Travel Guide: Top 20 Musts in Yellowstone National Park & the Grand Tetons

Hey guys!! Russ and I just got back from an awe-inspiring trip in the Midwest. We traveled between 4 states over 6 days to see some of the prettiest part of this country and I wanted to share a little behind the scenes action about our trip with you guys just in case you’ve been itching to plan a trip here too! Below, I have listed some of my absolute must-sees if you are interested in making the most of an adventure of this magnitude. Because, trust me, there is just so much to see.

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  1. Fly into Salt Lake City in the afternoon and Book a place in Island Park, Idaho.  It’s a little under 4 hour drive but the sunsets in Utah are worth it.  Island Park is a small recreational town located in Targhee National Forest conveniently located 30 minutes outside of the West Yellowstone entrance. Salt Lake City, Utah

Day One:

2. Once you’re settled in, make the drive from Island Park to Mesa Falls.  The Upper Falls of the Henrys Fork River measure at 114 feet high and 200 feet wide. It is is impressive to say the least.  There is a small museum and gift shop located on the property that adds to the history of this beautiful place.

3. Spend your first day in Yellowstone National entering through the West Yellowstone Gate and head North. We bypassed the Norris area and headed straight to Mammoth Hot Springs to see the boiling water rush over the travertine terraces. The short drive above them is a safe vantage point for those with little ones. We chose to stay on the boardwalks of the Lower Terrace.

4. Next stop, the Lamar Valley, where we hit a traffic jam. The buffalo were feet away from our car.  As they grazed, I hung out the window and took photos. Though there were some brave souls who were getting WAY TOO CLOSE to these wild animals, I had no plans of being stampeded or worse. These animals are unpredictable, wild. I can’t stress that enough.

5. After spending the afternoon in the Lamar Valley, we headed back to the Roosevelt Lodge and then on to Tucker Tower. This is where we caught our first glimpse of the Yellowstone River. I also snagged a few ornaments at the gift shop because I do this everywhere we go. Our tree is getting quite cluttered.

We made our way south to one of the park’s biggest attractions, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We didn’t have the best light in the afternoon so I’d recommend aiming for closer to sunset but it was a sight to see. Though we stopped at multiple vantage points, Artist’s Point was the last stop and where we spent the majority of our time.

6. From Artist’s Point we headed to the Artist Paintpots. This particular stop was full of geothermal features such as boiling mud pots, geysers and fumaroles. We hiked the whole path, staying on the boardwalks AT ALL TIMES. Again, DANGER. This place is full of unpredictable elements. Trust me, you don’t want to be the one who slips off the boardwalk into one of these bad boys. Also, don’t read Death in Yellowstone. You’ll have nightmares like I did.

7. Spend the rest of your drive back to Island Park stopping to see animals. At dusk, these guys are all over the place. We saw coyote, moose, elk, deer, you name it. Also, carry Bear Spray if you plan on walking around in this backcountry.

8. Put some time aside to enjoy the sunset on your way out of West Yellowstone. This one goes out to all my photographer friends. Don’t miss out on this opportunity. The animals are one thing but we had the opportunity to view an impressive sunset too!

Let’s Recap: Enter West Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, animal sightings in the Lamar Valley, Grand Canyon, Artists’ Paintpots & Sunset! On our way out, we stopped at Wild West Pizzeria. The pizza was the perfect pair for a pitcher of PBR and I kid you not, it is a Steelers bar! 6 Time Super Bowl Champs baby!

Day Two:

9. Wake up early and head back into the Park through the West Entrance and head straight to the Upper Geysir Basin. If you hit it early enough, you don’t have to see another person while you view this impressive landscape. We chose to stop and walk the boardwalks to view the geysers and geothermal pools.

