I first visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks when I was 13 years old. My family lived in Georgia at the time, and when we headed west for a family reunion in Alberta, Canada, my parents wanted to make the most of the trip. After all, who knew when any of us would make it back over the Mississippi again?
Turns out, not only would every one of us eventually call the West home, but I would also move close to the parks that had filled my dreams with memories of bears, bison, and mountain vistas for almost 20 years. I have enjoyed exploring the parks multiple times since I moved to Eastern Idaho, and I look forward to many more visits. Through it all, I have learned a lot about the park, the animals, and the visitors. Here are my tip for making the most out of your own trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons.
Consider Getting a Parks Pass
You used to be able to get a combined 7-day pass to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton for $50, but as of this year, that option is no longer available. Each park currently charges $35 for a seven day pass, so if you’re looking to do both, it’ll cost you $70. Keep in mind that that price is for a carload of people, not per individual, so if you’re traveling with family or friends, it’s a lot more reasonable than it looks at first glance. (And it’s yet another reason to carpool!)
But if there’s a chance you might want to see another park within a year of seeing Yellowstone or the Tetons, you may want to consider the “America the Beautiful” annual parks pass. It costs $80—so it’ll nearly pay for itself with a single visit to these two parks—it’ll get you and your passengers into any national park or monument for free. There are also additional parks passes available for different groups, including military, seniors, people with disabilities, and families with a current 4th grader. You can purchase these passes online or at any of these locations.
Grand Teton is Far Less Crowded
Yellowstone welcomes an average of 3.5 million visitors every year, while Grand Teton usually gets about 2 million. But don’t let the low numbers fool you: what GTNP lacks in geysers and paint pots, it makes up for in mountain ranges, recreational opportunities, and solitude. Pull aside at any one of Yellowstone’s roadside attractions, and you’re bound to find yourself fighting a crowd. But similar stops in the Tetons are almost guaranteed to give you plenty of breathing room.
The lower numbers also means more opportunities to see wildlife. In fact, most of the wildlife I’ve seen on my trips to these parks have been in the Tetons. One time, on a visit with my sister and brother-in-law, we didn’t see any large animals in Yellowstone at all. But literally just over the border into GTNP, we saw enormous herds of bison and pronghorn.
Remember: Early or Late Makes Your Trip Great
This little adage applies to both time of year and time of day. Most park visitors come between June and August when kids are out of school, so if you want to miss the huge crowds, opt for a spring or fall visit instead. And for the best opportunities to see wildlife, remember that most wildlife are active at dusk and dawn. If you want a good chance of seeing wildlife, plan to visit Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley early in the morning. It’s also best to see Old Faithful early in the morning, as the crowds tend to gather toward the middle of the day.
Book your Campsite Early
If you want to camp in Yellowstone, keep in mind that booked sites can fill up months or even years in advance. The park does keep some campsites open for day-of booking, but they are first-come, first-serve and usually fill up quickly in the mornings. Rates vary from $15 to almost $50/night, and while the parks are open year round, most campsites are only open from May to September or October. Visit the Yellowstone National Park official website for more information.
You can also camp in the Tetons, but none of the sites are available to book online, so it’s also first-come, first-serve. Sites range from $30-40 per night. Learn more at the Grand Teton National Park official website and Grand Teton Lodge Company. (Fair warning, the campground links on the GTNP official page are not correct, and campground information isn’t easy to find on the GTLC site. I had to do a manual search for each of the campgrounds, and even then, some of them didn’t show up.)
Watch for Fire Closures
With fires becoming more and more frequent in the dry American West, fire danger is a real thing in Yellowstone and the Tetons. Not only does that mean you should be prepared in case of a fire emergency (like the ones that have closed parts of Yosemite and Glacier NP this summer), but it might also impact access to certain areas of the park, including entrances. During one of my visits, Yellowstone’s West Gate was closed due to fire. It had reopened by the time I returned for my next visit, but crews were still battling hot spots along the road into the park. I was just there for a day trip, and driving out of the park that night was a surreal experience. The coals had been hardly visible during the day, but they were quite visible at night–all over the side of the hill, so they looked like fire floating in the air!
