the devastation Yellowstone faced and why it had such a rough appearance in areas.
One of the best parts of Yellowstone is that the main road is a loop so you basically just keep working yourself around the circle. I recommend on your first day heading clockwise to Old Faithful and getting this tourist-packed attraction checked off the list. The visitor center alongside it is equally impressive and very informative. The geyser erupts about every 90 minutes and there are signs everywhere once you are in the area informing you of the next eruption. There is lots of room to watch it so you only need to be there about 15 minutes early to grab a spot. Don’t miss the Old Faithful Inn tour, SERIOUSLY. You might think, “I came to a national park to explore the great outdoors, not a building…” but just wait until you walk into the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. The tour is free and provides so much history about not only the hotel but the park itself and its first visitors. Then once you’ve seen Old Faithful erupt, follow the boardwalk around to explore the Upper Geyser Basin which has the largest concentration of colorful hot pools in the world.
Upper Geyser Basin
As the sun sets head on over to the small town of West Yellowstone for a night at a local motel. This town also has a great little family owned grocery store so you can restock on food (you will get really sick of the park food really quickly—it is the same between both parks and at all stores in the parks).
First things first. Pop into the Woodside Bakery and grab a breakfast sandwich and huckleberry scone to fuel your morning before heading back into the park early to beat the rush. Then head north towards Mammoth. On the way to Mammoth a quick stop at the Park Ranger Museum provides some history on the National Park Service, and if you aren’t totally “geysered-out” stop at the Norris Geyser Basin for a short walk to stretch the legs and get your morning dose.
If you think you’ve seen it all after driving by all the geyser turn-offs just wait…Mammoth Hot Springs is the definition of unique in Yellowstone and very different from everything you’ve seen so far. The water that pours over the hot springs has been in the ground for over 1,000 years and is responsible for all of the formations in the area as it cascades down. Take a peek into the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and check out the map room—it features a map of the United States made from several different kinds of wood. The Mammoth Hot Springs visitor center is also worthy of a stop in.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Next, head to the Tower-Roosevelt area and down to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. While a busy area of the Park, this drive is unbelievably beautiful, especially if it’s during wildflower season. Take your time and enjoy the scenery, especially the areas on this side of the park that were not hit by the 1988 fire. The power of the Snake River and the upper and lower falls which carve the canyon is astounding. Camp at Canyon Village for the night.
Kick start your morning with a hike starting at the Wapiti trailhead through a meadow to Clear Lake and then on through geothermal areas to Lily Pond Lake. This hike will end at the beautiful Artists Point, which was a really neat way to come in and see the canyon from the south side. If you go all the way to Artists Point, it is 4 relatively-flat miles roundtrip, but don’t dally too long as you still have the Yellowstone Lake area to explore.
Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon
Alternatively you could hike up Mt. Washburn – a 6.4 mile roundtrip hike that offers one of the best views in the entire park. We didn’t have time to do this, and if I could go back, this is the one thing I would add to my itinerary.
As you head south there will be a turn on your left near Fishing Bridge towards the Visitor Center. Take this road to the Lake Butte lookout which will give you an incredible view and understanding of just how large the lake is. I will admit the ice cream served at the little market across the street from the visitor center is heavenly, and in our opinion this gift shop was the best in Yellowstone.
Back on the main road, farther south, the West Thumb Geyser Basin trail is a must. Don’t miss the fishing hole geyser, which has some really unique history. This walk is along the lakeshore on the opposite side of the lookout. I recommend camping in Grant Village for your last night in the park.
— Back to Jackson —
One of the great things about having a full day left to start heading home is if you missed anything in the Tetons you now have the opportunity to check it out! I recommend heading to Jackson, Wyoming for a lunch stop and afternoon walk-about. It is a tourist town but definitely has a unique tempo to it and lots of individual mom and pop stores. Lotus Café is a super hippy-trendy healthy spot for lunch that is recommended by the locals and won’t disappoint in uniqueness nor flavor. Don’t miss stopping in at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar too. It has so much history and is a neat spot to get a drink. Then as you are heading out of Jackson in the evening, grab dinner at The Bird which is just south of town. They have a beautiful outdoor porch perfect for watching the sunset and toasting the end of your vacation.
— Departing Salt Lake City —
Travel back to Salt Lake City and fly home! If you get to SLC and have a few hours to burn I highly recommend you check out Park City (famous for incredible winter skiing and hosting the Sundance Film Festival) or if you really want to indulge (won’t lie, we did) then check out the Kura Door Spa…their prices are reasonable and all services include access to relaxation rooms, sauna, steam room and yummy treats & tea. For food and drinks near downtown, check out Whiskey Street (21+), Red Iguana (killer classic margs and amazing mole), or Spitz (delicious donor kabobs).
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About the author: Kim Vawter was originally born in Sydney, Australia and now calls Los Angeles home. She is a Purdue University grad and was a 2008 Teach For America corps member. After spending the last 7 years working in education, Kim recently left her job with the goal of completing a thru-hike of the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail this upcoming year. Before she leaves for the PCT she is spending time with friends, traveling and having lots of new adventures! She is also working hard to accomplish another personal goal of visiting every national park in the U.S. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or over on her website, Kim’s Walkabout.