Yellowstone might as well be on another planet. That’s how unique this insane landscape and ecosystem is. Yellowstone is one hell of a destination to do a road trip. A Yellowstone road trip to the Grand Tetons you’ll witness stunning mountains, wildlife, geo-thermal features coming from the depths of the earth and bubbling pools of mud. It’s both stunning and dreamlike. So buckle up – we’ll give you some top tips for when you’re planning a Yellowstone road trip.
We’ll begin at the most northerly entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the town of Gardiner. It’s where we started this section of our road trip with our Hertz rental. Here stands tall The Roosevelt Arch where high above you scribed in stone reads, “For The Benefit And Enjoyment Of The People”. Dedicated back in 1903 it has served as a reminder to all that visit Yellowstone, that this was the very first National Park and a landscape worth protecting. The park itself became the very first National Park in 1872. President Ulysses S. Grant recognised the unique and special landscape that it was and ensured that it be protected, “from injury or spoliation”. What then became a world over phenomenon of protecting public lands, started in Yellowstone.
Gardiner has plenty of places to stay and we began with a couple of nights in the stunningly picturesque Dreamcatcher Tipi, just outside of the town. You can sit round a campfire looking at the Milky Way through the crystal clear skies, whilst toasting marshmallows and hearing tales from other guests. What can be more peaceful than falling asleep to the sounds of a nearby owl and waking up to the nearby river’s tumbling waters.
If you’ve only a day in which to drive through Yellowstone and get to the Tetons it’s a good idea to plan out exactly what you want to see. It’s 150 miles and you’ll be stopping lots for vistas and rests. We started at 05:30 to catch the morning light for some photography. To avoid the huge tourist numbers that the park draws, make sure you visit away from the summer peak periods. September is a great time to arrive as the numbers have subsided and the cold crisp air starts to hit the park. It makes the mornings particularly fresh and beautiful, with the colourful leaves of autumn beginning to develop.
Yellowstone is over 2 million acres. That’s half the size of Wales in the UK to give you some perspective of how vast the landscape is. So driving without a definitive route isn’t the greatest plan. Animals are more active at dawn so set those alarm clocks to make the most of their activity. The most direct route to the Tetons is down the western side of the park. This is the route with the most geo-thermal landscape features.
Your first stop on your Yellowstone road trip and being in the park after entering through the Roosevelt Arch will be at Mammoth. A former military base, the architecture and landscaping here still holds that feel. Just outside Mammoth is your first geo-thermal feature. Mammoth Hot Springs. A wonderful cascading hillside of pools, steam, colour and hiking paths. Your best bet is to drive to the top and descend down through the alien tiers created by calcium carbonate across the travertine hillside. The terraces continue descending downwards all the way to the aptly named Boiling River.
Continue driving south and you’ll almost certainly spot a bison or two. In the month of September the rutting season is ending so there are a lot of lone males that have left or been thrown out of herds. You’ll soon reach The Mudpots and The Grand Prismatic Spring. Don’t take the hiking routes that take you right up close to the spring. It’s difficult from this ground level perspective to get a sense of how big it is and you miss out on the spectacular rings of colour that characterize the spring. Instead take a short hike up the hill and you can get a great overlook vantage point of the spring. Bacteria along the edge create rings of glorious colour within the hot water.
If it’s geysers that you’re really here to visit or just simply want to see a favourite, Old Faithful Geyser is probably the most famous of the park’s landmarks. Aptly named due to its timely erupting of hot water and steam, (there’s a timetable in the lobby of the nearby hotel). So if you don’t mind sitting on a bench with hundreds of other tourists setting their watch, it’s sure spectacular and a sight to behold. It isn’t of course the only geyser in the park. There’s hundreds of them. You could spend days if not weeks travelling through the park on geyser watch.
Along your southernly drive and before you exit the park you’ll come to Lake Yellowstone. A massive body of water. Stand on the edge and you won’t see the other side. In fact it is 136 square miles and is the largest high elevation lake in the USA. The lake holds water from the Yellowstone River and eventually takes it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a stunning scene with plenty of wildlife. Yellowstone cutthroat trout and other native species occupy the depths. If you’re lucky as we were you can occasionally spot a Moose in the swamp like areas close to the river. The lake is a fitting end to an incredible Yellowstone road trip.
If you have more time available to you and you’re exploring the park at a far slower pace, then why not book with a wildlife guide. Someone with an expert level of knowledge of the park’s landscapes and its inhabitants. Emil from Yellowstone Wild should us around for a day. We drove around Yellowstone with him in his 4×4. He showed us some incredible animals that we simply were unlikely to see had we not been with him. His knowledge is second to none and not only does he understand animal behaviour implicitly, he knows where to be at the right time. Throughout the course of our day with him we saw grizzly bears, moose, a golden eagles, herds of bison, elk and mountain goats. A once in a lifetime experience. Well worth spending to get a unique insight into the incredible ecosystem that a Yellowstone has.
Driving North to South through Yellowstone is not to be rushed. It’s a long drive, but an incredible one. Each corner rounded will have you slowing down at another stunning scene. The driving time will whizz by and before you know it you’ll have reached the Tetons. But the scenery certainly doesn’t stop when you exit Yellowstone. The mountains in Grand Tetons National Park are incredible. Visible from a long long long way away, they build with anticipation as you approach. Piercing snow capped peaks with a glistening blue lake at their base, it is a scene out of an imaginary painting. Except this is a reality.
A great stop to view the mountains in at Snake River Overlook before driving on to Oxbox Bend. A national park that was founded in 1929 and has been attracting visitors ever since. The Grand Tetons are a paradise for skiers, hikers and wildlife spotters alike. Herds of elk can be spotted and if you’re lucky the elusive Moose walk these lands too. So be sure to bring your zoom lens and binoculars. Before you head to Jackson for your night’s rest, be sure to catch the sunset at the Mormon Row barns. For here in front of you will be one of the most iconic scenes for photographing in all the United States. A perfect end to an incredible Yellowstone road trip.
Should you be interested in planning your own road trip you can explore further routes with Hertz’s road trip planner here.