Last updated on August 16th, 2020
I’ve been fortunate to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park twice in the last few years. On my first visit I flew into and out of Jackson and did one big loop through the two parks. This time, as I was planning a Yellowstone road trip focusing primarily on photography, I decided to do a one way Salt Lake to Yellowstone itinerary, which I am sharing here.
As the first National Park in the world, Yellowstone’s geography and wildlife are at the top of many peoples’s must see list – and rightly so. It is an incredibly unique and diverse ecosystem that should be experienced fully and should not be rushed if at all possible.
Yellowstone National Park is huge. For example, it’s just under a 100 mile drive from the south entrance of the park to the north entrance. Ideally, when planning a trip to Yellowstone, I think that you need a minimum of four days in Yellowstone to see the majority of the sights – more if you want to take time to do some of the longer hikes. You can obviously see the park in less time, but you will have to be more selective about what you choose to see and do.
You can probably see the major sights in the adjacent Grand Teton National Park on a one day driving tour. But this is such a stunningly scenic park, it would be a shame to rush through it. This is one of my favorite National Parks in the US, so I planned on two full days. That way, if I had bad weather on one day, I had a second chance for good photos on the second day. (Though I could easily have spent more time in this park).
I decided to also spend a day sightseeing in the Billings, MT area since I had never been there before. There was a lot of history in this part of the state that I wanted to explore.
My Salt Lake to Yellowstone Itinerary
I planned the following basic Grand Teton and Yellowstone itinerary:
- Day 1 – Arrive in Salt Lake City
- Day 2 – Drive to Grand Teton National Park via Fossil Butte National Monument
- Day 3 and 4 – In Grand Teton National Park
- Day 5 – To Yellowstone National Park
- Day 6 and 7 – In Yellowstone National Park
- Day 8 – Drive from Yellowstone National Park via the Beartooth Highway to Billings, Montana
- Day 9 – Explore the Billings area
- Day 10 – Leave for home
Day 1 – Arrive in Salt Lake
I did not spend any time sightseeing in Salt Lake City on this trip because my flight got in too late. But, if you have the time, take in some of the major sights like the Mormon Tabernacle which is open late every day. The Visit Salt Lake visitor’s bureau website is a good resource for things to do and places to eat.
Stayed at: I stayed at the Best Western Plus Landmark Inn in nearby Park City which was very nice and would make a good base for exploring the area around Park City.
Day 2 – Drive to Grand Teton Via Fossil Butte National Monument
Fossil Butte National Monument is about a 2 hour drive from Salt Lake City on the way to Jackson, WY. I chose to go a little out of my way to stop and see this National Monument. About 50 million years ago, this part of Wyoming which looks so dry now, was covered in a large, subtropical, freshwater lake. The Monument protects 13 square miles of this ancient lake bed that was found to be exceptionally rich in a huge diversity of prehistoric fossils.
I stopped at the visitor’s center and studied some of the many fossils on exhibit there, and then drove the scenic park road to see the views. Overall, I spent about an hour and a half in the park.
Another three hour easy and scenic drive took me to the town of Jackson, WY which is on the southern end of Grand Teton National Park.
I grabbed a delicious early dinner at Bubba’s BBQ in Jackson (highly recommend) and then headed onto Moose Wilson Road through the National Park. I was hoping that since it was late afternoon, I would have some good luck seeing wildlife along this road. I was lucky and did see a juvenile moose and a young black bear.
Take extra caution when driving the Moose Wilson Road. This is a two lane road without many pull offs or a big shoulder. Cars will stop short when they see wildlife and block the road.
At Moose Junction, I continued north on Rt 191 toward Moran where I was spending the next two nights.
Stayed at: The Hatchet Resort
There are many lodging options in and around Grand Teton National Park. I especially liked the location of the Hatchet Resort just outside Moran Junction. This cozy, family run resort was just 15 minutes from the sunrise and sunset views at Oxbow Bend that I was eager to photograph. My recently redone room was very clean and comfortable and had everything I needed, including a walk in shower, refrigerator and coffee maker. There is also a convenient on site restaurant for meals and drinks.
Please note that I was hosted by the Hatchet Resort. All content and opinions are my own.
Day 3 – In Grand Teton National Park
I started the morning early with a hot cup of tea while watching the sunrise at Oxbow Bend. This is also a good spot for wildlife viewing so keep your binoculars handy.
From Oxbow Bend I took US. Hwy 191 south and stopped at the Snake River Overlook for the classic view that Ansel Adams made famous in his black and white photo of the Snake River and the Teton range.
I then continued to Schwabacher Landing and took the easy hike along the offshoot of the Snake River for beautiful views of the Tetons reflected in the still waters. In the early morning, I was one of only a handful of people there. Keep an eye out for beavers and beaver dams in this area.
