My parents and I just returned from an awe-inspiring, 10-day trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. I am documenting our itinerary here to share with family and friends and hopefully inspire others to visit this incredible corner of the world.
My parents are in their early 60s and I’m in my late 20s. There is something for everyone in both parks, and you can definitely scale up or down depending on your own interests and fitness levels.
We chose the first week of June to beat the summer crowds and increase our chances of seeing baby wildlife. During our trip, we saw early wildflower blooms and experienced all types of weather: mostly sun, but a bit of rain and even a snowstorm on our last day in Yellowstone!
My best advice overall is to enjoy every moment, pack your patience, be flexible and get ready for some really wonderful surprises from Mother Nature.
“Surely our people do not understand even yet the rich heritage that is theirs. There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, its groves of giant sequoias and redwoods, the cañon of the Colorado, the cañon of the Yellowstone, the three Tetons; and the representatives of the people should see to it that they are preserved for the people forever with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 1904
Before You Go
The first thing to consider is lodging.
Most people recommend booking 12 months out. Some even plan around availability at the most popular places, such as Old Faithful Inn.
Six months out, we really got lucky and were still able to reserve lodging inside both parks. Here’s a quick summary of where we stayed:
- Night 1: Awesome Airbnb in Salt Lake City near the airport
- Night 2-4: Signal Mountain Lodge inside Grand Teton (Two-room log cabin)
- Night 5-7: Canyon Lodge inside Yellowstone (Superior Lodge Room)
- Night 8: Gray Wolf Inn & Suites in West Yellowstone
- Night 9: Same Airbnb in Salt Lake City
This is not meant to be comprehensive, but here are a few non-negotiable items that I wouldn’t make this trip without:
- A solid pair of tennis shoes with good traction, or ideally, a pair of waterproof hiking boots. (We averaged 15,000 steps per day with this itinerary, so comfy shoes are a must!)
- Rain jacket
- Warm, breathable layers
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Sunscreen. So much sunscreen.
- Refillable water bottles
- Thermos for hot water
- Bug spray
- Hiking poles, which can be purchased or rented upon arrival
- Bear spray, which can be purchased upon arrival (more on that here)
- We flew from Texas into Salt Lake City, since flights into Jackson, WY were much more expensive. In addition to saving money, we enjoyed a scenic 5-6 hour drive between SLC and the parks, which I’ll write about more below.
- Super important: Before you go, download Google Maps for all of the areas you plan to travel to use offline. (instructions here)
- I found this Lonely Planet guidebook to be pretty comprehensive for first-timers. I also read a ton of forums on TripAdvisor while planning this trip. For Grand Teton, TetonHikingTrails.com has really good trail guides for all fitness levels.
- Cell service is very limited in Grand Teton and virtually non-existent inside Yellowstone. Visitor’s centers have big picture maps, but if you plan to do any advanced hikes, you may need to purchase a more detailed trail map.
- WIFI is also pretty limited too. In Grand Teton, we had solid WIFI at Signal Mountain Lodge, but that’s about it. In Yellowstone, there was very slow, 1990s WIFI in the main lobby of Canyon Lodge. I wouldn’t count on it. Just plan for a good digital detox and leave the front desk numbers with an emergency contact, just in case.
The Fun Part
Day 1: Arriving in Salt Lake City
Our first stop in Salt Lake City was Red Iguana for some “Killer Mexican Food.” This might have been the best Mexican food I’ve ever had. Yeah, I said it. If they have the shrimp & steak chimichanga special when you go, you must get it. The Red Iguana combination plate is also a killer way to sample several items. Portions are enormous, so plan to share.
After a ton of Mexican food, we moved on to another type of spiritual experience with a stroll through Temple Square, home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As someone who has only lightly understood Mormonism my entire life, it was very interesting to learn about the faith’s beliefs and teachings at the visitor’s center. Even if you come from a different faith background, it’s worth a visit to expand your knowledge of the church. I think if everyone took a bit of time to understand and learn from each other, the world would be a better place.
