The Yellowstone Road Trip: Part 3 of 3

Part 1: The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 1 of 3: Getting there – South Dakota and Wyoming

Part 2: The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 2 of 3: 3 Days in Yellowstone National Park

Summary:

The long journey west from Chicago yielded an abundance of amazing experiences capped off by several days at Yellowstone National Park (YNP). As our visit at YNP came to a close, we began to question if maybe we should head back – how could the Grand Tetons National Park (GTNP) be a worthy experience after YNP?

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We made the decision to head to GTNP, a sister park, butting up right to YNP at its southern entrance, and all I can say is that we definitely made the right choice. A completely different experience from all we had seen so far! Our fabulous experience in the Tetons led us to take on one additional, out of the way trek – down to Arches National Park (ANP) in Utah. To be honest, we had exhausted ourselves by this point, and could not appreciate the sites we saw in Utah.

Itinerary:

  1. 2 nights in Jackson Hole to visit GTNP
  2. Drive to Salt Lake City – vied the Great Salt Lake and Temple Square; stayed the night outside of SLC
  3. Visited Arches National Park; began the drive home to Chicago, staying outside of Denver
  4. Drive: Denver  – home

Notes:

  • Like YNP, lodging near GTNP should be booked well in advance. Jackson Hole, while significantly larger than Cody or West Yellowstone, has limited places to stay. Additionally, it appeared to be a getaway town for a lot of folks. That said, Jackson Hole also had plenty of stores to gather items you may have run out of.
  • The drive from GTNP to Salt Lake City (SLC) can be both relaxing after the lengthy time in the higher altitudes to nearly terrifying, as you make your way through hairpin canyons – this is not a drive for the dark.
  • Arches gets hot – VERY hot!  Have plenty of water, and make sure you gather items before heading out to Arches. There were few, if any, opportunities to stop for items or gas near the park.
  • The Great Salt Lake smells pretty bad, and there were a ton of little biting bugs.

Grand Tetons National Park

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In one word, “Wow”! Unlike the varied landscape of YNP just to the north, GTNP is all about the mountains, seen from the valley below. Majestically towering the over park’s eastern valley, the large mountains dominate the western spine of the park from all vantage points.

We entered the park, heading south from YNP, making a significant descent in altitude.  The drive itself took a reasonable amount of time, but once the descent brought us closer to the valley floor, the lakes to our west at the foot of the mountains quickly beckoned us.

Our official visit within GTNP started with lunch at Leeks Pizza, located on Jackson Lake, shortly after entering the park. We ate out on a deck near the lake, getting our first ups-close views of the majestic mountains over lunch. This was quite the introduction to what we’d be seeing over the next few days.

To drive the whole north-south Route 191 through the park, which we did multiple times during our stay, doesn’t take an eternity, and it provides a great overview of the park. Following are a number of our favorite stops/ sites/ hikes:

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Colter Bay: Just off of 191 (as most of the trailheads are,) Colter Bay was the most relaxing place we had been to on the trip.  A reasonably rocky beach, dotted with driftwood at the bas of the mountains. We returned to this spot multiple times – we seemed to have the place all to ourselves.  There were some opinions to hike, though more than most other trails, we just found ourselves stopping and staring. Unbelievably gorgeous and serene.

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Jenny Lake: Probably the most well-known of the sites in GTNP, aside from the mountains, is Jenny Lake. The views are not dissimilar from Colter Bay, though perhaps because of proximity to Jackson Hole, Jenny Lake steals all of the attention.  The trailhead for the Jenny Lake Loop is accessed by the South Jenny Lake Junction from 191. The trail is about 7.5 miles, though we did not complete all of it.  Though we preferred the setting of Colter Bay, the Jenny Lake Loop trail was a fabulous hike, nearly hugging Jenny Lake in the shadow of the Tetons themselves.  This was a pretty easy hike, often lined with trees.  Along the course of the hike we stumbled right into the path of a large Bull Moose.  Beautiful hike, and fairly empty by a mile in.

Mormon Row: On the eastern side of the park sit a few century old barns built by Mormons. Gorgeous under a dusky sun, the old structures provide a neat counter-balance to all of the nature saturating GTNP.  Though a little out of the way, we found wandering these old farmlands a worthwhile excursion.

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All in all, GTNP is just a wonderful place to drive through, stopping here and there to just take in the views.  We were fortunate enough to not have felt a surge of crowds during our visit to the park. Though GTNP does not grab the same attention as YNP just to the north, the 1-2 combo of seeing both parks in the same trip is well worth the time, money, and effort.

The Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake City and Arches

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After the surprisingly great experience of GNTP, we decided to keep pushing forward into Utah to the south to hit Arches, and perhaps even more. We started by hitting the Great Salt Lake. Located on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, we spent about an hour wandering around the famous lake. Though not necessarily stunning after what we had seen in the last week and a half, we were glad to crossed this stop off of our bucket list.  It is worth noting that the lake has a distinctive odor, and bugs are a bit of a hassle near the shoreline.

We briefly stopped in SLC at Temple Square, the center of Mormonism. The square was well worth a walk around, and seeing Mormon Temple was nothing less than impressive. We spent a little time at one of the two visitors centers, gathering a little history about this religious movement. Though this was not an intended stop, it was worth the few hours we spent there.

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We drove on from SLC towards Arches National Park, stopping in a town we do not recall for the night. The nearly 4 hour distance between SLC and Arches didn’t really seem like much after all of the driving we had done, but in hindsight, we wish we had started to beeline home after SLC. Total exhaustion, both physically and mentally, had set in and we just were not able to appreciate Arches like we should have.

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Arches is located in what feels like the middle of nowhere, though Moab is a short distance to the south.  As we entered the Arches area, we began a reasonably steep switchback ascent up to the plateau with the well known red-rock formations.

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In all, we probably spent about 3 hours at Arches, until the extreme heat arrived shortly after noon. The time we did spend in the park allowed us to see quite a few of the formations, including the iconic Delicate Arch. A number of trails exist, and many of the formations are located just off the main road within the park. We took a little extra time in both the Devil’s Garden area as well as the Window Rock Area. We were fortunate to arrive at the park early enough to not deal with the crowds or the heat at first, but both come rapidly as morning turns to noon.

A Long Way From Home

As we got in our car for the last time at Arches we didn’t even say it – we knew that it was time to start heading home. Though a minimum of a two day drive, we were ready. This was one of the few trips where we had experienced so much we had hit our limits – not that this was a bad thing.  In reality, so much of what we had seen was so amazing we were simply overwhelmed by all of it in the end.

We made few stops on the way back – simply a place to rest and one or two meals, that was all.

The road-trip to Yellowstone is one of the Great American Road Trips. In as few words as possible, it was one of the greatest experiences of our lives and encourage everyone to do what they can to make this a trip of their own.

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