I kept going south on Hwy 191 and turned left on Antelope Flats Road to get to Mormon Row, one of the most photographed spots in the park. This area was farmed by Mormon settlers at the turn of the 1890’s. By the 1950’s, the settlers moved on and the land became part of the National Park. The Moulton Barns with the Teton Range in the background are iconic photos of this area.
By now it was past lunch time so I took the back roads to the small hamlet of Kelly where I grabbed a gourmet sandwich at the Kelly Cafe. Don’t let the small size and backwoods setting of this eatery fool you. They take making coffee here very seriously – the large espresso machine is from Italy. The gourmet sandwiches are freshly made and come with a view. There is no indoor seating, but the outdoor tables have perfect views of the Teton Range.
I spent the afternoon driving the Teton Park Road and exploring the Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake areas. Dinner was at the Jackson Lake Lodge on the Blue Heron Lounge patio, again with stunning views of the Teton mountains.
I ended the day with a beautiful sunset at Oxbow Bend again.
Stayed at: Hatchet Resort.
Day 4 – In Grand Teton National Park
I planned on spending two days in Grand Teton to make sure I had the time and the weather for photos. Since I was focusing on photography on this trip (rather than outdoor pursuits), I spent this day going back to some of the more scenic spots to photograph in different lighting.
Alternately, there are many activities that you can do in the park. On a previous trip, we did a half day float trip down the Snake River. There are also many scenic hiking options for all levels. You can take a boat across Jenny Lake to a short hike to Hidden Falls, or drive to the scenic view at the top of Signal Mountain. There is also a scenic boat tour available on Jackson Lake. Or you could take some time to explore the town of Jackson.
For all the activities and things to do in this National Park, look at the Grand Teton National Park website.
I grabbed a late lunch/early dinner at Jackson Lake Lodge again, but this time in the historic Mural Dining Room.
After my great meal, I continued north on US Hwy 191 (also called the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway). I discovered some beautiful views at the end of the road at Leeks Marina.
Not much further on along Rt.191, the trees opened up and provided fantastic views of the Teton Range and Jackson Lake from the Jackson Lake Overlook. This would be another great spot to watch the sunset, (or as I did later that night, capture photos of the milky way).
About 30 minutes after leaving Jackson Lake Lodge, I reached my accommodations for the night.
Stayed at: Headwaters at Flagg Ranch
The Flagg Ranch is located between Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park and is a good spot to spend the night when ending a visit in one park and starting a visit to the other park. The ranch has a variety of accommodations to choose from. I had a basic double room in a cabin that was modern, clean and comfortable. The ranch has a restaurant and gas station and also offers a variety of outdoor activities in the area.
Day 5 – To Yellowstone National Park
After a hearty breakfast and then filling up my gas tank at Flagg Ranch, I continued north on Hwy 191 toward the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park and the Old Faithful area. Yellowstone is a big, big park, so even though I was only 5 minutes from the park entrance, it was almost a one hour drive to the Old Faithful area.
My plan was to spend most of the day exploring the Upper Geyser Basin around Old Faithful and then take the Firehole Drive just before sunset.
I started with a stop at the Visitor’s Center, not just for the excellent exhibits, but also to note the timing for the geysers for which the park rangers make predictions. Besides Old Faithful, the rangers also make eruption predictions for five other geysers in the park. However, as the name implies, Old Faithful is the most predictable geyser with a plus or minus window of about 10 minutes. The other geysers have ranges of +/- 20 to 45 minutes. Also visit the Yellowstone National Park website for all the information you need about the park.
The most popular spot to see Old Faithful is from the benches in front of the lodges. But you can also see it from the boardwalks that circle the area which will probably give you a less crowded view. For a different perspective, hike up the Observation Point trail and look down on the Upper Geyser Basin and all of its fuming activity.
I took my time walking around all the boardwalks in the area and tried to time it so that I would be near one of the predicted geyser eruptions when it was supposed to blow. This area of the park has the most geothermal activity in Yellowstone. In fact, over half of all the world’s geysers are located in Yellowstone National Park. Besides the many spouting geysers in the Upper Basin, there are also hot springs and colorful pools and each thermal feature is unique and interesting to see.
As the sun started dropping on the horizon, I drove to Firehole Drive. I drove the full length of the drive first so I could stop and see the various thermal features. Then, I went back and watched an incredibly colorful sun set over the Great Fountain Geyser.
I was spending the night in one of the Old Faithful Lodge cabins so I grabbed a quick late dinner at the lodge restaurant.
Stayed at: Old Faithful Lodge cabins
I planned this trip late, so I was happy to get anything that was available in the Old Faithful area on the dates I wanted to be there. This cabin became available about a week before my trip and I jumped on it even though it did not have a bathroom. For one night, I did not mind having to walk outside to get to the bathroom/shower. Otherwise, the room was quite comfortable and had everything I needed.
