This is an itinerary we took in September of 2016 with my wife, two year old, and in-laws. Planning and executing a three generation trip with varying levels of activity and patience is hard. But we did it! Our trip was a huge success with everyone (including our toddler).
Since we?ve been back, I?ve gotten a bunch of requests from people about our itinerary, so I decided to just write up the whole thing and put it on the Internet (mainly because I don?t want to dig through my email years later to forward it to someone ? I can just point them here).
Note this is an itinerary for those who like traveling on their own ? because big tours suck and ?cause this is America damnit. We?re gonna road trip and not be on anyone else?s schedule.
We went for a luxury + outdoorsy mix for our trip. It?s kind of the best mix, cause you can hike all day but have an awesome room, shower, and meal to come back to. This trip was not about roughing it. I love a good backpacking trip, but this was not that ? we were taking our in laws on this trip and our 2 year old ? so we didn?t want to rough it more than we needed to. So no camping. And no Motel 6.
The key to this itinerary is to book your lodging very early ? at least 9 months out, if not a year. The hotels in Yellowstone book up really early (cause it?s so popular). We booked in January for our September trip. Any later, I don?t think we would?ve gotten any rooms. You can stay in the ?gateway towns? of Cody, West Yellowstone, or Gardiner ? but it?s just not the same having to drive in every day. It?s wayyy better to stay in the park at the glorious national park lodges.
We did Grand Teton first and then Yellowstone. You can do it the other way as well. I think both would be fine. Here?s what we booked.
- Three nights in Grand Teton. If early enough get the Jenny Lake Lodge. But if not ? that?s ok ? Jackson and the Teton Village have some awesome places to stay and they are literally 5 minutes from the park. So no issues. We stayed at the Teton Mountain Lodge. Highly recommended. Our room was gorgeous with a kitchen and we had free use of 2 pools and 3 hot tubs. And the complementary spa with a ?eucalyptus steam room?. That was kind of an experience in an of itself. Long story short ? it?s awesome to come back to that after long hikes. And basically instant entertainment (and a carrot) that you can dangle in front of a two year old, as in ?if you eat this broccoli we?ll take you swimming!?. Works every time :).
- Two nights at Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone. This lodge was brand new and amazing. Literally renovated two years ago. This was modern upscale lodging.
- One night at Mammoth Hotel in Yellowstone. We stayed in the cabins there (cause that?s all that was available). It was rustic, but really nice as well. Clean, cozy, and felt like living in a little military village (cause that?s what Mammoth once was).
- Two days at Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone. This is the fulcrum. We basically booked our entire trip around when we could get a room at the Old Faithful Inn. This hotel is amazing. It?s a National Historical Landmark built like a gigantic log cabin. We got rooms in the ?old house? the original part of the hotel that was built in the 1800?s. The issue with these rooms is that there are no attached bathrooms. I thought that would be an issue, but it wasn?t at all. The public ?dorm style? bathrooms were spotless and gilded with fancy marble and fixtures. Not your typical hostel bathroom. Stay in the Old House! ? you won?t regret it. The charm unmatched and we were steps away from the main atrium/lobby where they have live music every evening, coffee, a bar, and a huge fireplace. Also, you can sit on the hotel veranda and see Old Faithful go off. In addition, staying here is a game changer cause then we could wake up early and walk around Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin before the tour buses show up. You can also stay up really late and go out to see the geysers by starlight. You can take pictures like this of Old Faithful at night. Do it. Get at least two nights here and build the rest of your trip around it.
Fly to Salt Lake City (not Jackson). It costs an arm and a leg to fly into Jackson, WY ? which is where Grand Teton is (and is the closest airport to Yellowstone). It?s way better to fly into Salt Lake City instead. Do that. We saved $400 per person flying into SLC instead of Jackson.
Rent a comfortable car (we got a minivan for all of us) ? and do the easy 5 hour drive to Grand Teton/Yellowstone. Drive the interstate in Idaho ? it?s super picturesque and fast. Literally ? the speed limit is 80 MPH in many places.
- Normal clothes for normal stuff. I had two pairs of jeans, two shirts, a sweater, and my Vans. Warm jacket, beanie, and even light gloves are a must in fall. Pack for colder temperatures than you expect. This is up in the mountains and its colder than you think ? especially at night. Even in September we had many nights where the temperature was 30 degrees F.
