Yellowstone Vacation: 7 Day Recommended Itinerary#PNW . 7-Day Itineraries . Idaho . Itineraries . Montana . Outdoor Recreation . Tent Camping . Trailer Camping . Travel . Wyoming
Yellowstone Vacation – Recommended 7 Day Itinerary
We’ve planned the best 7 Day West Yellowstone Vacation Itinerary so you don’t have to! Check out each of the days below to put together your own vacation to Yellowstone and the surrounding area near Henrys Lake State Park in Idaho, Jackson Hole, and Grand Teton National Park. We have a full post for each day (just click on any of the links to see a full day post), or keep scrolling to see highlights right here.
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- Don’t run out of gas in the desert
- If you DO run out of gas, check out the countryside and wind turbines
- Check in at Henrys Lake State Park
- Explore the state park hiking trails
- Kayak and canoe the lake
- Get creative at Fountain Paint Pot
- Do the geyser walk: Beehive, Old Faithful, Grand Geyser, and Castle Geyser
- Eat lunch at the Old Faithful Inn
- Run with the buffalo (at a safe distance, of course)
- Walk across the glassy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs
- Kayak the perimeter of Henrys Lake
- Walk around West Yellowstone and get a taste of the Old West
- Drive through Driggs and the epic front range of the Tetons
- Bike to Jackson’s town square and the iconic antler sculptures
- Eat, drink, and be merry
- Tour local historical and wildlife museums
- Drive to the Teton National Park Visitor Center overlooking the magnificent Teton Mountains
- Stop by the Gibbon Falls overlook on your way North to Mammoth
- Walk through primal mud pots and thermal pools between Gibbon Falls and the Norris Geyser Basin
- Smell the sulfur at Norris
- Hike around Mammoth Hot Springs (upper, lower, and everywhere in between)
- Tour Historic Fort Yellowstone, the visitor center, and Park Headquarters
- Track bison like a pro
- Relax by the lake and take a few more spins in the kayak
- Enjoy your last few hours with friends before packing up and heading out
Yellowstone Vacation Day 1: Yellowstone Road Trip
Depending on the starting point of your Yellowstone Vacation, you’ll likely have to drive a bit to get to Yellowstone. Smaller regional airports dot the Western states around Yellowstone in Northwestern Montana, but the larger airports are a bit further away. Unless you are flying in to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the closest regional airport is in Billings, Montana, about 4 hours away. Salt Lake City, Denver, and Boise are the next closest. For our Yellowstone vacation, we drove from Boise, which should be just under 6 hours without any particularly long stops.
Yellowstone Vacation: Don’t Run Out of Gas in the Desert
Rule #1 when driving long distances: don’t wait until the last possible station to re-fuel; you’re likely to run out of gas along the way. I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve run out of gas in the desert, but it’s happened at LEAST one other time when driving across the high desert through Oregon to my hometown of Bend. We stopped in Mountain Home and should have filled up the tank. I later learned from Jake at Express Towing that fuel calls spike during the summer months when vacationing drivers pulling trailers forget to compensate for the added weight, especially if there is any headwind. That was his very kind way of saying I should have been more prepared and fueled up at any of the dozens of gas stations along the freeway.
Yellowstone Vacation: Stranded in the Desert? Stay Hydrated and Enjoy the Views!
We spent a few days in this area earlier in the season, at Massacre Rocks State Park. So although this particular stop and location were unplanned, we know the spot well. Some of the most distinctive (non-geological) features in this part of the state are the dozens of towering wind turbines, spinning in the wind, generating clean, renewable energy. It’s hard to picture just how massive these turbines are, but the photo with the tiny trees beneath the turbine starts to capture the scale. (Check out our “Utilities and Natural Resources” stock gallery to download these and other free stock photos).
Yellowstone Vacation: Henrys Lake State Park
I’ll share more about Henrys Lake State Park tomorrow, but it’s one of the best spots to camp outside of Yellowstone National Park. In fact, it’s only 9 miles from the West Gate of the National Park, and the camping spots are ample, comfortable, and scenic. You’ll want to plan ahead, though; even though you might find a walk-up site available during the peak season, most spots fill up as soon as booking is available for the Idaho State Parks, 9 months prior to your travel dates. Here’s what we do: set a calendar reminder to pop up 9 months before you want to travel, and then book your expected dates far in advance. Remember that federal campgrounds have a 6-month window, but the Idaho State Parks give you 9 months to plan and book.
Yellowstone Vacation Day 2: Henrys Lake State Park (and no, there’s no apostrophe in “Henrys”)
Pro Tips for Henrys Lake State Park:
- Plan ahead: federal and state campgrounds fill up FAST. Figure out when you plan to travel and then set a calendar reminder either 6 months ahead (for federal campgrounds through Recreation.gov) or 9 months ahead (for Idaho State Parks through Idaho’s Site on ReserveAmerica.com).
- At Henrys Lake State Park, look for spots in the second loop, Adam’s Loop, or the first, Dun’s Loop; the newer Caddis Loop is mostly paved sites for bus-sized Class A RVs. Tents and smaller trailers will be much more comfortable in spots 5-11 near the water or 29-34 on the first loop. Site 9 is our pick for the best views and most protection from the wind with a stand of trees just behind the site.
- If you don’t get a site in one of the state or federal campgrounds for your Yellowstone vacation, then call the specific campground or look online to see if they have walk-up sites available.
- If no sites are available online or as walk-up sites, look on Reserve America for nearby private campgrounds and RV Parks, like the numerous campgrounds just outside of West Yellowstone and the West Gate.
