yellowstone grand teton experts wanted
March 9, 2015 7:56 PM   Subscribe

we are two couples going to camp in yellowstone \ grand tetons july 5-12. i know, i know, there's quite alot of information on both of these places but some of it is conflicting and some details are missing.. my obsessive questions in the extended explanation - hopefully y'all can provide some great answers that can be useful to others in the future. thanks..

our current plan is to drive from denver to jackson on the 5th and stay over night in jackson, its quite the haul and not really looking to end my day with pitching a tent and cooking dinner after 9+ hours. head in to yellowstone july 6-8 (we reserved a campsite in grant for those nights), then head to grand tetons july 9-11, drive back to denver on the 12th.

i've read alot of postings that say traveling to and from ys and gt is not advisable, since it covers such a large area. are we correct in picking out a spot in each park, or would it be ok to pick one and drive over to the different sites each day? if so where would you stay? it seems to me that gt camping is more idyllic, and i wouldnt mind staying just in gt if the drives to ys each day were under 90 minutes..

for reference, this is what we'd like to check out in ys and gt, any comments?
ys - tower fall, grand canyon, lower falls, old faithful and geyser basins, maybe mt. washburn
gt- oxbow bend, signal mtn, jenny lake area, string lake (swimming!), maybe jackson lake lodge

is that doable in three days for each park? we don't like to rush ourselves.

are there places to eat around either of the parks for lunch, or will we have to pack a lunch every day? are those places near the attractions or located elsewhere? we are fine with making our own breakfasts and dinners, unless you have any good suggestions.

where could we restock our coolers as we switch from ys to gt?

we reserved at grant for ys camping. i hear lewis lake campground is nicer, but is it much farther from the attractions and also how far is it from the conveniences (showers, toilets, store)?

for gt camping we are considering colter bay or jenny lake campground, which i believe are first come; any pros or cons for each (i believe colter has the amenities?)

any good stops along the way from denver to jackson (sights, food)?

good place to stay in jackson that first night?

anything i missed?
posted by fumbducker to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would personally not drive back and forth between the two parks; you'll enjoy yourselves a lot more if you just make the trip from one to the other once. Bear in mind that the ~90 minute time between the two is just to the main visitors centers; going elsewhere in either park will take you much longer.

If you do plan on doing Mt. Washburn (by which I presume you mean hiking up to the summit), you should plan on dedicating a day to it. It's not a technically challenging trail, but a) Mt. Washburn's not terribly close to anything else on your list (other than Tower Fall, and even that's 40 minutes away under the best of circumstances), b) it's a long hike, and c) it's substantially higher than the rest of the park. When I was there my girlfriend got gassed very easily on the trail, so we never made it very far, and a woman collapsed in the parking lot (probably from altitude sickness). Have a backup plan in case the weather doesn't cooperate or you can't do the hike.

There are places all over Yellowstone to eat. The Old Faithful complex alone has three , and there are others elsewhere in the park. Here's a list.
posted by asterix at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found Grand Teton pretty boring, especially in comparison with Yellowstone. Yellowstone has geysers and fumaroles and amazing geologic structures and Grand Teton is...a park. It's not a bad park but it's much less exciting. I would spend the entire time in Yellowstone, personally, and do the whole thing (you can't not do the Mammoth Hot Springs!!). OTOH Grand Teton is much less crowded. In the Grand Tetons you would have to pack lunch I am pretty sure.

Driving around Yellowstone is a little time-consuming but staying in one place and not moving around is completely doable. (We stayed in Gardiner.)

Jackson -- your choices are mostly budget motels or ultra high-end resorts. I stayed in the Pony Express Motel and it was totally fine.
posted by phoenixy at 11:05 PM on March 9, 2015

Bear in mind that the ~90 minute time between the two is just to the main visitors centers; going elsewhere in either park will take you much longer.

Totally this.

I live just a few hours from Yellowstone, so I've been there a bunch of times. Just getting around within Yellowstone can take quite a bit of time depending on time of year, traffic, and buffalo-jams. Yes, you may spend many minutes at a dead stop while bison take over the road. During my last visit, I spent over half an hour at a standstill several times. Add to this bear-jams and moose-jams, caused by vehicles stopping to look at those animals. In other words, you can't be in a hurry to get anywhere, so just enjoy the process.