Day 6 – In Yellowstone National Park
I got an early morning start and headed to the West Thumb area to catch the sunrise. I loved seeing the sun come up over Lake Yellowstone through the steam of the lakefront vents and hot springs. The benefit of getting here this early was that I only had to share the views with a few people.
My drive continued along the shore of Lake Yellowstone. There were a few pull offs with very nice views that made a great stop for a quick picnic breakfast.
At Fishing Bridge, I continued on the Grand Loop Road toward the Canyon area. This took me through Hayden Valley which is one of the areas of the park with lots of wildlife viewing potential. I resisted the urge to stop and look at bison though because my goal was to get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before it got too busy. I headed straight for Artists Point on the South Rim Drive where I had the classic views of Lower Yellowstone Falls. If you don’t mind climbing the 328 stairs down and then back up again, the Uncle Tom’s Trail takes you to a closer perspective of the Lower Falls.
Next, I took the North Rim Drive which has viewpoints of the Upper Falls as well as the Lower Falls and other portions of the canyon at the Inspiration Point overlook. I was glad that I got an early morning start because by this time there was significantly more traffic in this very popular part of the park, and finding parking was becoming more challenging.
I turned around and drove the way I had come, back toward Old Faithful. This time, I took my time in the Hayden Valley and stopped for bison sightings and for the Mud Volcanoes thermal area.
By the time I reached the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, I was ready for an early dinner. This, the oldest hotel in Yellowstone National Park, is a good spot to take a short break. You can take one of the free tours of the hotel or take a boat tour on the lake for a different perspective of the scenery.
Once I reached the Old Faithful area where I was spending the night again, I still had some daylight hours left, so I explored the nearby Black Sand Basin and its colorful pools.
Stayed at: Old Faithful Inn
I was able to get a last minute room in the historic “Old house” section of the Old Faithful Inn which was built in 1904. Even though my bathroom was down the hall, I liked staying in this original portion of the inn and feeling more connected to its historic origins.
Day 7 – In Yellowstone National Park
This day started rainy and dreary, so I took advantage of one of the free tours of the Old Faithful Inn which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved learning about some of the gossipy tidbits relating to the Inn’s construction and its early days. Before I left, I caught one more eruption of Old Faithful, this time from the conveniently covered second level of the Inn’s balcony.
The plan for today was to meander my way north on the Grand Loop road and end up at Mammoth Hot Springs by the end of the day, taking in as many of the sights on the way as possible.
I started with the Biscuit Basin boardwalks and then moved on to the Midway Geyser Basin and the very popular Grand Prismatic spring. The park district recently put in a trail to an observation point for this highly multi-chromatic spring that lets you better appreciate its many colorful layers. The trail starts at the Fairy falls parking lot. Even though this is a large parking area, this is a very popular site and the lot can fill up quickly.
My day continued with stops at Fountain Paint Pots, the Firehole Canyon Drive, Artists Paint Pots and the Norris Geyser Basin. It is all these geothermal features that make Yellowstone so unique, so I took my time sightseeing at these spots, and before I knew it, I was at Mammoth Hot Springs and it was time for dinner.
Stayed at: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
My night here in one of the cabins was very pleasant and comfortable. If you are lucky, the local elk herd will be visiting also. An alternate option is to look for accommodations in Gardiner which is just outside the park’s northern entrance, about 10 minutes away.
Day 8 – Yellowstone National Park and Beartooth Highway to Billings, Mt
I spent the morning walking the many boardwalks of the Lower and Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. The water here is very high in mineral concentrations and releases calcium carbonate which has formed the many travertine terraces that make this part of Yellowstone so unique. The hot water is also home to a variety of thermophilic (heat loving) bacteria which add layers of color to the white calcium carbonate deposits.
For a change, I went into the nearby town of Gardiner for lunch. I also wanted to see the historic Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance to the park. After my late lunch, I drove back into the park and continued the drive into the Lamar Valley toward the Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance.
Lamar Valley is another spot in Yellowstone that is good foe seeing wildlife. If there is a long line of cars, you can bet that there is an animal sighting. The rangers really do not like people pulling off and parking anywhere on the side of the road. Try to find a safe place to pull over and park before going to join the crowds.
Take your time driving through Lamar Valley. One of the best ways to see the wildlife is to pull over in one of the parking areas, have a snack (or lunch) and just wait and watch. A good pair of binoculars will also help.
At the park’s Northeast entrance, I continued toward Cooke City and then took the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge. This route is one of the most scenic drives I have ever done. It is actually classified as a Natural Scenic Byway All-American Road which means it is a really, really pretty drive. Unfortunately, it was late in the day by this time and it was overcast so I did not have the best lighting, but the scenery was spectacular none the less. The road climbed to expansive views of lakes, valleys and distant mountain ranges.
