In the last 10 years or so, we have done a lot of traveling and have been to some very awesome and unique places. Yellowstone National Park is by far my most favorite, unbelievably wild experience that I’ve had in my life. It is hard to believe that a place like this really exists- and is in the United States! Is Yellowstone is on your bucket list? Make it your next vacation. If Yellowstone isn’t even on your radar, it needs to be! Yellowstone National Park is the world's first national park and it is a privilege to witness the beauty and history it holds. There is truly nothing like it and trust me when I say that you need to experience it!
I’m going to divide this review into 4 different categories: general things to know before you go, when to go, where we stayed and what we did. We spent most of our time in Yellowstone; but Grand Teton National Park is right next door and I'll talk briefly about that as well.
Upper Geyser basin area
Things to know before you go
Yellowstone is an extremely large National Park. It spans 2.2 million acres, most of which is located in the state of Wyoming. It takes a VERY long time to travel through and around the park. There are a number of reasons that contribute to this, but it’s mostly due to the size of the park. On average, we spent 3-5 hours in the car each day. That may seem like a lot- and it is, but remember that you’ll be traveling through incredible mountainous terrain and ever changing landscapes thanks to the parks’ 10,000 geothermal features, and you'll have the opportunity to see wildlife around every turn! The park is a sensory overload in the most amazing way and you will want to stop frequently.
If you are looking at a map and planning to travel to a point of interest that’s 30 miles from where you are, you should plan for that to take an hour. Another reason that it takes a lot of time to travel through the park is that the average speed limit is 45 mph, and at times it drops to 35. The low speed limit is entirely for your safety and the animals safety. Could you imagine hitting a 2,000 lb animal at 50 m.p.h? You’ll also need to account for slow moving wildlife (read: bison) being in the road (which you may encounter many times a day), that can often bring you to a dead stop for 15-20 minutes- sometimes up to an hour in the busy summer season. Because we visited in the fall, we made it through the “bison jams” fairly quickly. We truly loved getting to stop for these massive creatures- it was just amazing to witness them and their behavior so close up! My advice while you wait in a jam: Roll down your windows, take in the sights and smells, (oh the smells!) and just be present where you are. Yellowstone is truly just a place of wonder!
Bison jam! One of our very favorite Yellowstone memories.
Another factor in the time it takes to get around the park is road construction. Again, because we visited the park in the fall, we did not encounter any of this, but I have heard that road construction in the summer (it’s the only time of year it can take place) can cause road closures and slower traffic.
Download the GyPSy guide for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park before you go. Having this audible GPS guide is actually my number one recommendation for visiting the park. It’s like having a personal tour guide of the park right in the car with you! Since the tour is run off of GPS, the tour guide tells you exactly what you are seeing as you see it. He will let you know what’s ahead, tell you what you MUST see, gives history of the park and the science behind the thermal features. My kids loved this and I really believed it helped make the long drives fun for them! It’s 9.99 for the app (for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and honestly, it would be easily be worth $50. Please don’t visit the park without having this guide! Also: pack an auxillary cord so that you can listen to this guide over the car speakers instead of your phone's speaker.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are essentially connected; when most people talk about a Yellowstone trip, it's likely that they also spent time in Grand Teton. Grand Teton is arguably the more "scenic" of the two- the Teton mountain range is quite majestic and grand. Since the Teton range has no foothills, the mountain range shoots up dramatically, seemingly out of nowhere! When you are trying to decide how to divide your time between these two parks, we found that about 1/4th of the time is a good amount for spending in Grand Teton; 1-2 days is plenty if your trip is about a week.
We were able to enjoy free admission to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks for free because my son is in 4th grade. The National Park Foundation has a program that gives every 4th grade child free admission to National Parks, some State parks and historic sites during their 4th grade year and for the summer afterward.
When to go
There are likely many reasons and advantages for every season in Yellowstone. I cannot recommend a fall trip highly enough. The park has quieted down from its busy summer season (you'll be able to get around quicker), wildlife activity is incredible (the elk were in rut!) and the fall colors in the Tetons were beyond words.
Grand Teton N.P., Jenny Lake area
We visited the park at the end of September through the first week of October. It’s worth noting, that the park does begin slowly shutting down for winter in the first week of October. A lot of the hotel's last reservations for the year are in October, so if you do plan a fall trip, be mindful of that. In November, all entrances to the park close except for the North entrance which remains open all year, and at that point, only a handful of in-park accommodations remain open.
I realize that fall trips are not always possible for families because of school being in session- but if you can take your kids out (our kids missed 4 days) don’t hesitate! The experience of Yellowstone is a lifetime one and I can say with certainty that they’ll learn more from an experience here than they would in the classroom. If a summer trip your only option, I’d recommend going at the end of May or during the month of June. Yellowstone Park receives one million visitors in July and August alone. If July or August is your only option, I’d still recommend it! Yellowstone is just THAT amazing, but I strongly urge you to consider going outside the busy summer months.
Because we traveled in the fall, we were able to secure accommodations 4-5 months prior to our departure. If you're planning a summer trip, you'll need to begin looking into accommodations at least a year in advance.
I think it’s also worth noting my opinion for a good age for children traveling to the park. My kids were 7.5 and 9.5 at the time we went. I really thought it was a great age and I wouldn’t have wanted them to be much younger. My kids travel well (in cars especially) but you need to consider how much you could see each day and handle with your kids. There is a lot of driving, a lot of walking, and getting in and out of the car. This is my personal opinion, but I would not take a child who is in a stroller, was not potty trained, and who still needs naps. Maybe save the trip for a few years when they (and YOU) would get a little more enjoyment out of it!
