Top Tips for Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Tetons (After Running the Mesa Falls Marathon)

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As I reported earlier this week, I recently completed the Mesa Falls Marathon in Idaho (no, you da ho).   But that was just the beginning of the fun.  The race was conveniently located near Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, so of course I had to check them out.  Especially because the National Park Service had just celebrated its centennial!  Woohoo!

I LOVED these parks and they each had unique vibes and attractions.  Here are some of my top tips for when to visit, where to stay, what to eat, and what to do in Yellowstone and GTNP.  Oh, and a few notes on things to do in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the summer.

The Basics

  • Getting there: Fly in to Jackson Hole.  The most direct route to Yellowstone from the airport is through the South Entrance, but if you are running in Idaho first, head in through the West Yellowstone Entrance, explore Yellowstone, then exit via the South Entrance and go into GTNP.  You can pay once for both parks at the West Yellowstone Entrance.  (Or get in for free if you are visiting on the weekend of the centennial, but you’ll have to wait another 100 years for that.)
  • How to Get Around: Obviously rent a car to do this.  You do not need 4 wheel drive in August.
  • When to go to Yellowstone and Grant Teton:  The end of August was really a perfect time to go to the parks.  Many kids have already started school, so the parks were a LOT less crowded than during the peak summer months (when you’ll sit in miles of traffic and need to elbow your way to the perfect bison photo spots).  The week after Labor Day would also probably be good, although some of the programming ends on Labor Day.  If you are running the Mesa Falls Marathon, explore the parks after the marathon, not before.  You’ll want to take advantage of all the great hikes in the parks without burning out your legs for the marathon.  I thought all the post-race hiking really helped my recovery.  I hiked each of the four days after the marathon.
  • How Much Time to Spend in Yellowstone and Grand Teton:  We spent 2.5 full days (3 nights) in Yellowstone, 1 full day (1 night) in Grand Teton, and about half a day (1 night) in Jackson.  I think this was a pretty good length of time for each.  I definitely would not have wanted to do fewer than 3 nights in Yellowstone, and maybe could have done an extra night there.  We would have probably checked out Mammoth Hot Springs or Lamar Valley, neither of which made the cut this year.  I also could have done another day in Grand Teton; I would have been interested in doing one of the longer hikes such as Cascade Canyon.  As it stood, I was too tired our one day there to do too much besides our shorter hike.
  • The 411 on Bear Spray: If you are planning on doing several days of hiking, pick up some bear spray for about $50 when you get into Yellowstone (or in West Yellowstone just outside the entrance).  Starting this year, Yellowstone is really into encouraging bear spray, and due to all the messaging, you will feel negligent without it.  We hiked scared our first day hiking but then rented for the second day hiking ($10/day). GTNP did not offer any rentals, so we didn’t use any on our hike there.  GTNP doesn’t seem to be quite so gung-ho about promoting bear spray, but I think all the same principles apply (aka bears are there and might attack you).  Outside of the parks, we went hiking in Jackson Hole and were once again encouraged to carry bear spray (the bear spray roller coaster!).  But at that point it was almost time to leave town, so we really didn’t want to buy a whole can.  We went without and survived.  But it might have just been easiest to make the investment up front and carry it throughout the hikes, especially if you are hiking alone or even in a couple.
  • A Note on Costs: One thing that really shocked me about the parks was how affordable they were.   I presumed that the food and gear for sale in the parks would be absurdly marked up, given the captive audience.  Not the case!  All of our purchases, from firewood to veggie burgers to souvenir mugs, were really, really reasonable.  What a pleasant surprise.

