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Summer family vacation - packing a lot into 8 nights in August. Kids are 15, 13 and 11; hiking, wildlife viewing, history and rodeo.
I usually do all the planning for our trips and I had done a lot of research for a family trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. In the end I left the booking and arrangements to this company because they listened to what we wanted to do, came highly recommended (I called many references because I don't usually plan like this) and helped set the pacing for a very driving-intensive trip.
NOTE: Don't be afraid to talk to people and compare notes. Everywhere we went we got great advice from fellow travelers, hotel managers, guides and rangers as to the best places to see wildlife, best places to eat, best hikes, etc. And when you're hiking it's fun to play the 'what did you see?" game. "Hey, we saw a WOLF!" "Really?" "We just saw some weird animal chase a chipmunk around a tree and EAT it" "Cool, well look in the pond as you go - we just saw some beavers." "Thanks!" ..... We looked at our wildlife picture guide (recommend you buy this - a laminated card available at all visitor centers for about $5) and determined they had seen a marten. We also learned from one of the rangers that it was huckleberry season and that we HAD to eat them before the bears got to all of them. They were pretty good, especially the huckleberry ice cream at the Yellowstone General Store.
ANOTHER NOTE ON CAR RENTAL (one fo the few things not included in a Wild West Vacation trip): You don't really need a 4 wheel drive for this type of trip. We opted for a minivan to carry all our stuff easily and for the kids to have room to spread out. We also brought our GPS, which was very helpful. Shop around. Vans ranged from $450 to $1,200 for 9 days. I checked prices several times over the course of a month or so and I used hotwire, priceline, expedia and several other car rental compare sites. I don't like to prepay for a car (we did pre-pay Wild West), so we didn't use priceline. We ended up going with Dollar Rent a Car. The downside is that their rental office is in town, so when we returned the car we had to add in time (leaving at 5 a.m.) to get to town from Colter Bay, get on their scheduled shuttle at 6:30 a.m. and hope it was enough time to get through security for our 7:40 flight. If the shuttle hadn't left early we wouldn't have made it. All the flights leave at about the same time and check in and security overwhelmed the small airport. Anyway, just a note on things to consider......
We decided to start in Jackson, which was a lovely town - good mix of souvenir shops and "real" art galleries and fashion. Beautiful setting. For us - a late afternoon walk around was really enough time. We were excited to see everything around us - the backdrop for the town was the Grand Teton range, so we were excited to explore.
We debated whether or not to do a "chuckwagon dinner," and decided to go ahead. The kids really enjoyed the Bar T-5 dinner and show, including the covered wagon ride to the dinner. Bar J is supposed to have better food and music. It was a little hokey and I was expecting eye rolling, but everyone had a great time. The food, however, was mediocre at best, so keep your expectations low.
Very happy with this hotel. For our family of 5 we took 2 cabins; one "king," which turned out to be more like a queen, and one with 2 queen bunks. A family of 5 COULD have stayed in the cabin with 2 queen bunks (one on the pullout couch), but it would have been very tight. Great location. It's near the rodeo grounds though, so we could hear that at night.
Great place for a hearty breakfast (one pancake is plate sized - be warned) before the Jenny Lake hike. Best to drive to Grand Tetons Park directly from Norah's via the Moose Wilson road. You might even see a moose!
On our second day we drove up to Jenny Lake (45 minutes from Jackson). Since we had a whitewater rafting trip already scheduled we did not do the 6 mile hike around the lake. We just took the 15 minute shuttle across the lake and did the approximately 2 mile hike to hidden falls and inspiration point. It was a terrific little hike and we saw a mama bear and two cubs in the river. We made it back in plenty of time for a 5:00 whitewater rafting trip on the Snake river.
We were directed to this company for our rafting trip and steak dinner. We thought they were a great operation. We felt safe, we had fun, our guide was informative and it was an overall terrific experience. We went for the BBQ dinner afterward because we finished after 8 and were wet and tired and didn't want to hunt around for a place for dinner. Also the price per person ($6) was great! Highly recommend them.
Another great breakfast place in downtown Jackson. They have another one at the airport. Service was better than at Nora's, but Nora's pancakes were better.
Make sure you have plenty of time and see as many geysers as you can. No two are alike.
More than Old Faithful itself, the entire geyser area around Old Faithful is incredible. Make sure you leave plenty of time to explore the immediate area around Old Faithful. We did not continue up to the artists' paint pots at Firehole lake, which I regret. Also check out the Old Faithful Inn. It's beautiful.
