Visiting the National Parks: Yellowstone and Grand Teton

Since Covid-19 has made many countries off-limits to United States of America travelers, many of us are looking into trips that we can take within the United States. It turns out that United States has quite a lot to offer. Who knew? From wine tasting to coastal beaches to our national parks, we certainly aren’t at a lack for things to do here.

The travel bug had been biting hard, so recently I visited several USA national parks: part fun, part research for future Zoom Vacations tours.  I started in Glacier National Park in Montana, then drove to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton in Wyoming, the Salt Flats outside of Salt Lake City, Arches National Park, Dead Horse State Park, Capital Reef National Park, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. It was quite an adventure!

I learned so much from taking this trip, and as I know that a lot of people will be making similar trips in the future, I thought I would give you my tips for each of the destinations. It is pretty extensive, so I am going to break this up as part of a series.

If you are planning on going to several national parks within the year, you definitely want to get the year-long unlimited “America the Beautiful” national parks pass which is only $80. With it, you can see more than 2000 natural, historic, and cultural sites within the US. You need to acquire the pass in advance, and it is good for one vehicle with four people. Also, all the national parks that we visited were open 24 hours a day. So, this is definitely a place where you want to wake up and experience sunrise and lesser crowds at the park. There isn’t much to do in the evenings anyway, so it is the perfect “early to bed and early to rise” opportunity.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton

To arrive at Yellowstone and/or Grand Teton, other than driving, there are several airport options. The furthest but least expensive is flying into Salt Lake City, about six hours away. The closest is Yellowstone Airport, just two miles from the Park.  If you are planning on entering through the South entrance, Jackson Hole Airport in Jackson, WY is the nearest to Yellowstone, about 60 miles from the south entrance, located inside Grand Teton National Park.

As I mentioned, Grand Teton National Park is located right next to Yellowstone, and I definitely recommend doing both since the two experiences are quite different. Grand Teton has magnificent huge mountains that you don’t find in Yellowstone and so if you love hiking, you will certainly appreciate that. However, you could also go to Grand Teton and just enjoy the beauty of the area, and do things such as taking a boat ride across Jenny Lake, or even just taking one of the many beautiful scenic drives.   You will want to bring bear spray as a precaution while visiting Grand Teton, but while I saw no bears, the highlight of my trip was coming across two moose.

Grand Teton, as I said, is a hiker’s paradise, and most trails offer shorter and longer hike options. We went to Yellowstone first, then spent one day in Grand Teton. You could do two or three nights if you really love hiking, and stay in Jackson Hole.

Of all the parks revisited, Yellowstone was the most packed with people. My friend and I stayed at the western entrance to the park, which I highly recommend. You can certainly stay within the park, but you’re going to spend a lot of money, and then you are also going to deal with more crowds and traffic within the park, plus you are beholden to the food venues at the property where you are staying.

Depending on how active you like to be, two or three nights is the perfect amount of time to spend in Yellowstone. On the way into Yellowstone on the west side of the park we also made the time to stop by two ghost towns: Virginia City, and Nevada City, located right next to each other, and only about an hour from the park. We were so glad that we did!   You can certainly stop there and have lunch, learn a bit of history, and take pictures next to the old buildings.

Yellowstone is a unique national park in that it is truly full of attractions, more than it is about hiking or fitness in my opinion, and it is your place for all things thermal. If you have health or walking limitations, it is the perfect national park to experience, because you don’t have to do any strenuous hiking to get to the attractions, and most of them are wheelchair accessible.  You can also do a beautiful scenic drive through all of the park, and you’re bound to see bison grazing, which is really special. While we were there, we saw two bison calling out to each other amongst the herd, and it was fun to imagine what they were saying. Just don’t get too close to them.

Now I will tell you right now that Yellowstone’s most famous attraction, may be your biggest disappointment of all the things that you will see on a national parks tour: it was for me. Old Faithful is interesting and kind of neat, but you will sit there for a while waiting for it to burst, and when it does you’re kind of left with this feeling like oh, OK there it went… moving on. Still, you kind of have to see it.

The site that really captivated us was the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand and Boiling Lake in Dominica.  It is nice to see it first thing in the morning, while the weather is cooler and you really see the steam coming off, but it is absolutely much better in the afternoon.  So, one of my biggest tips of any national park experience is to see the Grand Prismatic in the afternoon at the base of the Hot Springs, but then go up the road a few miles to the Fairy Falls entrance, where are you can take a hike up a hill and see it from the top looking down. This is truly where you can best experience it, see its magnitude, and appreciate its stunning colors. After this, definitely continue this simple hike to fairy Falls which is really beautiful.

After the Grand Prismatic, my next favorite thing was Mammoth Hot Springs.  It is a little further away from the other sites, but the white terraces and steaming water were just so unique to behold and photograph. Probably an hour after sunrise would be a great time to visit the springs, to see the light changing its appearance. On your way to Mammoth, definitely stop off at some of the other hot springs, especially if you are able to go in the early morning, to see the steam rising. It gives a very mystical, eerie ambience.  Like everything in Yellowstone, it will get more crowded in the afternoon.

If you still have time while in Yellowstone, go to the see the Upper Falls as well as the Lower Falls. You can access them in several different ways and appreciate their beauty with different vistas.  There are options to drive, park, and walk a few feet to see them, or you can park and take nature trails to experience the falls from different vantage points. Most would say that these are the best waterfalls within the park.

Stay tuned for next month where I will tell you about another one of the US National Parks, Zion!