Grand Teton to Yellowstone: Family Vacation Guide

In the summer of 2018, our family took a national park road trip out west with some great friends of ours and their kids. Among the highlights of this trip was our time spent in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This trip was a whirlwind; however, it was one of the best national park vacations we’ve had. We rented a 15 passenger van and drove round trip from Minneapolis through South Dakota, into Wyoming and Idaho, then up to Montana and back through North Dakota; meaning that we were not at each destination for more than a day or two. We spent 2 days in Grand Teton and 2 days in Yellowstone. Our Grand Teton and Yellowstone Itinerary was filled with non-stop hikes, photo-ops, and lots of driving. Here are our recommendations on what to do from Grand Teton to Yellowstone.

Wyoming

Where to Stay Near Grand Teton National Park

First of all, your home base when visiting Grand Teton needs to be Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson is a cute, cowboy chic town that is the perfect place for your Grand Teton vacation. There are numerous local shops and restaurants all over the downtown area. Depending on which accommodation you chose, most are within walking distance to the dining and shopping areas.

We stayed at the Cowboy Village Resort and loved it. The price point was moderate, and it had everything we needed for our 2-night stay. The cabins were small, but perfect for the 4 of us. Our room had queen bunk beds, a sofa, a mini fridge, small stove, and a microwave. Outside there was a picnic style table and plenty of parking for our car. The rustic cabins were just a block off the main area, and within walking distance to downtown. The kids loved the huge bunk beds and the “cabin like” feel. There was even an indoor pool, but we didn’t have time to use it. I highly recommend Cowboy Village Resort for families or anyone looking to save a little money in pricey Jackson.

Some other options we considered:

We also checked out these options below and considered renting a house on Airbnb too. Ultimately, Cowboy Village Resort won.

The Lexington at Jackson Hole

Parkway Inn

Rustic Inn Creekside

Elk Country Inn

TripAdvisor

Staying Inside Grand Teton National Park

Of course, there’s also the option to be closer to nature and stay in one of the many campgrounds or lodges inside Grand Teton. This is the best bet for families wanting more of a national park experience and not wanting to stay in a town nearby, like Jackson. Here are some ideas on where you can stay inside Grand Teton National Park. Be warned though, accommodations tend to fill up as early as a year in advance, so try to plan as early as possible.

Grand Teton National Park Lodging

Grand Teton National Park Camping

Grand Teton 2 Day Itinerary

Day 1

  • Breakfast – Pearl Street Bagels
  • Lakeshore Trail Hike
  • Picnic Lunch at Moose Visitors Center
  • Photo Ops
  • Explore Downtown
  • Dinner – Glorietta Trattoria

Day 2

  • Breakfast – Cowboy Coffee
  • Jenny Lake
  • Lunch at McPhail’s Burgers
  • River Rafting
  • Dinner – Merry Piglets Mexican
Grand Teton Sign

Things to do in Grand Teton

Go Hiking

Although our kids do enjoy hiking, they also enjoy complaining. We do our best to keep hikes around 2-3 miles so that we can do one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our morning hike was at Lakeshore Trail near the Colter Bay Visitor’s Center. This 3 mile hike was a gentle inner and outer loop around a little peninsula on Jackson Lake. The views from this hike were just unreal. The jagged mountains, the blue/green water, and the forest made me feel as if I was in a storybook setting in Europe. One of the main reasons we did this hike is because we read that it was a hidden gem, and you could see the whole Grand Teton Range.

We had a picnic lunch at the Moose Visitor’s Center and went driving around taking pictures and looking for wildlife. Our kids enjoyed learning about how John Rockefeller bought this land and sold it to the US government to be sanctioned as Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

Our morning hike on the second day was a short section of Jenny Lake. The mountains here were much closer than on our morning hike. The scenery was so beautiful!

jenny lake

Snake River Rafting

As much as we loved hiking and seeing the splendor of the Grand Teton mountains, white water rafting on the Snake River was so much fun! I had been wanting to take the kids on a white water adventure for some time now but needed to wait till my daughter was a bit older (most tours designate close to 8 as the youngest age). If you ask both my children, they will say that this was the highlight of the whole trip.

There are many boat outfitters that run day trips on the Snake River. We used Mad River Boat Trips and were very pleased with the tour itself and our guide. Once you arrive, you are to wait for your scheduled tour time and a bus picks you up to take you to the river about 25 minutes away. Their store had sunscreen and many other items available for purchase.