- Standard hiking gear. Pants, long wicking shirt, short wicking shirt, trucker cap, sturdy day hiking boots, and sunglasses.
- Hiking poles for the in-laws ? they loved them and it really helped them navigate some of the slopes.
- Osprey Poco Plus Infant Carrier. This is the best baby thing we?ve bought. Our daughter loves it in there and it?s super comfortable to wear. Though at the end of 6 miles it does start to hurt my shoulders a bit ? but that?s mainly cause I?m carrying 40 pounds on my back. The key is to take a rest every hour or so for 10 minutes so your shoulders never get that tired.
- Umbrella Stroller. For places you don?t want to use the carrier.
- Car Seat. We brought ours from home, strapped it into the car on the first day and left it there the rest of the time.
Now finally to the itinerary. We tried to go for a good mix of hard-core hiking, eating, resting, sightseeing, and driving. I highly recommend it. I didn?t feel constrained as a hard core outdoors guy. My mid-60s in-laws loved it as well. And my 2 year old toddler thrived as well. Lots of competing philosophies and interests ? but it all worked out.
Day 1: Get there from Salt Lake City
- Fly in the morning to Salt Lake City. Get there before noon.
- Rent your car and drive 5 hours, through Idaho, to Jackson, WY.
- Get dinner in Jackson or in the Village. We ate at this awesome place called Calico which is a 5 minute drive from the Teton Village.
- Rest up.
Day 2: Grand Teton Classic Sightseeing + Boating
- I woke early at 7am and took the car out to get some morning photos. I drove the Moose-Wilson road into the park and was literally astounded by the scenery. It was jaw dropping with the clouds and the mountains in the morning light.
- I thought the best vista was just south of Jenny Lake (see below). It has a fence and this stand of aspens in the foreground. The Cascade Canyon viewpoint and the Jenny lake scenic drive were very legit too.
Tetons in the morning light.
- After breakfast we did the same circuit with the folks. It was just as good at 11am ? but the light for photography was better at 7:30 am. So depends on what you want.
- We had lunch at Colter Bay and after that we rented a motor boat from the Colter Bay Marina and took it out on the lake. Do this! It was an amazingly unique view of the Tetons. And it was awesome to take the boat out on the lake. We got the full spectrum experience ? calm placid water to windy chop. My two year old even took a turn captaining the boat. She figured out the throttle in 30 seconds.
Captaining our boat like a boss.
- After boating we drove back the other way and stopped by some other good vista points. Oxbow Bend ? definitely hit that up in the fall. The aspens there are blindingly yellow. Also hit up the Snake River overlook. Ansel Adams took his famous shot from there.
Snake River Overlook
- We drove through Jackson on way home and ended up spending a bunch of time there ? coffee, window shopping, and meeting the bear whisperer ? who gave us a free unused canister of bear spray. Bear spray is a MUST hiking in the Tetons and Yellowstone.
- Random Aside: This guy, lets just call him the ?bear whisperer?, scared the shi* out of me in the process. WTF. Why can?t bears just be afraid of humans like other wildlife? Why does it have to charge me? I briefly thought about getting an assault rifle with a high capacity cartridge instead of ?bear spray?. A spray of bullets sounds better than capscacin spray when a bear is charging me. But I didn?t do it. Mainly because I know I?d indiscriminately shoot every thing that moved. There would be collateral damage.
- Back at hotel we cleaned up and got a nice meal in the Village.
- We would?ve checked out the rooftop hot tub, but we were so tired from the travel and not sleeping much we just hit the hay.
Day 3: Day Hike the Tetons
- This is the day for a hard core hike. My wife and I tried to do the hike up Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude, but we got too late a start so we couldn?t do the entire 18 mile loop. Another awesome option (that we learned about later) is the really long 19 mile day hike that starts at Paintbrush Canyon, goes up to the Paintbrush Divide, falls into Lake Solitude, and then come back OUT Cascade Canyon. Gotta start early for that too ? 6 or 7 am.
- That being said, our 12 miler up and down Cascade Canyon was plenty rad as well. The scenery was epic ? a cathedral of mountains surrounding us, a perfect mountain stream, a crystal clear mountain lake. This is basically what paradise looks like when I picture it in my head.
Inside of Cascade Canyon
- While we were hiking, our in-laws took care of our toddler ? walked around Jenny Lake and went swimming back at the hotel.
