I LOVE these parks!! One of the reasons (there are many) is that they provide multiple vacations in one.
Do you want beautiful scenery? Tetons and Yellowstone have it.
Do you want science? Yellowstone has it! (geothermals)
Do you want wildlife? These parks have it!
Do you want History? It’s there!!
Do you seek out breathtaking sunrises and sunsets? My favorite is Tetons but The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has some amazing vistas too!!
Do you want back country trails? hiking for all ages? handicap accessible trails? Yep… they’re ALL there!!!
It’s possible to please everyone in the family with one destination! You can spend a week…or 10 days….even 2 weeks….and not get bored, because every day is different….and it’s impossible to run out of things to see and do. Yes! I LOVE these parks!
First: Begin planning with the National Park websites:
After visiting these sites for information, here are a few personal tips and observations:
- Reservations for cabins/hotels/camping/RV’s should
be made early – I suggest 7-8 months in advance. Currently, Xanterra is the company under contract to manage the concessionaires (hotels, cabins, stores) at Yellowstone/Tetons however, check nps.gov to confirm this has not changed since this writing. Do not expect 5 star accommodations in National Parks hotels/cabins. These were built in the 50’s…60’s. They do not have TV/cable, phone or room service, et al. This is NOT a bad thing – it ‘fits’ with the atmosphere of a National Park vacation….just be advised. 🙂
- I STRONGLY suggest staying in a different location every night, as you work your way through the park(s). Yellowstone, especially, is HUGE! If you’re staying in the same place each night, you’ll spend a lot of time driving to see the furthest areas of the park. We always enter from the south through the Tetons and work our way around the “8” (note the road on the map below – it’s an “8”) 🙂 heading northwest. I’ve put our itinerary below. If you are entering the park from another direction, you could still follow this plan by picking up at your selected entrance and working around the “8” from that point.
- 1st day We stay in Jackson, WY the night before entering the park. There are 2 different Cowboy Dinner Shows in the area both of which we have been to. They are basically the same – equally good entertainment and food. NOTE: This is not ‘country’ music….it’s “cowboy folk music.” Reservations recommended. (1-2 weeks in advance should be enough)
- 2nd day/night: Enter the Tetons and head north on the main road. Take a hike or two; stay at lodging in the park (reservations needed; 7-8 mos in advance). Catch a sunset or Ranger Talk that evening. The sunsets over the Tetons are exquisite! Jackson Lake Lodge is a great place for viewing a sunset (or sunrise) as the viewing area has HUGE floor to ceiling windows. It can get chilly after sundown so ‘indoors’ in really nice. 🙂
- 1st day/night – Enter the park from the south, see Grant and West Thumb area (now quite active), the Old Faithful area, then stay in the Old Faithful area. You have the option of the Inn or cabins. We’ve stayed in both and they’re both nice – though totally different experiences. This area is one of the main commercial areas in the park with grocery, fuel, concessionaire, snack bar and restaurant.
- 2nd day/night – Begin the drive northwest. (around the southern loop of the “8”) There are several geyser basins (Upper, Lower, Norris, Biscuit, et al) along this route. If you try to see everything there (we always do! ) this is a long day…. We’re trying to make it to Mammoth Hot Springs for the night –without missing anything along the way. 🙂
The actual area of Mammoth Hot Springs is not as active as it once was, (the geothermal areas are constantly changing) but it’s still worth the time to see. However, the ‘must see’ is the Mammoth Village – museums and shops and THE ELK. Elk come to town every evening to walk around the streets, graze in the town square and sniff at your car… YES, I’m serious!! 🙂 You don’t want to miss this! If you’re interested in eating a buffalo or elk burger, exit the park at the North entrance and go into Gardiner, MT. (Your entrance fee when you entered the park was good for 7 days as long as you kept your receipt ) The drive is a very steep grade with hairpin curves, so I wouldn’t suggest it in an RV or camper. Also, I strongly suggest getting back to Mammoth BEFORE DARK as the drive can be a bit nerve-wracking after dark, (imho).
- 3rd day/night – Head east out of Mammoth then down the eastern side of the “8” to the Canyon area –and plan to get there as early in the day as possible (don’t skip Tower Falls in your rush) There’s so much to do at the Canyon area. – it’s my favorite part of the park!! There are 4 “must do” trails in this area: 1) brink of the lower falls 2) bottom of the upper falls 3) brink of the upper falls –and on the opposite side of the canyon is #4) Uncle Tom’s Trail. This trail is stairs down the side of the canyon…literally DOWN the SIDE of the canyon! It’s strenuous, but not too hard for anyone without physical limitations. It is ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT!! Also, don’t miss Artist Point (quite possibly the BEST place for a sunrise or sunset). Stay in the Canyon area that night. You’ll sleep like a baby after all the hiking! 🙂 🙂 (Hint: Go to bed early so you can get up tomorrow for a sunrise….)
