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How to go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on a budget

Can you do Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park on a budget and at the last minute? We did!

If you are on a roadtrip around America, chances are you are going to take in as many National Parks as you can. These huge areas of land showcase some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes the country has to offer. They are packed full of geographical wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes, historical information, educational activities for children and, for those living on wheels, some darn excellent camping spots.

The problem is they don’t come cheap and they don’t conform to a last-minute schedule. Not if you are in a large R.V anyway. If you don’t mind living under canvas, you can back-country camp with a permit, or turn up at smaller campsites that don’t take bookings, but neither of these are an option in a 38ft yellow school bus. You can’t just pull over wherever you feel like it either, there is no hiding in Yellowstone; our home only works for ‘stealth camping’ if we park up outside a school and small American children are not the kind of animals we plan on spotting! Campsites are booked months in advance and, with a captive audience, no doubt expensive.

We are neither rich nor organised, but we really wanted to do Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so we decided to go anyway and see if it was possible to do it cheaply and without pre-planning.

Why go to Yellowstone National Park? Is it worth it?

Beautiful scenery at yellowstone
Beautiful scenery at every turn: Yellowstone is a top destination for outdoors lovers

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It is the first American National Park and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. You can spot bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves from the road, whilst watching geysers shoot high into the sky or staring into bottomless turquoise pools or following winding canyons that rival Grand Canyon in drama.

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance. It is supposed to be a year-round park but winter conditions close many of the routes and presumably limit the amount of camping options. Spring and summer are a different story; all 3,472 square miles of land can be explored and it is absolutely massive; the Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long alone!

Why didn’t we book?

Grand Teton view
Free spirits – we want to pull over wherever and whenever we want!

We always knew we wanted to go to Yellowstone, it was marked on our planning map as one of the key first places to visit. So, given the American penchant for road trips and camping, coupled with the potential ‘wilderness experience’ of the National Park and the summer holidays, why didn’t we plan ourselves better?

When we arrived in Salt Lake City we had no idea which direction we would travel (or even if we would travel at all!). All we knew is that we wanted to go where we felt like going; follow recommendations when they came and stop and start at will. It sounds a bit airy fairy, but that is surely the joy of living on the road? It also has to be the reality – if you get a bus issue, who knows how long you might get stuck in some random town waiting for parts.

Research into Yellowstone was starting to make us think we would have to abandon our free-spiritedness. The excellently helpful ‘Traveling family’ @thewebbproject, who we met at the Grand Teton Distillery, felt that this wasn’t the case though. We just need to work in a bit of balance. They told us that they get together a rough route and then book the hot spots in plenty of time. They then use these dates as a guide to get them there – meandering a little if they are moving too fast, speeding up with a couple of long drives if they are lagging behind. It sounds like good advice.

What about Grand Teton National Park?

Cascade Canyon Grand Teton National Park
Contemplating Moose at Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

We started our National Park adventure in Jackson Hole, which is actually at the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, which sits below Yellowstone. The two parks join together but somehow Grand Teton seems to be ignored in the National obsession to visit Yellowstone. It’s very different – far more mountainous. We had never even heard of it. Well almost. We were both reading Bill Bryson when we arrived and he mentions the Tetons. Our top fact was that they were discovered by the Canadian French who had named them because their snowy peaks looked a little like breasts (those French!). Teton is actually an old word for cow’s teats, which makes you wonder what the explorers lady-friends boobs looked like.

Breasts aside, Grand Teton National Park has some beautiful lakes, the Snake River, bears a-plenty and the Teton range of mountains, which sit along an active fault line and many of which rise over 11,000 feet.

Back to the issue: How do you visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park without booking in advance?

Old Faithful, Yellowstone
Old Faithful geyser, erupting faithfully!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also a useless thing if you are just a few miles south of the park with nowhere to stay that night. We stopped in Jackson Hole, a few miles from the south entrance to Grand Teton, to get some WiFi and plan what to do.

Entering the park is not the problem, you can sort this out at the gate or at the tourist information centres. No planning required! The entrance fee at the gate is $25.00 per vehicle. The pass can be used for seven days and will get you in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. You can buy a one-year pass for $50.00 if you live close to Yellowstone / go a lot, but if you are touring, like us, it makes sense to get a National Parks pass – America the Beautiful – for $80.00. This gets you in to all national parks in the country. It seems camping is the sticky point.

What to do if you haven’t booked a campsite?