Lunch: best option is to pack a picnic. Worst option is the Old Faithful Lodge cafeteria (the less fancy hotel near the geyser). That was awful and expensive.
Town at the West Entrance to Yellowstone - seems to cater to the outdoor types and the gamblers. At Bullwinkle's liquor store we bought an organic (dry) cherry wine. Wish we would have bought more. It was really good!
This was worth a brief visit, though if I do this trip again, I would opt for more time at the geysers and at firehole lake; there's also a hot spring around there where you can swim. We went all the way to West Yellowstone because the Madison/Norris Road has been closed in Yellowstone, so the only way for us to get up to the North entrance of the park was to backtrack or go through Bozeman, which was a long drive, but I had a friend there anyway. Turned out to be a beautiful drive through the Gallatin national forest and canyon and Big Sky Montana, and worth it. Anyway, that explains why we stopped at the Grizzly and Wolf Center - to break up our drive to Bozeman. It was o.k. Pretty good. Not a high priority out of the options on this list.
Nice university town. According to our friends, there's a great hike in the mountain just out of town - up to the "M" set into the mountain.
A bit more "rustic" than Jackson (this is an understatement - it's a one horse town and the horse is a bit wobbly), this town has the entrance to one of the most interesting areas of the park - Mammoth, Fort Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs. For dinner, try the "Raven Grill" outside the Two Bit Saloon. It's cash only and not cheap ($20 steaks), but everything was delicious. I had bison steak with balsamic cherry glaze - on a paper plate with plastic utensils......at a shared table. We really enjoyed it.
Great place to stay - not really a hotel - it's a private cabin. Lots and lots of rules though about how much you have to clean the place, which was a bit off-putting for a 2 day stay. Also, it's 5 miles up an unpaved road, which was interesting, to say the least, when we arrived at 11:30 p.m. and had no idea where we were going. Also, if you stay there, get your coffee and breakfast stuff BEFORE you go up the mountain, because you won't find any stores when you get there. All that aside, it was a great place.
Great place - a bit hidden - ask the ranger at the North Entrance how to get here - it's worth the 1/2 mile walk to soak in the confluence of the boiling and Gardiner rivers. A fabulous treat - about 2.5 miles - halfway, between the North Entrance of the park and the Mammoth area.
Pack a picnic lunch and picnic near the parking lot on tables or by the river - don't bring food to the boiling river - it's not allowed.
The town of Mammoth is interesting, since it emcompasses the first buildings in the newly established park, including Fort Yellowstone, which the army used to keep the peace in the early wild days of the park. The ranger station was one of the least informative, but they did have a hokey movie about the establishment of the park that was worth 18 minutes out of the hot sun. After a brief visit there, head for the lower geyser trail.
Take enough time to explore the lower geyser trail (about an hour) and go all the way to canary spring - it's worth it! You can then drive the upper geyser trail. We skipped that.
3 hour evening tour of the lamar valley to view wildlife - very knowledgeable guide and good sized group (13 people). We saw bison, pronghorn, coyote, deer, lots of birds and more, but even without the animals it was a fantastic tour. Wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk. The tour ends about 8:30, so eat before if you want to, or eat after at either Mammoth Hotel or at the Raven Grill - those may be the only options unless you've done some grocery shopping before 9 p.m., when the store closes.
On the way toward the Northeast Entrance on the day we headed to Cody, WY, on the advice of our wildlife safari guide, we did a short hike to Trout Lake - located at a turnout just past soda butte (a dormant geyser), close to the park exit. It's known for its otters (which we didn't see) and huge trout, which we did - as well as gorgeous views. The link above contains information on a number of hikes in the area. Aside from Specimen Ridge, there is a short road that leads to one petrified tree that is worth viewing - this is further back into the park and well marked.
Good place to stop for lunch (but not gas) before hitting the Chief Joseph highway. Extremely touris trap - y. Lunch at the Bear Tooth cafe was decent and not too pricey - try the smoked trout with cole slaw.
We drove, and highly recommend, via the Lamar Valley and the Northeast exit/entrance to Yellowstone, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. This takes you through the Dead Indian pass - a chapter from the history of the Indian wars. We were recommended to go even a bit further North and go via the Beartooth Pass (an even higher and more dramatic elevation). Glad we didn't though, because it was undergoing major construction. Advice; check the conditions of all the roads you plan to take ahead of time whenever at all possible.