- We got a nice dinner that night and soaked up in the hotel hot tub after the long hike.
Day 4: Scenic Drive to Yellowstone
- We woke up early this day and just used every luxury resource out hotel had to offer before checking out: We went swimming with our toddler, we used the hot tub, we use the Eucalyptus Steam Room. I almost passed out in there it was so hot.
- We had lunch in Jackson at this amazing cafe called Cafe Genevieve.
- After lunch, we hit the Craig Thomas Visitor Center at Grand Teton. It?s a beautiful building with an spectacular view of the Tetons. Go see it. And take pictures with the antlers there. We probably should have gone at the beginning of the trip, but we went at the end. Whatevs.
- We drove up slowly toward Yellowstone ? the early afternoon sun was glorious so we took a lot of pictures on the way. Yellow aspens, towering mountains, and this shot I took from just south of Jenny Lake. It?s my favorite of the trip.
Life is Good.
- After enough pictures, we finally said goodbye to Grand Teton National Park and headed north to Yellowstone. After entering the park, we headed to the West Thumb Geyser Area to see our first geothermal features and Lake Yellowstone.
- West Thumb Geyser area is not one of the main geyser areas, but it?s a great intro to the park and totally worth going to ? especially because it?s right beside Yellowstone Lake. The best part was that we also happened to run into a huge herd of elk that were just hanging out there as well.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
- After the West Thumb Geyser Basin, we drove through Hayden Valley around sunset and ran into our first bison. This was early on, so we stopped and gazed. By our last day in Yellowstone you?re just like ? ?bison, whatevs?. It?s like seeing a squirrel at that point.
- We stayed at Canyon Lodge and ate at the restaurant there that night.
Day 5: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- I woke up early this morning and drove out to Hayden Valley to get some pictures of wildlife without the family. I saw huge herd of bison and just missed seeing a Grizzly try to take down a calf. The others there were talking about it like crazy.
- I got some good pics in the morning mist and then drove like 1 min to the Sulfur Cauldron. Apparently, it has a pH of 1 ? more than battery acid. If I fell in it will literally melt me into my constituent atoms ? bones and all. It was a good reminder to stay on the path.
- On the way back I hit up some of the Canyon vista points ? Lower Falls, Upper Falls. It was nice at 8am in the morning ? completely uncrowded.
- After a breakfast in the room, I took everyone out for a 6 mile hike along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I thought it would be a better way to see the canyon and falls than doing the routine tourist car circuit. It was flat enough that no one in the party complained about it. In fact, everyone was super gung-ho about it.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- We started from Uncle Toms and hiked along the canyon to Artist?s Point. We got amazing views into the canyon and falls the whole way. Beyond Artist?s Point we hiked towards Sublime Point, turning to a little lake, and then back to our car along the inside past a backcountry thermal area. That was super cool. No boardwalks, no people, just us and the hot springs.
Us on our hike around the Canyon
- We had lunch back at Canyon Village and then the others wanted to rest a little. I went back out and checked out the Mud Volcano area in the intermittent rain. I did the boardwalk there in about an hour. It was cool in the light rain. Lots of pools, fumaroles, and some dried mud pots. Most people can miss it. Go if you?re a weirdo like me that is obsessed with volcanoes.
- Later that evening we went to a ranger program. It was super boring. About a bird called the Clark?s Nutcracker. We just left after a few mins and milled around the visitor center and gift store. The program is different every night. With another speaker and topic I think it could be interesting ? give it a try ? but leave if its too boring.
Day 6: Lamar Valley and Mammoth
- We got an earlier start today and drove northeast from Canyon into Lamar Valley. This valley is known as the ?Serengeti of North America? because of all the wildlife there. It lived up fully to its billing. In fact, it was amazeballs. The highlight was seeing a HUGE herd of bison migrating across the valley.
- This is why the National Parks amazing. The line from that song ? ?give me a home where the buffalo roam.? ? you literally feel it here. This is what the American West used to look like before humans took it all over and ruined it.
- We saw much more wildlife in Lamar Valley ? a herd of pronghorn, a flock of bighorn sheep, we even stopped by the side of the road where a bunch of people were setup with scopes looking for wolves. We didn?t see any, but apparently theres a few packs in Lamar Valley. You gotta be super dedicated to see those guys.
