The singular scenery of northwestern Wyoming — otherworldly geysers and hot springs, serene alpine lakes, jaw-dropping canyons — inspired the very concept of a national park system.
In fact, in 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the world’s first national park. And, at 3,472 square miles (it’s about two-thirds the size of Connecticut), Yellowstone is also the second-largest national park in the continental United States.
This iconic park, which lies mostly in Wyoming but also extends slightly into Montana and Idaho, remains a land of superlatives, beloved not only for its incredible visual beauty but also for its classic lodges, engaging visitor centers and museums, and visitor-friendly road network.
Just 30 miles south of Yellowstone and one-seventh the size, Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929 in recognition of its most prominent feature, a dramatic range of jagged, glacial peaks that rise as high as 13,775 feet. French Canadian trappers gave them their rather ribald moniker (“grand teton” translates to “big breast” in French).
Although these immense mountains dominate the landscape, the park itself extends from the peaks to relatively flat alpine meadows popular with roaming bison and elk, and visitors tend to spend most of their time in and around two utterly beautiful bodies of water at the base of the mountains: Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake.
Given their proximity to one another, Grand Teton and Yellowstone are quite easy — and great fun — to explore in one trip. Adding to the joy of exploring these rugged expanses of wilderness is the proximity of some charming and increasingly hip resort towns: Jackson and Cody in Wyoming, and Bozeman and Livingston in Montana.
Although the parks themselves contain some incredibly remote backcountry and appeal greatly to hardcore recreation enthusiasts, from climbers to advanced hikers, they’re also extremely appealing for even casual adventurers.
You’re virtually guaranteed to see an abundance of wildlife simply by driving the parks’ well-maintained and impossibly beautiful park roads, from bison and elk to bald eagles, gray wolves and antelopes. And many of the most remarkable sites in both parks can be viewed from short, easy trails.
But Grand Teton and Yellowstone offer the greatest rewards to those who take the time to venture a bit more deeply into the park — if you have the time and stamina to make some two-to-six-hour hikes, you’ll come away with a much fuller appreciation for this magical part of the world.
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Note that the entry fee for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone is $35 per private vehicle and is good for seven days. If you’re visiting both parks, it makes sense just to buy an $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass.
Also, keep in mind that although both parks are tremendously popular and staffed by virtual armies of park workers, they’re still very much in the heart of the wilderness; their permanent residents include a vast array of wild creatures, including bison, bears, elk and other animals that can be dangerous.
No matter how tempted you are to set up that unbelievably Insta-worthy photo, absolutely never approach wildlife or get any nearer to Yellowstone’s geothermal features than signage allows (stay on boardwalks and established trails). It’s important to follow regulations in any park, but in wild terrain like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, doing so can be a matter of life and death.
Also, be sure to come prepared: Anticipate significant temperature changes in the region, purchase (and ask how to use) bear spray if you’re hiking any significant distance from parking areas, and always make sure you have plenty of food, water, basic first-aid equipment, and the appropriate gear for whatever activities you’re undertaking.
Where to stay in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks
Both national parks have a number of lodging options, especially Yellowstone, but these properties often book up weeks or even months in advance, so start making reservations as early as possible (you can book up to 13 months in advance). Especially in Yellowstone, which is vast and where exploring can involve long drives, it’s well worth trying to stay inside the park for at least part of your trip.
The cowboy-chic resort town of Jackson borders Grand Teton National Park and therefore makes a perfect base for exploring that park. Hotels here can be expensive, but you can find some more affordable options just across the Idaho border in the towns of Victor and Driggs.
Several small towns border Yellowstone, including West Yellowstone, Cooke City and Gardiner in Montana, but the options are fairly prosaic (mostly budget chain and independent motels and cabin compounds) in these small communities.
You’ll find a larger selection of places to stay, along with some impressive attractions, in Cody, Wyoming — about an hour’s drive from Yellowstone’s East Entrance — and Bozeman, Montana, a little under two hours’ drive from Yellowstone’s North Entrance. The smaller but richly historic town of Livingston, Montana, which lies between Bozeman and Yellowstone’s North Entrance, also has some charming lodging options.
How long do you need to visit both parks?
If you have a week to 10 days, an excellent strategy for exploring both parks is to start in Jackson and spend two or three days touring Grand Teton National Park, then head north into Yellowstone National Park, ideally spending a night or two there, before continuing east to Cody for a night or two.
