Discovery in Our Own Back Yard
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks: September Trip Report
As a tour operator specializing in matching client dreams for adventure and out of the ordinary experience we have focused on those destinations that are difficult for the average traveler to properly vet and compare from the plethora of information on the web and advice from friends and colleagues who have seen only a sliver of what the destination has to offer. As I will tell everyone traveling to more exotic destinations like safari Africa or The Galapagos or Patagonia you will have a great time- the destination you have chosen has so much to offer. But: Will you know that you have used your money and your time wisely? If something goes awry on the ground will you have someone to assist you to get things right? What’s right for someone else may not be the ideal solution for you as to property, activities, and experiences that you are seeking. As travel experts each member of our team spends a great deal of time on the ground getting to know a destination. We try to envision how each component of the trip will come together based on a client’s travel preferences and past experience. We want to make sure you have spent your money wisely and that you come away truly energized and enthusiastic. We have only positioned ourselves as travel experts in those areas we know quite well, where we have trusted partners on the ground and where we have continually updated our knowledge on the latest additions, renovations and experiences available.
With that ethos in mind, I recently completed a road trip from Southern California to Utah, stopping in St. George and Park City, enroute to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park, through Yellowstone to Bozeman and Big Sky Montana, back down through Stanley and Sun Valley Idaho, completing the trip back home through Mesquite, Nevada. The theme of the trip was ACTIVE: hiking, biking, golfing, boating, fishing, and seeking sightings of bears, moose, elk, bison, and wolves. In addition, I met with a small family owned ground operations team who specialize in guiding and wildlife encounters, photography and adventures in Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I also made several hotel and guest ranch site inspections throughout my journey to see for myself how the accommodations suggested by the operations team would fit the needs of our clientele.
Grand Teton National Park is in Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park and north of the town of Jackson. It’s 310,000 acres include lush valley floors, mountain meadows, alpine lakes, the rising peaks of the Teton Range and the famed Snake River.
Yellowstone National Park is a nearly 3,500-sq.-mile wilderness recreation area atop a volcanic hot spot. Mostly in Wyoming, the park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho as well. Yellowstone features dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, hot springs and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. Both Yellowstone and Gran Teton National Parks are home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, moose, bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope.
Be especially aware of moose and elk wandering on to the roads that could cause significant damage to you vehicle and to the animal. Indeed, one guide told us he spends half his time searching tor these magnificent animals and half his time trying to avoid them!
Being early September, we were able to enjoy the golfing and boating activities not available in the winter months, but the animal sightings were not as plentiful as one Can expect in the winter months. I concluded that if animal photography is the goal the best time of year to visit would be between the months of December and March, when the animals descend to the lower topography and adding a guide is the only way to go. Like Africa, you need a trained expert to know where to go, have connections with the rangers and the local wolf and bear “trackers”, and be able to navigate the avoidance of crowds. Indeed, our group of 4 with an expert guide were alone with the rangers when we spotted “399”, a 24-year mama grizzly and her 4 cubs. The guided activity also adds the historical and cultural perspective that is missing if you just follow the crowds to the side of the road the bears were reported to have been seen the day before. We saw all the coveted animals except the wolves, including many sightings of bald eagles. For a glimpse of the wolves, and grizzlies (if you miss them in the wild) you can fork out the $14-15 to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center located in West Yellowstone, just a couple minutes from the west entrance to the park. A half hour to 45-minute visit is interesting to learn about the species, as well as see some of the river otters and birds of prey common to the area. If you are lucky enough to see the bears and wolves in the parks, you can skip this stop unless you want to contribute to the efforts of this nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates at risk animals. However, a “must see” stop in Jackson is also the National Museum of Wildlife Art which boasts over 5000 artworks of animals in a variety of media.
impressive highlight of Jackson is the 65 miles of paved trails ideal for biking. Standard mountain bike and e-bike rentals are readily available in Jackson, but I would suggest reservations for bikes in the busy summer months. E- bikes are limited to the paved trails and are fun to use but hardly necessary to navigate the gradual hills throughout the region. We enjoyed a 25 mile out and back trip from Jackson to Grand Teton Village on our bikes. Similarly, the same situation exists in Ketchum/ Sun Valley Idaho.
For hiking on your own, consult the app: Alltrails, which will provide detailed information on the massive number of hiking trails throughout the West, even the world. Maps include guest reviews as well as parking spots and trail highlights. For much of the trails in the National Parks you will need to bring a cannister of bear spray and know how to use it. While we didn’t encounter any bears on our hikes in Teton and Yellowstone, everyone we met up with carried a cannister and hikers reported seeing a small bear cross the trail a minute or two before on one of the trails in Teton. (where there is a small bear there was certainly a BIG BEAR not far behind).