As silly as it sounds, we had a hard time deciding what to bring and what to wear on this adventure. The white water clothing I recommend is a bathing suit, and a sun shirt/shorts. Hats and sunglasses are also recommended. You should also bring water shoes/hiking sandals. One thing we wish we had brought was a towel to dry off or at least wrap around us for the bus ride back.

My husband and I had previously rafted on the Rogue River in Oregon, yet this river had much more action. We learned a bit about the geology of the area and during a couple of non-paddling moments, the guide allowed anyone to get off and hold on to the raft. Even though the water was 55 degrees, both my kids jumped in! Our guide was very gracious to the kids and allowed them a “front row” seat (which he assured me was very safe). Overall, the tour was 3 hours long and well worth the price!

Jackson Lake Cruise

If you’re not that into hiking a boat ride around the scenic Jackson Lake is a great family activity. From the Colter Bay Marina, Grand Teton Lodge company runs a Jackson Lake Cruise that will take you on a scenic tour around the lake. You can also choose to include breakfast, lunch or dinner on Elk Island for an extra fee.

Grand Teton to Yellowstone: Drive

On our trip to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, we chose to stay 2 days at each place. Looking back, I would recommend 2 days at each park at the very minimum (more if you can at Yellowstone). I wish we could have stayed longer at both national parks and enjoyed the surrounding areas a bit more, but on a pre-scheduled road trip, that’s not possible.

Technically, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are neighbors. Grand Teton is the smaller of the two, while Yellowstone is quite large. There is no real middle location to visit both parks. If you are going to travel from Yellowstone to Grand Teton, it is best to plan a few days in each so that you are driving less and enjoying the outdoors more. Here are some tour options if you do want to combine both Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

2 Days in Yellowstone

To visit all of Yellowstone in a day is almost impossible. We were there for 2 full days and saw most of what we wanted to see, but it was quite rushed. I recommend that a true Yellowstone family vacation be at least a week long to fully explore and soak in the beauty this area has to offer. Since we were on a time crunch, 2 days is all we had.

Yellowstone National Park is divided into two driving loops – Upper and Lower. Since we were coming from Grand Teton National Park, we planned to do the Lower Loop on Day 1.

Our Yellowstone 2 Day Itinerary

Day 1 – Yellowstone Lower Loop

  • Old Faithful Geyser
  • Upper Geyser Basin
  • Lunch in Old Faithful area
  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Hayden Valley – Wildlife Viewing
  • Mud Volcano
  • Dinner in West Yellowstone or Idaho Springs

Day 2 – Yellowstone Upper Loop

  • Gibbon Falls
  • Brink of the Lower Falls
  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  • Lunch in Canyon Village
  • Mammoth Hot Springs
  • Gardinier (North Entrance) for dinner

Where to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park

I recommend staying in West Yellowstone, as that is the most central place you can find. While I researched this heavily, we opted to stay at a beautiful Airbnb in Island Park, ID. Since we traveled with another family, it wound up being cheaper than a hotel room in West Yellowstone (which is 30 minutes away). Also, we needed to cross off Idaho on our 50 state family bucket list and add a photo for our personalized travel map.

In hindsight, although our kids enjoyed the large cabin, it was too far from the park. There is a lot of driving around to get to attractions in Yellowstone, and this just added an hour to our daily commute. If you can get one of the lodges or anything inside Yellowstone, it would be even better. These were on our list of places to stay in West Yellowstone:

Days Inn West Yellowstone

Gray Wolf Inn & Suites

Worldmark West Yellowstone

Yellowstone Lower Loop Drive

Old Faithful Geyser

This was our first stop on our Yellowstone family vacation. Naturally, it was the one my kids were most excited about since they had learned a little about geysers after our stay at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. We arrived early in the morning and already the parking lot was pretty full. Once we got our spot, we walked to the main viewing area by Old Faithful Lodge. There are clearly marked signs and information available online and in the visitor’s center about the predicted times Old Faithful will erupt.

Sadly, we missed the last eruption by 15 minutes. Since eruptions are anywhere between 35-120 minutes, we had to wait until the next estimated time. It ended up being a 30 minute wait, but once it happened, it was pretty amazing. I recommend looking ahead of time online and trying to arrive a bit early just in case.