From there, you can reenter Yellowstone via the Northeast Entrance and spend a night in the Mammoth Hot Springs or Canyon Village sections of the park. Then, end your tour with a night or two in Livingston or Bozeman. From here, many visitors head north to Glacier National Park, about a six-hour drive. Or you can return to Jackson — the quickest route is to drive south via the towns of West Yellowstone and Driggs, a 4 1/2-hour drive.
Jackson and Bozeman have the nearest decent-size airports to the parks, and both are served by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, along with some smaller airlines. Cody’s tiny airport has flights on United to Denver.
If you’re willing to make the scenic but nearly five-hour drive from Jackson, Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) is the nearest major airport, and as a Delta hub it has direct flights from a number of major cities. Rental cars also tend to be more affordable in Salt Lake City than in the towns closer to the national parks.
While it’s possible to see the top sites of Grand Teton National Park in a couple of days, and Yellowstone in three days if you’re pretty efficient, it’s ideal to set aside at least a week to fully enjoy both parks together and to see some of the interesting sights outside the park in Jackson, Cody and Bozeman. If you can budget 10 days, that’s even better.
The best time to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks
One thing to keep in mind about visiting Jackson is that if you’re coming primarily to explore Grand Teton National Park, you’ll want to time your visit between May and October, as most park facilities and many park roads are closed the rest of the year (the exact dates can vary according to snowfall).
But if you’re coming to ski the town’s famed slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which borders the park, you’ll want to visit between late November and early April. In other words, Jackson ski vacations and Jackson national park vacations are somewhat mutually exclusive (although Jackson Hole resort has its charms even during the non-skiing months, especially if you’re into mountain biking).
Similarly, most lodges, visitor centers, attractions and roads in Yellowstone National Park shut down from November through April, with two significant exceptions: In winter, you can still drive into the park via the North Entrance and explore Mammoth Springs and drive through the Lamar Valley, as far as the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City; roads are closed outside the park beyond that point (you can’t continue on this route to Cody or Red Lodge, Montana).
Additionally, the relatively new (built in 1999) Old Faithful Lodge opens from mid-December through early March, during which time it’s renamed the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and parts of surrounding Old Faithful Village open during these months as well, but only to visitors arriving by guided snowmobile or snowcoach tour. Many visitors rave about visiting during this time (the snowy landscape shimmers in the sunlight), but it’s not a practical option if you’re planning a comprehensive tour of both parks.
As for the most rewarding times to explore both Grand Teton and Yellowstone, you’ll encounter the best balance of balmy weather and moderate crowds during the spring and fall seasons. Fall has the advantage of often incredible foliage displays, as trees — especially golden aspens — put on quite a show from late September through mid-October. The drawback is that forest fires are common from summer through fall, and so there’s always the risk that dense smoke will spoil your photos (and sting your eyes); fires within the park can even result in closures.
In the springtime, you may still encounter snow or at least muddy conditions (especially early in the season), but you’ll likely not have to contend with smoke from fires. Summer can be a stunning time to explore the region, and it’s also the best time to go on a guided float trip on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park or to take a cruise on Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park. But this is also the high season, meaning room rates are at their steepest, and park crowds and traffic can be intense.
A conspicuously affluent yet down-home friendly mountain town adjacent to Grand Teton National Park, the compact town of Jackson is a great place to exercise your legs and perhaps your credit cards while strolling among downtown’s fine Western art galleries and bespoke clothing boutiques, and people-watching at the countless trendy restaurants, coffeehouses and bars. About 11,000 people live in Jackson year-round, but the population swells when park visitors and winter sports enthusiasts arrive.
Before leaving the area, make a quick detour west to tiny Wilson to stock up on picnic supplies and quirky keepsakes at 70-year-old Hungry Jack’s General Store. Then turn north up Highway 390 through the Snake River Valley to visit Teton Village, which lies at the base of one of the country’s most buzzed-about ski areas, Jackson Hole. There are several posh restaurants and hotels here, and the mountain offers challenging world-class skiing and snowboarding on more than 130 trails, about 90% of them expert or intermediate.
Outside ski season, from late May through early October, you can book a ride on one of the gondolas to go hiking or mountain biking, or to dine at one of the mountainside restaurants (the views into the park are, as you might expect, stellar).
Where to stay
Steps from the galleries and restaurants on Jackson’s colorful town square, the upscale but unfussy Wort Hotel (rates start at $365) is filled with a world-class collection of Western art and has attracted celebs and dignitaries since it opened in 1941. Listen to local bands in the rollicking Silver Dollar Bar.