Wishlist: We didn’t get a chance to listen to the world-famous Tabernacle Choir perform, unfortunately, but if you can make it work, they have daily recitals open to the public.
Day 2: Drive from Salt Lake City to Jackson, WY
We basically followed this itinerary to make the scenic drive up to Jackson, WY, instead of taking the highway straight up.
This visually-appealing route takes you through mountains and canyons and right by Bear Lake, which is a wonderful appetizer for even more scenic views to come.
As we entered Wyoming, the Star Valley Scenic Byway was blooming with yellow wildflowers. So pretty!
We also made a quick stop in Afton, WY for a photo opp with The World’s Largest Elkhorn Arch. Yeah, it’s a thing.
Finally, we made it to Jackson, WY, where you can shop, dine and take photos with even more elkhorn arches.
We stopped for an early dinner at Cafe Genevieve. I picked it based off another blogger’s itinerary, but we thought it was just OK. Some of the dishes were a bit on the salty side and pricey too. My dad and I tried the elk sirloin, which was… interesting.
After dinner, we picked up groceries at Albertson’s, your last big grocery store for a while, and started heading north into Grand Teton National Park. On the drive in, you’ll be so focused on the breathtaking mountain range that appears on the left, you might miss the park entrance sign on the right where you can pull over for a photo.
On our way to Signal Mountain Lodge, we spotted our first bison heard, including baby bison! We were so excited and had no idea that we would see literally hundreds and hundreds of bison throughout the trip.
We checked into our two-room cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge, which was right on Jackson Lake. The location makes this a convenient, yet serene home base for exploring Grand Teton. There is a gas station and general store on site too. Check out this view from our cabin!
Day 3: Snake River Float Trip and String Lake Hike
We started our first full day in Grand Teton with a float trip down a 10-mile stretch of the Snake River. Since we were staying at Signal Mountain Lodge, I booked through the lodge. We rode a van down to the launching point and enjoyed a roughly 90-minute trip down the river. It is not a white-water rapids situation; rather a leisurely float.
Our guide Joe was easy-going and answered all of our questions. He helped us spot areas where beavers had chewed on trees, alerted us to a couple bald eagles up in the trees and even pointed out a young moose and a baby moose hidden behind the tall grasses. It was money well spent and an activity that would be fun for all ages.
We returned for lunch at the Trapper Grill, which is located at Signal Mountain Lodge. This was the best in-park dining of the whole trip. I recommend the trout tacos!
With full tummies, we headed over for a hike around String Lake. The lake itself was absolutely beautiful.
The hike took us around the lake and through some beautiful forests.
We even got to hike across an avalanche zone with snow still on the ground. Pretty cool!
Just as we were winding down our hike, the weather changed rather quickly. Clouds moved in and it started pouring rain, so we ended up tossing on our rain gear and running back to the car for shelter.
Wishlist: We stopped very briefly at Jenny Lake, but due to the weather and after a long day, we did not take the ferry ride across the lake or visit Inspiration Point, which is one of the more popular spots in the park. Our float trip guide Joe recommended skipping Jenny Lake and instead checking out Phelps Lake, Taggart Lake and Bradley Lake hikes, so we opted to check out one of those the following day.
Day 4: Phelps Lake Hike, Mormon Row, Schwabacher Landing
The next morning, we started out by driving down to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center, which has a great exhibit on the geology, history and wildlife of the park.
All throughout the park, there are lots of pull offs to safely stop and take photos, so definitely budget extra time to take in the views.
From the visitor’s center, we made a short drive to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, which is home to the Phelps Lake trailhead. You can learn quite a bit about the Rockefeller family’s philanthropic contributions to the park, which were a surprise to me and very interesting to learn about. I also really liked that the preserve was a “leave no trace” facility. They had composting toilets and no trash or recycle bins. You had to carry everything out yourself. It really makes you more conscious of the waste you generate (in sooo many ways.)