- At the eastern end of Lamar Valley, we did a short 1.6 mile hike up and around Trout Lake. Mile for mile this was probably the lowest effort, highest reward hike in Yellowstone. You go up only a few 100 feet and end up at this spectacular little mountain lake. It was reflecting the sky like a mirror. We chilled there for awhile to soak it in.
- Then we got in the car and trucked it over to Mammoth. We were hungry and hadn?t had lunch yet. Mammoth is a cool little outpost at the north of Yellowstone. We got lunch at the deli and checked out the famous Mammoth Terraces. I remember these from being a kid and it was actually kinda disappointing cause many of the terraces have DIED! It?s nothing that humans did ? they died because of little earthquakes that changed the water vent structure. There are a bunch of new terraces forming ? but they haven?t grown to this huge sprawling expanse that Minerva and Jupiter Terrace were back in 1987 when I was last here. But still totally worth seeing.
- PRO TIP: If you?re traveling with your two year old daughter that is obsessed with Frozen and she asks you ?Is this Elsa?s Castle?? ? don?t think twice before answering ?Yes, yes this is Elsa?s Castle.? Her already high enthusiasm level will get ratcheted up to another level and she will be dragging you to see all the the geothermal features in the park. Any time she?s flagging you can say ?I think Elsa?s going to be at the next castle, lets see if we can catch her?. She?ll perk right up.
Yes, yes that IS Elsa?s Castle.
- Since it was cold, we only did the Lower Terraces and left the Upper ones for tomorrow. We rested up and had a fancy dinner that night at the Mammoth Dining Room. I ate bison ? because that?s just who I am.
Day 7: Norris Geyser Basin and Old Faithful
- We had a nice big breakfast and got a later start. We hit up the Upper Mammoth Terraces. It?s not as spectacular as the Lower Terraces, but still worth seeing. We spent about an hour in the cold and intermittent rain up there.
- Then we got in our car and drove down to the Norris Geyser Basin ? the biggest geothermal area in the park. Unfortunately the direct road there was closed, so we had to take a 90 minute detour ? getting there in the early afternoon. Norris is where you can truly see the full scope of geothermal activity in the park. It?s this sprawling place with miles of boardwalks.
- We did the 1.5 mile lower basin loop ? so many hot springs, fumaroles, and bubbling geysers all over the place. The smell of sulfur everywhere. It was a glorious day so we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My daughter kept asking me at every feature:
?Did Elsa make this??
- The right answer was always ?yes?.
Panorama of Norris Geyser Basin
- After a short rest wandering the small visitors center, we did the 2 mile upper basin loop. This is more spaced out ? snaking through the woods to a bunch more geothermal features. If you?re tired, you can miss this ? but I thought it was well worth it. It was a beautiful hike in a really unique landscape with bubbling water and thermophilic bacteria and weird ghost trees.
Posing for foolish pictures is half the fun.
- After Norris we headed down to the main attraction of the park, Old Faithful, and checked into the famous Old Faithful Inn. As noted above, this place is spectacular. One of the best hotel experiences ever ? it?s not the Four Seasons level luxury, but in terms of uniqueness it?s unparalleled.
- We cleaned up and saw Old Faithful go off once in the evening. Then we got a drink and settled into the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn where they were playing live music. It was an awesome time ? and only really possible because we were staying there. We had dinner at the Snow Lodge, a little behind the Inn.
- A around 10:30 I went out to take a long exposure of Old Faithful. Right as I was stepping out, I saw Old Faithful go off. So I waited, for the full 96 minute cycle, for the next eruption. That was good because it gave me the opportunity to take a bunch of test shots and get the setting right on my SLR. In the meantime, I also saw the Beehive go off in the distance.. There was only one other guy crazy enough to be out there ? we made friends. Eventually Old Faithful erupted again and I got the shot below. It?s one of the best photos I?ve ever taken. Old Faithful under the Milky Way. Single shot. 13 second exposure. This is why you stay at the Old Faithful Inn. So you can go outside at 11:50pm and take this photo 5 minutes from your hotel room.
Old Faithful Erupting under the Milky Way
Day 8 : More Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
- We woke up and saw Old Faithful erupt in the morning. As opposed to my nighttime experience there were like thousands of people there even at 9:30. After breakfast in the Snow Lodge, we hit up the visitor center and saw when the other major geysers in the Upper Basin were gonna go off and made a plan around that. For us that was walk around Old Faithful, see it go off from the back side ? then go onto Grand Geyser, then to Daisy Geyser, and eventually to Riverside Geyser.
