Wednesday, September 15, 2021

10 spectacular Yellowstone and Grand Teton experiences every visitor should have

Adventurous Tastes | 10 Can't miss experiences in Yellowstone and Grand Teton

It seems everyone has gotten the memo that national parks are the place to be this summer. But you know what's even better than sweating it out while jostling with hordes of tourists for that perfect photo? Going when it's less crowded and cooler but just as gorgeous in fall!

We hit Yellowstone last October and it was absolutely glorious. So what are the 10 most spectacular experiences that you simply must have at Yellowstone? Read on after the jump!

1. Wake up at the crack of dawn 

Animals are at their most active at dawn and dusk, and for east coasters like us, it was easier to start early. Hayden Valley is in the middle of the park so you're looking at an hour drive even from the closer West Yellowstone side. We set off in the dark with coffee and muffins from our hotel and wow did it ever pay off. We arrived just before sunrise to see an enormous herd of bison spread out across the valley. It was awe inspiring and so gorgeous to see so many of these imposing creatures in the golden morning light. A photographer's heaven! Local experts can also take you to the best animal-spotting locations in the park.

Adventurous Tastes| Herd of buffalo grazing in Hayden Valley at Yellowstone
A herd of buffalo grazes in Hayden Valley

Also recommended for an early start is the Lamar Valley, known as America's Serengeti. We didn't have as much luck here as we did at Hayden, but we still had a pretty epic animal viewing experience. We saw an entire pack of a wolves making a beeline for a lone bison bull. Turns out that even a 20-wolf strong pack doesn't want to take on one of these big guys, so after some tentative sniffing, they let him be. The wolves were quite far off so no great pics of this but some of the people near us with amazing spotting scopes let us take a peek. Wolves were one of the animals I most hoped to see, so I was thrilled to check them off my list.

2. Get delayed by a bison jam

Things at Yellowstone run at their own speed. One minute you're zipping down an open road, the next you're trapped behind a slow moving bison. Embrace the experience and don't get out your car. These big guys look gentle from afar but are not to be approached. Just enjoy the view!

Adventurous Tastes| Bison blocks traffic at Yellowstone
Bison jams are a real thing! 

3. Enjoy the best of Yellowstone's waterfalls 

Adventurous Tastes | Waterfall, river and canyon at Artist Point in Yellowstone
Yellowstone's Artist Point

Waterfalls abound at Yellowstone and there are a few you can't miss. Upper Falls, Lower Falls and Crystal Falls Trail can be reached by a 3.8 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail. I found this hike to be easy but just challenging enough to feel like you were getting some exercise. You can drive to the falls viewpoints if you prefer, but the hike gave us multiple vantage points for the Upper Falls and Lower Falls, and afterwards we headed nearby to the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Artist Point. We also did the hike to Fairytale Falls, and the hike itself is quite dull but the payoff is lovely.

4.  Geology, baby!

Everyone who comes to Yellowstone goes to Old Faithful, but I'm going to take a controversial stance here - Old Faithful is overrated. Yellowstone is home to so many other more interesting geologic features. Sure it's cool to see water shoot out of the ground, but if you've seen geysers in places like Iceland, it's an underwhelming, over-crowded experience. Of course you should go, but don't let it be the only geologic feature on your itinerary!

Adventurous Tastes | Blue hot spring pool at Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone
Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone

Instead, check out Norris or West Thumb Geyser Basin and the famed Grand Prismatic. With the latter, be sure to park at the Fairy Falls Trailhead and hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. This isn't a particularly long walk, but it is uphill. From that vantage point, you can take in Grand Prismatic's interesting colors. From below you're more likely to just see steam. 

Adventurous Tastes| Brightly colored Grand Pristmatic Springs at Yellowstone
Yellowstone's famous Grand Prismatic Springs

There are signs everywhere telling you not to leave the path. These features are delicate and more importantly dangerous. Every year some goober leaves the path and either gets maimed or arrested. Don't be that person.

Adventurous Tastes| Bright blue hot spring in Yellowstone's West Thumb Geyser Basin
Gorgeous blue hot spring in West Thumb Geyser Basin

5. Take a trip to the moon at Mammoth Hot Springs 

Mammoth Hot Springs is a must-see at Yellowstone. This otherworldly thermal area is unlike any other in the park due to it's unusual travertine formations. There's ample parking nearby, and it's an easy 1.75 mile walk around the upper and lower terraces. The white formations definitely give you the feel of being on another planet.