- 4th day/night – Get up early and head out to Artist Point (or any other location you scouted out the day before) for a sunrise. 🙂 Sunrises over canyons are magnificent!! 🙂 We take our “breakfast in a bag” (Info on this in my post on Traveling with Children) and have “Breakfast With Scenery”! 🙂 If you didn’t have enough time to cover everything you wanted yesterday, there will probably be time this morning to catch those things/areas. For our itinerary, this is a more relaxed day. Our next stop is the Lake area – only a few miles down the road and there isn’t as much to see/do there. (I actually like to get some laundry done before leaving Canyon Village too as there is a very nice (BIG) coin laundry there.) At the Lake Yellowstone area there’s some trails and of course the lake itself. No swimming in this lake – it’s fed from snow melt and is quite cold!
The Yellowstone Hotel is something to see… Even if you don’t stay there, you DO need to go inside and look around. It was built in the 1950’s, high ceilings, open air rooms, huge verandah porch… quite exquisite! 🙂
- 5th day/night – We exit the park through the East entrance and Cody, Wyoming. There are several things to explore in Cody… 🙂
- If you have more than 5 days to spend in the park (LUCKY !!!) choose whichever area interests you the most to spend that extra day (or two…) Our favorites would the be Geothermal and Canyon areas 🙂 as these areas have more than you can really cover in 1 day.
3. To see wildlife, you’ll have to be up early (5-6 a.m.) before the heat…and the crowds. Go to bed early. Since the cabins/rooms don’t have television, that will be easier. 🙂 Those who stay up late and sleep in will miss soooo much these parks have to offer. 🙂
- A Word About Wildlife: These animals are “wild’ as the term implies. They aren’t even as ‘tame’ as zoo animals (if those are ‘tame’…) Do NOT approach! Keep your distance. As you are driving down the road, don’t exceed the speed limits. 1) An animal can dart out in front of your car causing a serious accident. 2) You may round a corner to find dozens of cars stopped ON the road. If there is a wild animal in the field, visitors will stop for pictures or a look. There isn’t usually a parking area when needed because the animals don’t restrict their feeding to areas convenient for drivers to stop. 🙂 Drive slowly and attentively. Not only do you want to see the wildlife, but you DON’T want to hit an animal or another car. Note: Wildlife in a Nat’l park is ‘protected’ by law – hitting one is a federal offense – just fyi. Be Aware: Dusk and dawn are prime times to see the wildlife… I say that both as a ‘hint’ and a ‘warning’. 🙂
4. EVERY Visitor Center is worth a stop! This is where you get information about geothermal activity (eruptions), trails that will fit your family’s needs, locations and topics of Ranger talks, and of course, the only restrooms. 🙂 There are usually exhibits about the area as well as films that are wonderful ‘introductions’ or ‘summations’ of the area. The exhibits are ‘low-key’ and small enough that they maintain children’s attention long enough for them to learn a little bit. Museums in small doses usually worked very well for my children…and I wanted them to learn something for all our efforts. 🙂
5 Attend at least one evening Ranger talk! These take place at the Visitor areas/camping or cabin areas and the schedules AND TOPICS are posted at the Visitor Centers and campgrounds, lodges, etc… (You do NOT have to be camping in the campground to attend a Ranger Talk there. Ranger Talks in all Nat’l parks are open to all visitors.) Choose one that interests your family. Bring jackets, flashlights, insect repellant and possibly a blanket as it gets cold after sundown. Of course, we never go to a National park without at least 1 pair of jeans…and jackets.
6. In a National Park, EVERYONE picnics!! There are a couple of snack bars and a few nice dining rooms throughout the park, but certainly not enough to accommodate all visitors there. Everyone brings ice chests and/or camp stoves. Our National Park menus include hotdogs, hamburgers, hobo meals, etc. Sometimes, I bring a package of chicken t0 grill for grilled chicken salads then eat the rest on sandwiches the next day. Hobo Meals are individual meals wrapped in tin foil and cooked in the campfire coals. They are a GREAT meal because there are hundreds of options of varying meats, veggies and spices/sauces. For more information about these: Vacation Meals on a Budget
7. Buy groceries outside the park…in Cody, WY (east entrance) Jackson, WY (south entrance) Gardiner, MT (north) or West Yellowstone (west). The prices there will not be “low”, by any means, but they will be lower than they are INSIDE the park. National Park prices (groceries and fuel) are astronomical!!! Of course, if you have the ability (ice chest…) to buy food items 200 miles outside the park – or bring them with you, that will be the greatest savings… 🙂
8. Purchase fuel outside the park too. Of course, you’ll probably need to refuel while in the park, but at least start your trek with a STUFFED tank. When refueling, we only get what we need to get to Cody. Though is still expensive in Cody, it’s better than filling up in the park.
9. Cell Phone Service: There are towers in the commercial areas of the park (West Thumb, Old Faithful, Canyon and Mammoth) You may lose service outside of these areas. Of course, ‘roaming charges’ are up to your carrier….
Here’s hoping you enjoy one of our FAVORITE National Parks as much as we do!!