With posh slopeside rooms at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village, Hotel Terra Jackson Hole (rates start at $419) is a great option if you’ll be skiing or mountain biking, but it’s also close to Grand Teton’s Granite Canyon Entrance. Many suites have fully stocked kitchens and multiple bedrooms, making this a favorite of families.
Reasonably priced for Jackson Hole, the attractive Elk Refuge Inn (rates start at $238) overlooks the National Elk Refuge and is a short drive from downtown and Grand Teton. The sweet and simple rooms all have balconies or patios with sweeping views.
Grand Teton National Park
From Teton Village, Highway 390 continues into the Granite Canyon section of Grand Teton National Park, where it becomes a winding and partly unpaved (but well maintained) stretch of road that leads to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. Here, kids and adults enjoy the tactile and auditory interactive nature exhibits in the striking, eco-friendly interpretive center. Several excellent trails lead from the preserve, including the easy 3-mile Lake Creek-Woodland Trail Loop, which circles the southern shore of Phelps Lake. Note that park rangers lead informative guided hikes to the lake each morning from the Rockefeller Preserve’s interpretive center.
The road continues to Moose, where you can learn more about the region’s history and terrain at the strikingly contemporary Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, which contains outstanding exhibits on wildlife and conservation. From here, scenic morning float trips along the Snake River depart; you can book these in advance from several different outfitters.
Nearby, you can visit the interesting early 1900s buildings that make up the Menors Ferry Historic District, including the Chapel of the Transfiguration, a 1925 log structure with stained glass windows. Moose is one of the park’s main service hubs, offering a gas station and family-friendly Dornan’s Pizza and Chuckwagon restaurants.
If you have some extra time, especially in late spring and early summer when wildflowers are bursting with color, consider making a short side trip east of Moose to Antelope Flats. Keep an eye out both for bison and antelope in this vast expanse that’s also one of the relatively few areas of the park that remain open all through winter.
Continue north through the park, turning onto 4-mile Jenny Lake Drive, and allow at least an hour and ideally half a day to explore Jenny Lake, a gorgeous body of water fringed by hiking trails. A beautiful picnic area frames the massive peaks (or tetons, in French) for which this park is named. You can take a 20-minute ferry ride across the lake to access the fantastic and fairly easy trails to 100-foot-high Hidden Falls and then up the hill to the Inspiration Point overlook. Be warned that once you’ve gotten this far, you may be tempted to continue along the trail into dramatic Cascade Canyon, so try to get an early start to allow yourself extra time to keep going farther, should you wish to.
From Inspiration Point, the trail leads into a broad canyon filled with enormous boulders and pine-studded hillsides, offering great views of soaring, snowcapped peaks. You may see red foxes, furry pikas (they look like rabbits but with rounded ears), raptors and, occasionally, black bears. If time allows, it’s worth hiking around the southern end of the lake instead of ferrying back. Just bear in mind that doing so will add about 75 minutes to your adventure.
After leaving Jenny Lake, drive around the scenic east side of the park’s largest body of water, Jackson Lake, taking a 4-mile side road up to one of the park’s best overlooks, Signal Mountain, which has an elevation of about 7,700 feet. A highlight along the lakeshore is the sunset cruises offered from Colter Bay Village Marina, which glide across Jackson Lake to Elk Island and last about 90 minutes. There’s also a fairly easy nature trail at Colter Bay that loops for a little under 2 miles along the Jackson Lake shoreline and offers impressive vistas of the Tetons and yet more opportunities to view wildlife.
When you’re ready to move on from Grand Teton, follow U.S. Route 89/287/191 north through the park’s upper reaches. From Colter Bay Village, it’s only about a half-hour drive to Yellowstone’s Southern Entrance.
Where to stay
Among the park’s several hotels and cabin compounds, which are open late spring to early autumn, the crown jewel is the intimate Jenny Lake Lodge (rates start at $955), whose handsomely outfitted cabins feel right out of a Western fairy tale.
With 385 rooms, the stately Jackson Lake Lodge (rates start at $349) is a hive of activity with gargantuan floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water. Offering a full-service marina with boat rentals and three restaurants, Signal Mountain Lodge (rates start at $308) is an underrated favorite that doesn’t usually book up so fast.
Yellowstone National Park
Entering from Grand Teton through the South Entrance, you’ll access the park’s extensive figure-eight-shaped road network. About 20 miles later you’ll come to the first major park community, Grant Village, which contains a visitor center, restaurants and lodging. This is a good place to get oriented and experience your first view of some of the geothermal attractions that Yellowstone is famous for.
