Let’s face it right away, 2 days to experience both these national parks is short. But if you don’t have more time and still want to see the main highlights, it’s feasible! You just need to be well prepared. This suggested itinerary starts in Gardiner (Montana), close to Yellowstone’s North Entrance. You will go all the way down through both national parks until Jackson (Wyoming) on day 1 and then all the way up back to Gardiner via a different way on day 2 (first night in Gardiner, second night in Jackson and third night in Gardiner). Roads are in good condition and (most of) the main sights are very close to a parking, which make these great national parks easy to visit. All the attractions are clearly marked and the visitor centers provide very good maps of each site. Note that this trip can only be done in summertime, when all the roads are open.
Gardiner, Montana. Start early to avoid long lines at Yellowstone’s North Entrance. If you are planning to visit both parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), buy the combined entrance (50 USD for a car and its occupants). Make your way to Mammoth Hot Springs, only a few miles away from the park’s entrance. This is one of the biggest “villages” inside the park and the first visitor center you will face. Drive the short but fantastic one-way “upper terraces loop”, stop here and there to marvel at the geothermal wonders (like Canary Springs or Orange Mound).
Then go east on the main road towards Tower Junction. Don’t miss the one-way Blacktail Plateau Drive on your right, shortly after Blacktail Creek. This small dirt road will take you through beautiful landscapes and is great for wildlife spotting.
After reaching Tower Junction, continue south towards Canyon Junction. If the parking is not too crowded, you can stop at Tower Falls and take the short walk to the falls (but these are not that impressive). Just before the Canyon Junction you will drive through the Dunraven Pass and the views on your left side are quite impressive. Canyon Village is another of Yellowstone’s bigger “villages”, close to the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Prepare to spend a few hours in this fascinating area. Stop at the village to grab a quick bite and have a look at the visitor center to better understand the geology of Yellowstone (the short documentary film is quite good). Then make your way to the North Rim Drive. Stop at the first parking and hike down to the Brink of the Lower Falls. The path is demanding, but this is a must-do! Down there you will be right next to the park’s most powerful waterfall plunging in the magnificent canyon just before your eyes.
Now drive to the South Rim Drive, park your car at Uncle Tom’s Point and walk all the way to the Artist Point (which can be also reached by car directly, but the short-ish walk from Uncle Tom’s Point is nice and easy with great views of the canyon along the way).
Continue south to reach the Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcano site, next to each other. These are often included in the Yellowstone’s highlights, but are not that impressive after all. Okay, seeing boiling mud and steam coming from beneath the Earth is quite impressive but there are a lot of similar and more impressive sites elsewhere in the park (like the Upper Geyser Basin for example, same features plus incredible colours). The famous Dragon Mouth Spring (which indeed sounds like a roaring dragon) is located here, on the Mud Volcano site. Unfortunately, noise and fuss coming from the tourist crowds constantly flowing to the site will seriously interfere with your ability to fully enjoy this special moment…
Further away south you arrive at the big Yellowstone Lake. Stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the lakeshore, this will be your first day’s last stop in Yellowstone. During the short walk you will pass by gorgeous hot springs and see the lake up close.
After a longer and less attraction-rich drive you are going to enter the Grand Teton national park. Very different scenery here. No geothermal activity, but majestic snow-capped peaks (the Tetons) abruptly becoming an endless prairie. Magnificent. Longer distances, fewer stops. Your first one will be at the Jackson Lake Lodge. Have a delicious angus beef burger at their Pioneer Grill, while enjoying the breathtaking view. Then continue on the main 89-road and have a brief stop at the interesting historical site of the Cunningham Cabin. Head south again and right after the Blacktail Ponds Overlook make a sharp right-turn towards the Mormon Row. Hopefully you will be there during the beautiful light of the day’s last hours. And if you are lucky (chances are good) you will be surrounded by a peaceful herd of wild bisons.
Spend the night in Jackson, Wyoming.
Again, start your day early. Not only will you beat the crowds, but the Tetons are particularly beautiful bathing in the light of the rising sun. Instead of taking the same road north you came from, take the smaller Moose Wilson Road before turning left on the Teton Park Road. Jenny Lake is a popular stop in the Grand Teton national park and I have mixed feelings about it… Nice place, but time-consuming and not the most impressive one. Here you can take the shuttle boat across the lake and hike to the Inspiration Point. If you decide to do this, it will take you at least 2-3 hours (if you are quick). So, on a tight schedule thepickytraveller’s advice would be to skip this and proceed north on the same road until the Signal Mountain Road, which is not to be missed! Drive all the way up to the summit on the sinuous and narrow road. Up there the view to Jackson Lake and the Tetons is simply amazing.
Back on the main road northbound, it’s time to leave Grand Teton and get back to Yellowstone all the way up to West Thumb. Once there, continue left on the Grand Loop Road and park your car at the Old Faithful Inn. This is Yellowstone’s most famous site and you are going to spend a few hours here. The old wooden inn itself is an attraction, make sure to see it also from inside.
Next to the inn is another visitor center, with predictions of eruptions for the main surrounding geysers. Old Faithful is off course the most famous one and erupts approximately every 90 minutes. But, the surrounding Upper Geyser Basin is the most interesting part of this site, with the largest concentration and nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world! So you are almost 100% sure to see at least one of the geysers erupt while you are here, no need to stress too much about the predicted times and don’t focus all your attention on the overrated Old Faithful. Take the walk until the gorgeous Morning Glory Pool, passing by Castle Geyser (which erupts every 9 to 11 hours, each time for almost an hour!). Make your way back to Old Faithful wandering and criss-crossing the Upper Geyser Basin. This is probably one of the most fascinating places on Earth, but also a very dangerous one… Stay strictly on the marked paths and footbridges if you don’t want to end up boiled to death.
At this point you may be rather exhausted by all you have seen so far, but there is still a few stops along your way back to Gardiner (though the most interesting part is now behind). Next is Yellowstone’s biggest disappointment: the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is after Old Faithful the second most famous attraction of the park. We have all seen pictures of this big hot spring and its burst of colours. Well, sadly that’s not what you are going to see… All the pictures you have in mind of the Grand Prismatic Spring are taken from above and on the site you will quickly realize you see it only horizontally. If in addition to that the wind is blowing towards you, a steam cloud coming from the spring will surround you and blur the scene… Apparently there was a way to climb the hill opposite to the spring from the Fairy Falls parking (allowing to get a glimpse of the picture-perfect view from above), but it seems to be closed now.
Next are the Fountain Paint Pots, way less impressive than the mud pots in Hverir (Iceland). Then after turning right at Madison Junction comes the Norris Geyser Basin, your last stop. Not as impressive as the Upper Geyser Basin, these lunar landscapes are still worth a short stop.
Continue north back to Gardiner for your third and last night.
Summary of the main highlights you should focus on during your trip (in the order they appear)
- Mammoth Hot Springs (Yellowstone)
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- West Thumb Geyser Basin (Yellowstone)
- Mormon Row (Grand Teton)
- Signal Mountain Summit (Grand Teton)
- Upper Geyser Basin (Yellowstone)
Accommodation in Gardiner (north of Yellowstone)
For a nice, family-run and cosy inn, consider the Yellowstone Basin Inn. The rooms are nicely decorated and the innkeeper’s (Greg) passion and travel tips are priceless!
For a cheaper yet comfortable option, consider the Yellowstone Village Inn (but don’t expect the same level of refinement and style in the motel-like rooms).
Accommodation in Jackon (south of Grand Teton)
The Huff House Inn provides upscale accommodation and a great home-made breakfast.