Want to visit Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park? Now is the time to plan your dream trip to these two amazing parks with my top 10 tips for a great family trip!
Our Adventure in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park
Last year we bought a camper! After several short and fun camping trips in our local mountains, we decided to test our camping mettle by taking the family to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. This past August we loaded up the kids and the dog and set out into the great unknown. Ok, not really that unknown. I have been to Teton once before and Yellowstone a bunch of times. Still, this was our first time taking the kiddos and Koda in the camper. We were ready for an adventure!
We had an absolutely fantastic time touring the parks! Along the way, with the inevitable ups and downs of traveling with two kids and a dog, I learned some important things. There are many things that I would do again in a heartbeat. There are also some things I would do a little differently.
Hopefully, you are able to apply my hard-won wisdom to your own family trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and have a truly memorable time!
1. Plan Ahead
Ok, so it might seem a little early to start planning a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. After all, you won’t even be there until late spring. However, as I discovered while planning our family trip, it is never too early to start. Yellowstone and Grand Teton don’t have a quota of visitors or anything like that, but accommodations, camping areas, restaurant reservations, and other pre-scheduled activities fill up fast. As soon as you decide when you want to visit, get on the park websites to see about accommodations, reservations, and all the rest.
2. Consider Visiting on a Shoulder Season
Yellowstone National Park is the 2nd most visited national park in the country and Grand Teton is number 5. They are literally packed with tourists from all over the world for the months of June, July, and August. That said, the “shoulder seasons” of mid-April to May and September to early October are some of the very best times to visit these parks.
In addition to significantly fewer crowds, there are usually milder temperatures and unique wildlife viewing opportunities. In spring, there are newborn bears, wolves, elk calves, and bison calves. Also, bears are particularly active coming out of hibernation. In the fall, you may get to see bison and elk in the rut.
There are, however, a few downsides to visiting during these seasons. The early spring and late fall weather can be unpredictable. You will want to bring layers and possibly even snow gear. Also, some activities, visitors centers, and roads are not open outside of the summer months.
Also, the kids will still be in school during these off-seasons. We homeschool, of course, so it’s no big deal for us. Field trip to Yellowstone, everyone! However, many teachers may be willing to give kids work to take on the car trip or even have them do some sort of report or project on the parks rather than their typical classroom work. Real-life, hands-on learning is always better! Check out my National Park Road Trip Project on Teachers Pay Teachers!
For more information, visit Yellowstone National Park Seasons page.
3. Bring the Books
The maps and brochures they give you when you arrive at the parks are very helpful. But there are many fantastic books available that can give so much more insight into the history, culture, and ecology of each of these amazing parks. As the family tour guide, I appreciated the extra details provided in Frommer’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (Complete Guide) by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.
This is particularly true for kids. Whether or not your kids are doing a report on the parks or not, some books about geology, wildlife, and history are sure to make the trip more enriching. Spend some time talking with your kids about what they would like to read about the most. Are they fascinated by the Yellowstone SuperVolcano? Are they interested in the pros and cons of reintroducing wolves into the greater Yellowstone ecosystem? Maybe they would like to learn more about the indigenous people of the Teton Valley? My kids enjoyed the books What I Saw in Yellowstone: A Kid’s Guide to the National Park by Durrae Johanek, and What I Saw in Grand Teton: A Kid’s Guide to the National Park by Julie Gillum Lue.
Check out your local library, order a couple on Amazon or Thriftbooks, or wait until you get to the parks and stop by a gift shop, but make sure to have at least a few guidebooks on hand.
4. Stay in the Park
Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone have towns located only minutes away from their entrances, so it is certainly possible to stay outside the park and have a wonderful trip. Having stayed both inside and outside the parks, I can definitely attest that there is something uniquely special about waking up in the heart of these stunning places.
Despite the proximity of the towns bordering the parks, they are still quite some distance from the main attractions within the parks. Travelers who camp or stay inside the parks have these wonders right at their doorstep.
My Favorite Lodges and Campgrounds
Wondering where exactly to stay? Either somewhere centrally located or near a main attraction is the best bet. Accommodations include tent and RV campsites (some with hookups), cabins, hotel rooms, and suites.
For Yellowstone, I would recommend Old Faithful Inn and Cabins, Canyon Village, or the Lake Village area. We camped at Bridge Bay Campground (near Lake Village) and it was a lovely campground and a great location.
In Grand Teton, Jenny Lake Lodge, Colter Bay Village, Signal Mountain Lodge, and Jackson Lake Lodge offer a range of accommodations from rustic to luxe. For tent camping, Jenny Lake Campground would be my pick, and for RV camping definitely Signal Mountain Campground. If you are after a truly unique experience, try the Triangle X Ranch—a real dude ranch in the heart of Grand Teton.
While it is technically outside the boundary of Grand Teton National Park, the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest is a fantastic option as well. There are both developed campgrounds and dispersed sites.
5. Leave Fido At Home
It pains me to say it, but bringing a dog to a national park is less than optimal. We brought our sweet Koda with us when we went, so it is doable. However, bringing a dog to a national park requires additional planning and some sacrifice.
Dogs are not allowed in any of the accommodations within the parks (only campgrounds). They are only permitted on roadways, parking lots, and within a short distance of those paved areas. This means dogs cannot accompany you on hikes, boat trips (with the exception of your personal watercraft on Jackson Lake), in visitor centers, or on any of the boardwalks around Yellowstone. Additionally, dogs must be leashed at all times outside of your vehicle, camper, or tent. After a recent tragedy involving a dog at Yellowstone, these rules will not be relaxed anytime soon.