River rafting and kayaking are available in lakes and rivers in both parks, with a guided raft “float” steered by a professional oarsman recommended in the Teton’s Snake River. A 10-mile float trip takes about 2.5 hours and is a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery and wildlife. We had the luck of seeing a black bear amble down to the river as we floated past. We also spotted a few bald eagles, but not much other wildlife as we floated in the heat of the day from 2:30-5pm. Even in low water the crystal-clear water runs fast and there are many downed trees that only an expert can navigate for safety.
Yellowstone National Park has a number of clean, modern high end fishing boats with all the professional equipment on board and a fishing guide available as well, all reasonably priced ($300 for a 4.5-hour charter includes all gear and guide.) Be aware however that you will probably catch fish but not be able to keep them. An invasive trout was introduced to the Lake a decade or so ago, but they have started using nets to catch them, vastly lowering the population of the invasive trout to save the indigenous cutthroat trout. You will likely catch multiple cutthroat which you are required to release (after a few brilliant pictures.) You will be unlikely to catch the invasive trout- which, if you did catch, you could keep for your evening fish fry.
Park City, Jackson Hole/Teton Village, Ketchum/Sun Valley, and Bozeman/Big Sky are all known for their ski areas, some of the best of the West. As such you will find a number of private home and villa rentals to fit your needs, VRBO and Airbnb being options, but better value and vetted properties can be secured through a ground operations team such as our resource in Jackson. Typical to these areas you will fine hotels and ski resort type properties although the prices, even in the summer are substantial and we typically do not get much of a price break for guests off the published rates. The best option for families, or for friends and couples who would like to experience the Western cowboy lifestyle are the guest ranches. Among them are Flat Creek Ranch near Jackson, Lone Mountain in Big Sky and Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson. Flat Creek is a refurbished family ranch that originated in the 1920s. This small ranch consisting of 5 rustic, cozy cabins is ideal for family reunions and offers hiking, horse riding, boating and fly-fishing opportunities. Flat Creek is located just 30 minutes from the South entrance to Grand Teton NP.
Lone Mountain, in Big Sky, approximately 20 minutes to the Northwest Yellowstone NP entrance and 60 minutes from West Yellowstone Gate is another intimate guest ranch and one of the Nat Geo Unique Lodges of the World. In addition to the fly fishing, hiking and horse-riding activities Lone Mountain has resident lodge naturalist
guides who can accompany you on trips into the national Park. The Ranch consists of 9 1-bedroom cabins, 9 2-bedroom cabins, a 4-bedroom house and a 6-bedroom house, offering cozy comfort in truly luxurious Nat Geo worthy style. Spring Creek is a significantly larger ranch with lodge rooms, studio, 1 bedroom and 2-bedroom condos and larger 4-bedroom houses. It is located just outside Jackson with beautiful views of the
Teton range. The resort includes a spa, but no activities are included other than a resident naturalist who can accompany guests on hikes. This property is very dated, but will be undergoing a 2-year long renovation of the entire property beginning this fall.
The Jackson Hole area also offers a great Bed and Breakfast property in the Bentwood Inn, a five-bedroom renovated ranch home located about midway between Jackson and Teton Village (6 miles each way). Theis Relais and Chateaux property is charming, with friendly and welcoming inn keepers. Although the bedrooms are small the common areas are warm and inviting. It would be an ideal property for a group of friends or a family to take over on an exclusive basis.
In Teton Village you may find the ski in ski out Caldera house- consisting of 4 4bedroom units and 4 2-bedroom units an ideal solution for those seeking a high-end home away from home. Each unit has a full kitchen and large common living spaces. 4-bedroom units include a hot tub and 2-bedroom units share a hot tub with another unit. Priced at $2000-8000 per night for 2 bedroom and $8000-25000 per night for the 4-bedroom (based on the time of year). Caldera is a private property with an “ownership” type vibe and commensurate amenities and privileges. A more affordable option is the Terra Hotel, although the rooms are generally small. There are several studios and some 2-bedroom suites and interconnecting rooms are available to create a larger living space- up to 3 bedrooms for a family or group of friends. Its sister lodge Teton Mountain Lodge has more studios and suites and has more of a “mountain lodge” vibe. Each property has its own pool and spa which can be shared by guests of either property. Downtown Jackson has the upscale Hotel Jackson, with 55 rooms and suites and steep prices throughout the year. If you want to be walking distance to shops, restaurants, and bars this is the place to be in the area. Teton Village (Jackson Hole ski resort) is just as you would imagine a resort village to be, without the charm of the adventure town like Jackson.