Explore the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is on the western shore of massive (130-square-mile), glacially formed Yellowstone Lake. Follow the two easy boardwalk loops through the basin, where you’ll see bright-turquoise hot springs pools, frothy paint pots (or mudpots) and some smaller geysers. Try not to spend too much time here, as far larger and more dramatic geothermal attractions await.
Head west from Grant Village and make your way over Craig Pass (you’ll cross the Continental Divide) to the legendary Old Faithful section of the park. Here, in addition to viewing the iconic namesake geyser — which soars nearly 200 feet roughly 20 times a day — and stepping inside the classic Old Faithful Inn, you can hike the 2 1/2-mile Geyser Hill Loop up to Observation Point for a view of this basin filled with dozens of amazing hydrothermal features.
Even beyond the immediate Old Faithful area, the entire west side of the park offers an abundance of geysers. You may find it hard to believe, especially if this is your first time laying eyes on this unusual geological phenomenon, but it is possible to experience a bit of geyser fatigue when visiting Yellowstone, and the park has so many similarly remarkable features. So try to pace yourself, especially if you’ll only be in the park for a few days.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Be sure to continue a bit farther north (toward Madison Junction), stopping to walk the short boardwalk around the brilliant turquoise, emerald, ochre and copper waters of Grand Prismatic Spring — this is one of Yellowstone’s most remarkable sites. Another worthwhile diversion in this part of the park is the picturesque 2-mile drive through Firehole Lake Drive, where you can safely hop in the water for a swim in the geothermally heated waters (it’s one of the few areas in the park where swimming is allowed).
Canyon Village and Yellowstone Falls
At Madison Junction, turn east and continue toward Canyon Village, stopping for a quick walk around the Norris Geyser Basin if time allows, where you’ll find another impressive collection of soaring geysers, gurgling hot springs and belching mudpots.
At Canyon Village, you’ll find several different easily accessible observation areas (Artist Point is a favorite) for viewing another of the park’s most storied and mesmerizing features: Yellowstone Falls and the most dramatic section of the 24-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with precipitous walls that rise to 1,200 feet in places.
Like so many park attractions, it would be easy enough simply to hop out at one of the myriad parking areas to snap a photo from a nearby viewing area, but this stunning area rewards those who explore further. From both North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive, you can get a deeper sense of the landscape by hiking along the trails that skirt each rim, high above the Yellowstone River. The somewhat steep but short half-mile Brink of the Lower Falls Trail is particularly impressive and provides a nice perspective of the 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone.
Drive south through Hayden Valley, where you might see bison roaming in the morning or early evening, and then stop for lunch or dinner at the grand Victorian-era Lake Yellowstone Hotel. A fun and easy way to spend time on this crystal-clear, high-elevation body of water is by taking a one-hour narrated cruise; these depart from Bridge Bay Marina (reservations are advised). You’ll often see elk, bison, eagles and other wildlife on these relaxing excursions.
If you’ve exited the park to spend a night or two in Cody (see below), reenter Yellowstone via the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City and then follow the park road west through the broad Lamar Valley, one of the best places in North America to view bison grazing and sometimes running — they can achieve speeds of 35 mph — through the grasslands, along with pronghorn, brown bears and gray wolves.
You can also get to Lamar Valley from Yellowstone Lake by backtracking north up through Hayden Valley and past Canyon Village, following the park road up to somewhat underrated Tower-Roosevelt section of the park — the endearingly rustic Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room here is a charming and relaxing spot for lunch or dinner.
Mammoth Hot Springs
However you get there, from Lamar Valley, continue west to Mammoth Hot Springs, where you can walk along a boardwalk trail through surreal-looking natural travertine terraces with steaming pools and cascades of mineral water. The Lower Terraces Interpretive Trail is a must for exploring this fascinating geological wonder; if you have time, consider continuing your hike, or driving, to the Upper Terraces and continuing on the boardwalk trails to White Elephant Back Terrace.
The historic village at the base of the terraces contains the park’s headquarters, the handsomely restored barracks and buildings of 1890s Fort Yellowstone, and a popular park lodge and restaurant. If you’re starting this trip by visiting Yellowstone and then continuing your drive south to Grand Teton, this is the best part of the park to begin your journey.
Where to stay
The nine accommodations within Yellowstone National Park each have slightly different seasons, but most close by late October until mid-May. The handsome Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins (rates start at $220 for a room with a private bath) stays open the longest (and is close to the park’s only year-round entrance, at Yellowstone’s north end). Steps from the historic military buildings of Fort Yellowstone and the fascinating travertine springs for which it’s named, this mid-1930s hotel has simple, compact rooms — bargain hunters might consider one of the rooms lacking a private bath (the shared bathrooms are well kept).
