Today we're going to take a detour from our usually scheduled program of luxury travel spots and explore some of the United States most treasured destinations - its national parks. This is an area I'm new to so know this is not a guide for the experienced park traveler or a detailed travel guide - I'm simply providing the most needed information for visiting these national parks during the off season. Even though I grew up in California, I had never even been to Yosemite, much less planned a legitimate vacation to a national park, so I experienced quite the learning curve. Let me start off by saying that these parks blew me away, I simply couldn't get enough of the gorgeous scenery and abundance of wildlife; it was incredible and I would absolutely go back during this time of year again. However, spring brings some unique challenges that are important to take note of in your planning so that you don't end up with disappointment and frustration. In this post I am going to give you advice for visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the spring along with my best learned travel tips through my own mistakes and misfortune for first timers visiting these majestic national parks. Oh, and I'll throw in some pretty pictures, just in case you really don't care about any of the details.
For a condensed version, you can also check out my Top 10 Tips to Know Before You Go to Yellowstone or Grand Teton in Spring
the BACKSTORY for why we decided to take A roadtrip through the american west, visiting national parks in the spring
For Christmas, we gave my in-laws the gift of a family vacation - a 5 night stay at The Ranches at Belt Creek in Montana, a beautiful, secluded luxury sporting lodge just 30 minutes outside of Great Falls, Montana (I'll highlight this amazing location in an upcoming post). We decided to make it a family road trip during my father-in-law's Spring Break (6 of us total) from April 8-18, flying into Boise, Idaho, renting a mini-van (a staple for all family vacations) and starting off the trip by staying 2 nights at Grand Teton and ending the trip with 2 nights in West Yellowstone. As the planner in the family, it was up to me to come up with an epic adventure that would meet all of our diverse travel needs... let's just say that I'm the only one in the group that would have opposed to just sleeping in a tent on the side of the road and figuring it out along the way. So this is where my journey into the national parks begins...
TIME OF YEAR IS EVERYTHING: Yellowstone and grand teton seasons calendar overview
Time of year is ultimately the number one thing that will impact your travel planning to these two parks no matter when you are visiting. As a true San Diegan, I just expected that while April brings some showers and possible snow, it wouldn't really be that big of a factor... haha, yeah right. I quickly learned that April is considered the shoulder season, basically meaning that no one has any clue what kind of weather it will bring. In any given week, you can experience 70 degrees and sunny skies and within 24 hours it could drop to 15 degrees and receive more than a foot of snow. We experienced a bit of everything, which we ended up enjoying, but the rain and snow made for difficult visibility and harsh conditions for getting out of the car to wander on foot. During our one full day at The Grand Tetons, the cloud coverage was thick with some light rain and we waited all day to see the peaks of the mountains, which we were lucky to get a glimpse of right at the end of the day (phew!). By the way, the literal Google translation for The Grand Tetons from French to English is "the big nipples", so you may want to keep this information to yourself unless you want all of your travel buddies to immediately act like 14 year old boys for the remainder of your visit...
Every year is different, but this is a general overview of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton season calendar and what you can expect:
- Early June through the end of August is considered the summer season when you can expect most consistent, warm weather and all roads open to the public. This is also when hoards of tourists visit - we were told that the parks get roughly 4 million visitors a year and 3 million come during these three months. Yikes! We were told by many veteran travelers not even to attempt coming through then, it's just a madhouse. You won't have any of the problems we did, but you'll pay a higher price for it - both in cost of lodging and traffic throughout the park.
- We were told on a many occasions that early fall, September and October, are the best months to visit because of warmer weather, changing Autumn colors and much fewer tourists. Bears may be harder to spot during this time of year, but everything else is out and preparing for winter.
- November and April are shoulder months when you really won't know what to expect. The parks are just opening and closing up and there it's nearly empty in comparison to the summer. Many roads are closed to cars still and snowmobiles are not allowed just yet, so you kind of take your chances on where you'll be able to get to. Animals are very much present and babies are being born. Practically none of the hotels inside Grand Teton are open, but Yellowstone has more options, many are open just outside the West Yellowstone entrance with winter pricing.
