The Best of Yellowstone and Grand Teton if You Only Have a Week
Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in one trip may seem like a huge undertaking. Together, these two world-class parks—separated by only 31 miles via the John D. Rockefeller Parkway—encompass nearly 4,000-square-miles. With a carefully planned itinerary, however, it’s definitely possible to tackle both of these stunningly-beautiful destinations without feeling like you’re rushing from one scenic view to the next.
Depending on how you choose to get to Jackson, Wyoming, the gateway “city” for this national park adventure, you may have to work in a few extra travel days. But assuming you have a week to spend in the area once you arrive, here’s how to do it right…
The Ultimate Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park Itinerary
Day 1 – Taggart & Bradley Lakes | Snake River | Dornan’s
Start your Grand Teton National Park visit with a stop at the impressive Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center, or Moose Visitor Center as it’s more locally known. Not only is it a great spot to plan your next few days in the park, but you can walk along the “video river” exhibit that’s installed on the floor, or dive into the 24-minute film for a fascinating education on the Grand Teton region.
From here, follow Teton Park Road to the Taggart Lake Trailhead. Here, you can tackle the moderate 4.7-mile Taggart and Bradley Lakes loop hike, which offers expansive views of snow-capped peaks before taking you to two stunning glacial-formed lakes at the base of the Tetons. Both lakes will beckon you for a dip, so come prepared for a swim.
Unwind after the hike with pizza and one of the best restaurant views anywhere at Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Company, which is near the Moose Junction. Afterward, take a scenic drive through the park. To make a loop, continue on Teton Park Road to the Moran Entrance. Then, head back toward Jackson following Hwy. 26, 89, 191 along the Snake River. There’s plenty of opportunities to stop and take in the myriad wildlife and panoramic views, including the iconic view from the Snake River Overlook.
Back in Jackson, don’t miss your chance to grab dessert at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream before snapping a selfie in front of the antler arches surrounding the iconic town square. Then, settle in for the night at Jackson Hole Lodge. This conveniently located hotel in the heart of town has comfortable accommodations and a pool, which the whole family will love.
Day 2 – Colter Bay Kayaking | Snake River Brewery | Jackson Hole Rodeo
Grab breakfast and coffee on the go at Pearl Street Bagels just off of the main square in Jackson before making the 15-minute drive into Grand Teton National Park.
For a unique perspective of the park away from the crowds, consider a morning paddle beneath towering Mount Moran on Jackson Lake. You can rent kayaks from several locations, but renting from Colter Bay Marina provides access to a cluster of inlets and islands ripe for exploring. A good option from the boat launch is to paddle toward the narrow channel that leads to Half Moon Bay (at some water levels you may have to do a short portage). Pack a lunch and take it with you in a dry bag so you can find an off-the-beaten path picnic spot and a bit of national park solitude. Afterward, stretch your legs on the easy 3-mile Swan Lake and Heron Pond Loop. Watch for moose, which frequent the lake.
Tonight, grab dinner back in Jackson at the Snake River Brewery, and if you time it right, afterward you can walk over to the Jackson Hole Rodeo for the real deal cowboy experience (Wednesday and Saturdays throughout the summer).
Day 3 – Rendezvous Mountain | String Lake Swimming | Silver Dollar Bar
After exploring the valley below the looming Tetons, it’s hard not to feel drawn to see the view from above. Sure, hardcore hiking enthusiasts can find numerous trails leading into the craggy spires, but for the rest of us, there’s another answer.
For a high elevation morning hike, head to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to hop on the Aerial Tram for a 4,000-foot vertical ride to the top of Rendezvous Mountain which stands at 10,450 feet. From this high vantage point in the southern Tetons, you can take in sweeping panoramic views of distant peaks and access an extensive network of trails that link the mountain to Grand Teton National Park. The 4.2-mile Rock Springs and Cody Bowl Loop trail is easily accessible from the tram and offers spectacular alpine scenery, along with a unique perspective of Grand Teton itself. Afterward, treat yourself to a famous waffle in Corbett’s Cabin at the base of the tram.
If you’re not quite ready to leave Grand Teton behind, head into the park to take a refreshing afternoon dip. All of the lakes and ponds within the park are open for swimming, so look for your own slice of alpine lake bliss. Or, head to String Lake, which is easily accessible (and warmer than most!). It tends to be a popular spot, but follow the trail around the lake just a ½-mile or more and you’ll likely be able to find a more private spot.
Cap off your time in Jackson with a visit to the legendary Silver Dollar Bar & Grill. Families can enjoy a casual meal here, but come 7:30 p.m. the Silver Dollar Showroom turns into a legendary music venue where you’re sure to find a foot-stomping good time.
Day 4 – Old Faithful | Mystic Falls | Grand Prismatic Spring
Hit the road early to maximize your time in Yellowstone National Park. With the sun rising, catch your last views of the majestic Tetons as you travel back through the park toward Yellowstone’s South Entrance.
Time it right and you’ll reach Old Faithful before the crowds and tour buses descend. This world-famous geyser erupts every 35 to 120 minutes. Check the schedule and if it’s expected soon, grab a spot with a good view and wait for the show. Or, try to catch the eruption from from a unique vantage point along the boardwalk trail which winds its way through the Upper Geyser Basin. Plan for at least two hours to wander here and don’t miss cool sights like Castle Geyser, which has a long and powerful eruption that rivals Old Faithful.