Beautiful and free campsites in Grand Teton national park
Beautiful and free campsites are available just outside the National Parks

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are surrounded by National Forest, which we know provide cheap or free camping sites that you do not have to book in advance. Yellowstone is so massive that it takes ages to drive to the edges of the park, seriously compromising any opportunities for early or late wildlife spotting, but Grand Teton is not nearly as popular as Yellowstone and is not as big. A quick search on Wikicamps identified a few potential spots in the Bridger-Teton Forest that were only 20 minutes from the park gate. We decided to risk it.

Yellowstone has 5 bookable, what I would consider budget, campsites in the heart of the park, which you can book via Xanterra. 1 of them – Fishing Bridge – is closed until next year. There are some more expensive private RV sites, but as I pointed out in the last post, these are not for us. I tried to find space online but the Xanterra website was not working well for us – it showed everything as booked, was difficult to navigate and I wasn’t sure if things were  actually booked or the screen had just not refreshed properly. I was about to give up but then I read on a forum that it pays to call them as there are often last minute bookings. We did this and wwwwaaaahhhey… they had space for us at Bridge Bay Campground, next to Yellowstone Lake, for for two nights at $26 per night. Booked – Yahay! It was neither impossible nor expensive!

As a note for anyone else planning a trip to Yellowstone, as well as the bookable sites, there are several ‘turn up on the day’ sites. Most of these last-minute ones are not suitable for larger vehicles and fill up by about 9am. You have to be lucky and probably have a plan B, but if you have a tent or a small camper then I’m sure you could chance it. All the visitor centres list the campsites and show what time they filled up the day before, so you can get a good idea of where to head if that is your plan.

How long do you need to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park?

Morning Glory pool
Morning Glory pool – turquoise forever!

This really depends on what kind of person or family you are. We spent 8 days in the environs of Grand Teton and Yellowstone but it was a very leisurely 8 days. We didn’t spend all day, every day exploring because it very quickly becomes too much. It was very busy at the tourist hotspots and the Grand Loop Road often has lengthy traffic jams because a bear or a bison has wandered onto the road. With all this traffic it felt far more like a safari park than a great natural wilderness. The tourist hot spots, full of activities and museums etc, were also a bit too reminiscent of Centerparcs for my liking, with signage everywhere and happy rangers on hand to give you a jolly welcome. The kids loved the educational activites, all of which contribute to them earning a junior ranger badge. They learnt about conservation, how geysers work and the science behind predicting an eruption…. there’s some good home-schooling right there!

The best bits of both parks are the views you get when the people thin out and disappear. We got up super early on two mornings to drive the Lamar Valley – the Serengeti of North America – and saw bison galore, grizzly bear, black bear, elk and even 2 wolves (which might have been coyotes… we certainly heard wolves just before we saw them though). From the deck of our bus we had the best view of all the action. Ha ha cars!

Where did we stay, was it good and what did it cost?

Bison crossing Lamar Valley
Bison crossing Lamar Valley

To go back to costs and planning, only two of those eight nights were inside the park at Bridge Bay Campsite. We spent 4 nights in free forest land bordering the parks and 4 nights in paid-for campsites in neighbouring towns. All of them I would recommend.

Upper Teton View campsite – FREE

We stayed at this lovely spot – Upper Teton View – just east of the main highway through Grand Teton. It provides easy access to Grand Teton Park – you can backtrack 20 minutes to the south gate for Jenny Lake or continue for 30 minutes to the north gate, where you can visit Jackson Lake or Colter Canyon.

The site was up an unpaved, bumpy road and we were nervous about the bus, but we’d read that it was worth the drive. For the feint of heart, there is a lower Teton View that you reach first. Several bigger RV’s were pulled in here and there was even a mobile ranger station if you wanted to get some tips. If you want to continue to Upper Teton, carry on up the bumpy path. It gets pretty steep and at one point, you reach a fork. DO NOT TAKE THE RIGHT. We did, it was difficult to drive and when we ended up at the top we found just two campsite spaces that were full. We had to go all the way down to Lower Teton View, turn around and do the while hill again. Eventually we got back up to the top (and breathe!), to find several camping spots.

The view was breathtakingly gorgeous and the folk camping were lovely. Night one we were closer to the trees and got bitten by mosquitoes, but night two we parked in a more open space and it was perfect. As the mountains turned orange at sunset, we had that ‘this is why we are travelling’ moment!

Jenny Lake

Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers
Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers

From Upper Teton it is easy to get into the south of Teton National Park. First thing in the morning we went to Jenny Lake and did a gorgeous walk around the bright blue water to the hidden waterfall (you can get a boat if the 2 miles are too much). We continued up to the hidden waterfall (where most of the boat people turn around) and then continued into Cascade Canyon – as delightful as it sounds. It reminded Guy and I of happy days trekking in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, except it was moose on the path instead of alpaca and our pockets were full of incentivising sweets instead of trail mix. We also had two extra, slightly less motivated trekkers in our team! We caught the boat back instead of taking the 2 mile trek – ouch, a big queue and a big ticket; one way was $38. A return was $50.