- December through March is the winter season when nearly everything is shut down and conditions are harshest. Snowmobiling and cross country skiing is the only mode of transportation into the parks and there are very few lodging options.
ROAD CONDITIONS AND GETTING AROUND yellowstone and the grand tetons
In addition to the mystery weather forecast, most roadways into both parks are closed throughout April and a majority of facilities are still shut down for the season. I actually had originally planned to drive into Yellowstone first, but discovered that roads from West Yellowstone didn't even open until April 16th, so decided to start with The Grand Tetons. The roads getting into Jackson and to Grand Teton were not at all a problem, it was only when we were trying to drive into the park that we had any issues. Even though the park is "open" year round, the roads aren't... a small detail I didn't know about. We first went into the Moose Junction entrance next to the visitors center where the roads were only open for roughly 6 miles and the majority of hiking trails were blanketed in heavy snow. Bummer. However, we decided to drive north on the main roadway, Highway 191 and discovered a second entrance, The Moran Junction entrance, which allowed visitors much more road access into the park... why didn't anyone at the visitors center tell us about this??? Anyhow, this is where you will get gorgeous views of Jackson Lake in addition to Grand Teton, but roads to Jenny Lake were still closed. I also highly suggest exploring the open roads outside of the park as you will still see wildlife and gorgeous views of The Grand Tetons, especially in and around Mormon Row.
Roads into Yellowstone begin to open up mid April, so be sure to check the official website for up to date road closures - here's a link to the live road map. The Only road open year-round is the East to Northeast entrance, but don't be fooled - it's a very small section and I'm assuming really only useful for the small town at the East entrance that would be snowed in if it weren't for that route. My best advice for visiting in spring is to wait until roads open up from the West entrance in April to ensure you get the most out of your visit. Only about half of the park roads are open during early spring, the major section closed off during this time is the South to East section around the Yellowstone Lake, just beyond Old Faithful. We filled an entire day and a half driving through the open roads so it is worth doing, but if you really want to ensure that most roads are open during your spring visit, plan on going after the first week in May.
General Driving Conditions and Snowmobiles
Once the roads open up, snowmobile companies shut down for the season, so if snowmobiling is part of your plan (like we had wanted to do) you'll want to be there before the end of March since that's about when a limited number of roadways start to open up in both parks. There are also bus tours that run, but my suggestion would definitely be to drive yourself so you can stop as much as you want and explore at your own pace. Once of the big questions I had traveling during this time of year was if we needed a 4 wheel drive vehicle and in my experience it is absolutely not necessary. Like I said, we were in a van and drove over 2,000 miles and there wasn't a single time we needed 4 wheel drive, even when it was snowing. The parks only allow you to drive where roads have been plowed so you don't have any option of off roading or even a real potential for getting stuck. Being a car full of Californians who are not experts in snow driving, we felt perfectly safe without a problem driving throughout all of the weather conditions during our 10 day trip in the minivan. You'll still want to be cautious, not only for the weather, but for the wildlife that just loves to jump out in front of your car to say hi, so do be careful.
Finally, do note that the road that connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park is closed from Mid November to Mid May, so while you can definitely do both parks in one trip, the drive time is much longer due to having to drive around the west side.
WHERE TO STAY just outside of yellowstone and the grand teton national parks
While there are a number of fabulous hotel options inside The Grand Teton National Park, not a single one was open and most don't start taking reservations until mid May. Of course, Jackson is just 20 minutes away and has lodging year round because of the ski lifts, but they can get pretty pricey during this time of year. We found one of the few places open, Doornan's Spur Ranch Cabins, just outside of the Moose Entrance, literally a 2 minute drive to the Visitors Center. During early spring, the facilities there aren't open yet, like the restaurants, grocery store and gas station on the property; however, the cabins are available and at very reasonable winter pricing.