Located on the eastern side of the park, the oft-photographed Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins (rates start at $289) is a massive yellow Greek Revival grande dame with magnificent views of the water and scenic grounds, which are often the site of grazing bison. The restaurant here is a stunner, and a string quartet or pianist performs nightly in the Sun Room.
Arguably the most iconic lodging in any national park, the stately Old Faithful Inn (rates start at $389 for a room with a private bath) was constructed with logs and stones in 1903-04 and is an architectural marvel. Even if you don’t spend the night here, spend some time admiring the lobby, with its soaring ceilings and huge fireplace, and have drinks on the terrace, with its clear views of the Old Faithful geyser. This is another property that has a number of less expensive (and quite charming) rooms that share common hall baths. If this isn’t a deal breaker for you, and they’re the only rooms available, go for it — it’s truly a treat to stay here.
For an extremely rewarding side trip from Yellowstone, make the nearly two-hour drive from the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, skirting the north shore of the massive, crystalline lake and then continuing east through Shoshone National Forest. If you arrive in time, you can attend the Cody Night Rodeo, a rollicking family-friendly spectacle that takes place nightly all summer.
The next day, give yourself at least two hours to tour the exceptional Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum complex with five sections: Buffalo Bill, Plains Indian, Cody Firearms, Draper Natural History and Whitney Western Art. They’re all world-class, but if you’re short on time, you could skip the firearms and Buffalo Bill museums.
Drive northeast via U.S. Route 14A to the poignant Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which is both a compelling museum and a long-overdue tribute to the hardships endured by Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes in California and detained here from 1942 to 1945. This was one of 10 “relocation camps” established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and as much as they’re a tragic mark on the nation’s legacy of xenophobia and human rights violations, the center also highlights the indomitable spirit and vitality of the nearly 14,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who endured throughout their unjust detention.
Returning to Cody, follow higways 120 and 296 to U.S. Route 212, the Beartooth Highway, for a spellbindingly gorgeous drive back through the formidable mountain range for which the road is named, returning to Yellowstone National Park through its Northeast Entrance. Just before the entrance, the spirited twin villages of Cooke City and Silver Gate are good places to fuel up and have lunch.
Where to stay
The cozy Chamberlin Inn (rates start at $179) is a block from Cody’s colorful main drag. This storied redbrick former boardinghouse and eventual hotel that Ernest Hemingway stayed in for a time features 21 warmly decorated rooms, suites and cottages, some with fireplaces and clawfoot soaking tubs. This one often books up months in advance, so try to reserve early.
Another very comfortable option just outside downtown is the Best Western Premier Ivy Inn & Suites (rates start at $254). This contemporary lodgelike property has a very good restaurant along with an indoor pool.
Departing Yellowstone through its North Entrance, you’ll briefly pass through the small town of Gardiner, which has several popular restaurants with patios overlooking the Yellowstone River — the Iron Horse Bar and Grill is a reliable option. Continue north for 55 miles through the grand Yellowstone River Valley to enchanting Livingston, with its historic district of colorfully painted Victorian buildings, many containing fine shops and eateries. From here it’s just a half-hour drive west to fast-growing Bozeman, a lively college town and outdoor recreation hub that’s a good base both for Yellowstone and the acclaimed Big Sky ski area.
Near the Montana State University campus, check out the superb Museum of the Rockies. Kids love seeing the life-size bronze sculpture of Big Mike, a Tyrannosaurus rex whose fossilized remains were found in eastern Montana in 1988, and exploring the adjacent living history farm. Evidence of Bozeman’s skyrocketing boom (the population has doubled since 2000 to more than 58,000) is visible throughout the city, from the sleek new apartment buildings to trendy farm-to-table eateries and third-wave coffeehouses.
Where to stay
The midcentury modern RSVP Hotel (rates start at $195) in downtown Bozeman has sleek rooms with contemporary art, a lovely pool and a cool little cafe.
In Bozeman’s bustling, historic center, the sophisticated Kimpton Armory Hotel (rates start at $320 or 61,000 IHG points) is a nine-floor design-driven stunner that rises above the city’s art deco armory building. It offers superb dining in the trendy Fielding’s restaurant and a rooftop pool, in-room yoga mats and loaner bikes.
With a glowing three-story red neon sign, the Murray Hotel (rates start at $169) was built in 1904 to accommodate rail passengers and anchors beautiful little Livingston. One of the 25 charmingly furnished rooms and suites is named for legendary director and one-time hotel resident Sam Peckinpah.