If you absolutely must bring your pup (like us), you will have to make some adjustments. Plan on either staying outside the park or camping. For those considering camping in Bridger-Teton National Forest, the good news is that dogs may be off-leash in the national forest. My husband and I took turns staying with Koda in the vehicle or walking around the parking lot while the others walked short trails or boardwalks or went into visitor centers.
Another great option, if you really want to get in a day hike or some other activity that your dog cannot participate in, is to look for local doggy daycare. Some of the small towns within proximity of the park offer boarding services.
6. Pack Your Own Food
Food in the park is expensive! Also, unless you have a reservation, restaurants, and cafes have extremely long lines at mealtimes. I recommend stocking up on basics in one of the towns just outside the park. There are plenty of places in the park to buy ice, so just store your perishables in a cooler. That way you will always have snacks on hand for when you get hungry and you can picnic just about anywhere without having to deal with lines and exorbitant prices.
7. Make an Itinerary
Before you leave, spend some time researching all that there is to see and do in each of the parks. Decide on the top 5-10 “musts” (depending on how long you are staying) for each park and then plan your days around them. Make sure every family member is invested in choosing activities. For me, it was Jenny Lake and Grand Prismatic Spring that I had to see. My kids were both all about the Bison and Old Faithful. My husband really just wanted to spend some time wildlife watching.
If you want to schedule a specific activity like a boating excursion on Yellowstone Lake, plan that first and then arrange other activities and sightseeing around it. Look at a map and plan to see certain highlights that are near each other at the same time. For example, spend the morning visiting Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic and see the Lower and Upper Falls both in the evening. Yellowstone is an astoundingly huge park, and you will spend a great deal of time driving. Make sure to maximize your time.
Also, think about what time of day you want to do each activity. Early morning and evening are often less busy times for some of the main attractions. Typical meal times can also be a good time to see a visitor hotspot, as many people go to a restaurant for their meals. For wildlife viewing, early morning and evening are the best times as well.
8. Leave Time for Downtime
There is so much to do and see in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, but you will still want to schedule downtime. It is important to relax, especially on vacation. I found that the busy parts of the day (mid-day) were a good time to return to our camper and let the kids and the dog stretch their legs. Unless you are doing a lot of hiking or other activities, you will spend a fair bit of time driving. Make sure to plan time for kids to relax and run around. A lazy middle of the day cut down on crowds and provided a wonderful opportunity to take a nap, read a book, or walk around the campground.
We also cooked our main meal in the middle of the day. Then we just packed sandwiches for a light picnic dinner that we could eat on the go as we explored the parks in the evening.
9. Pack the Necessities
There are some things you should definitely have with you in the parks. While there are places to buy necessities in and around the park, there are often long lines and the prices are much higher.
Sun, and Bugs, and Bears . . . Oh My!
Bug spray and sunscreen are also important to have. At certain times of the year, mosquitos are absolutely terrible. At high elevations like in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park, you can get sunburned quickly even on a cloudy day, so make sure to pack some SPF. A first aid kit is important too. Especially with kids who want to climb on rocks, run down trails, and generally do kid things.
Bear spray is probably one of the most important. If you come into close contact with a grizzly or black bear you will be very grateful to have bear repellant.
Bikes and Binoculars
We discovered that Grand Teton has some beautiful paved bike trails. If you enjoy biking, bring yours with you and get a gorgeous view of mountains, wildlife, and lakes without having to deal with traffic.
It may seem unimportant, but I would definitely recommend bringing binoculars or a spotting scope. There will likely be many opportunities to view wildlife up close and personal, but some will be quite far away. Binoculars and spotting scopes will allow you to maximize your wildlife viewing. One of my favorite times during our trip was when we set up a spotting scope in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley at dusk and ate our picnic dinner while glassing for wolves. We didn’t see any wolves but we had a great time looking and saw tons of bison.
Entertainment for the Kiddos
As I mentioned, you will probably spend a lot of time in the car driving to and around the parks, so make sure to bring entertainment for the kids. We watched movies on the way to the parks and also listened to audiobooks. My kids read books about the park and of course colored and drew all the animals they saw. We also had some of those reusable Melissa & Doug sticker books.
10. Explore the Surrounding Area
Finally, if you have enough time, the areas surrounding the national parks themselves are definitely worth exploring. I already mentioned the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but consider some of the towns near Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just outside Grand Teton, is a ritzy and picturesque ski town. There are a plethora of restaurants and bars, as well as fantastic shopping. Jackson Hole is also home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the National Elk Refuge.
Near Yellowstone, Cody, Wyoming is a great little town known as the “rodeo capital of the world. There are a variety of rodeos to attend, including a nightly rodeo every evening during the summer. There is also the renowned Buffalo Bill Center of the West and a variety of other modern and historical attractions and events.
West Yellowstone, Montana is a fantastic town at the edge of Yellowstone National Park. In addition to the great shopping, dining, and outdoor activities, don’t miss the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, the Museum of the Yellowstone, and the Yellowstone GIANT Screen.
Until Next Time . . .
Our Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton trip is one that my kids will remember forever. It was an amazing time of family togetherness and a wonderful adventure in some of God’s most magnificent creation. I’m sure we will go again when the kids are older and I know I will apply some of the things I learned to our next trip. Sorry, Koda, it’s doggy daycare for you!