Where to Stay In Yellowstone

  • CAMP.  Did you hear me?  CAMP.  One more time?  CAMP.  There are some nice accommodations for those who really don’t want to camp (Old Faithful Lodge looked like the nicest, and there are other lodges in other spots — we just didn’t check them out).
  • But CAMPING.
  • First of all, you can get a reserved camping spot in certain campgrounds for $26 a night, including a picnic table, a parking spot, bear-safe food storage containers, showers (included in some locations, small fee at others), bathrooms with plumbing, fire pits, and nice flat areas for your tent.  Can’t beat that price.  Firewood is available for a small fee.  Kindling is also available, or you can scavenge for your own around the campsite.
  • Plus, you get a front row sleeping bag for the view of the stars (get a tent with mesh on top, like my REI Passage 2, and keep the rain fly off when the whether is nice).  And like infinite fresh air.  I mean, it’s just fun to sleep outside.
  • In addition to the Passage 2 tent, we brought REI Igneo and REI Lumen sleeping bags.  Both are three-season mummy bags that kept us warm all night (along with socks, pants, jackets, and sometimes hats).  We also brought inflatable mats for under the sleeping bags.  These offer cushion and extra warmth.  For reference, the coldest night was about 36 degrees.
  • BRING HEADLAMPS.
  • There are many different campgrounds in Yellowstone, but only certain spots allow for advance reservations.  We didn’t want to worry about not getting a campsite, so we booked at the Madison Campground for the first night and the Canyon Village Campground for the second and third nights.  Both were fantastic.  Madison is very near the West Yellowstone Entrance and is the closest campground to the Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser Basins.  Aka it is the best campground for visiting Old Faithful and the other thermal features.   Madison is pretty small, without the big general stores, visitor centers, etc. that are at some of the other camping areas, but it was a perfect landing place our first night.  Canyon Village on the east side of the park, just north of the Hayden Valley, is more hopping — several restaurants, showers included, visitor center, general store, grocery, outdoor outfitter.   It was a really nice central location, with easy access to the Hayden Valley, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Lake Yellowstone, and Mount Washburn.  We didn’t have any issues with noise or wildlife at either site.

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Top Things to Do in Yellowstone (in the Approximate Order in Which We Did Them)

  • First thing to understand about Yellowstone:  More than most other parks, Yellowstone is a driving park.  This means that much of the fun can occur from the comfort of your car, or within a few steps of it.  There are tons of pull-offs where you can try to spot wildlife (bring binoculars or a zoom lens), and many of the geological features are visible from boardwalks within a hundred feet of the road.  Yellowstone isn’t designed for you to park your car near the entrance and run or hike or bike around the rest.  So forget that idea, and buckle up.  I promise there are ample opportunities to stretch your legs, and if you follow my advice regarding timing above, you won’t be sitting in a line of cars around the Grand Loop.
  • Second thing: Below I listed some of the top attractions, but go ahead and pull off the Grand Loop to check out the rapids or little falls or any old overlook.  Especially if you see other cars there!  We pulled over for LeHardy Rapids — not originally on our to-do list — because we saw several cars in the pullout.  Turns out, not only are the rapids beautiful (stop to see them!) there was a big bison carcass in the water and a bear had been coming each day to feast.  The bear wasn’t hungry during the three (three!) times we stopped there during our trip (yes, we and everyone else in the park became obsessed with “the carcass” — word travels in Yellowstone), but we chatted with some interesting people with fancy photography equipment, learned a little about the wildlife, and saw several BALD EAGLES.