Grab lunch at the Old Faithful Lodge before making your way to Biscuit Basin for an afternoon hike to Mystic Falls. Don’t be scared off by the packed parking area, the majority of the visitors are here to see the small area of geysers and colorful springs that dot the half mile trail and boardwalk leading to the trailhead. Just past the boardwalk, follow the pleasant 1-mile jaunt into the woods and eventually along the Firehole River before reaching 70-foot Mystic Falls. You can do an out and back or make the 3.2-mile loop which involves a bit of scrambling up some steep switchbacks. If you have small children, it’s best to go back the way you came and enjoy the wildflower-filled views along the river.
If you still have some energy to burn, make a stop at the iconic Grand Prismatic Spring before driving to Canyon Lodge & Cabins at Canyon Village. If you can snag a spot at one of Canyon Lodge’s new rooms (which means booking 6 – 12 months in advance), it’s well worth it. This centrally-located, not to mention recently renovated park lodge, is conveniently located near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and makes much of the driving in the park a lot more manageable. For more convenience, grab dinner tonight at Canyon Lodge’s diner or cafeteria, which has something for everyone.
Day 5 – Lamar Valley | Tower Falls | Mount Washburn
If you want to see some of Yellowstone’s more elusive wildlife like wolves and grizzlies, grab your binoculars and start your day by heading to Lamar Valley in the park’s northeast corner for your best chances. Also home to herds of elk and bison, Lamar Valley is considered one of Yellowstone’s best areas for wildlife viewing.
Afterward, try to beat the crowds to impressive Tower Fall, two miles south of the Roosevelt Lodge area. Take a quick peek from the overlook, or better yet, do the short, but steep half-mile hike to the base of the 132-foot falls. Then, head to the historic Roosevelt Lodge or find a scenic picnic spot for an early lunch before tackling a big afternoon hike.
Ask insiders for a Yellowstone “best hike” recommendation and it would be surprising not to hear Mount Washburn. There are two ways up, but from the Dunravan Pass Picnic Area the route is slightly more shaded as the trail climbs 1,400-feet and approximately 3 miles one-way. While it’s not an easy undertaking to climb to the 10,219-foot peak, the views alone are well worth the effort. At the top you’ll see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the east, Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake to the south and on a really clear day you might even be able to catch a glimpse of the Tetons.
You’ll want to rest after this big accomplishment, so make your way back to Canyon Lodge for dinner and a night cap in the lodge’s Dining Room.
Day 6 – Norris Geyser Basin | Mammoth Hot Springs | Cowboy Cookout
As you make your way to the northwest corner of the park today, plan for an early morning stroll along the boardwalks of the Norris Geyser Basin. This geothermal area, the hottest in the park, offers a surreal experience as you wind through a diverse assortment of springs, geysers and pools, including Steamboat Geyser, which is considered the tallest in the world and can reach heights of 380-feet when it erupts.
Next, drive to the Mammoth Hot Springs area. If you enjoy soaking in natural hot springs, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to take a dip in the “boiling river” a stretch of the Gardiner River where a hot spring mixes with the cool river to create a natural hot tub. To get there, drive 2.2 miles past Mammoth Hot Springs toward the parks north entrance and look for the parking area at the 45th Parallel. From here it’s an easy .5-mile one-way hike to the “tub.” Your muscles will thank you after hiking Mount Washburn.
Back in Mammoth Hot Springs, you can spend some time strolling around the terraces. Or, explore the area’s historic district, which includes Fort Yellowstone and other structures from the 1800s and early 1900s when Yellowstone National Park was first established.
Later, experience another piece of the area’s history on Roosevelt Lodge’s Old West Dinner Cookout. For this adventure, you’ll hop on a horse for a 1- or 2-hour ride to Yancy’s Hole and enjoy real cowboy grub around a crackling campfire—just like Yellowstone’s first pioneers.
Day 7 – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone | Yellowstone Lake Kayaking
Take advantage of staying so close to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and hit the easy, 1.5-mile Brink of Lower Falls Trail first thing in the morning for a cool view from the top of Lower Falls. Get there before 8:30 a.m. and you might even have this trail to yourself. Then, zip over to the canyon’s south rim to take in the iconic view from Artist Point.
From here, head south to Yellowstone Lake and meet up with an outfitter for a half-day kayaking trip and a unique exploration of the geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pots of the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Yellowstone Lake Kayaking trips depart several times per day, but shoot for a mid-afternoon departure and you’ll have plenty of time for an unexpected “Bison jam” along the way and a picnic lunch next to the Yellowstone River.
After you explore the geothermal wonders along Yellowstone Lake’s shoreline by kayak, you’ll be ready for dinner at the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel—opened in 1891, it’s the park’s oldest lodge. Then, enjoy your final chance to take in the park’s incredible wildlife as you drive through the bison-rich Hayden Valley at dusk.
It’s impossible to see it all, but this epic week-long Yellowstone and Grand Teton itinerary will leave you feeling pretty satisfied with your national park vacation.
Photos: Cari Morgan, James Kaiser, NPS/Jacob W. Frank