Upper Geyser Basin

This is a boardwalk hike that gets you up close with smaller geysers and the many thermal features of the area. You can start this hike right after you view Old Faithful erupt. You do this at your own pace and turn around when you are done looking at the thermal pools and geysers.

The geology of the area is so fascinating. There were many signs along the way that we stopped and read about. We had also picked up a guide at the visitor’s center and taught the kids a bit about the underground heat of the area.

In terms of safety, we explained sternly the importance of not veering off the boardwalk, running, or throwing anything into the thermal pools. Also, note that there is no shade in this area. I strongly recommend bringing a hat and sunscreen. Another thing to note is the strong sulfur smell. About an hour into the walk the kids couldn’t take the “rotten egg smell” anymore. We had actually planned to do the Lower Geyser Basin too but decided to move on.

Grand Prismatic Spring

I had seen so many pictures of this colorful thermal spring, and I could not wait to see it with my own eyes. Grand Prismatic Spring is probably the most photographed natural feature in Yellowstone. It is the 3rd largest thermal spring in the world and the rainbow of colors are simply surreal!

Although there is parking here, it is quite small and this is a very popular stop. I had read two differing opinions about how to see Grand Prismatic. Many sites said to go to the Grand Prismatic Overlook, which meant parking at the Fairy Falls trailhead and walking 1.6 miles roundtrip. Others said to walk to it and see it close up. I chose the close-up way, and although it was definitely packed with people, I am glad we saw it much closer.

There are 3 thermal features on this short boardwalk hike, but Grand Prismatic is the star of the show. Be sure to wear a hat, as there is no shade at all. Many of the geyser and thermal areas are paved or have boardwalks set up for viewing. Strollers are fine at most of these places, but be sure to not let young kids run off, as you often hear of accidents when people do not heed park safety warnings about being extra cautious near these hot springs.

There is a parking lot for the Grand Prismatic, but it was full, so we found a spot down the road. On your way to the Grand Prismatic, there are some neat thermal runoffs that flow into Firehole river. Our kids enjoyed looking at them on the way towards the Grand Prismatic and on the way back to the car. Please note, that this area is very scenic and despite the crowds, is a must-do on your Yellowstone family vacation.

Hayden Valley Drive

We then took a drive through Hayden Valley and saw a fair amount of bison grazing. This is a very popular wildlife viewing drive and can often be the center of huge traffic jams. Bison often walk on the roads and cars stop to take pictures. We saw people getting off their cars to get better pictures of the animals, and I thought “those are the people you read about in the news”. We got lucky and had one bison literally walk right beside our van. It was one of the highlights of our Grand Teton to Yellowstone adventure.

Bison Yellowstone

The views of this valley were stunning, even from the car. I had read that the best time for viewing was during dusk or early morning, but our schedule/timing didn’t allow it. Two days was way too short, but it was all we had, so we had to make the most of whatever timing was available on our lower loop drive. We saw many lone bison on our drive and even some deer and elk.

Lamar Valley

I read that Lamar Valley is much better for spotting wildlife, as it is more “out of the mainstream”. Because it was so far, we didn’t have time to venture to the other side of the park. If you have more time than we did, I recommend going to Lamar Valley instead of Hayden Valley.

Mud Volcano Area

The Mud Volcano area is a series of muddy hot springs and geysers with short paved boardwalk hikes reaching them. We saw a bison just relaxing while we were on this hike. Besides seeing the one the walked by our car, this was the closest we got without a barrier.

We also a pretty unique feature called Dragon’s Mouth Cauldron which was a cave that had steam coming out of it. If you listened closely, you could also hear a rumble. I wish I had younger kids so they would believe a dragon lived in there!

Yellowstone Upper Loop Drive

We started day 2 of our Yellowstone family vacation excited to explore more of the park. Our first day was action-packed and filled with some wildlife, natural beauty, hiking, and unique geological features.

Gibbon Falls

We began our day with an impromptu overlook at a roadside waterfall. We had passed a few on our first day and vowed to stop at the next one. Gibbon Falls was a nice waterfall, and easily accessible from the road. Although it barely qualifies as a hike, it was a scenic stop on our upper loop drive.