“How we treat our land, how we build upon it, how we act toward our air and water, will in the long run tell what kind of people we really are.”
– Laurance S. Rockefeller
We did not hike the entire loop around Phelps Lake, but opted for the easier and shorter hike up to view the lake and back down.
The views were rewarding, so we stopped along the way for lots of photos.
After the hike, we enjoyed a yummy pizza for lunch at Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Co and checked out the Menor’s Ferry historic district, where a Wild West entrepreneur built a ferry to transport settlers across the Snake River. Respect the hustle.
Then, we drove over to the historic Mormon Row, where you can see the homes and barns from the area’s early homesteaders.
We then followed the park road north and made a visit to Schwabacher Landing. A short, easy walk rewards you with one of the most beautiful views of the Tetons. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. Don’t miss it!
“The grand lift of the Tetons is more than a mechanistic fold and faulting of the earth’s crust; it becomes a primal gesture of the earth beneath a greater sky.”
– Ansel Adams, 1950
We stopped at Cunningham Cabin on the way back to our lodge. It was crazy to think about early settlers weathering a Wyoming winter in such a tiny home.
We wrapped up the day with dinner at the Trapper Grill. This time, I ordered The Trailhead (a vegetarian chickpea burger). It was so good. Also, in true #vacationmode, we tried their blueberry pie à la mode, with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream on top. It was just delightful!
Wishlist: If we had an extra day, I would have liked to try the Taggart Lake and Bradley Lake hikes, per our guide Joe’s recommendation.
Day 5: From Grand Teton to Yellowstone
Before heading out of Grand Teton, we made the easy, 5-mile drive up to the Signal Mountain summit. From here, you could see some amazing views of the valley floor. One of my favorite thoughts that ran through my mind throughout the trip was, “It’s good to feel small sometimes!” Hanging around mountains and thinking about things like geologic time really puts life in perspective.
After this, we headed north and made the easy trip through the South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Budget plenty of extra time between destinations because you will absolutely want to stop and stare at so many things. For example, can you believe we spotted a baby elk nursing with its mama elk? I just about died.
We stopped for lunch in the Grant Village Dining Room. The food was just alright, but the dining room has fantastic views of Yellowstone Lake.
We also stopped by the Grant Village visitor’s center. Don’t miss the little museums inside each of the visitor’s centers. They are all different. At this first one, there is a small but fascinating exhibit on the role of wildfires in shaping the park, including the historic 1988 wildfire that scorched 36% of the park.
After this, we visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin which is right along Yellowstone Lake. Some of the geothermal pools were so incredibly blue. It can feel like you’re seeing certain colors for the first time. So cool.
After that, we explored the Mud Volcano area. It’s as cool as it sounds. Don’t miss it!
Finally, we rolled into Canyon Village, which is very centrally located inside the park. We were assigned to the Chittenden Lodge within the Canyon Lodge complex, which is one of the newer LEED-certified lodges. They were very comfortable hotel rooms, essentially, although there is no microwave or hot water in the building. If you need either, you’ll have to go to the Canyon General Store, which is about a 5 minute walk, one-minute drive.
We dined twice in the Canyon Village area and tried a few different options. Most of the food was just OK and pricey, but the “Slow Food Fast” counter at the cafeteria had the best food. I tried the ribs with mashed potatoes and green beans which was a good hearty meal. There is a giant souvenir shop here too. You will not be able to resist purchasing a souvenir, so just go ahead and give in.
Day 6: Lamar Valley Hike & Mammoth Hot Springs
In Yellowstone, Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are the best areas to spot wildlife. We really wanted to maximize our experience, so we signed up for the Lamar Valley Safari Hike with Yellowstone Hiking Guides. Husband and wife team Josh and Emily Jo host all types of hikes and van tours throughout the park. I selected them to be our guides because they had amazing reviews online and because Emily Jo is from Texas!