Also there's a nice tour boat ride on Yellowstone Lake if you're into that sort of thing. And in the town of West Yellowstone, there is an IMAX theater that shows regular movies as well as some Yellowstone-specific short films. (Oh wait! Looks like they don't call themselves IMAX anymore, so now they are a "giant screen" theater. Ok then.)
posted by The Deej at 5:41 AM on March 10, 2015

are we correct in picking out a spot in each park

Yes. What asterix says is true: there is so much travel within the parks, especially Yellowstone, that you'd be spending a whole lot of your day in the car if you tried to basecamp at one park and travel to the other. Also, you get a different experience at each. Tetons was a bit less crowded and the campsites were indeed more scenic (super star viewing, too). Yellowstone is a busy place, but I was content with our campsite, which was functional. But it's not like we were hanging around in the campsite all day and evening - there is too much to do.

I loved Grand Tetons. It's not as crowded and differently scenic, and I had some of my greatest wildlife sightings there. One of the most amazing hikes of my life was to do the Cascade Canyon trail that takes you up to the glacial valley just below the peaks of the Tetons. It's stunning, the air is thin, and there was snow up there in July (this may no longer be the case, my trip was in 1998). As the name implies, you are mostly in a beautiful canyon filled with waterfalls. The boat trip across Jenny Lake shortens this hike to 10 mi RT. I was in decent but not amazing shape and it was a comfortable hike, though everybody gets winded at 12,000 feet.

are there places to eat around either of the parks for lunch, or will we have to pack a lunch every day?

There are a couple of places to eat, but be warned, for the most part they are your usual NPS-contractor concessions and are unremarkable at best. Warmed-over pizza, sandwiches and wraps, etc. On my trip, we found that we really didn't want to have to schedule our whole day around buying lunch at a concession. That can really take you out of your way when you're exploring the parks. I'd recommend stocking a cooler in the car with cheese, crackers, pepperoni, fruit, cookies and drinks and just grazing as needed during the day. That gives you the freedom to take yourself to some more remote area and not feel you have to turn around and drive 45 minutes for lunch because everyone's famished and irritable. It's hard to understand how big these parks are until you're in them, but assume nothing is going to be close and conveniently located. You kind of have to pick one park region at a time - say, for half a day or a day - and stay within that general area, otherwise you end up wasting a lot of time in the car.

That said, I love old hotels and the dining at Old Faithful Inn is lovely and nostalgic. I might plan for one lunch there - which you can combine with Old Faithful and some other short geyser hikes nearby, if you like.

Jackson is the better town for eating, drinking, and shopping and has at least one full-service grocery store. The towns outside Yellowstone's gates are schlocky honky-tonks. Yes, there are steakhouses and arrowheads for sale, but they are not worth going out of your way for. There are many convenience stores and ice/booze/camping needs places outside the gates, though.
posted by Miko at 5:43 AM on March 10, 2015

As stated, you don't want to drive back and forth.

If you haven't already, call the parks. There are rangers who have spent years there, know every hill, trail, and campground, and who would love to give you the advice you need to have a great trip. Yellowstone: 307-344-7381. Tetons: see here.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:08 AM on March 10, 2015

Response by poster: thanks for all of the responses thus far; it sounds like we made the right choice in splitting up the camps. also the advice for packing lunch with us sounds spot on, thats exactly the kind of info i was looking for, dont want to head back 30 mins just to eat a janky lunch. pack lunch and a few dinner reservations sounds better.

as far as gt being less exciting, thats ok, that would be the relaxing part of the trip for us.. just camping out in a beautiful park is more than enough for me.
posted by fumbducker at 7:16 AM on March 10, 2015

Best answer: I prefer Jenny Lake over Colter Bay, primarily because it's practically on the lake (as opposed to CB, which has trees between the sites and the lake) and the Jenny Lake Trail (which is nicer in the evenings than CB if you want to walk around). I also like it because the trails (like Cascade Canyon) are right there and you don't have to drive anywhere. Also it's easier to get "out" of the trees to the valley for wildlife viewing; you just walk down the road and boom you're in the open. IMHO it's also much prettier; however, don't plan on sleeping in, because the motorcycles and RVs will start arriving at the Visitor's Center pretty early. However, unless you arrive in GT by 10, even 9 AM, you are not going to get a spot at Jenny Lake. It fills up very fast; it's not that small of a campground, they don't allow RVs (no noisy generators!) or group camping (two tents is fine). That's possible driving from Grant though, so if you get up pretty early you might have a chance.

I wouldn't rule out the Gros Ventre campground either if you're planning on going back and forth to Jackson frequently. While it's not the "classic" campground, it is on the river, and honestly you're going to have views no matter where you are in the valley. It's also nice for wildlife viewing, though I've seen wildlife at all three campsites.