- The plan did not disappoint. We got a great view of Old Faithful from the back. It was actually better than what we were seeing from the main amphitheater because the steam wasn?t occluding the view. After that we did the full walk along the Upper Basin ? about 3 miles total.
Old Faithful from the Backside.
- While walking toward Grand Geyser, we saw it start to erupt and ran over. We got to see a full 10 minute eruption of the geyser. After that we went to Daisy Geyser and waited there for almost 45 minutes ? the eruption window came and went ? and nothing happened. We finally gave up and went over to Grotto Geyser, which was erupting then, and eventually to Riverside Geyser. We waited there for about 30 minutes and this time the eruption came about on time ? and it was super epic. Riverside erupts across the Firehole River and creates a rainbow toward the tail end. Don?t miss it.
Riverside Geyser Erupting
- There?s something about waiting for some random hole in the ground to spout water and steam that is super satisfying. It?s like Nature is putting on a show for us.
- In addition to the geysers, which are the main attraction, there is no shortage of other geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin. From vibrant green, to neon orange, to crystal clear blue. Yellowstone is a one of kind place. Go slow here and enjoy it. Be mindful.
Colors in Yellowstone
- Since this was our last night in the park, we had booked dinner at the Old Faithful Inn (we made the booking 9 months ago). We dressed up and had a great dinner in the old dining room there. Spectacular service and good food. This was the best part of the trip ? we?d spend all day outside in hiking gear, but then get back to a gourmet meal.
- At night, we knew the that the Castle Geyser, which is about a 10 minute walk from the hotel was going to erupt around 11:30 ? so me and my in-laws walked down there around 10:30 to check it out. Other than one other photographer, we were the only ones out there. There was no moon and the Milky Way filled up the sky. Going out at night is half the experience in Yellowstone. Do it. If everyone saw the unpolluted night sky on a regular basis I think there would be way less issues in the world. We waited for almost 1.5 hours for Castle to erupt ? it was super late ? only erupting when we were about to leave. But we still caught it. The eruption was actually not even the main attraction ? just being out there under the stars was.
Waiting for Castle Geyser to erupt under the Milky Way
Day 9: Midway Geyser Basin, Paint Pots, and drive back to SLC
- The last day we checked out and hit up Midway Geyser Basin where the Grand Prismatic Spring is. I wanted to hit up this short ?unofficial? hike where you can get a birds-eye view of the Spring ? but the park had closed it :(. Apparently too many people were using this ?unofficial? path and causing erosion issues. So the park closed it to make it a real trail with boardwalks and stuff.
- Instead we went into the basin and got a ground level view of the Spring. Which was still pretty rad. The only problem was that FIVE tour buses full of Chinese people came in at the same time we did. I don?t know about you, but having 500 people walking along a narrow boardwalk is not fun. We pushed our way through and got some photos and got the hell out of there. I think some people only have this crowded experience of Yellowstone. Fortunately for us, since we?d been hitting everything a little off the beaten path, we hadn?t faced this. It really ruins things to have too many people in the same place. I came to Yellowstone to get away from people ? not to stand in line behind them.
Grand Prismatic Spring
- After the Midway Geyser Basin, we did a short drive along the scenic Firehole Drive ? getting out to take some pictures. Driving tours are just not the same as walking through the geysers. We did a cursory job of it, cause we had seen so much better stuff walking the Upper Geyser Basin the day before.
- Finally we hit up the Artist Paint Pots where there were lots of mud pots. We got some good video of mud literally boiling in the ground. And then we were done! We took our last #selfie of the trip and left Yellowstone.
End of trip selfie.
- We had a quick bite to eat in West Yellowstone, MT and trucked it back to Salt Lake City ? about a 5 hour drive. We picked up some Thai food in SLC on the way to our hotel and watched the first Presidential debate while eating.
Day 10: Fly Back
- The next day we woke, ate a quick breakfast at the hotel, dropped our rental car at the airport, and flew home.
All in all, it was an epic trip. I highly recommended it for everyone. If we can do it with a toddler and two 60-something parents ? anyone can. The key is to book lodging early and get off the beaten path a bit to have a good time. Don?t just be a car tourist. Get on your feet and actually experience the place.