- Bring your own kayak, canoe, or paddle board for your Yellowstone Vacation. You can also reserve one of the many kayaks and canoes available at Henrys Lake State Park.
- Be careful on the water at Henrys Lake, though, because frequent strong winds can quickly turn a peaceful paddle into a scary ordeal! The glacial valley at Henrys Lake is the meeting point for three mountain ranges, so strong winds are common.
Yellowstone Vacation: Explore the Henrys Lake State Park Hiking Trails
After such a long day and a late night, we took a much-needed day for relaxation and orientation to Henrys Lake State Park and the surrounding trails. We arrived late at night, so it wasn’t until this morning that we saw the vast glacial valley surrounding Henrys Lake, the result of the last two ice ages. Even though the name comes from a trapper who arrived a little more than 100 years ago, the ridge surrounding the lake is made up of glacial rocks that do not retain water like other types of soil. As a result, very few trees establish roots in the highly porous material, giving the area a stark and dramatic look at the base of the Targhee Mountains in the distance.
“Looking for Wildlife? Habitat Diversity Provides Homes for Many Wildlife Species. The Henrys Lake ecosystem is diverse enough to support a wide variety of wildlife. Please observe wildlife safely and from a distance by using binoculars or a spotting scope. Some species in the area can be dangerous if you approach too closely. Can you find and identify many of the common wildlife species in the area?
- The Great Blue Heron is the largest North American heron and can be found in fresh and salt waters.
- Osprey talons are adapted to catch and hold fish.
- Although clumsy looking, moose can run up to 35 miles per hour.
- The American Avocet is one of 18 species of shorebirds which migrate and/or inhabit this area.
- The Bufflehead is the smallest diving duck.
- The American White Pelican can eat 15 to 20 pounds of fish per day.
- Before fall migration, Canada Geese lose their flying feathers, thus becoming grounded for a few weeks.
- Red-tailed hawks are easily identified in flight by their broad red tail and its distinctive call, a harsh descending kerr.
- The slough is a great hunting ground for the red fox.
- Pronghorns have strong, slim legs that make them faster than any other North American mammal.
- The beaver can fell a willow the size of your arm in three minutes.
- The bugle of the sandhill crane is easily recognizable.
- Bald eagles do not develop their distinctive white head until 4-5 years of age.
- The distinctive call of the coyote keeps the band alert to the location of its members and reunites them when separated.”
– Interpretive Sign at Henrys Lake State Park, Idaho State Parks and Recreation
The State Park spreads out along the shore of Henrys Lake, and a series of hiking, walking, and biking trails encircle the park and extend even further along the lake. We took a shorter loop in the morning, past a marshy inlet and interpretive signs about Trumpeter swans nesting below (back to their native habitat for the first time in years), local wildlife, and the geological origins of Henry’s Lake. We found out later from one of the park rangers that a large bear had been camped out under the small walking bridge at the mouth of the lake until just about a week ago. The girls AND the dogs would have had quite the surprise had we timed our visit a little earlier!
Back at camp, we found something I have never seen before and had no idea existed: a firewood vending machine. This small outdoor shed literally dispenses self-serve bundles of firewood. I guess that makes sense here, because of the general lack of trees and kindling that you could otherwise scrounge from the forest floor. Sandy and Susan brought dried stacks of wood for our evening fires, or else we would have given the wood dispenser a try. Who knows; maybe by the end of the week, we’ll have an opportunity to try it!
Yellowstone Vacation: Kayak and Canoe Henrys Lake
Henrys Lake is known for its world-class fishing and native Cutthroat Trout. It’s also a fantastic lake for boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding, as long as you time it right. Three mountain ranges converge on the lake, so strong winds can – and do – suddenly blow across the lake, turning the calm waters into choppy, menacing waves. Today, we waited until the winds died down a bit to set out on the lake for some paddling and acquatic recreation. Nyah tried out her new youth kayak, and got the hang of the new paddle right away. It helps that she’s been out in our inflatable two-person kayak for years on the Boise River and lakes all over Idaho. It also helps that she’s a strong swimmer and doesn’t mind wearing her stylish new lifejacket.
Forget to bring your own raft, kayak, or canoe on your Yellowstone vacation? Don’t worry, because you can reserve one at the park, down by the launch ramp or online. There are also loaner life jackets if you forget to throw those in, too.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I am somewhat of a pyromaniac. Whether it’s the flames of a campfire or the brilliant red and pink of a mountain sunset, I love the color red and the mesmerizing red of flames as they lick the side of a charred log. Coincidentally, the color of the sky matched the color of the flames in our fire pit after we put the girls to bed and enjoyed a glass of – you guessed it – red, red wine.
Yellowstone Vacation Day 3: Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Springs
Pro Tips for Your Yellowstone Vacation:
- Plan ahead: federal campgrounds fill up FAST, as in minutes after the sites become available online, 6 months prior to travel dates. Figure out when you plan to travel and then set a calendar reminder 6 months ahead for federal campgrounds through Recreation.gov.
- Here’s one trick for booking a federal campsite for your Yellowstone vacation: if you want to travel on a specific date but have some flexibility with your start date, you can book the first day of travel 6 months in advance, extending as far out as you plan to stay. So if you want to travel on July 4, for example, but can start your trip on June 30, you can book 6 months before June 30 extending through the 4th. That way, you don’t have to wait until exactly 6 months before the holiday booking date, which will fill up as soon as they are released.
- The absolute best way to enjoy your Yellowstone vacation is to stay inside the park, either in one of the park’s many campgrounds or at one of the park’s hotels (like the Old Faithful Inn or the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel). If you’re coming into the park like we are, the earlier you arrive, the better.
