The wife and kids (boy 16, girl 11) had never been out west or in real mountains before and I wanted to give them the full parks and big sky experience. Trip was in planning for two years, with a $6k budget, and many hours on the TripAdvisor forums. Thank you too all of you who shared. We went with early June for the wildlife, lack of bugs, cooler temperatures, and less crowding and it worked out very well. We were prepared for snow and bad weather but lucked out and hit wonderful weather in the parks and all the roads opened on time. I struggled with flying into Denver vs. Jackson or Bozeman. We ended up getting cheap flights from Atlanta into Denver and driving up because I had some time of time to work with and wanted the family to see some more of the west and give them a little time to acclimate to the altitude (Atlanta 1K feet, Yellowstone 7-9K feet and it’s hard to predict who will have altitude issues). I made almost all the reservations around Thanksgiving 2012 and had plenty of choices. Ended up getting mostly western cabins with 2 queen beds. 2 nights Big Sky, 1 night OFSL, 1 night Mammoth, 3 nights Canyon, 2 nights Elk Country Inn in Jackson (room + loft). All accommodations were at least acceptable if not pretty good considering the logistics. Check in in the park is 4:30 or later.
30 May – Fly to Denver and drive to Casper. I had reserved a minivan (after much difficulty in getting a reasonable price) but upgraded cheaply to a new YukonXL at the rental center. 4-wheel drive was nice but wasn’t necessary, but we spent enough time in the vehicle that the extra space was appreciated and it felt comfortable going over the passes and in the pullouts. Satellite radio was nice as there were large areas of WY/MT with minimal AMFM reception. Brought my own GPS. The day felt longer than it was and would not have wanted to drive much further. C’Mon Inn Casper was good.
31 May – Drive up to MT and then west, only real bad weather of trip. Stopped at Little Big Horn for an hour in the morning and had a nice break. Neat place. Would have done some hiking except for the wind and rain. Stopped in Livingston at my godparent’s. Continued around the north end of the Park and down the Gallatin River to Big Sky for two nights at Buck’s T4. Excellent splurge dinner at Bucks. Post-dinner hot tub with mountain view.
1 June – Bozeman. Hit the Museum of the Rockies and spent lots of time in the dinosaur exhibits and planetarium. Highly recommended. Also stopped at the computer museum at MSU which the kids liked. Hit Walmart for a cooler and incidentals and then Costco for lunch food and snacks for the week. Back to Big Sky for dinner. We saw 2 bighorn sheep up close on the side of the entrance road and a moose cow and calf across the Gallatin.
2 June – Got up early and drove into West Yellowstone. Picked up souvenir t-shirts as it was warmer than anticipated. Got pass and came in the West entrance. Pulled off near Madison Junction for an early lunch. Wow. Gorgeous weather with about 150 bison and calves wandering by along the river. Hit the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins with boardwalk hiking. Particularly liked Grand Prismatic Spring. Continued on to Old Faithful. Saw the Inn and had ice cream on the upper deck (huckleberry was available) watching an eruption. Checked into the Snow Lodge Cabins. Perfectly acceptable. Dinner at the Obsidian Dining Room, pretty good. The daughter started her Yellowstone soap bear collection. Note - use the big laundromats at the campgrounds, experienced lines at the Lodges. Guides - Yellowstone Treasures for descriptions, National Geographic road guide for easy access reference maps. Cell phone (Verizon) was iffy, don’t count on reception between the service areas.
3 June – Had a just OK breakfast at the Lodge and wandered out for another OF eruption. Went back up to Madison (no bison this time) and then north to Norris and Mammoth. Scattered elk and bison sightings. Caught more of the thermal features. Not much water in the terraces. Toured the old park headquarters and took more pics at the old archway entrance. Wife particularly liked this area (except that I didn’t get a cabin with a private bath). Went out to Gardiner to pick up rental spotting scope (3 days for $75) and saw a badger. Relaxed with after dinner drinks on the front porch of the cabin with a view of the terraces. Did some stargazing with the daughter after dark. Note – binoculars for all is a good plan, IMO anything over $100 was fine. As I anticipated renting a scope/tripod, I didn’t worry about getting super optics. The wife brought a good camera with a 400mm zoom lens which was sufficient for all but the long shots (wolf etc.). Basic plan which worked well, was to pull over whenever we saw scopes out. Also, as we enforced hydration, to pull over every 2 or 3 restrooms.
4 June – Did not get an early start, but headed west into the Lamar Valley. The American Serengeti comparisons are apt. Herds of bison. Scattered elk. Possible wolf sighting across the valley. Went out to about Soda Butte and came back. Some road construction at Roosevelt and up to Dunraven Pass, but not a lot of traffic. Let the kids have a snowball fight at the pass. And then down to Canyon. The variety of terrain and vistas is amazing.
5 June – Canyon and bear day. Two sets of black bear mother cubs with accompanying bear jams, one of which moved us out of our picnic area. Hit both the north and south rims. Took Uncle Toms trail down and had difficulty climbing back up. Great view but the stairs seemed ricketier than the Artist Point overlook steps which were closed for repair the next week. From Inspiration Point, we saw a caribou inexplicably climb down one of the big talus slopes before eventually hooking up with a calf. Artist Point was the daughter’s favorite stop. Staff/service at Canyon was cheery. We did a lots of cafeteria breakfast/dinner (just OK) here for speed/convenience.
6 June – Hayden Valley – My favorite day. Lots of bison, elk and antelope. Confirmed wolf sighting. Also saw a grizzly near Mammoth on way back to return the spotting scope. Coming back we followed a bison back over Dunraven Pass.
7 June – Checked out and drove down to Lake. Grand view from the lake bluff overlook. Next time will plan to catch sunset here. We were early enough that this was the only place we saw any bugs. Pretty, but I didn’t schedule much time around the Lake because of multiple bear advisories. Drove down to Grand Teton National Park. Still very impressive, and prettier than I had remembered. Construction delays (30 min) from the Marina south. Took the Jenny Lake ferry, and hiked up to Inspiration Point. Kids were willing, but didn’t have the energy to go up Cascade Canyon. And then down to Jackson. The kids were starting to get antsy by this point. Good Mexican food at the Merry Piglets. TV and internet with separate loft were welcome for a little space.
8 June – Pearl Street bagels for breakfast. Did the Barker-Ewing float trip down the Snake River through the park, which was the wife’s favorite part of the trip. Left the windows down on the truck in the parking lot, but had no consequences. Went back into Jackson and wandered and visited galleries. Saw the shootout reenactment at the square. Had a good dinner and beers at the Snake River Brewery. I also recommend the Jackson Rodeo (wed and sat). The wife and kids didn’t think they would like it, but they did.
9/10 June – Long drive day out from Jackson to the Denver suburbs. Return rental car at DIA and fly back to Atlanta.