Gibbon Falls

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Area

This area is part of both the Upper and Lower Loops in Yellowstone. We chose to do it on our second day and are glad we did because we spent a good amount of time hiking and checking out this scenic area. We had originally planned to hike Uncle Tom’s Trail since I heard it had one of the best views, yet when we arrived at the parking lot, the trail was closed. Onto Plan B…

Brink of the Lower Falls Hike

We decided to hike this 1-mile trek even though it was rated moderate due to the steep switchbacks to see the Lower Falls. None of the kids had ever done a switchback type hike, so this was a unique experience. They stayed close to us, as they do on all hikes, but started getting ahead of us on the way down. We warned them not to go too fast, as they needed to save their energy for the way back up. The trail is plenty wide for two way traffic, although safety did have to be reminded. There are no rails! Even though it was just under a mile, the whole hike took us over an hour. This hike is great to do with older kids, but I would not recommend it for younger ones or anyone with mobility issues.

You could hear the rush of the water through the entire hike. In the distance, you can see the Upper Falls, and there were a few areas to stop and take in the scenery of the river.

Once you arrive at the bottom, there are a couple of viewing platforms. Then, you are literally right at the top of the Lower Falls. I had never been so close to one before. The sound and the power of the Lower Falls were simply amazing!

Artist Point

I had read this was the best viewpoint for the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, so on we went. As usual, the parking lot was full and we had to drive around a couple of times to get a spot. Once you arrive, you follow the signs and the viewpoint is a few steps and stairs away. I must agree, the vantage point was breathtaking!

Mammoth Hot Springs

Located clos to the Montana border, the Mammoth Hot Springs area looks very different than the other sections of Yellowstone. These terraces looked like upside down caves to me. It honestly felt as if I was walking on another planet. As the hot springs cooled in this area, they deposited calcium carbonate (which give it the whitish color). The upper and lower terraces each have viewpoints and boardwalk hikes. Once again, there is no shade in these boardwalk hikes, so be prepared.

We stopped into the Visitor’s Center for a snack break and noticed some deer along the lawn. They did not seem to mind as people snapped pictures of them.

deer

There is also lodging in this area and some scenic/unique sections of the road just past the Mammoth area. We loved our drives in this section, and it was much less crowded than the other areas of the park.

Gardiner – Northern Yellowstone Entrance

Gardiner is a small town along Yellowstone’s border in Montana. It is a “cute cowboy” type town that seemed to be stuck in time. The views of the park here were gorgeous. I highly recommend visiting this town for lunch or dinner, as the food options are much better than those found inside the park.

This is also a great place to get a picture with a huge Yellowstone National Park sign. The views of the park in this area were expansive and almost no one was there!

Yellowstone Sign Family

In addition, the 45th parallel also runs right along here. We saw a sign by the road and stopped for a quick picture.

road sign

Yellowstone to Grand Teton Tips

Since Yellowstone and Grand Teton are right next to each other, technically you can take a day trip from one to the other; however, it will be a lot of driving. I highly recommend staying near one park for a few days, and then driving to the other and staying close by. That way you can maximize more time seeing things rather than driving.

In terms of food, the options inside the park are pretty basic and quite pricey. We brought sandwiches one day and the other ate inside at Canyon Village. If you are trying to save money, try to bring your own food in.

I would also advise that you find an insider’s guide to the parks. I did all of the research, but it was very time consuming. Once I returned, someone showed me an itinerary they paid for, and it was almost identical to mine. There were also some great insider tips and helpful information I wish I had known about beforehand. In hindsight, I wish I had bought it. Check out these great national park itineraries for purchase.

Another important thing to note: cell phone reception is very spotty in Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Get some maps at the visitors’ centers just in case, and when you do have reception, map out your route on Google Maps and save it offline. There is a lot of driving in both national parks, especially Yellowstone, so be prepared to lose signal often.

Final Thoughts on Grand Teton to Yellowstone

I absolutely loved this trip! While the Grand Teton mountains were stunning, the differing landscapes and wildlife in Yellowstone blew me away. I was in awe almost everywhere we went. Next time I visit, I hope to stay inside the park and stay longer. Although we did see a good amount of wildlife, I know that had we stayed closer, we would have seen them in the morning and at dusk (where more of them are out). That being said, I was able to do everything I wanted to do.

From Yellowstone, we made our way north to Montana to visit Glacier National Park. To read about our hikes and where to stay in the different areas of the park, click here: Glacier National Park with Kids.

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Grand Teton to Yellowstone

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