Yellowstone Vacation: Get Creative at Fountain Paint Pots
Here’s another quick tip for accessing the park: go online and purchase an annual park pass prior to your Yellowstone vacation, and you can jump in the fast lane for pre-paid pass holders. The later you arrive, the more valuable this becomes. (At 8:oo am, the “fast” lane actually took longer than the other regular lines, but it’s generally the fastest way to get in).
Our first stop on our Yellowstone vacation today is the Fountain Paint Pots, a striking complex of thermal pools, geysers, and the bubbling, gurgling paint pots that give the area its name. In fact, delicate bacteria mats surround the underwater thermal springs, coloring the grounds shades of orange, yellow, and white around the deep blue waters bubbling up from the ground. The hollowed-out remains of trees also stand starkly against the blue sky where the bacteria and minerals have choked out their root systems, leaving an eerie forest of deadwood among the sulfuric ground.
We picked the perfect day to visit Fountain Paint Pot, because the hot, humid air cooled when thunderclouds rolled by. The dramatic sky also made for even more gorgeous photos, highlighting the scale of this incredible landscape. My favorite part of the thermal pools has to be the perfectly clear boiling hot water because of the deep blues it creates against the bright white minerals just beneath the surface. Contrast that with the vibrant orange and yellow bacteria mats at the edge, and the ground looks more like an abstract painting than a natural feature you’d expect to see while out hiking around the forest. To be fair, this IS an active volcanic zone, and there’s a reason Yellowstone is known worldwide for its biodiversity and unique ecosystems. But this is really an amazing landscape, even for someone who has hiked some of the most scenic locations around the world.
Fountain Paint Pot: Making Mud
“This vat of bubbling mud contains the perfect mix of ingredients to create mudpots: heat, gases, water, volcanic rock, minerals, acid, and even living microorganisms! Heat-loving ‘thermophiles’ consume some of the gases and help convert them into sulfuric acid. The acid breaks down rock to form clay – clay that mixes with water in mudpots.”– Interpretive Sign at Fountain Paint Pot, Yellowstone National Park
Fountain Paint Pots is a lot more than just the bubbling clay and nearby thermal springs; wooden walkways continue out to a series of small geysers and panoramic views of the surrounding valley before circling back around to the most colorful thermal pools and bare trees sticking up like matchsticks from the clay. There’s Red Spouter and the leather pool, not far from Twig, Fountain, and Morning Geysers. Spasm and Clepsydra Geysers sit further along the path before the half-mile walkway circles back to Celestine Pool.
Yellowstone Vacation: Do the Geyser Walk to Beehive, Old Faithful, Grand Geyser, and Castle Geyser
Continuing on from Fountain Paint Pots, we decided to save Grand Prismatic Spring for the afternoon, once we explore the geysers around Old Faithful and the famous Old Faithful Inn and Lodge. Grand Prismatic is about halfway between Fountain Paint Pots and Old Faithful, but by mid-morning, the crowds had swelled and people were parking a half mile away to walk back to the access point. (This turned out to be a great decision; we explored the area around Old Faithful for hours in the late morning, and by the time we doubled back to Grand Prismatic after lunch at the Inn, the crowds had thinned there, as well).
Approaching the Old Faithful Inn and surrounding development from the North, you’ll pass a Sinclair service station and the Old Faithful General Stores before spotting the Inn and several surrounding geysers. Immediately to the North of the complex sits Castle Geyser, with Grand Geyser beyond that. Across the main street to the Northeast you’ll see Beehive Geyser; Beehive is easy to mistake for Old Faithful, but you’ll have to continue on beyond the Inn to the Southeast to see the most famous Geyser of all, Old Faithful.
The Best Places in West Yellowstone: The Old Faithful Inn
The Old Faithful Inn has a partially-covered viewing platform on the second story above the main entrance where you can get an elevated view of the eruption every 70 minutes or so. And a wide, circular walkway in front of the geyser connects the Inn to the Lodge and the more contemporary visitor center in-between. Expect exuberant, cheering crowds when Old Faithful does its thing. For a more secluded view on your Yellowstone vacation, watch the eruption from the paths on the opposite side. For even better views, hike up the hill path that leads to Geyser Hill. Then you can watch the sulfuric spray from a distance, with the Inn and surrounding hills beyond.
The landscapes in Yellowstone are so varied, so unique, and so interesting that it’s hard to pick a favorite. If I had to choose, though, I’d pick the chains of thermal pools connecting the geysers behind Old Faithful on the opposite bank of the Firehole River. The crystalline formations, deep pools, and labyrinths of volcanic vents combine to create one of the most spectacular zones in Yellowstone. Don’t get me wrong, because there are many epic, otherworldly landscapes throughout the park. But I spent hours photographing the unique formations and cones and vents and springs along the North Bank of the Firehole. Maybe I really just like the aptly-named river. But whatever the reason, I found myself drawn to this dramatic landscape and all its variations more than most of the other spots we visited.
The girls are used to my photography and the time it takes to get that “perfect” shot. They soon left me behind to photograph the pools that to them had started to all look alike. As they found their way back to the Old Faithful Inn, I made my way back across the Firehole River to Castle Geyser, hoping to see one of its two daily eruptions (Spoiler alert: Castle Geyser erupted just as we were driving away from the Inn, so I didn’t manage to capture it against the dark thunderclouds in the distance).