OK, without further adieu…

  • Check out the elk field between West Entrance and Madison Campground.  We were lucky enough to see a whole herd, including big papa elk.
  • See bison.  They are everywhere.  You will inevitably see one.  Don’t try to pet it.  These things look cuddly but can kill you.
  • Try to spot wolves and bears.  We weren’t successful but I think my  long-distance eyesight has improved.
  • The Geyser Basins:  Go in the afternoon or evening.  In the morning, the thermal features have too much steam in the cold air, so you can’t see them as well.  We went our first evening, after the marathon.
    • Lower Geyser Basin — a little warm up for what is to come.
    • Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Prismatic  — really cool (hot?), even if you’re not really into geysers and other thermal features.  Somewhat crowded.
    • Biscuit Basin — also really cool (hot?).
    • Upper Geyser Basin — home to Old Faithful.  In my opinion, less interesting than Midway and Biscuit but definitely more shooting water at Old Faithful than elsewhere.  Gotta do it.  We went in the evening, and it was not crowded.   NPS will predict the time of each eruption, so check in the visitor center when you arrive for the time of the next big show, and enjoy walking around the other features while you wait
    • (Norris Geyser Basin, north of these, is also supposed to be awesome as well but we did not go.)
  • Lake Yellowstone:  Check out the thermal features at the West Thumb, then take a drive around the lake.  Not a ton of activities happening on the lake, it seemed, but pretty nonetheless.  Nice activity for early in the morning.
  • Hayden Valley:  Ideal animal-watching environment, although, interestingly, we saw most of our animals in other spots.  But baby bison!  Also good sunrises/sunsets here.
  • Best way to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:  hike the South Rim.  Start on the path next to the bridge (near but not at the Wapiti Trailhead Parking Lot) and proceed all the way to Artist Point.   Snap some photos at the overlooks on the way, especially the falls, but do not pass GO, do not stop at Uncle Tom’s Trail.   Ignore all the people who drove to the lookouts.  You are a HIKER.  Approx 4.4 miles round trip, easy/moderate.  (Later, maybe in the evening, you can drive to the north rim lookouts to see the falls and canyon from the other side.)
  • Best overall hike in Yellowstone:  Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn (elev. 10,243 feet) Park at the Dunraven Pass Parking Lot (one of the better bear-spotting areas in the park).  Proceed up the mountain.  Take a photo at the top and then check out the surrounding features, described on signs in the fire lookout building.   Do this hike early to avoid crowds.  Be sure to check the trees for bears — turns out,  we walked right past one without seeing it because we were looking too low to the ground.   Other hikers at the top showed us their awesome photos.  Approx 6.4 miles round trip with 1,400 feet of elevation gain, moderate difficulty.

Top Places to Eat in Yellowstone

  • Most of the lodges and restaurants offer an unlimited buffet breakfast that will set you back about $14/person.  We did this at Grant Village and Canyon Village.  Food was fine.  Think about loading up at the buffet and scavenging the backseat of the car for a small lunch.  We bought peanut butter and pretzels when we got into Jackson, and that fed us lunch most days.
  • Grills/casual eateries.  Some of the dining options are more casual grills.  We found one in Canyon Village (a 50’s diner) and one at Old Faithful.  These are good options!  Yummy veggie burgers and fries.  Less expensive and less stuffy than some of the more formal options.
  • For formal dining, the Old Faithful Lodge looked the nicest, although we did not eat there.  We tried the cafeteria-style dinner at the Lake Lodge (we liked the idea of dining near the windows on the water) but a busload of retirees had just come in, and the place really felt like a rustic nursing home.  The scooped mashed potatoes didn’t help, but they didn’t taste terrible.  At least there was a veggie option.
  • There are also numerous general stores and grocery stores in the park.  Grab some kombucha (or in my mom’s case, huckleberry beer) and snacks to enjoy around the fire.

Where to Stay in Grand Teton National Park

  • Again, I would recommend camping.  HOWEVER, no campsites in GTNP can be pre-reserved.  For that reason, I went ahead and booked a cabin at Colter Bay ($180/night, with two beds and full bathroom).  The cabin was fine (surprisingly spacious), but at that price and knowing now that the campsites didn’t fill up that particular day (in late-August, after the busy season), I would have not made a reservation in advance.  Instead, I would have tried my luck at getting an inexpensive campsite without a reservation and then if those were full, I would have ponied up for a cabin or even a room at one of the very nice lodges (Jenny Lake Lodge, Jackson Lodge, Signal Mountain Lodge).  I am presuming that during the busy season, the campgrounds all fill pretty quickly.