Adventurous Tastes| White travertine formations at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone
The otherworldly Mammoth Hot Springs


6. Don't just drive, hike!

Despite being a very outdoorsy vacation spot, Yellowstone and Grand Teton don't actually require much hiking. You can pretty much just cruise around in your car and worst case walk around a short boardwalk for all the major sites. But you are missing out on the full majesty of these parks if you don't hike. We tried to hike at least once a day and the payoffs were consistently huge. 

Adventurous Tastes| Man hiking Yellowstone River Picnic Area
Hiking the Yellowstone River Picnic Area

One favorite was the hike at the Yellowstone River Picnic Area, a 3.9 loop trail. It has a gentle rise to a high vantage point with a beautiful view of both river and canyon. One note is that it was very windy on the day we went, so definitely hold on to anything not connected to your body! 

Adventurous Tastes| Golden fields, mountains and blue skies on Slough Creek trail in Yellowstone
The gorgeous view from Yellowstone's Slough Creek trail

Our favorite Yellowstone hike was Slough Creek Trail. I couldn't have predicted from what I'd read about this path that it would be such a delight, so it's a true hidden gem. It's a 20 mile out and back, so we just walked until we felt like turning around. Probably about 5 miles round trip for our journey. We saw almost no one on the whole hike, and the golden fields, yellow aspens and views of the mountains were incredible. There was a moment on the trail when there was complete silence, something I never experience in normal life, and it was bliss!

Fall foliage and mountain views in Wyoming
The magical String Lake hike

Don't sleep on Grand Teton hikes either. To see Grand Teton's famed Jenny Lake, we took the four mile String Lake trail which offered a perfect combination of lake, forest and meadow in a riot of autumnal colors. During high season there's a boat that will take you across the lake, but the lines can be incredibly long and you'd miss views like the photo above.

Beware, there are bears in these parks, so I recommend you carry bear spray with you and make a lot of noise so animals have time to hear you coming. There were just two of us, so I spent a lot of time shouting "no bears." I survived, so I guess it worked!

7. Don't be afraid to leave the park

A stunning detour exists right outside of the park, Bear's Tooth Highway. It's an extremely scenic drive into the mountains complete with hairpin turns and even some snow in early fall. We followed this drive until the road was unexpectedly closed and reached our highest point of our trip - almost 10,000 feet. I've since read harrowing articles about how the weather can turn frightening on this drive, so I am thrilled that we got to check it out without once fearing for our lives.  Of course the stylish town of Jackson Hole is also quite nearby.  Suffice it to say, leave yourself time to explore the larger region.

Adventurous Tastes| Scenic mountain view from Bear's Tooth Highway
Not a bad view from Bear's Tooth Highway in Montana

Adventurous Tastes | Bowl of elk chili and glass of cider
Wonderland Cafe's delectable elk chili
8. Chow down on elk 

Elk are everywhere at Yellowstone so it's no surprise that local restaurants excel at preparing the meat. We enjoyed delicious elk chili and Western sour cherry cider on the patio at Wonderland Cafe. This was my favorite meal in the Yellowstone area, so don't miss it! Elk can get dry, so I preferred chili to the elk burger we tried elsewhere.

9. See things from a different perspective - on horseback 

Man and woman on horseback
Horseback riding in Moran, WY

I couldn't have a wild west experience without riding a horse. The trip offered by Heart Six Ranch was the perfect option for us and was close to both Jackson Hole and the parks. Even though the day was a bit smoky (damn those non-stop western fires), it was still quite scenic, especially the yellow aspens. The horses were gentle so appropriate for everyone from skittish beginners to more experienced (but out of practice) riders like us. We opted for the 2-hour trip and think that was perfect. Horseback riding is hard on your tush, so any longer and I would have been nursing more aches and pains the next day.

10. Take in a sunset (or 3) but show up in time for golden hour

Adventurous Tastes | Golden light on an old farmhouse with mountain backdrop
Golden hour at Mormon Row in Grand Teton

Did you know that the best time to take photos is golden hour? That's the time right before sunrise or sunset when the light is lovely and golden. There are so many glorious spots for sunset in this area, particularly in Grand Teton. Mormon Row (above) is an old settlement within Grand Teton's park borders, and it offers up postcard perfect shots of the old homestead and mountains in the distance.

Adventurous Tastes | Purple and pink sunset over mountains
Sunset at Grand Teton's Schwabacher Landing


Above you can see that sunset at Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton is memorable, but just look at that light below in the moments preceding sunset! Snake River Overlook, Oxbow Bend and Blacktail Ponds Overlook are also great photography options. Want company at sunset? Take a sunset guided tour of Grand Teton!

Adventurous Tastes | Golden light over mountains and river
Golden hour at Grand Teton's Schwabacher Landing

I've included affiliate links to recommended tours. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

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