Planning a visit to Yellowstone
It might seem a little odd to be talking about planning a summer trip to Yellowstone in October. But once you start looking at the logistics, you’ll understand why.
Flying into the Yellowstone/Grand Teton area is interesting on its own. Here are just a few of the choices:
Jackson Hole, WY
Salt Lake City, UT
West Yellowstone, MT
Because our domestic airline of choice is Southwest, the route for us was through Salt Lake City, UT, and then renting a car for the 5 hour drive to Jackson Hole, WY. When we can fly our entire family of 5 on points, we don’t complain about a little drive time. You can’t book reward travel this far ahead, but if you know your game plan now, you can book it as soon as the Southwest schedule opens up for summer bookings. Airlines that fly directly into Jackson Hole, WY include United, Delta, American and Frontier.
I had wanted to take my family to Yellowstone for a few years. I remember seeing Old Faithful as a kid, and wanted to show my boys the magic of geysers and the wildlife of what some call the Serengeti of the US. Before I did any research, the only places I knew about in the Yellowstone area were Jackson Hole, Old Faithful, the Grand Tetons, and Old Faithful Inn. I guess our family of 5 could stay in Jackson Hole for 3 or 4 nights, and stay at Old Faithful Inn for 3 or 4 nights. And then I could plan daily drives out to specific geysers, landmarks, wildlife, etc. Many people do just that, and that’s great. West Yellowstone, MT is a cute little town very close to a lot of park highlights if you’re thinking about planning your trip that way.
But the idea of limiting our exploration to within a few hours drive of these places didn’t thrill me. I knew that this might be my only shot to really immerse our family in these national parks. Not to mention the hours of research and planning it would take to find optimal hiking routes, kayak or biking tours in order to see the amazing landscape and wildlife. Driving by the geysers listening to my boys fight in the back seat, did not seem like a good use of our vacation time. Not to mention that reserving rooms at the Old Faithful Inn or Jackson Lake Lodge a full year ahead of time is commonplace.
The hassle factor was just too high. Which doesn’t happen often for me with trip planning. I love the research and discovery, it’s usually like a scavenger hunt and makes me so happy. That’s why I write this blog, right?
With that decision made, the next plan of attack was to join a small group trip. They make the hotel reservations a year in advance, but as long as they have space, I could book our spots with the group trip much closer to departure. Some of the companies on my radar were: Backroads, Adventures by Disney, Austin Adventures, Off the Beaten Path, ROW Adventures, and REI trips. Some we had used before, some we had not. After reviewing cost, schedules, activities, etc. we chose the Backroads Yellowstone/Tetons Deluxe Camping trip at the end of July. Yes…you read that right. It says camping.
My closest friends are laughing hysterically at the idea of me camping out in a tent. I love outdoor activities, I just rarely want to sleep in it. But Deluxe camping with Backroads means that there are 2 camp hands that pitch tents, set up your supplied sleeping pad and bag, cook all of the meals, clean everything up, and take it all down and move it to another camp site. To me, it meant that we would hang out by the campfire and see animals in camp. As the driving tourists fade away in the evening, we’d still be in the park enjoying all it had to offer. So I booked it, and let Backroads do the rest. I’ll write a full rundown of the camping experience and the active tour in another post.
But this still meant I needed hotel rooms in Jackson Hole for the night before the group trip started. I would also need another hotel room for the back end of the trip before we drove back to Salt Lake for the flight home. In case you don’t know, Jackson Hole is not an inexpensive town. The Backroads crew mentioned that their busiest week is the last week in July. So take that to heart and plan accordingly, or go another time. But if your travel schedules are dictated by the school calendar like ours is, be ready to pay a pretty penny.
Although our group was planning to take off from the Snow King Hotel and Resort, after looking at the rates, I was not going to pay that kind of money when all we were going to do there was shower and sleep. Even the Hampton Inn was over $350 per night!! For a Hampton Inn? With a family of 5 we needed two rooms. I may agree to camping, but I won’t pay $700 to sleep 8 hours in a Hampton Inn. This is where loyalty and reward programs pay off for travel. There was award night availability at the Hampton Inn for 30,000 points per room. That meant no cash outlay for the one night stay and breakfast was included. Commuting over to the Snow King Hotel to meet up with our group was no trouble at all.
Our group trip ended in Jackson Hole at 5pm in the evening 6 days later. We could have stayed in Jackson Hole again, as many people from our group did just that. But I couldn’t stomach trying to find the right value for a hotel room there again. So, we drove outside of town a few hours to find a much reasonable rate to fit all 5 of us in a suite or room. That 2 hour drive, saved us over $200. It may seem kind of silly that I was worried about $200 after we had paid a lot of money for a 6 day active vacation with Backroads. But it’s really all about value for me. Those 6 days were packed with activities, food, camping, wildlife, and an immersion in the national parks that I could not duplicate on my own. At least not without a nervous breakdown. So to me, the value was there in that case.
So whether you are planning to take a group trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, or going to forge your own path, starting 10 months ahead of time isn’t as crazy of an idea as you think.
Next up on the blog, the details of the Backroads camping trip. Hopefully my favorite activities can inspire your Yellowstone planning whether it’s with a group, or on your own. Spoiler alert…I survived camping…with style!