Things to Do in Grand Teton National Park

  • If Yellowstone is a driving park, GTNP is a floating park.  I usually judge people that do activities like bus tours and river floats.  I mean, we’ve got legs, let’s use them.  But I confess that with regard to GTNP, I was being unfair.  Because floating in a paddle boat down the Snake River is magical and perfect.  We used Solitude Float Trips, and our guide Kris was great.  He answered questions and gave us some interesting information but also allowed us to sit in silence and enjoy the scenery.  We saw countless bald eagles, a few moose, a great blue heron, and an osprey.  Oh, and some pretty spectacular tetons (yes, that means boobs, and yes they look like boobs).   Book the 6 am trip for the best chance to see animals and for fabulous light on the mountains (instead of behind them, which really screws up photos).
  • Jenny Lake is probably the most popular spot in GTNP.  And we were typical tourists.  Starting at the South Jenny Lake parking area, we “hiked” around half of the lake (it’s flat) then went up to Inspiration Point.  Lovely scene with Tetons behind you and the lake out front.  You can continue around the other side of the lake, or connect to the String Lake Trail.  For an even longer hike, head into Cascade Canyon.  I wanted to do one of these options, but I was tired, so we just turned around and headed back the way we came.  We stopped on the way back and put our feet in the lake.  Note that most folks going to Inspiration Point take a boat across the lake.  Setting aside the previous bulletpoint, I totally judged them.
  • If you want to go just a little off that beaten path, a NPS employee suggested the hikes at Taggart Lake.  These hikes are also very popular, although not as popular as Jenny Lake.
  • We also stopped by the swimming area of Lake Jackson, in the Colter Bay area.  Very pretty view and decent water for wading if you are hot, but the bottom is rocky so maybe bring water socks?  (Did I just type that?)
  • There are a ton of other hiking trails in GTNP to explore, including some very extensive backcountry.  Oh, and rock climbing is pretty popular.  Maybe next trip…
  • There are also a few pull-out spots to view wildlife and the mountains in GTNP, but other than on our float trip, we saw a lot less wildlife in GTNP than in Yellowstone.

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Where to Eat in Grand Teton National Park

  • GTNP is a much, much smaller but also more upscale park compared to Yellowstone.  So despite the size, dining options abound.
  • For a really fancy evening, check out one of the nice dining rooms at a lodge (e.g., Jenny Lake Dining Room, Jackson Mural Room).  Jenny Lake Lodge Dining Room is very well reviewed but note the dress code and be prepared to spend some money.  We skipped it, first of all because the only reservation available when we called a few days beforehand (oops) was at 8:30 pm (my bedtime!), and second of all because I didn’t really have appropriate footwear.  Instead, we went to the more modest dining room at Colter Bay.  ERROR!  MISTAKE!  DO NOT REPEAT!
  • The best dining option in Grand Teton National Park, IMHO?  The outdoor dining deck at the Signal Mountain Lodge.  We went there for lunch and had yummy veggie burgers and tacos and drooled over the giant nachos we saw at a nearby table.  We definitely should have gone there for dinner.
  • Another good dining option?  Dornan’s, at the south end of the park.  We had a nice breakfast outside at a picnic table, with a great view.
  • After dinner, head to the Jackson Lake Lodge Lounge for a sunset view.

OK, Finally.  What to Do in Jackson Hole in the Summer

  • We had a little more than half a day in Jackson/Jackson Hole; we headed there around 10 am after our float trip.
  • Because our brains forgot that there could be anything to do aside from hiking, we naturally found the biggest mountain and decided to walk up it.  The mountain?  Rendezvous Mountain (elev. 10,449 feet), the home of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village.  Rendezvous Mountain is a skiing spot, lined with ski lifts, a gondola, and, conveniently, a tram.  And the tram runs in the summer, taking only 12 minutes to shuttle folks effortlessly to the top of the mountain, where they can take in the view, dine on a Belgian waffle, or go on some shorter hikes around the “top of the world.”  Like boats, I believed trams to be overrated.  So we walked the 7 miles up the mountain.  From the base, we took the Wildflower Trail (not false advertising)  to the Summit Trail to the — you guessed it — summit.  Did I mention the mountain rises 4,100 feet from the base of the resort?   I was legitimately fearful for my mother’s life during a good portion of this hike, but since we both survived I can say the hike was beautiful and satisfying.  I got her a Gatorade at the top (her first Gatorade — how is that possible?!) and she seemed to recover OK.  Bring plenty of water if you do this hike, and consider sunscreen.
  • After the drama of the hike, I just wanted to relax.  We headed into Jackson and checked into the very nice Lodge at Jackson Hole.  We showered and promptly made reservations at the #1 spa according to Yelp — the spa at the Rusty Parrot downtown.  We walked to the spa, enjoyed some nice massages, and then headed to Lotus Organic Cafe for some incredibly yummy food.  I got the Green Bowl with tempeh and was not disappointed.

Have you been to Yellowstone, GTNP, or Jackson?  What do you think of this itinerary?  What do I need to see next time I go?  Have I convinced you to run the Mesa Falls Marathon yet?!

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