Updated: Aug 9
This blog was written in June of 2020 in the height of the pandemic, however, many of the suggestions and tips still apply!
Eager to take a break from many months of our “shelter in place” life, our family planned a road trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Keeping health and safety in mind, our “quarantine crew” stocked up on masks, hand sanitizer, wipes and a cooler stocked with favorite snacks, and then we hit the road for our 13-hour drive from Seattle area to Wyoming.
Planning a road trip during these uncertain times? We hope you benefit from these travel tips that we learned on our adventure to this beautiful part of our country.
Road Stops and Overnight Stays
Keep in mind that many roadside businesses are in a state of flux and may not be open, so be sure to plan ahead for restroom road stops. During our drive, we were happy to take advantage of the low gas prices and finally dine at our first restaurant in three months.
Tip: If you plan to stop for dinner while on the road, call before you stop to make sure the restaurant is open and can accommodate you. Many establishments are operating with 50% indoor occupancy rates to follow social distancing rules, but your safest option is to choose a place with outdoor dining.
During these times, many hotel services may not be available or may be limited during your stay. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, which, like many hotels now, has implemented high standards of hotel cleanliness and disinfection. The breakfast buffet wasn’t open, but we were happy to pick up a pre-made sack breakfast from our hotel lobby. We learned from our hotel concierge that many people who booked online at the hotel across the street, which was closed, were being reshuffled to our hotel which was operating at full capacity with minimal staff after reopening. Our hotel staff did an amazing job, considering the circumstances.
Tip: If you need to stay for an overnight stop on your road trip, make reservations ahead of time and try to make a reservation over the phone in person to guarantee you have a room. Look for a hotel that offers contactless check-in and enforces face mask wearing. Expect some services, such as gyms and pools, to operate with limited capacity.
Yellowstone Adventure, 6 Feet Apart
After a quick lunch stop in the quaint town of Gardiner, Montana, an ideal place to stay with its fantastic Yellowstone museum collection (not open at the time we visited), we entered Yellowstone National Park at the north entrance. We were lucky to visit Yellowstone with minimal crowds as it has just re-opened to the public in early June of 2020. Note that the park is not allowing big buses to minimize visitors.
Tip: Download the Yellowstone NPS App to plan your visit.
Our first stop in the park, we spent time exploring the fascinating geology at Mammoth Hot Springs terraces, where the interactions of water and limestone create chalk-white travertine.
Tip: Consider hiring a private naturalist in the Park or in Jackson Hole to help you see the things and understand the geographic formations of Yellowstone NP.
Next, we took a lovely hike around the North Geyser Basin, which has the hottest, oldest, and is most dynamic of Yellowstone's thermal areas, with evidence of features from 115,000 years ago.
Tip: The road between Roosevelt and Canyon Village is currently closed, so check ahead if you do visit Yellowstone in the next few months.
Old Faithful Village and Upper Geyser Basin
And, we certainly couldn’t miss seeing two of Yellowstone’s main attractions:
The Midway Geyser Basin has a 0.8-mile boardwalk around Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. An easy loop also passes Excelsior Geyser, a steaming pool of vibrant blue water.
Erupting a column of steam and scalding water, Old Faithful explodes more than any of the other big geysers on a schedule that is normally posted in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. You can also watch it from the live-stream webcam.
Tips: To follow social distancing rules, the Education Center is controlling the flow of crowds, so make sure to build in plenty of time for this worthwhile stop, or even consider an overnight if you can find available accommodations.
No matter what time of year you visit, be prepared for any kind of weather. Even though we visited in June, it snowed briefly while we were there! If you have time, don’t miss the beautiful Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park, where you can see larger herds of bison, wolves and bears.
Wildlife in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are home to a large variety of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk, and we certainly saw plenty of wildlife. As we exited the park at the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park at the junction of Grand Teton National Park, we even saw a grizzly bear foraging in the light of the early evening. Many people were also gathered to see one of the park’s oldest grizzly bear, 399, and her four cubs. (For families, you can learn more about this famous in this children’s book: Grizzly 399: Environmental Hero’s Series.)
Tip: Wildlife are most active at sunrise and sunset, so considering staying at a lodge in Yellowstone to get the full wildlife viewing experiences. This year, many accommodations are closed, or may open and close again, so consider using a travel advisor to help plan make your visit extra special and guarantee reservations, even if things do change.