Colter Canyon

We spent the next day around Colter Canyon Village, which I don’t think had any particular merit. The best bit was the chaos that ensued when a grizzly bear appeared close to the lakeside beach. We watched it being fielded off by rangers carrying pepper spray. Our first real grizzly!

Grassy Lake Road Campsite – FREE

Magical sunsets
Magical sunsets

We wanted to stop as close to Yellowstone as possible the night before entering our second of the parks – the best way to beat the queues. There are 20 dispersed sites just off the Rockerfeller Highway, the link road between Grand Teton and the South Entrance of Yellowstone.

We got there quite late and followed the turning onto Grassy Lake Road. It’s tarmac at first but then it hits fairly smooth gravel for a few miles. When I had read 20 dispersed sites, I assumed 20 campgrounds. This was wrong – it was actually 20 camping sites across several areas. Areas 1 – 4 are down by the river. They all had between 2 and 4 spaces and all of those were full. After site 4, the road turns inland a bit. Site 5, which has 1 space available, comes next and then there is several miles to reach the next camping spot near the reservoir. There are more spots there, and we met several campers heading that way, but we were worried about the windy gravel road getting steeper. The parking spot in 5 is set back from the road but we figured there would be space to turn and so we decided to stop there and assess our options – perhaps we should go back to Upper Teton? As we rumbled along to the end of site 5, lady luck was on our side…. the spot was free. Everyone passing it must have assumed it was full. We had our own campspot, complete with a serviced long-drop toilet and bear box, for the night!

This one is Guy’s favourite spot so far. It felt like we were deep in the wilderness, tall grasses and trees all around us. We had the sounds of nature clicking and swishing and calling all night. We didn’t see any bears, but it felt more like bear country than anywhere else we had been. Fabulous!

Top tip – if you are in a big rig like ours, it’s worth running down to check if the spaces are full in 1 -4 as it can be hard to see from the road. We got stuck turning back out of one after a failed investigation and it took a 10-point-turn to get ourselves back on the road again!

Old Faithful and the geyser basin

We got into Yellowstone early and headed in the opposite direction to our campsite so that we could visit Old Faithful. This geyser erupts about every 90 minutes and sits in a geyser basin full of other wonderous sites. Parking the big bus was a concern, but there is plenty of space if you get there before 9.30am.

The geysers were fun – perhaps a bit overhyped – but the hot springs and pools were fascinating. Clear blue ringed with orange and red – all with names that seemed to come with a story: Abyss; Beauty; Dragon’s Breath; Black Growler. One dad that I was walking behind was joking to his complaining daughter that each one was named after the person who fell into it: Beryl; Daisy; Pearl… it was going well until they reached one called ‘Infant’ and then it got a bit dark. The stories stopped!

It was busy at Old Faithful but not so much that you couldn’t move. It was unforgivingly hot though (and smelt of eggs, according to Soren…. alot!)

Bridge Bay Campground, Yellowstone National Park – $26 per night

We entered proper campsite territory. Bridge Bay is the biggest of the sites and there were lots of campers. That said, it is well-managed, clean and tidy. There is a big outdoor amphitheatre where they show films and give talks every night – the boys were super keen to attend (it was at 9.30pm and it was about coyotes and wolves so they imagined a late night and wild animals!) but after about 15 minutes of unengaging waffle (and a very dull slide show) of the tale of ‘Old Man Coyote and his bargain with the wolf’, they were keen to go home to bed!

Bridge Bay is on the central loop of the park, so it is an easy one to work into your plans. We had to double back on ourselves a couple of times, so a more organised person than us should really book camps at different spots.

There were lots of elk wandering around the campsite. It’s lovely until you want to go to the toilet and a horse-sized creature with massive antlers is in the way of the ladies loo. Brilliant.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Bison jam!
Bison jam! Add some time to your journey as they will not get out of your way!

On the east side of Grand Loop Road is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I guess Grand Canyon has the copyright on the first two words and so you have to include the last two! The Yellowstone River plunges 1200 feet and the thermal waters have cut a fascinating channel through the rock, tinging everything with a golden-yellow hue. It’s very beautiful and also very busy. We followed the main route to Artist’s Point accompanied by bus loads of visitors, which detracted slightly from the incredible views. We decided to lose the noise and headed inland on a quieter trail. This is definitely the way to do Yellowstone; we saw a handful of people for the rest of the walk and had meadows filled with wildflowers, mud pools, hot springs and elk all to ourselves.