Nice town. Of the main attractions, here are my views:
1. Cody gunfighters - forget it - it was horrible
2. Buffalo Bill Historical Center - give yourself plenty of time or time to leave and come back. It's great.
3. Old Trail town - right next to our hotel. We were sad not to have had enough time to explore this re-creation of an old western town founded by Buffalo Bill. (Old trail town is located where the actual town was originally sited - right next to thermal springs, so it kind of stinks of sulphur).
4. Cody night rodeo - great show - make sure you are there in season. We lucked out and ended up going on the second to last night.
Mostly o.k. food and slow service. The one exception was the extra spicy green chili sace with pork. That was great!
My favorites were the Western Art and the Buffalo Bill museums, but the Plains Indian museum was interesting if a bit limited. Inside the Art museum they have computers where you can generate your own western landscapes from elements of the paintings they have on display. Kids and adults loved this. My son and husband were amazed at the firearms museum - I didn't go in - apparently it was quite something, and we only just glanced at the natural history musem.
We ended up just having lunch (and coffee later) on the premises - it was the same menu as everywhere else and not too pricy - they have tables in the garden, as well as Buffalo Bill's childhood home.
Nice hotel - not as nice as Jackson in set up, but just as clean and well run. No pull out couches, just small rooms,nice bathrooms and lovely front porches. They also provide a small continental breakfast.
Seemed like an appropriate choice for our pre-rodeo meal.
This was great, but not for the faint of heart. There was good competition, especially from the local high schoolers - how many high schools do you know with a rodeo team? Not ours! We saw three generations of a rodeo family, including the 5 year old grandson, who won the steer riding competition for juniors - of course he was on a steer calf and won for cute points (but he did stay on the required 8 seconds - a very long 8 seconds). We were there on August 30th. Season ended on August 31st.
Had lunch at the resaurant here - both parks' management do a very good job with concessions and food. We got to the canyon, hiked around the south rim, went up to the canyon village for lunch and then came back and hiked around the north rim. It's worth it to do both.
If you have time, you can hike a full seven miles (the length of the canyon) along the north or south rims and do the side hikes for the various lookouts - we chose to drive from highlight to highlight and do a series of short hikes. Note the temperature and wind vary greatly (20-30 degrees), depending on time of day, shade vs. sun and wind, so dress accordingly.
Over a few hours, we did lots of small hikes around the south and north rim. I recommend Uncle Tom's trail, Artists' Point, Inspiration Point, Brink of the Upper Falls and Brink of the Lower Falls. Though these are short, some are very steep and require strenuous exercise.
Couldn't resist another set of geysers on our way out of the park! These are interesting because a number of them are actually in Lake Yellowstone - you can see some from the edge of the boardwalk. Note: at all of these sites - especially the geysers - go to the visitors' centers and see when they are having ranger talks. They really bring it all to life. We didn't do this formally, but we "stumbled" upon several ranger walks and hung around to listen. They know a lot about the geology and they explain it very well.
Very different from Yellowstone, despite its proximity. The whole Teton range looks like a fake background for some movie, but it's not!
Very nice place. Jackson Lake lodge is more upscale, but the cabins, most of which are historic frontier cabins with modern amenities added later, are great (but very basic, and you don't want ANY food in the cabin). In addition, you can use Jackson Lake lodge's pools and restaurants.
We took a scenic boat cruise to Elk Island for breakfast (they have dinner cruises too - reservations must be done in advance), which was lovely (but a bit cold at the end of August), we rented Kayaks through them as well, and it was a well run operation.
In between we followed their advice and took a hike right from the marina to swan lake and heron pond - we didn't do the full 8 mile loop to Hermitage Point. Other options a few miles away from the facility are lake Emma Mathilda and Two Oceans - we saw a wolf near Emma Mathilda. People also recommended the scenic drive to Signal mountain, but we needed a day without scenic drives. If you have time, there is a small Indian Arts museum in the visitor center - worth a peek.
Keep in mind, also, that kids under 16 cannot take out a kayak or canoe on their own.
They have a pretty well-stocked grocery for picnic items, the restaurant was very good, but pricy, and the cafeteria looked good too.
Ate dinner on the back porch here (the soda fountain is known for its milkshakes, which you can buy inside and bring out to the porch, which serves adult beverages and bar food), overlooking willow flats, a prime wildlife viewing valley. It was our last night, and we finally got to see a moose!