On the way to our meeting point, we spotted a small black bear on the side of the road. This was our one and only bear sighting, but it was so cute and worth pulling over to view from a safe distance.
Josh and Emily Jo were super friendly and welcoming guides. It was just the three of us, plus the two of them, so we enjoyed a leisurely six-mile, six-hour round-trip hike through a beautiful part of Lamar Valley. Along the way to our lunch spot by the river, we spotted several pronghorn, tons of bison and a coyote.
Josh and Emily Jo shared a ton of knowledge about the area and even showed us some cool natural artifacts along the way, such as moose antlers, geodes and interesting lichen.
Right as we neared the river bank, Emily Jo quietly gestured toward a small open meadow on the hillside. She spotted a moose!!! There are only 200 moose in all 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone. We felt so #blessed to watch it eat some grass through Josh’s spotting scope.
We then camped out along the river for a delicious lunch (included in the safari hike) and witnessed a rare, migrating Harlequin Duck ride the rapids. After lunch, we hiked through wildflowers back to the trailhead. When we made it back to our car, we were all pretty bummed to part ways with Josh and Emily Jo. Is it weird if I add them on Facebook? I hope to return soon and experience one of their other guided hikes!
We were a bit tired after hiking for six hours, but since we were already in the northern half of the park, we decided to check out the Mammoth Hot Springs.
The visitor’s center here is inside a historic Fort Yellowstone building, which was established when the Army governed the park to protect it in the early days. There was a cool exhibit about the long and difficult road to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first national park and protect its treasures.
The weather started turning rainy again, so we checked out a few of the lower hot spring terraces on foot, then decided to check out the upper terraces by car before heading back to our hotel.
Day 7: Gazing at Geysers
If you’ve made it this far, kudos to you for still reading. We started day seven by driving down to the Old Faithful area. We were really lucky that shortly after we parked and walked over to the viewing platform, Old Faithful started erupting. It was super crowded, but still a blast! (Pun intended.)
Then, we walked a loop around Geyser Hill in the Upper Geyser Basin. Not much else was erupting at the time, but we saw Old Faithful go off a second time on our way back to the car.
We did a short stop at Black Sand Basin to view even more geothermal features. By this time, I started losing count of the number of geothermal features we had seen, but I loved how unique and different each one was. Some were steaming, some bubble quietly, others splashed violently. It was really neat.
Then, we drove to the Fairy Falls trailhead and did an easy hike up to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook. Due to the cold weather, it was pretty steamy, but we still got to see a bird’s eye view of the largest, deepest, most colorful spring in the park. So glamorous!
After hiking back down, we took a short drive through Firehole Lake Drive and stumbled upon White Dome Geyser, which erupts every 30 minutes. Right as we pulled up, it started spewing water high up into the air. There weren’t many people around so it was really special to witness.
We were all tuckered out after gazing at geysers all day, so we called it a day and headed back to Canyon Village General Store where we fashioned an extremely satisfying dinner of ramen. My mom had the brilliant idea to purchase a small grab-and-go spinach salad and pre-packaged hardboiled eggs to round out the meal. Genius right?!
As we headed back to our room, snow started falling! We had no idea how quickly the weather would change the next day.
Day 8: Canyon Lower Falls and Norris Geyser Basin
We were shocked to wake up to several inches of snow blanketing the ground as we checked out of Canyon Lodge to begin our final day inside Yellowstone.
Some of the trails around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone were closed, but we were able to check out the Lower Falls area from the North Rim drive.
A lot can be viewed just a few steps from your car, but we opted to hoof it down and then back up some steep switchbacks and steps for close-up views of the falls. Hiking in a snowy setting was truly fun and magical.
Before we could make it over to Inspiration Point, one of the best views of the canyon, the snow suddenly started picking back up again, so much so that you could not see a thing beyond the edge of the canyon.