10. The Grand Prismatic Spring. I had seen photos of it but until you are in its’ presence, you couldn’t possible appreciate its’ beauty. We opted to skip the up-close and take the hike to Fairy Falls. At just under 2 miles, this short hike gave us the opportunity to view the Spring at a more aerial view. Though I did huff and puff making my way up to the viewing platform, I am so happy we got to see this. The colors were so vibrant. Seriously, don’t miss this.

11. Old Faithful! This is probably the park’s largest attraction. We didn’t hang around for the explosion but you get the gist. Stop at the famed Lodge for lunch and wait out the 90 minutes in between eruptions to see this natural phenomenon in all its’ glory.

12. We couldn’t resist heading south for a glimpse of the Grand Tetons. We chose to have lunch at Jackson Lake Lodge. We split the burger and pickled veggies. After lunch, we made our way to Jenny Lake for a scenic cruise. Though the wildfires in Montana made our view nearly impossible, the smoky haze somehow enhanced the raw beauty of the mountains’ jagged edges. Tip for first timers: Bring a jacket or a blanket for the ride.

13. After our boat ride, we exited the park and made our way to Mormon Row, a famed photographic must-see. This abandoned barn is located on a dirt road that directly backs up to an impressive view of the Grand Tetons.  We encountered pronghorn and a small family farm lined with a colorful assortment of blooms.

14. Once the sun had gone down, we began making our way towards Jackson Hole. We took a drive around town and decided to start making our way towards Idaho. We made it back to Island Park just in time to grab a pitcher of PBR and a chicken sandwich at the Trout Hunter.

 Let’s Recap: Upper Geysir Basin, hike Fairy Falls to view the Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, lunch at Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Tetons, Jenny Lake scenic boat cruise, Mormon Row, drive around Jackson Hole and dinner at the Trout Hunter.

Day Three:

15. We woke up late after a long night at the campfire and chose to spend the day exploring Idaho & Wyoming. We headed to Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake, a historic site known as the Night of Terror. When an earthquake hit around midnight on August 17th, 1959, 28 people died in the aftermath when Hebgen Lake shifted 19 feet and the quake swallowed its’ surroundings. Though exquisitely beautiful, this place still has an eery feel to it. After exploring a portion of the Madison River, we stopped at the Happy Hour Bar for a quick Arnold Palmer and relaxed by the lake for the first time!

16+17. We spent our morning touring lakes and we spent our afternoon kayaking 2 of Island Park’s wonders, the Box Canyon and the Snake River. Thankfully, the latter brought us right back to our dock. During our float, we saw Moose, Osprey, Elk and a whole lot of trout. Whether you’re in the mood to fly-fish or to animal watch, this place had more than enough options.

18. After a long day on the river, we chose to have dinner around the campfire with our host. He gave us a tour of his property including his sheep camp! This antique was used by Basque immigrants who worked the land as shepherds and farmers as cozy, mobile shelters. In fact, it was so comfortable, we couldn’t get his dog Colter out of the bed.

19. After dinner, we made our way down to the dock to let our hosts’ dog play in the Snake River while we watched the sun set. Colter frolicked along the dock and we watched the osprey fly over the vibrant sky. #19 Don’t Miss a Sunset! This is the one thing I was most thankful for on this trip. Time to sit back and enjoy the night rolling in.

Let’s Recap: Drive to Hebgen and Quake Lake, stop at Happy Hour Bar, Kayak Box Canyon, Kayak the Snake River, photo shoot with my favs on the dock during sunset, beers around the campfire.

Day Four:

20. Last, but not least…Idaho Falls! On our way to the airport in Salt Lake City, we pitstopped for lunch along the riverwalk in Idaho Falls. August had been kind to the flora surrounding the impressive falls. We stopped to see the Latter Day Saints Temple and reflected on what an amazing trip this has been!

I hope this article was helpful to anyone who is planning a trip in this area! If you have any questions about this wondrous place or any of the other places we’ve been this year, feel free to reach out. Email me (therustienailhead@gmail.com) with any and all inquiries because I would love to help you plan your next big adventure! Where would you like to see The Rustie Nail head to next? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.