Cooke City – Clarks Fork, Shoshone National Forest – FREE

This was a dreamboat of a spot, not far from the east entrance. This is one end of the Lamar Valley and if you stay here, you can drive the Lamar first thing in the morning. We had already driven it once to reach the exit / entrance, but it was too late in the day and too busy.

The bend in the river, where we parked up, was a designated dispersed site. One other R.V was there but we didn’t see any people – perhaps they had left it whilst exploring the park. The water was clear and gurgling, the backdrop of the Beartooth mountains was impressive, the forest was thick and green and the sunset glorious. If it wasn’t already colonised by a gazillion mosquitoes it would have been perfect. Windows closed and a killing spree solved the problem more or less. It was worth the few bites though to watch the sun come up over the mountains.

The Lamar Valley

Wolf watching over breakfast
Wolf watching over breakfast in the Lamar Valley

When the tourist info lady marked out the Lamar valley as a ‘must-see’, we figured that we weren’t being let into a little secret. Everyone was going to be doing the Lamar to see the wildlife. We decided to do it early and set off from Bridge Bay at 6.30am. By the time we got there, it was well after 9am. It’s not that far, but this is the land of the bison and they like to stand in the way of the traffic. We didn’t see much so drove out and stayed in the spot mentioned above.

The next day was a different story – we left at 6.30 and were on the main road through the Lamar by 7am. We saw bear, bison and even a couple of wolves. Totally worth the early start and the different start point. If you want to see wildlife, definitely do it early.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Sorry Yellowstone but why is Mammoth a highlight? If you go in to the park from the north, perhaps it is a bit more exciting. If you leave from the north though, having seen everything else, Mammoth is…. a mammoth disappointment!

Eagle Creek – Gardiner – $7 per night

We stopped a night outside of Gardiner in a managed campsite in the Gallatin National Forest. It was up a very steep hill – scary bus territory – but we made it. All the spots were taken but we passed the ranger on the way in and, as the sites are massive, we just shared a space with someone else. It rained so we didn’t do a great deal other than sleep.

Gardiner was nice – after a week in the wilderness it was good to have proper food and coffees again. It was less good to find that all of Kit’s presents, which I had ordered from Amazon to be delivered to the Gardiner Post Office by General Delivery, had been returned to sender. It turns out that you can send post to be held at U.S post offices for a month (like poste restante) but they don’t accept UPS deliveries. Amazon, of course, use UPS. Arrrggghhhh!

Rainbow Point – West Yellowstone – $20 per night

Kayaking on earthquake lake
Kayaking on Earthquake Lake – created when an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked the Missouri River as it flowed into Hebgen Lake, close to where we stayed. 

West Yellowstone is a major entry point to Yellowstone and so every other shop is a tourist trap selling t-shirts and huckleberry products. It has an IMAX, supermarket, ice cream stand and hardware store – everything a civilisation-deprived family might need. It also has the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Centre. It’s a non-profit place which has lots of info on animals, which frankly we’d had plenty of at the visitor centres in Yellowstone, but also has rescued animals. We got to see wolves and bears a little closer, with a lot more protection. I’d say it is a tad overpriced – it cost us $45 for 4. Your ticket gets you in for two days, but you really are done within an hour or so. You can pay more to hide food for the bears to find – $5 more – but I dissuaded the boys from doing that.

We stayed at Rainbow Point on the Hebgen Reservoir. It was a nice wooded site about 20 minutes outside of West Yellowstone. Completely booked up on the weekend, so as it was Thursday evening we just made a flying visit. This was one of the areas affected by the 1959 earthquake and landslide, which created Earthquake Lake which we went on to visit. Guy spotted a grizzly yards from our camp. Yikes!

So how much did it cost

We did it last minute, so what did we spend? Overall we spent less than $150 for the week (not including park entrance as we have the pass for the year). We spent less than $80 on accommodation for 8 nights, and the educational activities were just $3 per child. The boat at Jenny Lake added on a chunk, that we probably should have avoided,  and we did a pricey shop in Colter Canyon to buy bread and eggs and milk ($25!).  If we had been more organised we could have saved cash there as well.

The long and short of it is that yes, it is do-able on a budget and do-able last minute. Go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton – they are fabulous.

One reply on “How to go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on a budget”

Ahhh- gorgeous photos and amazing stories, all sounds stunning and living the dream!
So happy for you all.
Amazing trip, love hearing all about it 🙂
xx

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