I wasn't sure what to expect exactly, but they were absolutely perfect for us. Located just at the foot of The Grand Tetons, you get incredible views while staying in a log cabin along the Snake River. Our private 2 bedroom cabin was really clean and spacious, fitting all 6 of us very comfortably and included a fully stocked kitchen so we could buy groceries in Jackson and make meals. The beds are also extremely comfortable and after driving 11 hours that day from Boise, I was thankful to have a nice place to rest. There isn't a television, adding to the secluded cabin vibe, but they are equipped with hi-speed wifi that worked well enough to upload photos and check emails. Each cabin has a different name and there isn't really a map to show you where each cabin is, but honestly, it's just a very small cluster of cabins within 20ish feet of each other, so there isn't much difference in any of them. I will say that we stayed in Owen and it was nice because we could park right in front of it so we didn't have to lug our bags through the snow. I read plenty of reviews of people seeing Milo the moose come right up to the cabins and while we didn't have that luck, we did see one right at the end of the road (don't be stupid and get too close, just because he has a name doesn't mean he won't charge and throw you into oblivion).
In April, literally none of the 9 hotels are open - not even the 2 hotels open during the winter months (I told you this shoulder season thing was confusing). Saying that, I would definitely not want to stay inside the park unless I was camping, which clearly I probably wouldn't do anyway - these hotels are insanely priced, extremely touristy and are not really connected with the natural beauty of the park - the whole reason you are there in the first place. I searched high and low for good options and finally decided on The Explorer Cabins at West Yellowstone. Less than a 2 minute drive from the West Yellowstone entrance and within walking distance to all the amenities you would need, like grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants, these great little cabins have all of the amenities of home without feeling like you're staying in a major hotel chain.
We rented a 2 bedroom cabin for 2 nights and it fit our group just fine. They are all equipped with a small kitchen, fireplace, high speed wifi, cable television and completely upgraded amenities with great attention to detail, like supplying you with walking sticks and binoculars to borrow during your stay as well as complimentary s'more kits to use in the fire pits outside. The actual hotel you check in at even has a pool and indoor jacuzzi. Don't let the word cabin fool you though - you are literally in the middle of town, just behind the McDonalds and across the street from an IMAX theater; actually not bad options if you ask me. Although I really did enjoy our stay, we had a few minor frustrations like our fireplace not working and never getting fixed during our stay and missing sheets and blankets for the pull out sofa bed. Even with that said, I'd stay here again because of the proximity to the entrance and excellent amenities.
where to go in and around the national parks
- Moran junction will give you the most open roads for driving. Head north to Jackson Lake - this is where you'll get incredible mountain shots on a somewhat clear day.
- Sunset and sunrise are your best times for photos; however, you never know when the sun will peak out and clouds will part, so it's better to visit some spots twice during your trip.
- Mormon Row/Antelope Flats is a must visit. It's actually just outside of the park, just north of the Moose Junction park entrance and is where you'll find that famous barn shot that you see everywhere. It's also one of those places you can guarantee some kind of animal sighting. If you keep driving beyond Mormon Row, especially early in the morning, you have possibilities of seeing buffalo, moose and elk. We started and ended our day here - mainly because the lighting was drastically different and I was able to get much better shots in the afternoon.
- Best place for bear and wolf sightings: Lamar Valley. Start early! If you are staying near the West Entrance, I suggest being on the road between 5-6am because the drive is about 1.5 hours into the park and you will probably want to stop a few times along the way. Be sure to have binoculars as grizzlies most likely won't be close to the road (we saw one, it was pretty far out so it was barely more than a moving speck). Drive as quickly as possible (not fast, there were so many animals on the road when we were driving) to get to Lamar, then drive slower on your way back since you have no choice but to backtrack since the roads going southeast are closed.
- Take the walk up and around the Mammoth Hot Springs, just before the North Entrance Visitors Center.
- Get out of the car! If you see something, stop, breathe in the fresh air and just space out for a while. There are few people around during this time of year so treat the park like you have it all to yourself.
- Save Old Faithful for last and don't plan your whole trip around it - to be honest it was the least impressive part of the whole trip... not that it wasn't impressive, just in comparison to the animals and incredible scenery, it wasn't that exciting. Be sure to look at estimated times online as eruptions (I think that's what you would call it) occur sometime between every 40 minutes and up to 2 hours in between. We ended our day here since it's about as far south as you can go and only a 40 minute drive back to the West Entrance. In addition - it's super commercial and I would definitely not suggest staying here; it doesn't even feel like you're in a national park, it feels most like Disneyland than nature. But that's just me.