[box title=”” border_width=”2″ border_color=”#7b090f” border_style=”solid” icon=”fire” icon_style=”border” icon_shape=”circle” align=”center”]If you’re planning on hiking anywhere during fire season, here’s a great article that’ll help you be prepared in case of an emergency:
Get Your Gas and Grub Outside the Park
Gas and food are both very expensive inside Yellowstone. I highly recommend bringing your own food and gassing up before you cross the border. Just remember to keep your food safe from bears and other wildlife. Leave your food locked in your car or trunk, or use the bear boxes available at most campsites. Carelessness with food storage is a major cause of negative bear-human interactions, and unfortunately, even if you come away safe from the encounter, many bears are not so lucky. It is extremely rare for a food-habituated bear to be safely relocated, and most of them have to be killed.
Bring Adequate Gear
Weather can change quickly and dramatically in both Yellowstone and the Tetons. On one visit, I experienced 95° and sunshine, an impressive thunderstorm, and snow, all in a matter of 2 hours. It is best to be prepared for all types of weather, because chances are, you’ll see it.
Take Advantage of Visitor’s Centers and Ranger Programs
Every visitor’s center I have visited has been full of great information about the park’s history, geology, and plants. It’s nice to see beautiful things, but so much nicer to understand what it is you’re seeing.
I haven’t personally participated in a ranger program, but I have overheard a few of them. These rangers love their parks and know a lot about them, and they love sharing that love and knowledge with visitors through a variety of programs. Next time I visit, I plan on checking out a few of the many they have to offer.
Get off the Beaten Path
Most visitors only see the parts of Yellowstone and GTNP that are right on the road. That’s certainly not a bad way to see the parks—you can see a lot of really cool things right off the road—but it’s not a great way to see them, either. There is so much more to GTNP than the iconic peaks and more to Yellowstone than Old Faithful and the Paintpots. Both parks have extensive trail systems, and even allow permit camping in the backcountry (Yellowstone | GTNP).
You can also indulge your hobbies at the parks, with opportunities for fishing (Yellowstone | GTNP), boating (Yellowstone | GTNP), horseback riding (Yellowstone | GTNP), skiing and snowshoeing (Yellowstone | GTNP), and snowmobiling (Yellowstone only).
DO ? NOT ? APPROACH ? WILDLIFE
On that first visit so many years ago, we stopped to see a grizzly bear in Hayden Valley. Several other people were also admiring the animal with us from our safe vantage point in a parking lot up a hill from the valley floor, but then three of them decided it was a good idea to walk down to get a closer look. My parents ushered my sisters and me in to the car faster than you can say “breaking news,” and we high-tailed it out of there. Then, two summers ago, Yellowstone seemed to be in the news almost weekly because of irresponsible people venturing too close to wildlife and getting injured—or causing the death of the very animals they were there to see. (Remember the bison calf one family put in the back of their car? Yeah.)
If you don’t want to make the nightly news, do not venture closer to the animals you may see. Bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens. Only exit your vehicle when it’s safe to do so. Never, ever, ever feed wildlife—even the cute little chipmunks and marmots you might encounter. These are wild animals, and every encounter is an opportunity for either party to get hurt.
That’s not to say you won’t come close to animals. I was visiting the Mud Volcano when I spotted an bull bison walking on the same boardwalk as me. I had to hit the brakes to avoid hitting a herd of elk crossing the road. We happened upon a nest of baby marmots right next to a trail we were hiking, and another bull bison decided the middle of the road was a great place to woo his lady friends. No one can guarantee that you will see any animals, but chances are remarkably high that you will. And when you see them, remember that part of why we love wild places is because we get to see these beautiful animals in their native habitat. Be kind to them, remember that you’re the visitor in their house, and do everything you can to keep them safe.
Other Nearby Attractions
When you’ve had your fill of exploring Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park (is that even possible?), be sure to check out these other great places close to the parks:
- Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, MT
- Jackson Hole, WY
- Eat at O’Rourke’s in Driggs, ID (they have one of the best Rueben sandwiches I’ve ever had)
- Teton Raptor Center, Wilson, WY
- Caribou-Targhee National Forest
- Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
- LDS Temples in Rexburg, Idaho Falls, and Star Valley
Have you been to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park? Or what is your favorite NP to visit?
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 IF you’re visiting a park that charges per vehicle. If you’re visiting a park that charges entries per person, the pass covers up to 4 adults. Children under 16 are always free. See the USGS Store website for more information.
 Don’t worry homeschoolers, you’re covered, too. You can get the 4th Grade Pass if you have a 10-year-old in your family.
 NPS Stats