“The massive cone is a sign of old age. Eruption after eruption, probably for thousands of years, scalding water has deposited this mineral formation. By contrast, Old Faithful’s fledgling cone may be only a few hundred years old. Castle Geyser has dramatically changed its surroundings. By altering soil chemistry, the geyser has devoured part of a pine forest and turned it into a thermal desert. Tree skeletons are entombed within the cone.”– Interpretive Sign at Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Vacation: The Best Place for Lunch in Yellowstone – The Old Faithful Inn
One of the most iconic sties in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Inn, nearly burned down because of the great fire of 1988. Architect Robert C. Reamer designed the Inn, which he constructed with lodgepole pine and volcanic rhyolite from the surrounding area. (Read this NPR piece about the fire that threatened the Old Faithful Inn).
The interior space soars up past the surrounding floors, each bordered by heavy wooden railings that draw the eyes upward to the “Crow’s Nest,” the central lookout that is now closed to the public but used to host a stringed orchestra that entertained visiting guests below. The Inn is truly one-of-a-kind, a national architectural and historical treasure, an Old West icon in the center of the original national park. The Old Faithful Inn is an emblem of Yellowstone and the wilderness that surrounds the 100-year-old structure. (Check out our free, downloadable stock images of the Inn here).
The food at the main restaurant is pretty good, too. You can choose from locally-sourced, organic bison, cheese plates, a delicious salmon spread, and vegetarian options to enjoy in the lodgepole pine dining room. If you’re in a hurry to get back outside, though, there’s a buffet option as well.
Yellowstone Vacation: Run with the Buffalo (at a Safe Distance, of Course)
As we drove through the park along the winding, two-lane roads that criss-cross Yellowstone, we were able to move around at a reasonable pace. That is until we came upon a line of cars, trucks, trailers, and motorcycles slowly making their way around a very large bison that was slowly plodding down the middle of the road, apparently not too annoyed by all the idling vehicles and curious tourists snapping away. Once the shoulder opened up into a narrow meadow along the river, the massive beast headed down toward the water.
A little later, another large bison made its way along a small stream before heading back up into the meadow, directly toward me. I kept a safe distance (the park recommends at least 100 yards), and used my lens to get a little bit closer. (We found out later today that the bison we saw near Old Faithful charged and tossed a 9-year-old girl into the air after a crowd got to close and may have even been petting the bison’s coat. Needless to say, these are WILD ANIMALS and should be given their space, even though it’s tempting to want to get close and hang out with the wildlife).
The rain started to fall as I stood in the field, watching the bison meander through the grassy field, stopping occasionally to nibble on some grass before making his way closer to me and the road. And instead of trying to get even closer to pet its coat or otherwise interact with the animal, I slowly backed away and left it alone.
Yellowstone Vacation: Walk Across the Glassy Surface of Grand Prismatic Springs
After taking my fair share of American Bison photos (which you can download and use from our stock photography collection), we headed back to Grand Prismatic Springs, the rainbow-colored thermal complex that is often featured in aerial photography of Yellowstone. From the ground, it’s equally impressive, because of the adjoining craters and glassy surface of the sprawling hot springs. Even though it’s harder to see the vibrant colors of the springs up close, there are enough vantage points and lookout spots to get a good feel for the site.
Grand Prismatic Spring: Prism of Light, Spectrum of Life.
“Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and one of the most brilliant of Yellowstone’s many colorful hot springs. Its massive expanse stretches approximately 200 feet (61m) across. The high temperature of its water – 160F° (70C°) – ensures that the spring is often cloaked in steam.”
“Deep beneath us, magma from an active volcano heats water that rises to the surface through fissures in the rocks. The result is a hot spring that pours almost 500 gallons of hot water each minute into the Firehole River. Minerals dissolved in the hot water are deposited and gradually build the gracefully terraced shoulders of this feature.”– Interpretive Sign at Prismatic Hot Spring, Yellowstone National Park Foundation, NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations
Visiting the Best Places in West Yellowstone National Park: You’re Not Alone!
Yellowstone has around 4 million visitors each year mostly during the peak season of May through September. The sheer number of people coming through the park creates an enormous impact on the park’s ecosystems and natural resources. The park service has done a remarkable job protecting these natural environments while designing ways for tourists to visit and view the park’s remarkable points of interest. From wide, accessible elevated walkways to carefully planned pullouts and central operations run from the historical Fort Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs, the federal employees who manage and operate the park have managed to maintain an accessible national treasure while minimizing impact on the environment. And all this despite skyrocketing numbers of tourists each year.
The park service even has remote “arms” that can reach out and collect objects that fall (or are thrown) into fragile ecosystems like the bacteria mats at Prismatic Hot Spring. Whether they blew off in a windstorm or were thrown into the spring by devious tourists, the handful of hats that sat among the striated colors of the springs will hopefully be fished out before too long – and before any copy-cat hat-throwers get the same idea.
“Within the rainbow of orange, brown, and red colors, some microorganisms live in communities of thick mats. Like miniature forests, these mats have a vertical structure and stratified functions. Microbes that live on or near the top of the mat (similar to a forest canopy) use sunlight to perform photosynthesis, which fuels the mat community. Organisms living deeper in the mat (similar to a forest understory) derive energy from chemicals produced by the surface microbes. They perform other vital functions such as decomposition and recycling nutrients to the mat’s ‘canopy’ just like their counterparts in a forest. All of these organisms create an ecosystem in the expanse of a few inches.”– Interpretive Sign at Prismatic Hot Spring, Yellowstone National Park Foundation, NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations
Yellowstone Vacation Day 4: Henrys Lake and the Town of West Yellowstone
What to do on Your Yellowstone Vacation: Kayak Henrys Lake
We may be some of the most recent visitors to Henrys Lake and this corner of Idaho, but there’s a much longer record of visitors, residents, and settlers in this area. Henrys Lake and the surrounding area have always provided a rich, fertile region for hunting and fishing, dating back to the earliest human migration and settlement. Even though early canoes and boats looked nothing like today’s recreational kayaks, I like to think there’s at least a slight connection between the two and the history of this place.
