Summer is an exciting time to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The snow has receded, wildflowers are in bloom, the animals are out and the weather is warm. That’s why you will be in the good company of many others wanting to experience the Parks at this time. This guide will assist those planning well in advance—which I highly recommend—but also those who are doing things relatively last minute.
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Due to some traveller’s indecision, we found ourselves planning our Grand Teton and Yellowstone summer road trip only six weeks out. Additionally, we planned to visit for a week starting on the busiest weekend of the year—4th of July. Booking your road trip last minute is challenging, but not impossible. However, you will have to be flexible and accept a higher price tag—so plan well in advance if you can.
How long do you need?
If you are planning to see both parks, I would advise a minimum of four days which will allow you to see the key sights but no time for any real hiking. For those wanting to do some day hikes and get into the backcountry beyond the tourist trail, then you are going to need a full week or more.
Flying to Jackson is the close but pricey option. This is the ideal choice for those on a strict time limit. The more budget friendly, but longer route is to arrive via Salt Lake City. If you are travelling through Salt Lake City, allow an extra half day of driving each way, to and from the Parks.
The driving route
There are two options for driving to the Parks depending which one you are planning to tackle first. We drove from Salt Lake City north through Wyoming using the I-80E and US89N and began with Grand Teton National Park. We then returned to Salt Lake City from West Yellowstone through Idaho on the US-20W and I-15S.
Navigating the Parks
Once inside the National Parks, your route is relatively simple and straightforward. Grand Teton’s main roads run roughly north-south, and Yellowstone’s in a figure-8. You will generally be given a map for each Park when you pay your National Park fees at the gate.
I highly recommend downloading the GyPSy Guide which will not only provide you with directions as you move around the Parks, but valuable commentary and recommendations for stops and sites. There is very little phone and internet coverage in the Parks, therefore ensure you download the app before you leave home. Then just open it when you arrive and the GPS will trigger the app appropriately as you move about.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone itinerary
If you plan to road trip around the Parks and just take short hikes around the key sights, then the GyPSy Guide is really all you need to systematically move through the Parks and see the highlights. However, if you want to do some longer trails, you will need to plan further ahead. Research hikes that will interest you before you leave and allocate appropriate time in your schedule. Since I’ve only travelled to Grand Teton and Yellowstone once, I’m not going to give you my personal hiking recommendations, but instead hook you up with some more experienced and well hiked sources for trails at the end of this post.
Tip: When you arrive in the Parks, double check your planned hikes with a ranger at a visitor center, as some trails may be closed due to weather or maintenance.
Places to stay
There are a variety of places to stay inside and outside the Park, that offer various types of accommodation from basic lodge rooms to self-contained cabins. Here I’ll give you a run down on some of the options and locations available.
We had to be flexible and allow accommodation availability to somewhat dictate the order of our itinerary. There was some serious juggling involved, but it was worth it. We stayed almost every night in a new place which gave us a really good feel for hotels and townships both inside and outside the Parks. You may choose to move around a little (not as much as us) or base yourself in one or two central locations and do a little extra driving.
Inside the Parks
Lake Lodge, located in the township of Lake on Yellowstone Lake’s northern shore, provides very comfortable stay. Rooms appear recently furnished and well maintained. There is no television or wifi available, but rooms do have a bar fridge.
Canyon Village, Yellowstone
Canyon Lodge is located in Canyon Village, which offers the Park’s largest number of accommodation rooms and cabins. The Lodge was opened in 2016, with spacious, modern rooms. Again, rooms have bar fridges, but no TV or wifi. We did have some patchy AT&T coverage while we were staying there. There are restaurants and giftshops nearby, which opened for summer 2017.
Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, Yellowstone
Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District is the administrative center of Yellowstone National Park. Before the National Parks Service existed, the US Army was charged with running and maintaining the Park, therefore Mammoth looks more like a barracks than a town. It encompasses the original Fort Yellowstone, 35 structures dating back to the 1890s and early 1900s. We passed through Mammoth, only using the post office to send postcards and take a few snaps of the heritage buildings. The town is lovely and only walking distance to Mammoth Hot Springs Lower Terraces. There is no wifi here as far as I could tell.
Tip: If you are booking late and want to stay inside the Parks, keep checking back with the online central booking system. Availability changes by the hour and we nabbed our accommodation by checking back 3-4 times a day and pouncing on cancellations as they happened. Book online rather than by calling as there is often a long queue and someone ahead of you will get the cancelled room while you’re on hold.
Outside the Parks
I have listed population figures for each town outside the Parks to illustrate the town size and the amenities that that might be available.
Jackson, Wyoming (Population 10,529)
Jackson (or Jackson Hole as it is sometimes inaccurately referred) is the gateway to Grand Teton National Park all year round. The town is well developed, with many accommodation and dining options. This is the place to stop and refuel or pick up supplies before you enter the Park.
We stayed at Hatchett Lodge on US-287 in Moran, outside Grand Teton National Park. There are several lodges along this road, close to the Park entrance. There’s no town nearby, so be prepared to eat at the food outlet within your accommodation as there aren’t other options.
West Yellowstone, Montana (Population 1,353)
Yellowstone’s western gateway on the US-191 N is West Yellowstone. The town is situated right outside the Park’s borders about halfway up the western side, making it a good midpoint for accessing park (particularly if want to base yourself in one place). West Yellowstone is the next biggest town after Jackson, therefore it’s where you should pick up supplies, refuel and can find a variety of accommodation and food outlets.
Gardiner, Montana (Population 875)
Gardiner is a town on Yellowstone’s northern border on the US-89 N. This is the third largest center after Jackson and West Yellowstone. Again, there are plenty of accommodation and food options, along with many adventure tour companies offering activities such as rafting, fly fishing and horseback riding. Gardiner is home to iconic Roosevelt Arch, built in 1903 to welcome visitors to Yellowstone.
Silver Gate-Cooke City, Montana (Population 140)
Silver Gate and close neighbour Cooke City, are the two first townships you will come across when exiting the north-eastern side of the Park on the US-212 E (Beartooth Highway). These quaint towns have fewer facilities including very little wifi. Staying in this area means you will be close to the Lamar Valley for evening wildlife watching in Yellowstone. Also, one of my favourite short trails in the Park for its wildflowers and wildlife is Trout Lake, not far inside the north-eastern entrance. There are more food and beverage options in Cooke City than Silver Gate, though it is only a short drive between the two.
Tip: If you are staying outside the Parks, make sure you leave before 9am to avoid the horrendous queues to get through the entrance gate. There are no express lanes for those who have already purchased their National Park passes and the line starts to get long after about 9am.
I found the gift shops at Canyon were the best for picking up souvenirs that are locally made. My favourites were handmade pottery, silver jewellery and glass tumblers made from recycled wine bottles. There were also some terrific kids books on offer such as “Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?”
When you’re ready to pack for your Grand Teton and Yellowstone summer road trip adventure, you can find my packing list with printable checklist here. If you are travelling through Utah, you might want to add a trip to Spiral Jetty and the Golden Spike National Historic Site to your itinerary. For those with questions or further advice to add, please leave a comment below.
Please leave a comment below with any questions or further advice to share.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,