Another option within the Jackson area is the Amangani resort located on the Spring Creek Ranch property. Upscale from Spring Creek, the Amangani has 40 beautifully appointed suites. Amangani also owns 19 nearby homes, some of which can be rented out for between $6,500 and $9,500 a night. A five-minute drive across the desert is Amangani’s Camp Sarika a collection of 10 elegant and spacious one- and two-bedroom tented pavilions, reminiscent of African safari tents, elevating the wilderness experience to one of peerless comfort and privacy.
If you book at any property through our ground operator, they will add some unique services to your stay at most properties- including delivering coffee, tea, breakfast and a newspaper to your room each morning, accompanying you into the national parks for wildlife viewing, complete with African inspired sundowners, bush breakfasts and picnic lunches.
There are some hotel options within Yellowstone National Park, but they are booked through the National Park Service and are normally booked a couple of years in advance. The park itself has over 2000 accommodations in 9 different properties, some open year-round, others just in the summer. Many of the hotels were closed this fall due to Covid, but one of the newly renovated properties is Mammoth Hot Springs – a massive hotel 2.5 * hotel with 300+ rooms and 20 private cabins, located near the north entrance of the park. The historic hotel has been long overdue for a makeover. The renovation project started in 2015 and was completed over four years. It brought the historic structure up to modern accessibility, utility, seismic, and sustainability standards, while retaining much of the original look and feel of the historic structure.
For the most part our operator recommends staying outside the park- in the North in Gardiner where there are 2 small boutique inns- The Wonderland and the 406 Lodge. Decidedly 3 * these are better options than the chain motel choices. West Yellowstone has even fewer options and no 4* - 5*suggestions- better to find a guest ranch outside the park and a 30-60-minute drive to the gates.
Grand Teton has one hotel inside the National Park, Jackson Lake Lodge with 348 guest cottages and 37 lodge rooms. I did not have the opportunity to visit the lodge. The lodge is owned by the National Park Service and can be booked through that agency. With the number of options already listed for Jackson area and easy access to the park. I would recommend staying outside the park to enjoy the restaurants and night life Jackson has to offer.
In Bozeman we stayed at a friend’s home but did sample some of the fine restaurants (below). The only recommended property in Bozeman is the Gallatin River Lodge, which I did not visit as it closed for the season in late August.
Idaho was a favorite part of the trip for everyone, although we had no ground operator to assist. We spent a lazy afternoon on a pontoon boat in Redfish Lake, a small scenic lake near Stanley Idaho and spent the early evening relaxing at some simple cabins on the Salmon River. A trip down into Ketchum and Sun Valley enabled us to enjoy the miles of bike trails through the community and up to Sun Valley Resort and a hike up the steep slopes of Sun Valley ski resort. Again, as it is ski community SV offers several resort type properties, including the Sun Valley Lodge and the downtown Ketchum Limelight hotel.
Our plan to continue to Lake Tahoe and Mammoth to visit some friends was interrupted by the California wildfires and smoke that forced the closures of National Parks and outdoor activities, so we headed home via Nevada where we stopped in Mesquite overnight in order to play the Wolf Creek Golf course, an amazing track of beautifully sculptured holes with dramatic vertical drops and ascents, one of the most beautiful, fun, photographic (and difficult ) golf courses we have ever played. Wolf Creek should be on every golfer’s bucket list! Again, Mesquite really has no 4 or 5* accommodations, but the casino hotels offer some acceptable, clean, and affordable overnights. VRBO or Airbnb options might best suit friends looking for a quick 2-3-day golf vacation just 5 hours from San Diego.
We enjoyed some fabulous restaurants in Jackson including The Blue Lion and Gather. Gourmet fare, great service, and a festive atmosphere welcomes guests in both these choices. In Bozeman we tried Tanglewood and Feast, also some fantastic establishments a little off the beaten path, and Nova, a favorite local hangout for breakfast.
While a road trip might not be for everyone, we enjoyed the freedom, the ability to listen to eBooks, sing along with our music libraries and enjoy the scenery throughout the West. It was truly a reminder of what we love about travel and discovery of new places. We strongly recommend adding the Wild West to anyone’s travel bucket list and certainly a vacation to consider in late 2020 and into 2021. Even a perfect 2-3 addition to a ski vacation!