The view of the canoe came into sight gently, gracefully, as I was admiring the vast beauty of the thermal hot pools and springs in the West Thumb Geyser Basin with the backdrop of Yellowstone Lake. It felt as though I had magically entered an oil painting depicting the rugged splendor of the old wild west. I spotted the only two people in this landscape peacefully gliding their canoe to shore, and something inside me wanted to feel that calmness, that oneness with nature, water and mountains.
As someone who learned to swim as an adult, I never completely feel comfortable in small boats in the middle of large bodies of water. But the pull of this spectacular place was so much greater than my fear. My husband and I visited Jackson Hole for a publishing meeting in late August. We decided to take a few extra days to explore the area since this was our first time in this region of Wyoming. It turned out to be one of the most memorable trips we’ve taken.
The flight from LAX to Jackson Hole is just two-and-a-half hours — unless it gets canceled last minute like ours did and you have to scramble to re-route through Denver. But that’s another story. And despite sitting around LAX for six hours (with our masks on) and another two-hour layover in Denver, our time in Jackson was so worth it!
You know you’re somewhere special when you arrive at Jackson Hole Airport – located inside the Grand Teton National Park. The spectacular mountain range literally welcomes you to this charming town where you might spot a moose near the parking lot and you can rent bear spray in the baggage claim area.
Because the town of Jackson is spread out with two national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton) close by, plan on renting a car at the airport so you can appropriately explore the area.
We stayed at Hotel Terra, a slopeside retreat in the middle of Teton Village. The resort offers luxury accommodations, easy access to shops and restaurants, onsite bike rentals (and ski rentals in the winter), an infinity pool, fitness center and a full-service spa. Noelia, who is part of the resort’s concierge services team, helped us plan activities and find great places to eat. I reached out to her several times while we were still in L.A. to ask questions, and get an insider’s view on the must-dos to create our itinerary. Every recommendation she gave was spot on.
Hotel Terra is about a 20-minute drive into the old western town of Jackson, where you’ll find the iconic Town Square featuring arches made of shed antlers from the nearby National Elk Refuge, a scenic public park great for kids, an occasional horse-drawn carriage in the summer months, historic buildings, art galleries, restaurants, ice cream shops and quaint boutiques. If you want to stock up on snacks, Albertsons on Buffalo Way is the largest grocery store nearby. This is where we picked up granola bars, fruit, water bottles and a few other lunch items for our adventure into Yellowstone the next day. Make sure you pack a cooler bag for snacks and drinks as you drive through the national parks. There are a few places to pick up food, but because of COVID restrictions, not all locations are open and, if they are open, the lines will be long.
Since we had limited time, we devoted one full day to Yellowstone National Park. I definitely recommend more time because there is so much to explore and such spectacular nature to savor.
Our day began early. We had coffee and breakfast muffins at the hotel and hit the road. The entrance to Grand Teton is located about one mile from the hotel, allowing you to take the scenic road through Grand Teton to get to Yellowstone. Besides taking food and water with you, definitely download a travel driving app. We used the GyPSy Guide for Yellowstone + Grand Teton, which proved to be a fantastic personal tour guide in our car. A tour app is necessary because there is very little WiFi reception inside the national parks, and these driving tour apps will help you navigate the various spots throughout the parks and provide interesting facts about each location. The app suggests places that are a must-see and some that are OK to skip if you’re short on time.
We drove the Grand Loop Drive to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Along the way, we saw geysers, hot springs, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, canyons and mountain ranges. We also spotted bison and a mama bear and her cub in the distance.
A few of our favorite spots:
- West Thumb Geyser Basin, where a boardwalk takes you through a series of hot springs and thermal pools along Yellowstone Lake.
- Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins. This National Historic Landmark sits majestically on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. This is a great place to stop for lunch or a cup of coffee overlooking the lake and to take in the history of a bygone era.
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. You don’t want to miss the dramatic landscape created by the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone River. In this area of the park, you’ll also find the Canyon Visitor Education Center in the Canyon Village complex. There is also a general store, a cafeteria and gift shop.
