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This Epic Fall Road Trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Bypasses the Crowds

Road Trips National Parks
by Tim Wenger Aug 27, 2020

The summer of the road trip is fast approaching its collision with the autumn of the road trip. Fall foliage, cooler temperatures, and reduced crowds await — as long as you know where to look. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are striking all year round, but after experiencing them accented by the seasonal colors in autumn, you’ll never come back in July again. While both parks can be crowded even this time of year, the steps below will help you get more nature for your buck in both parks, and an excellent night out in Jackson to boot.

Hike to Lake Solitude in Grand Teton National Park

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At the base of the Tetons, Jenny Lake puts you within a stone’s throw of more places that will take your breath away than nearly anywhere else in Grand Teton National Park. Problem is, this is no secret. But if you’re willing to take a long day hike, you can escape almost all of the crowd that heads to Jenny Lake just to reach Inspiration Point.

The Cascade Canyon Trail starts on the far side of Jenny Lake and runs from Inspiration Point around Teewinot Mountain to the backside of the Tetons, offering views of the jagged peaks that most visiting the park will never see. The trail is 4.13 miles one-way and connects to the Lake Solitude Trail, which takes you another 2.36 miles to the lake itself. Round-trip, that’s just shy of 13 miles — but the hike is pleasant, largely flat (except for the first part to Inspiration Point), and offers many spots at which to stop for a snack or hop into the stream to cool off.

To get to the trailhead, park at Jenny Lake and take the ferry across the lake. Round-trip ferry tickets cost $18 for adults and $10 for children. As a warning, the final return boat departs from the trailhead at 6:00 PM — don’t miss it. You could hike around the lake on the Jenny Lake Trail, but it adds about five miles round-trip to an already long hike.

Rent kayaks and paddle across Jackson Lake from Spalding Bay

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Spalding Bay is among the most overlooked put-in spots on Jackson Lake. This is because it requires 10 minutes of dirt-road driving over a moderately maintained service road to get to, something most RV and sedan drivers of the world aren’t going to attempt. Most who get on the water at Jackson Lake do so from the other side of the lake, so aside from a few in-the-know water hounds who’ve done their research, you’ll have the put-in and the pristine paddle towards Elk Island, Deadman Point, and Moran Bay largely to yourself. And you can park 20 feet from the water — a major perk when you need to unload and haul a kayak.

To get to Spalding Bay, head down Teton Park Road from the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park and turn off at the unmarked Spalding Bay Road. It’s easy to miss, but it’s the next turn-off following the well-marked Jenny Lake Road. Reserve kayaks from Rendezvous River Sports in advance. Pick up and drop off are easy, and the shop crew will even load the kayaks into, or onto, your vehicle and secure them if necessary.

In Jackson, experience “mountain town chic” on the perfect date night

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Jackson, and indeed all of Wyoming, embody the spirit of the west in 2020 much as they did in 1820. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a night of refined elegance. The Hotel Jackson, right downtown on Town Square, is the place to do so. A stay here is an era-jumping experience, with the door staff donning cowboy hats and impressively personal service. You’ll enter into a fresh, modern lobby with a massive library that’s equal parts coworking haven and historical reading room. Rooms are modern and comfortable, accented by a gas-powered fireplace and offering views of downtown — the perfect respite from the crowds.

Don’t leave the hotel for dinner. FIGS, located onsite, serves excellent Lebanese dishes and, in a further nod to the globe-spanning pull of the nearby parks, an incredible mezcal cocktail. If you’re feeling adventurous, opt for the sampler menu, a thorough introduction to Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine that includes staples like hummus and baba ghanoush along with kebabs, falafel, and kibbeh. The bar has wine or cocktails to match.

After dinner, walk over to the Million Dollar Cowboy Saloon. The promoted draw here is the nightly live country music, but the actual pull is the cheap beers and people-watching. Nowhere else in Jackson do old cowboys comingle with mountain bikers on holiday quite like they do here. Before heading back to the room, wander through the antlered gates of Town Square Park, among the most iconic sights in Jackson.

Do the big Yellowstone sights early

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Yellowstone National Park is home to most of the world’s sulfurous geysers, more wildlife than you’d see in a full cross-country drive, and a canyon with a waterfall that rivals any worth visiting. The park is amazing and, as such, better-trafficked — the loop drives through its grounds, anyhow. Very few of those who visit Yellowstone actually venture beyond the geyser boardwalks and easy-access viewpoints found in every guidebook.

Wake-up calls at 4:30 AM aren’t appealing on workdays, let alone on vacation. But the ultimate experience in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley depends on it. Located in the park’s north, the Lamar Valley has come to be known as America’s Serengeti due to the ease of spotting not just the occasional wildlife but entire herds of animals with minimal effort. Most visitors to the park know this, and as such, many guided tours head to the valley following the first cup of morning joe.

Your goal is to take your joe to go and arrive at the Lamar Valley by 6:00 AM. The bison and elk that hang closer to the road are early risers and can often be seen grazing lazily as the sun ascends overhead. You’ll be among the first there to snap photos. Further away, wolves meander the hills and brush, so don’t forget your binoculars and long-distance camera lens. Your reward for waking up while it’s still dark outside is catching glimpses of any animals scared off by swarming automobiles.

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The biggest tip for actually enjoying your trip to the world’s first national park is to avoid anywhere that has a full parking lot plus cars lined up on the side of the road. Sadly, many of the must-dos inside Yellowstone are accompanied by such overcrowding, most notably Old Faithful and the nearby Norris Geyser Basin. If you’re in the parking area for the most famous of geysers by 6:45-7:00 AM, you’re looking good for a front-row view to the next eruption and then an easy escape from the madness to hit the Norris Geyser Basin before it gets too out of hand. After that, head to the paint pots to see mud oxidized into different colors.

Take a hike and catch fall colors

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Should you be willing to put in the most minuscule of on-foot efforts, you’ll be almost as secluded as that lone bison grazing just out of reach of the casual pair of binoculars. The Fairy Falls Trail Overlook is a great example. This five-mile trail leads to Grand Prismatic Spring and the Imperial Geyser, which is not as well-known as Old Faithful but is far easier to get an undisturbed shot of. Even if you don’t hike the entire trail, the route is gorgeous, and the odds of a wildlife sighting are high. Do the bucket list items first thing, and then head to the Fairy Falls Trailhead parking lot once the park begins to fill up with vans and RVs.

For fall foliage in the park, head to Blacktail Plateau Drive or Mammoth Hot Springs, each lined with the bursting colors of aspens contrasted against the yellow grasses of the surrounding landscape. You likely noticed it in the morning, but Lamar Valley is another spot that “wows” in Autumn.

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