Some of the park roads were closed, but luckily our route to the Norris Geyser Basin was clear. Along the way, we encountered a wildlife traffic jam. A large herd of bison, with several baby bison, walked right by our car. It was incredible!
The Norris Geyser Basin is one of the hottest, most volatile geothermal areas of the park. The various features here were pretty sassy!
Also part of the Norris Geyser Basin is Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world. Major eruptions can shoot water more than 300 feet in the air. But, they are completely unpredictable. Sometimes, the geyser can go four days between major eruptions; other times, it can stay quiet for 50 years! We were amazed to learn it just had a major eruption about 36 hours before at 1:14 am. No one was around, but a park ranger showed us a seismograph that documented the unseen eruption.
Along the road, we had a stroke of luck and pulled over to see a Trumpeter Swan bobbing for food in the Firehole River. As of 2016, only 29 swans resided in Yellowstone, so this was an extremely rare sighting. Maybe we should have purchased a lottery ticket that day too!
On our way toward the west exit to leave the park, we made one last stop at the Artist Paintpots. This area had the most adorable little mud pots that bubble and spit mud depending on precipitation in the various seasons.
We were a bit melancholy to drive out of the park, as you can see from this photo.
Almost instantly, you find yourself with cell service again and smack dab in the town of West Yellowstone, MT. My mom and I paid $15 each for a short visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a non-profit that rescues – you guessed it – grizzlies and wolves, that would have otherwise been killed due to bad behaviors they’ve learned from humans, such as entering campground and neighborhoods for food.
We saw three grizzly bears and two small wolf packs, as well as birds of prey that had been affected or injured by human activity. It was sad to read about the horrible impact humans have on wild animals, but I am glad visitors to this center can take some knowledge home along with a deeper appreciation for the wild.
Before turning in for the night, we ordered way too much food at Firehole Bar-B-Que Company. After days of mediocre park food, cold sandwiches and ramen, this tasted like the best barbecue we ever had. Yes, I cannot even believe myself when I say that the ribs and brisket were just as good – and possibly better – than many Texas barbecue joints. The cole slaw, corn salad and mac and cheese were truly fantastic too. I highly recommend it!
We stayed one night at the Gray Wolf Inn & Suites, which was clean and affordable, and has an indoor pool and hot tub, free s’mores kits, fire pits and free laundry. If we hadn’t stayed inside the parks, this place would have made a good home base too.
Day 9: Drive from West Yellowstone to SLC
After checking out of our hotel, we made the 5-6 hour drive from West Yellowstone straight down the highway back to Salt Lake City.
Wishlist: If we had more time, I would have loved to stop for a half day in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho for a soak in the springs. I also would have been delighted to check out the Idaho Potato Museum. I mean, just think about all the ways potatoes make our lives better. Maybe next time!
Unwilling to accept that our adventure was coming to a close, we made a side trip to Antelope Island State Park, which is part of the Great Salt Lake. There is a small but informative visitor’s center, a beach and a lot of hiking trails. My mom, who is really into birding, was awestruck by the sheer number of birds along the shoreline. There are plenty of bugs in the park too, so just be aware of that.
Upon arriving back in Salt Lake City, we enjoyed some tasty Vietnamese food at SOMI and rounded off the night with boba milk tea at Tea Bar in the trendy Sugarhouse neighborhood.
Then, we enjoyed a sunset stroll and rented a Bird scooter for fun to explore the grounds of the Utah State Capitol building. It was a pretty rad way to conclude our trip.
Day 10: Back to reality
We spent our final day traveling back to Texas and dreaming of our next national park adventure. It was refreshing, inspiring and a tiny bit bittersweet to experience nature at its best. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last remaining truly wild places in the world, and I hope everyone gets a chance to experience and appreciate it.
If you made it this far into my post, I hope you are planning your own trip now as well. If so, I hope you have the best time!