“10,000 Years of History. This area is believed to have been inhabited by humans for at least the last 10,000 years. Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crow, Flathead and Sheepeater tribes either migrated through here to fish or hunt bison, deer and elk, or made permanent encampments here. Europeans first came to Henrys Lake in 1810. Major Andrew Henry, a partner in the Missouri Fur Trading Company, brought between 50 to 80 men to what is now St. Anthony to establish a trading center. After a bitter winter, 27 men had either died or been killed, many suffered from snow blindness, and all of them were forced to eat their horses to survive. In spring 1811, Henry and his surviving men trudged to Montana where they had been trapping before coming to this area. The lake and a nearby portion of the Snake River bear the major’s name.”– Interpretive Sign at Henrys Lake State Park, Idaho State Parks and Recreation
After a long day of hiking around Yellowstone, we decided to spend a day close to camp, kayaking the lake and exploring the small Montana town of West Yellowstone, a quaint, rural outpost at the West Entrance of the National Park. For now, though, we inflated our two-person kayak and dragged Nyah’s new youth kayak to the lake shore and set out on an adventure of our own. We didn’t cruise around the entire lake, just the Southern shore. The sun shone bright and the water sparkled as we paddled along the marshy shoreline, past pelicans and ducks and smaller mountain birds flitting around the foliage. We are the latest to explore this area, transient adventurers just passing through.
“There are many stories of remarkable, rugged settlers who came to this area seeking adventure and a piece of land. One of those was Gilman Sawtell who was the first homesteader near Henrys Lake. He came West from Massachusetts after fighting in the Civil War. On Henrys Lake, he developed a commercial fishery, sometimes catching 90,000 pounds of cutthroat a year. He sold the fish in Butte and Virginia City, Montana, and packed it on ice for a train ride to Ogden, Utah, where it sold for nine cents a pound. When Idaho outlawed the sale of wild trout in 1890, Joe Sherwood built a fish hatchery on the lake to raise rainbow trout for commercial sale. This well-educated, enterprising entrepreneur also operated the first cruise boat on Henrys Lake and ran Island Park’s first sawmill. His most notable achievement, however, was the invention of the world’s first snowmobile – for which he held the patent – developed right here at Henrys Lake.”– Interpretive Sign at Henrys Lake State Park, Idaho State Parks and Recreation
Want to Explore the Wild West? Visit West Yellowstone!
We both grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Michelle in Central Idaho and me in Central Oregon. So we’ve both been a little spoiled when it comes to colorful Western towns rich with history like Sisters or Joseph, Oregon, and McCall, Idaho, where Michelle was born. West Yellowstone is a bit of a combination of each of these charming Western towns, but with more souvenir shops catering to the hoards of tourists that pass through town each summer.
Firehole Avenue has a few good restaurants, and you’ll find a variety of hotels and cabins for rent closer to the West Entrance to Yellowstone. If you get tired of the touristy shops along Canyon Street, head over to Yellowstone Avenue and check out the historic center and buildings from the visitor center down toward Iris Street and the community learning centers. And if you’re here in the winter, you can ride your snowmobile on most city streets, except for the main highways in and out of town.
Yellowstone Vacation Day 5: Things to do in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
If you’ve never been to Jackson Hole and the Tetons, be prepared for some awe-inspiring views. Regardless of your approach, the Tetons stretch on and on and never seem to end. Jackson Hole and the city of Jackson sit to the East of the Tetons, South of Yellowstone and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. On the West side, too, you’ll find green, rolling hills and fertile farmland near Ashton, Driggs, and Victor, Idaho. What’s more, this entire region expands from one mountain range to another. And Yellowstone sits in the center of it all.
Yellowstone Vacation: Things to do in Jackson Hole and the Tetons #1 – Drive through Driggs and the epic front range of the Tetons
Driggs is one of the larger rural communities along the Western front range of the Tetons. And Driggs not only has incredible views of the Tetons. It also has a surprising selection of great restaurants and cafés. Exhibit A: Big Hole Bagel and Bistro. Perhaps a bit suggestive, the name evokes Jackson Hole (among other things). But the name comes from the café’s bagels, freshly made and delicious. We arrived just in time for coffee and breakfast, because we left early for our long drive to Jackson. While you’re here, be sure to also check out the incredible photography of Mark N. Roberts, on display for purchase. Mark’s photography of the region is some of the best you’ll find, and we love his emphasis on the environment and natural history. His bear and wildlife photos are pretty incredible, too.
There are many roads to Jackson (Wyoming, not Mississippi). If you have the option, drive through the fertile farmland near the forested foothills of the Tetons for the very best views. You’ll also find barns, silos, and scenes like these to photograph and enjoy. (Click to view our “rural landscape” stock photography collection while you’re here). And crank up “Jackson” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Even though it wasn’t written for this Jackson, it’s the perfect song for this drive!