If you do camp at CB, there are lots of little trails going through the woods down to the lake which aren't immediately apparent, so be of good cheer - the lake is accessible.

Another reason why I like Jenny Lake is because a trip to YNP and GT seem to entail a lot of driving, so when I'm there I feel like I can just park the car and leave it for a few days (I'm not big on going to Jackson, etc., though.) Depending on your agenda, if you can, try to limit what you do to one area of the park in YNP and save the rest for another trip. The best way to see both parks is to get out of the car and go for a hike. Although you should be bear aware and practice bear safety, it's the bison of which you should really be aware. The biggest danger, however, is traffic. Be prepared to spend an hour going 20 MPH; for the car in front of you to just suddenly slam on their brakes - seriously, leave 2 car lengths or more if you can; and for frustrations like a traffic jam over some deer. And for drivers who've never driven an RV in their lives before to have trouble, especially those little Cruise4America numbers. There's a speed limit in the park for good reason: follow it. It's not just you out there, and while a fender bender could wreck your vacation it won't wreck it the same way a moose through your windshield can.

For things to do besides hiking, may I suggest rafting the Snake? It's pretty touristy, but you get awesome views you wouldn't get from the highway and I always have lots of fun, particularly with a group. It can get a little wet but if you're laughing and having a good time it shouldn't matter.

As for the drive: if you're really worried about the long drive and pitching a tent, instead of staying in Jackson, you might consider taking 287 and staying in Lander, then driving up to YNP the next day. Lander's pretty and so is the drive from Lander to Moran. (However, Lander's about 3 hours from Moran.) Or considering going up 191/26 and staying near Pinedale, which is about 2 hours from Moran. It's not that much difference in time between Denver and the gate with the 3 primary ways of getting there. You might also consider just crashing in the Nat'l Forest for the night along the way if you feel confident/have the equipment to do that. Check the Nat'l Forest website for Bridger-Teton for specific info on car camping in non-designated campsites.
posted by barchan at 9:03 AM on March 10, 2015

When we went to the Grand Tetons in August 2013, the water level at Colter Bay was pretty low, which made things a little less appealing there. When we went, they had a couple telescopes set up outside Jenny Lake Lodge one night with guides and that was pretty fun--you might consider checking at the lodge if you end up camping nearby and seeing if that's happening on a night you're there.
posted by that girl at 7:52 PM on March 10, 2015

Response by poster: great stuff barchan, and thanks for the alternate routes... and thanks for the tip about the telescopes that girl. these are the things you cant easily collate on other websites. anybody reading this keep em coming if you have anything to share..
posted by fumbducker at 5:39 AM on March 11, 2015

One more thing to keep in mind: Jackson can be really jammed up, traffic-wise. It's a small town, with small town roads which are not built to handle the amount of traffic in/out of Jackson. Be ready to spend time in a traffic jam there.

Like everyone else .. don't try to travel between the parks day in/day out. It takes too much time, and by the third trip, it gets pretty boring. Last time I was out there (2013), I stayed at Red Lodge a few nights, then at a KOA near Jackson, and even those were pretty long trips to get to the good stuff.
posted by dwbrant at 7:45 AM on March 11, 2015

Be ready to spend time in a traffic jam there.

So true, but it's super walkable - so park on the outskirts and walk into downtown.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on March 11, 2015

Response by poster: thanks all, not worried, dont plan to spend much time in town. anybody else? anything you would NOT recommend?
posted by fumbducker at 8:23 PM on March 11, 2015

Response by poster: Post-mortem.. definitely need two camps, alot of driving. YS super crowded and traffic was pretty bad, as others said, for a bunch of deer that i can see in my backyard in NJ. Old faithful was a madhouse, cafeteria is not worth it, kind of gross actually defnitely bring your own lunches. Trays of half eaten food everywhere. BUT... wildlife was great to see, bison, elk, moose, bald eagles. Grand Canyon of YS, Lower & Upper falls were very cool.

We made an executive decision to move from our YS camp in Grant to Jackson Lodge in GT for one night due to weather. This also allowed us to be close to Jenny Lake campground so we were able to get in early and secure a spot. Jenny Lake campground was awesome, and although you have to see the geysers, etc. in YS I liked GT much better.

Be prepared to buy alot of firewood, especially if it is damp & rainy it gets cold at night!
posted by fumbducker at 5:39 AM on July 22, 2015

Response by poster: Also Motel 6 in Jackson was great for stopping in for a night before you head in to camp for a week, that drive from Colorado is about 9 hours with a couple of stops. Inexpensive, clean, decent pool.
posted by fumbducker at 5:41 AM on July 22, 2015

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