When I was planning my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, I browsed endless sites telling me that I couldn’t experience everything Yellowstone had to offer in one trip. People far and wide have visited Yellowstone on several occasions and still hadn’t crossed everything off the list. Well, when I plan a trip I don’t do it with intentions of having to come back. The world is full of spectacles demanding to be seen. I don’t want to succumb to the reality that I will never be able to do it all. So I don’t.
If you like to take your time, tinkering around one or two attractions a day, then this post probably isn’t for you. But if you are like me and you want to experience all of the highlights with a good dose of off-the-beaten-path, then this itinerary will let you see more of Yellowstone than you can find anywhere else.
For a thorough trip, I recommend planning 6 or 7 days, depending on how long your drive/flight takes you to arrive. If you’re flying, be sure to check all surrounding airports, not only for saving a buck on your flight, but also to check out the costs of car rentals. I decided to fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho for four reasons:
- The arrival time (12:52pm) and departure time (3:16pm) allowed me to maximize my days
- Car rentals from the Idaho Falls airport were ~$100 cheaper than at other local airports
- Drive time to the West Yellowstone entrance and Jackson, Wyoming were both a manageable 2 hours from Idaho Falls
- It allowed me to cross another state of my bucket list (true story)
It’s important to look at the first two of these together. I originally thought I would be getting the best deal by flying into Bozeman, MT. However, after realizing my flight arrived at 11pm when all car rental places were closed meant I would have to stay the night in Bozeman. Not a big deal, I thought. I could just get up early, pick up the rental car and kick off my adventure at dawn. Not so. The car rental did not open until 7am, and if it was anything like car rentals from past experiences, it would have a line 5-6 deep by the time I got there. Also, my return flight from Bozeman to Cincinnati departed at 6am, which meant I would have to either drop off my rental car “after hours” and pay an additional fee, or drop it off by 9pm the night before and lose more precious time that could be better spent.
Which brings me to my next point. The cost of time. After mapping out drive times from Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Jackson, and Denver, Idaho Falls offered the shortest and most even drive times considering we planned to visit the northern most part of Yellowstone all the way south to Jackson. Flights were easily half to a third of the price from Salt Lake City and Denver, but our trip purpose was to experience the great outdoors, not the cramped interior of the cheapest rental car we could get.
Yellowstone National Park divides into four primary hotspots: Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and Southeast. I find that it is easiest to tackle the expanse park by cutting it up into these manageable sections. The route you take through the park is entirely up to you. Depending where your starting hub is, you’ll probably want to start by whichever one is closest to you. Since we came from the western entrance, we started at the southwest section first. This allowed us to do a big clockwise loop through Yellowstone before heading south to Grand Teton National Park. And since the southwest is full of geysers and other geothermal features, we didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of what was in store for us.
The southwest section is arguably one of the most popular parts of the park considering this is where Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring reside. While each of these are worth a visit to Yellowstone, there is so much more to see. Spend your day working from the south to the north, starting at Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin.
- Day 1: Southwest
- Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful, etc.)
- Midway Geyser Basin (Grand Prismatic Spring, etc.)
- Fairy Falls Trail (2.5 mi)
- Lower Geyser Basin (Fountain Paint Pots, etc.)
- Firehole Canyon
- Day 2: Northwest
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Beaver Ponds Trail (5.5 mi)
- Boiling River
- Day 3: Northeast
- Lamar Valley
- Lamar River Trail (7 mi)
- South Rim Trail (Uncle Tom’s trail, Artist Point) (4 mi)
- Day 4: Southeast
- Mt. Washburn Trail (6.5 mi)
- Dragon’s Mouth
- Hayden Valley
- Elephant’s Back Trail (3 mi)
- Day 5: South (includes Grand Teton)
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Grand Teton 42 mile drive
- Jenny Lake Trail (3 mi)
- Moose Wilson Road