Yellowstone Vacation: Things to do in Jackson Hole and the Tetons #2 – Bike to Jackson’s town square and the iconic antler sculptures
Where to Rent Bikes in Jackson: Hoback Sports
We threw our bikes in the back of the truck so we wouldn’t have to fight the traffic downtown Jackson. If you don’t have your bikes with you, we recommend parking at Hoback Sports and renting bikes so you can explore the downtown area without the frustration of finding parking. This is one of the best ways to explore Jackson, because you can cover more ground and see more than if you’re on foot or driving around in circles. And although there aren’t tons of biking lanes, there are several bike corridors and protected lanes to get you to and from Hoback safely.
I’ve linked our bike route to Google Earth, so you can click on the image above to see our entire route, including the street view from Hoback Sports to the fairgrounds and around downtown. As you can see, there are more direct routes, but we wanted to visit the Phil Baux Park and ride past the ski hill on our way downtown. West Snow King Road, the long stretch of road to the South, also has a wide, protected bike lane. Then, South Willow Street leading all the way up to E. Deloney Avenue and the visitor’s center has less traffic and bike lane markings, so it’s safe for casual cyclists, families, and children.
Explore Downtown Jackson, Wyoming
Once you bike downtown, we recommend locking your bikes up near the visitor’s center, just a block or two away from the main square. There’s also a large parking lot if you do decide to drive in, and it’s a great central location for walking around town. Everyone takes photos of the famous antler arches, but did you know there are four of them? Each of the four corners actually has its own antler arch, so don’t worry about being able to get in front of one for your own photos!
One of the first things you’ll see downtown on the town square is the Jackson Hole Stage Stop and Castagno Outfitters’ vintage, horse-drawn stage coach. If you’re interested in a downtown cruise in an antique stage coach, you can book a tour at the stage stop. The central park also has plenty of spots to sit and unwind once you’ve had your fill of shops and restaurants. And there are a LOT of shops and restaurants to explore! Whether you’re looking for touristy t-shirts and gifts or more expensive jewelry and art, you can find it in Jackson.
Yellowstone Vacation: Things to do in Jackson Hole and the Tetons #3 – Eat, drink, and be merry
For the size of the town, Jackson’s food options are vast and varied. You’ll find just about anything here, from gastro pubs to sushi, because Jackson’s tourism industry is booming. Coffee shops are plentiful, and you can eat wood fired pizza at Hand Fire Pizza, located inside the historic Teton Building. Roadhouse Brewing Co. Pub and Eatery wins our pick for the best lunch spot in Jackson, though. This one of the best casual dining spots in Jackson because of its creative menu and a wide selection of in-house and local brews. And the illuminated bar sign upstairs is pretty cool, too.
Yellowstone Vacation: Things to do in Jackson Hole and the Tetons #4 – Tour local historical and wildlife museums
We always try to balance any walking tour of tourist stops (shops, shopping, and restaurants) with something a little more cultural or historical, because we can only walk through so many t-shirt shops before we need something a little more interesting and engaging. We also love learning about local history and the context of places we visit, whether it’s Jackson Hole, Tulum, Mexico, or the West Coast of New Zealand.
Jackson has a lot of interesting history, partly because of its location at the base of the Tetons and the natural crossings between them and around the surrounding valleys. Because of their locations close to downtown, we visited the town’s two historical museums. One contains exhibits about Historic Jackson Hole and a Retrospective on Newspapers in Jackson Hole. The other contains more indigenous and natural history. The natural history exhibits also contain storied exhibits like the one on English trapper, trader, and government guide “Beaver Dick,” who eventually learned Shoshone and Bannock and served as an interpreter in and around Jackson Hole.
One other museum we didn’t have time to visit but will definitely come back for sits on the outskirts of town, on a hill overlooking an elk preserve. The aptly named National Museum of Wildlife Art also offers a discount on admission if you scan the QR code on the artistic moose mural downtown, next to Hand Fire Pizza in the historic Teton Building. We drove past the museum’s impressive hillside property between Jackson and Grand Teton National Park. For now, until we have a chance to go back and visit, check out the Museum’s great website and digital collection of its works.
Yellowstone Vacation: Things to do in Jackson Hole and the Tetons #5 – Drive to the Teton National Park Visitor Center overlooking the magnificent Teton Mountains
As you climb up out of Jackson on the drive North toward Moose and Yellowstone National Park, the first thing you’ll see is the National Park Service sign for Grand Teton National Park. It’s worth a quick stop, because this is one of the first full views of the Tetons after you pass the hillsides surrounding Jackson to the South. It’s also a good spot to look for elk in the National Elk Refuge on the East side of the highway, where you can snap photos of the range and the National Park sign.
Grand Teton National Park: The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center
A little further North down US Highway 191 and the village of Moose, you’ll find a turnoff that leads to the Grand Teton National Park Headquarters. This area has several shops, restaurants, and a service station. It also houses the contemporary Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, an interactive facility with expansive views of the Tetons. Guided and self-guided tours provide rich information about the Tetons. Hands-on displays also allow visitors to get a first-hand look at antlers and other artifacts.
Outside of the Visitor Center, the Tetons stretch North and South as far as you can see. Their jagged peaks push skyward while clouds float by. If you also plan to hike or camp in the Tetons, you can get permits and information at the Center. Besides, if you’ve come this far, it’s worth exploring the range up close, too. Even though we didn’t plan any Teton hiking this time around, we took our time driving back along the front range. We even saw a large black bear meandering up and over a hill between Moose and Wilson. If you drive that route, though, be prepared for narrow, winding, gravel roads.
The road to Moose also crosses the Snake River, not far from where Ansel Adams shot his iconic photo of the Tetons. If you want to try and replicate his masterpiece, visit the Snake River Overlook just 9 miles further North. (Spoiler alert: No one can replicate Ansel Adams’ work, but you’re welcome to try!)