Where we stayed
For our entire stay, we stayed outside the park in West Yellowstone, Montana. Our condo was just 1 minute from the West Yellowstone Park Entrance. From the Jackson Airport (the closest choice for visiting the park if you’re flying), its about 118 miles, and that drive took us 3 hours with no traffic jams. We chose to stay in this location because we thought it would provide us with quick, central access to the park, which it did, but again: the park is very large and it does take longer than you think to get to where you're going.
The closest site for us from West Yellowstone was probably Old Faithful, which was still a 45 minute drive with NO traffic. We also chose this location because it put us in between the Upper and Lower loops of Yellowstone, which was where almost everything we wanted to see was located. I really would recommend West Yellowstone as a location to stay, however, I would also consider dividing your time between two locations if you can.
We didn't look much into in-park accommodations (Old Faithful, Canyon Village, Mammoth, etc), but it would be a good idea to do so if you aren't looking for a condo. Staying inside the park would significantly cut down on some travel time on a few of your days. These accommodations are historic and many of them are described as “Park-itecture” (a term for the buildings that are made to have a rustic appearance and blend in with its surroundings) so even if you don’t stay in them, go in and explore them!
Looking back, I think it would have been wise to better plan an itinerary for each day, and then stay accordingly to the general location of what we were seeing. Having said that, I don’t regret where we stayed at all. I think just knowing that driving was going to take up a large part of our sight seeing experience would have been good to know.
Things not to miss
We were in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons for 6 days, not including travel days. It was really a great amount of time to be able to see the main parks attractions, and also enjoy some really great “off the beaten path” adventures and hikes. We even had two “down” days, where we didn’t really go far into the park and just sort of relaxed a bit. Even if you only had ONE day in the park- say, you are just passing through in route to somewhere else, I highly recommend checking out a few sites! Here are my top suggestions:
Upper Geyser Basin Area
- They say that Yellowstone is more than just Old Faithful, and while that’s true, I would personally suggest putting Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin area (home to hundreds of other great geysers) on the top of your list, especially if you were short on time. Plan to spend at least a ½ day here walking around the boardwalks and checking out all of the amazing thermal features.
- The Midway Geyser basin, home to the world’s largest hot spring, The Grand Prismatic, cannot be missed. You’ll want to see it from the ground (on the boardwalks) but there’s also a short hike (Fairy Falls) that allows you to see the Grand Prismatic and take incredible pictures from up above.
- Mammoth Hot Springs. This area looks like snow covered mountains, but it’s actually Travertine formations that are constantly changing! Also located near Mammoth is the Boiling River- a frigid river that’s met with hot springs run off. You can get in the water here (we did!), and there are areas where the two extreme temperatures collide and provide excellent little “pools” to relax and soak in.
Mammoth Hot Springs terraces
It is wild to experience the Boiling River- where one foot can be in a current that will literally scald your skin, and the other foot in a current that's so cold it feels like a thousand knives. Here I stand where I found a happy medium!
- If you stay in West Yellowstone, you’ll pass through Madison Valley every day on your venture into the park. Madison Valley is a hot spot for bald eagles, bison, elk and moose! The Madison River runs through here which draws so much wildlife. If you don’t stay in West Yellowstone, a drive through this area is worth it. Pack a picnic lunch, and find one of the many pull outs in the area along the river to enjoy some time watching fly fisherman and surrounding nature.
- The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone truly illustrates the parks grandeur, and its two main parts, the Upper Falls and Lower Falls are a beautiful site to behold. One of my favorite viewpoints in all of Yellowstone, Artist Point, was the very spot where a painter named Thomas Moran painted the Falls and with his painted image, convinced Congress and President Ulysses Grant to establish Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Also in this area, Canyon Village, has lodging, food and a wonderful Education Center that is definitely worth a stop in!
- Norris Geyser Basin is home to the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat geyser.
- Grand Teton National Park. If you’re flying into Jackson, Wy, you’ll actually land inside the park boundaries of Grand Teton. If you are able, sit on the right side of the airplane coming into Jackson for an epic view of the Teton range! There are so many wonderful things to explore in the Tetons and I think a day, two if you have it, is sufficient time to take it all in. Oxbow Bend is an iconic overlook and is a great place to spot wildlife on the Snake River. The Teton range is quite magnificent, and there are many hikes that put it in your view. Perhaps the most popular, Jenny Lake, is a great hiking area, and you can take a boat tour there in the summer season. We ended up hiking around the entire lake to Hidden Falls (10 miles) but you can take the water taxi (summer season only) and cut the hike to just one mile (round trip) if you're looking for a short hike with great views.
Jenny Lake: We found a very friendly single hiker from The Netherlands to hike with. We liked her because she had bear spray (which we did not have) and a fun accent; she liked us because we had loud children to potentially eliminate a surprise bear encounter.
Our 10 mile hike wiped us out for any more sight seeing that particular day, but I have heard that a drive to Signal mountain should not be missed: it's the highest road in the park and gives wonderful views of Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountains.
- Jackson, WY. The town of Jackson is just a 20 or so minute drive from the Jackson Airport, and its a quintessential little mountain town with lots of galleries, restaurants and souvenir shops. We enjoyed the Persephone Bakery for ridiculously great pastries and coffee, and also Healthy Being (right next door to Persephone) for cold pressed juices, smoothies and healthy snacks.
Well, that's it! I think I've covered most everything that we did. If you have any specific questions I'd love to answer them. Please free to email me directly at email@example.com, as I'm more likely to see your question there versus the comments on this blog post.