Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite places on Earth. A potpourri of abundant wildlife, steaming geysers, bubbling mud pots and wonderful waterfalls, Yellowstone is a must-visit on a regular basis for my husband and me. Any visit to Yellowstone also should include a trek to adjacent Grand Teton National Park. We drive in from Colorado, so we always opt to stop at the Tetons first on our way to Yellowstone. But regardless of where you enter Yellowstone, you’ll want to make time to see the Tetons as well. Visit both parks and you really are getting the best of both worlds.
Yellowstone is the nation’s oldest national park, designated in 1872. At 2.2 million acres, it is the second largest park in the Lower 48 states. (Only Death Valley is larger.) It is a premiere place to see wildlife, including bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn, moose, deer, bears and other animals.
And it is also the place to be if you like unusual geothermal wonders. It has more hydrothermal features (approximately 10,000) than anywhere else in the world. The reason Yellowstone has so many geysers and heated springs, including Old Faithful, is that it is actually an active super volcano. Yellowstone will probably not erupt again for quite a long time (estimates say not for another 1,000 to 10,000 years). Scientists monitor the place regularly, so it’s definitely safe to visit. As you tour, eventually it will sink in that there are more geysers here than you will ever have time to see. Pools of steaming water in colors of green, blue, and brown look alluring until you realize they are deadly, with temperatures exceeding 200 degrees. Obey all warning signs and stay away from areas that might invite a slip or fall.
Yellowstone has its share of mosquitoes by spring, but a visit then can be very rewarding. The days are getting longer, warmth is easily felt, like a gentle tease, although cold days do tend to linger. A rainbow of wildflowers dance with an array of green grasses. In spring, baby bison kick up their heels, while tiny spotted elk and deer calves do the same, and moose give birth to long-legged youngsters. Yellowstone is indeed one of nature’s largest and grandest nurseries.
The bull moose, elk and deer sport tiny antlers that will grow quickly. Their soft velvet later mixes with shedding velvet, giving the animals a straggly look, and finally, in the fall, the antlers are smooth yet piercing.
Our favorite time to visit is during winter, when the park is very cold and snowy but filled with beauty and wonder. In the fall, it is dry, with golden hues and typical colors, and it is the mating season for magnificent deer, elk, and moose. Winter and fall are definitely mosquito-free.
It’s difficult to tell others where to go to find wildlife because the animals are free to roam. My advice is to get out early, stay out late, and drive the park roads at a slow pace. If you enjoy hiking or walking, be sure to grab the necessary supplies and get out and see the back country. The land is crisscrossed with more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails, many leading to stunning waterfalls. The park has more than 200 permanent waterfalls. The 308-foot Lower Falls is one of the highest falls on the continent.
We don’t often visit Yellowstone in the summer, but sometimes we are nearby and drive through the park to see what’s happening. One day traffic prevented us from moving, but that was OK. Right at that time we noticed a lone grizzly snacking a few hundred yards off the road. We pulled off to the side; I grabbed my heavy tripod and 600-millimeter lens, and we spent two hours watching the bear eat and rest.
Tetons in the Spring
For more wildlife and scenery, travel south from Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park, and you might see grizzlies, moose, bison, pronghorn and more. At the very least, you will glean an up-close view of the grand peaks called the Tetons, which are magnificent to see and even more magnificent for those who climb them.
If you want to avoid crowds, don’t go in the summer, but visit in spring, fall or winter. During spring, an abundance of wildflowers provides a rainbow of bouquets. June is the peak season for flowers on the valley floor. Look for sagebrush buttercups, yellow-bells and steer’s heads. Meadows explode with color as scarlet gilia, lupine, larkspur, balsamroot and wild buckwheat bloom. As summer progresses, many of the same flowers brighten up the higher elevations, with the official park flower and my personal favorite, the alpine forget-me-not, visible in the alpine zone.
The Teton Mountains are the result of sporadic earthquake-producing jolts and are one of the most striking of Rocky Mountain scenes. Foothills are nonexistent in this land; instead, the Tetons burst straight up from a valley known as Jackson Hole, piercing the sky with jagged peaks.
The peaks tower over the mighty Snake River, which meanders its way through the park. The river begins life in the wilderness in Yellowstone and enters Grand Teton National Park at Jackson Lake. The Snake then flows out of the lake at Jackson Lake Dam and continues past Oxbow Bend, where a cutoff of the river moseys along at a quiet pace. In this area of the river, with its showy twists and turns, we’ve seen herons standing frozen in time, waiting for some edible creature to happen by. In the wee hours of the morning, we’ve watched for beavers and thrilled to a river otter eating fish after fish.
If the wildlife are hiding when you visit Oxbow Bend, the scenery will still be there (unless fog or clouds roll in). You’ll witness a dramatic view of massive Mount Moran, which is reflected in the calm waters of the Snake River. Early morning is the best time for viewing the scene and photographing the event.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes the Teton Range and Jackson Hole, is the largest essentially intact natural area in the contiguous United States. Thousands of elk can be found on the higher ranges during the summer. In the winter, anywhere from 7,500 to 9,000 elk gather at the National Elk Refuge at the southeast end of the preserve.
History and Tourism
Many changes have been made since the first inhabitants arrived at this area about 12,000 years ago. Although no one tribe claimed the land, several Native American tribes—Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventre—used the Jackson Hole valley during the warm months.
John Colter, who made his historic trek in 1806, was the first European to enter the valley. Later, mountain men gathered in the region to hunt and trade fur. Many species were hunted to near extinction until the era of the western fur trade ended about 1840. Settlement of the valley known today as Jackson Hole began in 1884.
The present-day town of Jackson is a favorite among tourists because of its many outdoor-related activities, such as hiking, golf, and rodeos in summer, and skiing in winter. The town’s National Museum of Wildlife Art fits right in with the theme.
Grand Teton is accessible via multiple roads and an assortment of back-country trails. If you want to stick to your motorhome, check out the road past Jenny Lake, for it offers the closest view of the tallest mountains in the range. En route you’ll secure a closeup view of the magnificent spires known as the Cathedral Group—Teewinot Mountain, Grand Teton, and Mount Owen.
Jackson Lake Overlook is another must-see in the park. Some roads have restrictions, so plan accordingly. Large motorhomes are prohibited on Signal Mountain Summit Road, which leads two miles to the top of Summit Mountain. Take the drive via tow vehicle for a panoramic view of Jackson Lake, the Teton Range, and the northern part of Jackson Hole. And from the top you can gaze at the Tetons, look north to Yellowstone, and realize that you really have experienced the best of both worlds.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
IF YOU GO:
Admission: An entrance fee of $25 per vehicle buys a pass good for seven days at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Other national park entry passes are also honored.
Camping: Some park campground sites can be reserved; others are available on a first-come, first-served basis. See the park websites for detailed information on rates and seasons.
Yellowstone: For information, visit nps.gov/yell or call (307) 344-7381. The number for camping reservations is (866) 439-7353.
Grand Teton: For information, visit nps.gov/grte or call (307) 739-3300. The number for camping reservations is (800) 628-9988. n