Driving to (and from) Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Country Roads and Sunsets
Driving back to Henrys Lake may be even more beautiful than the drive to Jackson. If you time it right, you can also enjoy the best light East and West of the mountains. We got lucky enough to enjoy both dawn and dusk in the Tetons, in part because of our long drive. But if you can catch sunrise from Jackson and sunset from Driggs, you’ll have the best light for photos and scenic views. And besides, there’s nothing quite like winding country roads and sunsets.
Yellowstone Vacation Day 6: Yellowstone Hot Springs
Pro Tips for Your Yellowstone Vacation:
- During peak summer season, if you can get into the park before 9:00 am, you can stay ahead of the traffic and enjoy most popular sites before the majority of the crowds arrive. Think of it as being on the front edge of a wave; you want to get in and enjoy the sites before most traffic, buses, and other tourists arrive.
- Even earlier is better; we tried to get through the West Gate before 8, and noticed a big difference just by arriving closer to 8 rather than 9 am.
- Although you will want to visit the most iconic locations in the park, don’t neglect the lesser-known (and lesser-crowded) hikes, thermal pools, and day-use areas along the way. No matter what time of day, these spots provide much-needed tranquility and relative isolation after you’ve dealt with crowds of people at the more popular spots.
- This trip we didn’t plan to do a lot of hiking or backpacking, but that is the absolute best way to enjoy the park and its natural beauty. Even if you’re not planning to overnight it, there are plenty of day hikes and shorter walks for all ability levels, including many accessible, paved paths and walkways throughout the park.
- Be prepared for erratic drivers and oblivious tourists wandering around roadways looking for wildlife. Everyone is hoping to catch a glimpse of bison or bear or moose, and you’ll probably encounter others who aren’t safe or smart about it. Just chill and keep your eyes out – for wildlife AND wild tourists who aren’t paying attention!
Yellowstone Vacation: Gibbon Falls Overlook
Today we have two destinations: the Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs. The great thing, though, about having a couple of must-see sights and a full day to see them is that we can stop along the way at unplanned and unexpected places. Case in point: the Gibbon Falls Overlook. We all liked this spot because (1) the falls are impressive, (2) we needed a stretch break, and (3) we were ahead of the crowds and had the spot pretty much to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to big crowds. But when it comes to nature walks and scenery, less is more. And today, we’re ahead of the wave. We got here around 8am, and we consistently beat the crowds to each place we visited, right up until we led the crowds back out of the park to West Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Vacation: Mud Pots and Thermal Pools
We toured thermal springs and mud pots a few days ago, but today we stumbled upon an even more impressive site between Gibbon Falls and Norris. I think this spot feels even more primal and remote, partly because it’s further off the road and more spread out along a hillside. In fact, you can climb up and around the pools to the mud pots. Steam wafts across deep, cavernous thermal pools because this is an active volcanic caldera, after all!
Yellowstone Hot Springs: From Soup to Stew
“The hydrothermal system at Artists’ Paintpots operates somewhat like a double-boiler in your kitchen. Just as the bottom pot of the double-boiler holds boiling water, underneath the ground here is a hot water system with hot acidic steam. This super-heated acidic steam heats the ground above it causing the rocks to dissolve into clay. The hot clay receives water from rainwater and snowmelt. This causes mudpot consistency and activity to vary with the season and amount of precipitation.”– Interpretive Sign at Artists’ Paintpots, Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Vacation: Norris Geyser Basin
After we wandered back to the truck (and the restrooms and the chaotic parking area), we made our way to Norris. It’s actually called the Norris Geyser Basin, which turned out to be one of the busiest and most congested areas we saw all day. That’s partly because of the limited parking once you wind back into the complex. But the basin is worth it. This area has some of the largest multi-colored mineral pools and deposits we’ve seen. I can’t get over the turquoise-blue mineral water, partly because it reminds me of New Zealand’s glacial runoff.
The Norris Geyser Basin has various walking and hiking paths that loop around the thermal pools. Some paths are accessible, too, but not all of them. The Porcelain Basin, for instance, is a shorter, half-mile loop. The Back Basin trails, on the other hand, are slightly longer at 1 to 1 1/2 miles, depending on which route you take. The trails are well marked, but stop at the interpretive sign just before the museum building and start of the trails. You can also pick up a map (suggested donation: $1), or just follow your instincts. These are maintained wooden walking paths, after all, so it’s impossible to get lost!
Yellowstone Hot Springs: Beautiful and Bizarre
“As you walk through Norris Geyser Basin, you may feel as if you are encountering another world. In the basin – far below the towering peaks of the Gallatin Mountains – water accumulates underground. Heated by the Yellowstone Volcano, the water travels upward to erupt from acidic geysers, rise from steaming fumaroles, and simmer in shimmering pools.– Interpretive Sign at the Norris Geyser Basin
Yellowstone Vacation: Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is actually huge! In fact, it occupies most of a large hillside that slopes down toward Historic Fort Yellowstone. The complex is not far from Gardiner, Montana, and the Roosevelt Arch, but quite a drive up from the West Entrance or further South. The drive from the South, though, is enjoyable and the scenery changes almost every few miles. Starting from forested hills, once you get to the narrow mountain pass and a small waterfall, the views open up to the valley below and unique geological formations along the way. I had just commented that the scenery between Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth wasn’t all that different from the mountains of Idaho when we turned the corner to the expansive range that leads down to Mammoth Hot Springs and the Fort. And while we are pretty spoiled with amazing scenery in Idaho, Yellowstone’s volcanic caldera and its thermal hot springs are pretty hard to beat!
