Exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton by Car

My husband is on a quest to visit all 50 states and Wyoming was on the short list, so we teamed it with a visit to both national parks in the area, but had only 3 days total, and chose to spend a full day in Jackson. It meant a lot of driving, and some planning to make sure we saw the best of the best. You can google "blog+yellowstone+tetons" and come up with many ideas for what has already been done, but I'll just highlight a few that spurred our decisions.

We chose Cowboy Village in Jackson, which was cheaper than hotels, but still had pool access.  We stayed in a cabin with a tiny kitchenette which included a refrigerator, cookstove top, coffeepot, and microwave. It was so small that we had to fold up the table leaf to open the sofa bed. But we weren't spending much time in the cabin anyway. With an Albertson's grocery store in town, it was great to be able to prepare our own meals.

I had only driven through this quaint town about 20 years ago and thought it was beautiful.  I wanted to go back and spend some time exploring. This seemed like a great idea, though it would have been better to have lodging at Yellowstone too for a couple of days. We ended up spending so much time in the car because we had to double back each night.

First I got a map and did a lot of planning using the free one NPS has on their website. Paper copies are available when you enter the park.  Coming to the Tetons from Jackson, it's a long drive before you even reach the ranger station where you pay and get maps. Because Omar has Down syndrome, we have a free parks pass for life, as long as he is with us.  That saves entrance fees to every national park and has also been useful at state park and national trails. We had talked about taking a wildlife tour but didn't know how our son would cope in a vehicle all day with others, so we looked for itineraries that included potential wildlife spots. I paid for and downloaded the itineraries for Tetons and Yellowstone designed by a former park ranger at Dirt in my Shoes Blog. She has multiple parks on her site and they include a bit of hiking, photography, and fun stuff to keep kids happy. Because we weren't staying for as long as her itinerary, we took pieces of it. This saved us hundreds of dollars and when we met some people on the guided wildlife tours, we found we had seen as much wildlife as they had using her tips.

Day 1 we started at 7 AM and stopped at Antelope Flats, Mormon Row, and Schwabacher Landing where we immediately saw elk, pronghorn, ducks, and deer. Just a bit beyond this section we saw bison and learned that they can jump fences from a complete stop.  Amazing. These all have picturesque views and even if we hadn't seen anything else for the rest of the day, we would have been happy enough.
One of the most photographed barns

Antelope Flats with a pronghorn

Beaver Pond at Schwabacher Landing

The buffalo just hop right over the fences
From here we drove up 191 to Yellowstone, with Old Faithful as our destination, making a stop at Jackson Lake Lodge for a coffee break.  You must stop there to take in the view behind the lodge, which can also be seen through the panoramic windows. They have a coffee shop upstairs and a bar out back so you could sit on the deck for the best experience in nicer weather.  Inside, my son enjoyed the stuffed grizzly bear.  They are really big!



We used Google maps when there was service, but with the park map, it's easy to find the way. Cellular service was sketchy, but I was surprised that at a few places, our snapchat filters with geodata worked. We could send snaps as we experienced the beautiful nature. I also took photos on my phone to put up an instagram story to share at the end of the day. There were lots of scenic viewpoints and we stopped at a number of them. We had packed sandwiches and drinks at our cabin in a thermal bag I brought from home, we just had a picnic at West Thumb. Because I'm a photographer, I used some of the locations on the Grand Teton Nal. Park Photographer's Map and Guide, which I purchased on Amazon. This was a great tool because I could browse the photos and decide if it was a place I'd like to stop. No surprises about what we'd see for scenery, though wildlife was always a surprise.
West Thumb is a geothermal spot with pools and smoking earth, accessible by boardwalks
Once we got to Yellowstone, I used a book, Yellowstone Treasures.  It has driving directions to every interesting place in the park along with history, geography and lots of photos.  While my husband drove, I could read to him. It probably doesn't matter if you have the latest revision because little changes in the park. I called the park number 307-344-2751 (option 2) to get the recorded scoop on when they expected Old Faithful to spout. I could have downloaded the park apps and had more information on hand, but since I already had such a great book I did not. The seating had been completely rebuilt since I last visited. Now there is seating around the entire basin, which fronts the visitor center, inn, and store. The prediction was right on, and though it started to rain just before it blew, we got to see it. Then we just headed back to Jackson which took nearly 3 hours due to traffic. The total day had been nearly 12 hours.
Old Faithful geyser
Day 2 we decided to enter at West Yellowstone, so we left Jackson at 6:30 AM and drove along the west side of the park along Hwy 33, which was also very scenic, though I saw no wildlife.  Instead, it was rolling hills of many different grains set against a wall of mountains. It was an easy (though long) drive with relatively little traffic. We entered the park after stopping for coffee and cinnamon rolls at Ernie's Bakery at West Yellowstone and made our way north to Mammoth Springs. By the way, you can buy lunches at Ernie's if you are arriving without food and don't want to stop at a lodge in the park.
I had read the northern part of the park was the best place for wildlife but we only saw a few deer. We made a few stops on the way, including Artist Paint Pots, a geothermal area with colored pools. Using the book to guide us, we did a drive along the Upper Mammoth Springs and spent an hour at the village there eating lunch.
A Paint Pot

Mammoth Hot Springs is full of formations and pools

The rest of the day, we stopped for many waterfalls, and took a scenic gravel roadway where wildlife should have been plentiful...at another time of day, perhaps. Blacktail Plateau Drive, it's called. Just in case you get there and want to have a look.  Just beyond that area was perhaps the most beautiful yellow meadow I have ever seen.  


Driving back to Jackson, we timed it to be on Moose-Wilson Road in the Tetons at dusk. We saw a moose in the river with twin calves nearby, as well as elk- too many to count.  There were beaver in one of the creeks too. I felt we had hit the jackpot, and that had been so close to our cabin. The key really is to be where wildlife might be at daybreak and dusk. We knew we were on to something when we saw numerous wildlife tour vans in the same place. The sun set and it was a beautiful reflection in the east.  What a super day it had been, in spite of 13 hours of driving.
Mama Moose drinking

Sunsets can often be spectacular 

Before we planned this trip, I had anticipated more time for hiking and less driving, but it didn't work out that way, mainly because it was so crowded with cars.  We should have planned on more time in the parks on foot. We never made it to Jenny Lake because the parking lot was full. In fact, there were several places we couldn't stop because the parking lots were full. Boats had already been rented out at the marina at Grand Teton. If you go, maybe you're looking for some easy hikes in the Tetons, you might try one of the 4 best short hikes in Grand Tetons National Park by blogger, Courtney Minor at Traveldaze.  She also has a list of the best things to do in Grand Teton National Park, as well as a list of the best things to do in Yellowstone, which includes a few things we tried.  

Comments

  1. This post makes me miss the area, especially Grand Teton. It's all so beautiful. You got some really great photos! Thanks for sharing some of my posts, I'm glad they could help. :)

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