At the town of Red Lodge, I continued driving about one and a half hours to Billings, Montana where I was spending the night.
Stayed at: Billings Hotel and Convention Center
The hotel had just undergone a full renovation, so it felt very new, modern, and clean and was a convenient place to stay the night.
Day 9 – Explore the Billings Area
I chose to spend the day exploring some of the historical sites around Billings. I got an early morning start with Pictograph Cave State Park, a National Historic Landmark that protects rock paintings made by prehistoric tribes that passed through this part of Montana thousands of years ago.
Next, I headed to Chief Plenty Coup State Park, which is about 40 minutes south of Billings. Chief Plenty Coup was the last chief of the Crow Indians and he led and encouraged his people to adopt the lifestyle of the white man. The log cabin where he lived along with a small museum are the centerpiece of this park which is situated on the Crow Reservation.
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument is about 30 minutes north-east of Billings, and this was my next stop. This monument is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Here, on July 25, 1806, William Clark engraved his name and date on the large, distinctive stone along the Yellowstone River. (This begs the question at which point does graffiti become history?). He named the rock Pompey’s Pillar, after Sacajawea’s 18 month old son whose nickname was “Pompey”. The Visitor’s Center and the on-site interpretive displays had a lot of interesting information about the history of the area and about the Lewis and Clark expedition.
I continued on to Big Horn County Museum which is about 45 minutes east of Billings. This unique museum has preserved 24 authentic historic structures from this part of Montana. There was everything from a church to an old gas station to a train depot, all with period exhibits inside the buildings. I enjoyed a brief wander around the site, despite the rain.
My final stop was the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, about an hour from Billings. This monument memorializes the battle of “Custer’s last stand” where his troop of 263 men all died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne Indians who were fighting to preserve their traditional way of life. By now it was getting late, so I only had time for a quick drive along the tour road and had time to listen to just a few of the narratives at the cell phone stops along the way. The field is covered with small white stone markers which mark the spot where each of the soldiers died.
I blitzed all of these historic sights so that I could see as much as possible in one day. I would recommend taking a day and a half or even two days to see all of them in a more leisurely fashion if your time permits.
Stayed at: Ramada by Wyndham, Bozeman
I had a very early flight back home the next day, so it was more convenient for me to stay near the Bozeman airport. It was about a two hour easy drive from Billings to Bozeman. Alternately, there are also many hotel options in Billings to choose from.
Day 10 – Fly home
I caught an early flight back to the East Coast from Bozeman, MT because that was where I found the best deal. Be sure to look for options leaving from both Bozeman and Billings, Montana
My Traveler’s Tips for a Yellowstone Road Trip
If you have more time:
My time was limited, and the area has so much to offer. As always, I wished I had more time for some of the following:
- Stay a night in the town of Jackson and explore all the food, galleries and western ambiance.
- Stay a night in Park City and discover the food, sights and activities this town has to offer. I’ve been here in winter but have not yet visited without snow.
- Stay in Red Lodge. This also looked like a cute town as I drove through it and it would have been nice to have more time to explore it and also more time on the Beartooth highway.
- Drive the scenic St. Joseph Highway to Cody, WY and explore Cody and all its western history.
- More time in and around Billings to explore the area at leisure.
Tips for making the most of your time:
- Before your trip, study a map of Yellowstone NP and become familiar with the layout of the park. It’s a big park and there is a lot to see so you will want to prioritize your list of things to do.
- I did this trip in early September so the parks were not as busy with visitors and the driving was quite easy. In fact, the whole drive was quite easy. If you visit during the busier prime summer months, take into account the higher amount of traffic which will make drive times longer.
- Book accommodations as far in advance as possible, especially for lodging inside Yellowstone Park. I was lucky to get last minute rooms, but since I was traveling alone I had a lot of flexibility on the type of accommodations I needed.
- After landing and getting my rental car, I picked up picnic supplies and drinks so that I didn’t have to worry about meals or snacks in the middle of the day. I like to get items that don’t rely on refrigeration: salami or jerky, hard cheeses, crackers, fruit, granola bars and nuts.
- Stay on marked trails and boardwalks, especially at Yellowstone. The water in the vents, geysers and pools is hot or you wouldn’t be seeing steam, so don’t risk getting hurt by stepping off the walkways.
- The National Park guidelines for Yellowstone are to stay 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other wildlife. Give the animals their space and bring a good pair of binoculars or a long telephoto lens.
You can find my full length post about planning a trip to Yellowstone here.
A visit to Yellowatone National Park and nearby Grand Teton National Park is a once in a lifetime trip for many. I hope this Yellowstone Grand Teton itinerary has helped you to plan your best visit to these iconic destinations.
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