The United States is home to many incredibly beautiful National Parks that have been carefully preserved for wildlife and made available for public enjoyment. I am fortunate to live in a state with one of the most famous- Yosemite- and am awed by its majesty every time I visit. However, after our most recent adventure I have discovered some other incredible pockets of mountain magic that are testing my loyalty to Yosemite and are very much worth the journey to explore.
The first major stop on our two week adventure was Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Since we were traveling from central California we trekked first across the Nevada desert, stopping at the riverwalk in Reno and then for the night in Winnemucca before heading further northeast the next day to Shoshone Falls Park in Idaho. You may remember that we had chosen shorter driving days with more fun stops, so days two and three included plenty of exploration and fun.
We spent a very restful and enjoyable evening in a pondside cabin at the Jerome KOA, just a few miles past the falls, and took full advantage of the pool, the mini golf course, and our private front porch and BBQ. The kids loved their cabin bunks and it was really nice to have our own bathroom for the night. As I’ve mentioned before each KOA is a little different, but the Jerome location did not disappoint. The next morning, post a failed attempt at biscuits on a stick using croissant dough (my poorly selected replacement for bisquick mix) we hit the road again ready for Craters of the Moon National Monument.
If your route takes you anywhere near this treasure- make the time to stop. It truly feels like stepping off of the earth into a different world. If you have your National Parks pass you’ll be able to head on in without extra payment, but if not it will be $20 for your vehicle to enter. In just two hours we hiked up Inferno Cone, drove the 7-mile loop road and explored both Indian Tunnel and the Dewdrop cave (sidenote- finally, a use for the headlamps I packed!). If you are planning to explore the caves make sure to stop at the Visitor Center before entering the park so you can get the safety chat and passport stamp to give you permission to spelunk. This also served as a nice midway-ish point to Jackson Hole, and the drive from Craters of the Moon to Jackson Hole just got prettier by the mile.
Lodging in the Teton area is not inexpensive, and at the time I booked there were not campsites nearby available. Fortunately I found The Hostel on priceline, and although $175/night meant a bit of sticker shock for a hostel, it was less than half the price of any hotels within short distance of the park. It’s also centrally located right in the Jackson Hole Resort and as guests there we had quick access to all of the fun amenities, restaurants, and shops it offers. For those familiar with Lake Tahoe ski resorts- this is very similar to Northstar and Squaw Valley villages.
Our hostel stay was in a private room with its own bathroom, and we had access to the shared kitchen and cooking areas, laundry, game rooms, and outdoor spaces. Our room was very basic, but did include linens and there were lots of places to stow our gear out of the way. In the village we played on the playground, considered the rock wall and trampoline, and had dinner at the Hungry Moose on night two.
Our fullest day was the next, which started with a gondola (located about about ¼ mile from our room) ride up to the top of the mountain and a stunning hike on the Casper Ridge loop. I grabbed a tasty chai latte for myself and some freshly baked cookies for the kids from Off Piste Market and we took in the views and sunshine from the upper deck before returning to the mountain base on the gondola. A gondola ticket is valid for the entire day, so we considered returning to the top again for dinner but ended up crashing pretty hard that night after our three (yes three) hikes.
Pro-tip: Gondola tickets are less expensive if purchased in advance and online, but our hostel clerk said they are only $5 if you purchase them 5 minutes before your departure time. I cannot confirm the accuracy of this as we had already purchased ours online weeks before, but it might be worth testing out if you have the time flexibility.
After our morning hike we headed officially into the park and headed to Murie Ranch on the recommendation of a friend. We walked around the property and learned about the park conservation and the work the Muries did there. The delightful gentleman who gave us a tour of the home- Docent Dan- made an excellent suggestion for our next hike and we drove just down the road to the Lawrence Rockefeller Preserve to hike the Woodland Trail to Phelps Lake. Having grown up backpacking in the marble mountains this pristine mountain lake brought back many happy memories, and also gave us very, very cold toes afer our brief dip. Plan for about 1.5-2 hours for this trek, including lots of stops for photos and time to cool off at least your feet in the water before returning to the center parking lot. The center itself is also very cool and is worth a visit in to learn more about the park.
Our final day in Grand Teton was short as we headed through the park to catch the ferry at Jenny Lake and hike to the waterfall, then headed north through the park up to Colter Bay for a refuel and a picnic lunch next to Jackson Lake. Just driving through the park is really lovely, and there are many scenic pullouts available on both sides of the road so you can safely get a picture or thirty of the great peaks. After lunch we drove out of Grand Teton NP and within minutes were showing our parks pass again as we entered the gates at Yellowstone National Park.
If you are planning to do the Jenny Lake Ferry, which I absolutely recommend, get there either right when they open or just before they close to avoid the crowds. I had best intentions of arriving when at the 7am opening, but I desperately needed my coffee when I wake up and while the hostel lobby had surprisingly good coffee it didn’t open until 8am so I literally smelled my way to a coffee shop in the village that was open at 7:15. Problem, you say? Hidden talent, I say.
Anyway, after waking up my brain and loading the car with all of our gear we drove back into the park to get to Jenny Lake around 8:30. We got in line a bit before nine and waited at least 45 minutes to board the shuttle. The shuttle ride included stunning views of the park and dropped us off at a trailhead leading to a few options- Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, and the Jenny Lake Loop. Our original plan was to hike to the falls then walk back to the parking lot on the loop which would have been about three miles total, but I could see the energy waning in my kids and we had hiked a lot the day before so we opted to hustle back to the shuttle before that line got too long and returned via water to our car.
There are lots of hiking trailheads and picnic spots off of the main road, but I really wanted to see Jackson Lake from the ground and not just my driver’s window, so we stopped for lunch at the north end of the lake by the Colter Bay Visitor Center. As was the norm throughout the park the bathrooms were clean and accessible, gas and ice were easy to locate, and we had no trouble finding a parking spot. We bid farewell to Grand Teton just a bit after leaving Colter Bay and were headed north into Yellowstone in the early afternoon.