“When Yellowstone was established in 1872, the fledgling park was viewed greedily by poachers, railroads, and mining interests. The nineteenth-century way of seeing wilderness as empty land on which to capitalize would need to change before these threats would be removed forever. The Army’s thirty-two year protection of Yellowstone from 1886-1918 bought time for the new national park idea to be accepted. As this completely new idea was gaining hold, wild places came to be viewed as worth protecting for their own unique value.”– Interpretive sign above Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
This is lower Mammoth Hot Springs, the closest section to Fort Yellowstone and the Northernmost section of springs. Here’s another little moment of truth: Michelle and I left the girls in the truck while we walked over to this section, because they needed a break from all the touring and snapping of photos. But I honestly can never get enough shots, especially when the subject matter is this good. And the girls were perfectly content to chill out and play a game together for a few minutes before we continued on. So we all got what we wanted, including a few more of my favorite shots from Mammoth Hot Springs.
Yellowstone Vacation: Historic Fort Yellowstone
Historic Fort Yellowstone has been expanded and developed over the years, and now serves as the base of operations for all of Yellowstone National Park. The former barracks and officer housing now house federal park employees, for example. There’s the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the restaurant complex, also next door to the Sinclair service station and Yellowstone shops. (You can get a Yeti koozie with Yellowstone National Park emblazoned on the side, among other great souvenirs).
Aside from the pre-packaged food options at the Yellowstone store, there are two main restaurants in Mammoth. The first serves cafeteria-style fast-food options like hamburgers and sandwiches. The second offers a dine-in restaurant experience with a menu similar to the one at the Old Faithful Inn. We went into the cafeteria side (on the left or South side of the building), but quickly decided it was worth the wait for the full restaurant. (After I put my name in for a table, I heard a couple walking out saying “well that was a good call!”) If you’re in a hurry, the faster option is probably the way to go. Even though the food wasn’t quite as good as the Old Faithful Inn, we agreed that the sit-down restaurant was the better of the two options.
Depending on when you arrive in Mammoth, a great place to start exploring Fort Yellowstone is the Horace M. Albright Visitor Center. The Center has interactive displays and great information about the historic Fort. Most of the historic buildings are either housing for park employees or park administration facilities, from accounting and payroll to central distribution to the park’s many stores, shops, and restaurants. There’s even a gym and a credit union that we wandered into before heading back out to the post office and other more public facilities.
Yellowstone Vacation: Track Bison Like a Pro
It bears repeating: bison and other wildlife in Yellowstone are wild and not domesticated, farm-variety animals like cows, sheep, and goats in a petting zoo. In the time that we’ve been here, several tourists have been head-butted or gored because they either got too close to wild beasts or tried to pet them! So the best advice I can share here is to give any wild animals you encounter plenty of space, and only get close with a good zoom lens. That said, if you do come across wildlife and are lucky enough to do so away from throngs of people, you can capture some truly amazing images.
We were heading back past Gibbon Falls when I spotted this herd in the distance, bedded down along the Madison River. I found a safe turnout and flipped around so we could hike down the embankment toward the river. Again, even though I appear to be pretty close to these bison, it’s the magic of photography and a powerful Nikon lens that got me that close. I would never risk my life for a good photo, although I have taken a risk or two to get a great shot from time to time!
Yellowstone Vacation Day 7: Fishing Henrys Lake
Idaho’s State Fish
Idaho State Parks and Recreation Interpretive Sign: “Henrys Lake has been managed as a trophy fishery since 1976. Cutthroat trout, Idaho’s state fish, are native to Henrys Lake and are found naturally in more Idaho waters than any other trout or salmon. They are easy to identify – just look for the bright red ‘slash’ under their jaw. Steelhead and chinook and sockeye salmon are all ocean-going cousins of the cutthroat. The trout spawn in the spring but begin the journey to tributaries during late fall and early winter. Trout fry stay in the tributaries for a year before heading to the lake where they will live for about six years. Lake-dwelling cutthroat commonly grow to about 20 inches and can weigh as much as 20 pounds! Most of the cutthroat in Henrys Lake weigh three to five pounds.”
Fish Species in Henrys Lake
Other Fish in Henrys Lake
Idaho State Parks and Recreation Interpretive Sign: “Other species living in this lake include Rocky Mountain sculpin and mountain whitefish. Eastern brook trout, which average about 3 pounds, and rainbow-cutthroat trout hybrids weighing up to approximately 14 pounds are introduced species that also thrive in the lake. The state’s largest brook trout ever caught weighed 7.2 pounds and was caught here at Henrys Lake.”
The North Fork Reservoir Company
The Creation of Henrys Lake
Idaho State Parks and Recreation Interpretive Sign: “The North Fork Reservoir Company was created in 1916 as a nonprofit corporation. It supplies water from Henrys Lake to six canal companies in the St. Anthony area, irrigating about 47,000 acres of farmland. Farming and ranching are vital to eastern Idaho’s economy. Henrys Lake was dammed in 1923 which increased the size of the lake from 1,500 acre feet to 79,600 acre feet. The dam was rebuilt in 1964, increasing the lake’s capacity to 86,000 acre feet.”
Henrys Lake Today
Henrys Lake Habitat
Idaho State Parks and Recreation Interpretive Sign: “The lake level fluctuates little and is dependent upon irrigators’ needs and climactic changes, like prolonged drought. This constant elevation provides excellent fish habitat, and Henrys Lake is renowned for its world-class fishing. No local, state or federal money was used to create this reservoir. Instead, the farmers and ranchers who use the reservoir’s water funded the construction of the dam.”