Mountains of the imagination
While not as massive as Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is equally spectacular and easier to navigate. The sheer beauty of the Tetons (known as the “mountains of imagination”), reaching over 7,000 vertical feet, surrounding the flat plains of Wyoming, is so captivating that every vista will take your breath away. We experienced these glorious mountains by hiking, floating down a river on a raft, biking through the prairies and as our plane took off from the airport runaway – and every time, we were struck by their dramatic rise and grandness.
Tucked away at the base of the Teton Range is Jenny Lake, where we spent most of one day hiking. Several popular trails leave from here. Once we parked, we hopped on a shuttle boat that took us to the base of Teewinot Mountain and the Cascade Canyon trailhead. From the boat dock, we took the trails to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. The shuttle boats run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day and eliminate a two-mile hike (each way) to the Cascade Canyon trailhead.
What’s wonderful about hiking around Jenny Lake is that you’ll experience the beauty that’s typically reserved for those experienced enough to explore through the demanding climbs of backcountry trails, minus the demanding climbs. The gentle-grade is so steady and so scenic that you won’t realize just how far you have come until you look at the vast landscape below you. We met several families on our hike and a few new parents with baby carrier packs and grandparents in tow. There are lots of places to take a break and just soak in the views.
These mountains rising above the prairies are so picturesque that you’ll want to see them from all angles. The day after our hike, we rented a tandem bike from Teton Village Sports right by our hotel and took the seven-mile scenic route (14 miles roundtrip) on Moose-Wilson Pathway to Rendezvous Park (R Park), featuring 40 acres of ponds, trails and picnic tables. While bike seats get pretty uncomfortable, after the first two to three miles the ride was definitely worth it. You can also walk the smooth, concrete and family-friendly path that stretches for miles.
Floating on Snake River
This was the day I got to experience that magic moment. Just like that couple on the canoe I spotted gliding through Yellowstone Lake, here I was in a 12-person raft floating down the pristine Snake River with the Grand Tetons surrounding us. Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips have been guiding visitors since 1963, and they were our guide for this trip. The Snake, as it’s called, begins in Yellowstone and flows southward to Jackson Lake through the Grand Teton National Park. It offers a special experience for everyone. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, The Snake goes from chill to adventure as it enters the Snake River Canyon, where you’ll find whitewater with Class II and III rapids.
I was drawn to the serenity radiating from the waters. I wanted to be at one with nature, to feel the peaceful embrace of the mountains and the gentle flow of the river. Drifting down the river, listening to the sounds of the waves washing the rocks underneath our raft, spotting a bald eagle perch on a tree are moments I revisit in my mind often. On this trip, floating down this river, the Grand Tetons became not a place I visited, but a place I brought home.
- Hike Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons
- Float on the Snake River
- See and hear the Upper and Lower Falls cascading in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Spend an afternoon exploring the western town of Jackson
Places to Eat:
For fine dining, try The Bistro in Jackson Hole, which offers fried calamari, a raw bar, veal osso bucco, bristro burger and salads. Spur Restaurant in Teton Village also offers Wyoming NY Strip, Duck Leg Confit, Buffalo Short Ribs, plus salads and soups.
For casual local food with a saloon vibe, Mangy Moose in Teton Village offers a wide menu including chicken wings, salads, bison burgers and elk stroganoff. For pizza and salad on a deck overlooking the Tetons, try Dornans Jackson Hole. For a slow smoke, head to town for Big Hole BBQ. For wood-fried nachos, elk sausage or fresh-baked pretzels, stop by Snake River Brewing.
Wine lovers can head over to Bin 22 for the wine bar, a market featuring homemade assortments of meats and cheeses and a restaurant featuring a variety of shared plates such as beet carpaccio, roasted carrots, fried cauliflower, burrata salad and paella a la marinera. For a southern-inspired brunch, head to Café Genevieve. You can find artisanal breads and French croissants at Persephone Cafe, and if a build-your-own bagel is what you’re craving, try Pearl Street Bagels.
Elena Epstein is Creative Director of L.A. Parent.