Social-Distanced Hikes in Grand Teton National Park
You can’t help but notice the jagged peaks and gorgeous views of the Teton mountain range all around you from Jackson Hole Valley. Grand Teton National Park is a true hiker's paradise, and one hike we enjoyed was around beautiful Jenny Lake. We were lucky that the ferry operating on the lake had just reopened, with every other seat blocked off on the boat to avoid social distancing. After getting off the ferry, we hiked up to Inspiration Point, which has a breathtaking view.
Tip: For those who love to hike, an all-time local favorite is in the Tetons is Paint Brush Canyon, formed by glaciers.
Jackson Hole Adventures
Staying in Jackson Hole, which is near both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, gives visitors plenty of activities to choose from in and around this fun cowboy town. Outside of visiting these two amazing parks, there are endless recreational opportunities to choose from in Jackson Hole. During summertime, visitors can choose from hiking, biking, climbing, swimming, paddling, boating, rafting, horseback riding, paragliding, golfing, fishing, zip lining and more. Wintertime activities include downhill skiing at a top-rated Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with Nordic and heli-skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snow tubing, and ice skating.
Tip: Even if you don’t ski, make sure you take the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Bridger Gondola for the views of the Tetons and the Valley.
Our family filled our Summertime visit to Jackson with the following fun adventures:
Snake River Float or White-Water Rafting
We had a blast whitewater rafting down the Snake River Canyon on a guided, eight-mile whitewater rafting trip with Lewis & Clark River Expeditions. Like all other river rafting companies in the area, our outfitter required everyone to wear masks on the bus that transported us to and from the meeting place on the river. Once on the raft, we were free to take them off and enjoy the ride. For a more mellow experience, you can also arrange a scenic float on the Snake River.
Photo Credit: Snake River Photo
Snow King Mountain
We spent a fun-filled day at the “King,” a ski resort (or “town hill”) located in the heart of Jackson Hole that offers daily activities. Summer adventures at Snow King include scenic chairlift rides, the alpine slide, treetop adventure ropes course/ziplining, a miniature golf course, paragliding, hiking, biking, bungee trampolines and, our family’s favorite, a "Cowboy Coaster."
Tip: If you plan to spend a day here, make sure to buy the Big King Pass, which offers unlimited all-day mountain access to these fun activities.
Scenic E-Biking in Jackson
One of our favorite adventures was “e-biking” along the scenic paved trails from Jackson to Wilson and Teton Village with gorgeous views of the Teton mountains. We rented bikes from E-Bikes of Jackson Hole, but there are many rental places in Jackson to choose from, including Snow King.
Tips: An amazing bike option is riding from the town of Jackson, 30 miles north, to Jenny Lake, one of the most scenic areas of Grand Teton National Park.
Other Jackson Hole Highlights
Enclosed by four elk-antler arches and wooden boardwalks, Jackson’s town square has plenty of western shops, boutiques and galleries to fill your day and bring home some souvenirs.
While the Jackson Hole Rodeo wasn’t open yet during our visit, it is now open with social distancing requirements. Don’t miss seeing this western tradition to catch local cowboys riding bucking broncos and massive bulls, and other fun, including barrel race and rope calves.
Tip: Go early to get good seats, every Wednesday and Saturday nights during the Summer.
Accommodation Options in Jackson Hole
There are many hotels near Yellowstone, but if your aim is to keep your distance from others to minimize health risks, there are also plenty of beautiful homes and condos available for rent in Jackson Hole with strict cleaning standards and concierge services. Along with the town of Jackson, beautiful properties can be rented just north of the airport close to Yellowstone. Teton Village is also a favorite place to stay and offers accommodations for every lifestyle and budget. With lodging options right at the base of the Teton Mountains, the Village is a good choice for travelers who want to enjoy all that the mountain offers and has plenty of dining options and entrance to Grand Teton National Park is nearby, too.
With summer months being the busiest in the parks, we recommend visiting during the shoulder season of September and October, which are beautiful as the leaves start turning. If you’re a skier, Jackson boasts one of the best downhill resorts in the country, and lots of cross-country ski trails to explore the beautiful scenery around you.
Tips: Planning a trip like this during these changing times can be challenging, so think about working with a travel advisor to help navigate this new world of planning a vacation, from booking airlines, accommodations and rental cars.
To memorialize your trip, consider hiring a photographer to join you for a day to take candid photos of you and your family exploring this beautiful part of our country.
Lastly, be sure to follow CDC travel guidelines to enjoy a fun, safe road trip!