In the summer of 2017, a total solar eclipse came to America for the first time in 38 years. We had only moved to the States in January that year and knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed. We were excited not just for the eclipse itself but also for the opportunity to explore a bit more of our new home country. Consulting the map on the path of totality revealed the eclipse was going to travel right through the heart of Grand Teton National Park, and quickly our decision was made!
Yellowstone had been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and although I knew relatively little of Grand Teton, what little I had heard had been resoundingly positive. So the seed was sown and from that I set about cultivating a week long road trip taking in 4 US States, 2 National Parks and some of America’s finest scenery.
As this is a very long blog post covering multiple destinations, I’ve included some quick links here to help if you are only looking for info on a particular area or activity. Of course, I’d love you to stay and read the whole post, but I get it- we’re all busy people! So click through as necessary, or enjoy the whole story.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
ROUTE IN GRAND TETON VIA PALISADES RESERVOIR
TETON VILLAGE AND THE DECK
HEADWATERS LODGE AND CABINS
JACKSON LAKE AND COLTER BAY SWIM BEACH
HUCKLEBERRY HOT SPRINGS
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
WEST THUMB GEYSER BASIN
THE LAMAR VALLEY
TOWER FALL / ARTIST POINT / THE GRAND CANYON OF THE YELLOWSTONE
YELLOWSTONE UNDER CANVAS
THE 2017 AMERICAN TOTAL ECLIPSE FROM NEAR MENAN BUTTES
LAVA HOT SPRINGS
There are a few options for airports when traveling to the Parks. The 2 major airports are Salt Lake City and Bozeman, both of which are a fair drive to the parks. Jackson Hole is the closest airport but has the fewest flight options and is also the most expensive. We opted to fly to Salt Lake City as we had a lot more flight options going there. Flying to Bozeman does afford the advantage of entering Yellowstone through the Northeast entrance via Beartooth Highway. We didn’t get to see this personally, but it’s meant to be a stunning drive.
After flying to Salt Lake and picking up our car, we drove up to Idaho Falls for the first night. This was a practical stop, rather than a location driven one. The city itself is not that exciting from a tourism perspective, but it proved a good base to pick up supplies before we headed into the parks (although surprisingly, we couldn’t find bear spray anywhere- not at Walmart or outdoor stores). We stayed at the local Motel 6. It wasn’t fancy, but it was fine. This wasn’t the town we wanted to be splashing out on our accommodation; the best was yet to come! The hotel did have a pool, but much to the disappointment of the kids (and let’s be honest, me also), we didn’t have time to use it before we moved on.
Driving into Grand Teton the next day, on the advice of the good people of the internet, and backed up by the hotel front desk clerk, we drove in not by the quickest route, but the route with the best scenery. We took the route to the south of the park, traveling alongside Palisades Reservoir before taking the 89/191 from Alpine up towards Jackson. It may have taken longer than the other route in to the park but it was certainly a beautiful drive. We stopped in a scenic pull-out at the side of the road and had a picnic next to the reservoir. We found a path down to the lake and spent some time collecting sticks and skimming stones with the kids. Entertainment comes easily when you are young (or young at heart)!
The road up from Alpine towards Jackson was stunning. There were a number of scenic pull-outs by the river to stop and take pictures at, which we took full advantage of. We spotted lots of rafters on the river, an activity I would have eagerly participated in had my kids been older. A friend has since told me this was something she did on a trip here as a kid and how it was the highlight of her trip. I think perhaps a return visit may be in order when the kids are older!
Our next stop was at Teton Village. The gondola ride up the mountain is free from 5pm and we arrived early enough for the kids to enjoy half an hour in the playground at the bottom before we went up. The ride up was beautiful, and more so the views from the top. At the top is The Deck restaurant.
We had to wait about 10 minutes to get an outside table (impressively quick considering how busy it was) and we were fortunate enough by pure chance to get the best seat in the house. We dined outside on the edge of the seating area right next to the mountain views, just aside from the live musician who was playing acoustic rock classics as the sun was setting. It was magic. If you do this, be sure to bring warm clothes as it gets quite chilly as soon as the sun starts to disappear.
Our accommodation for the next 2 nights was in a camper’s cabin at Headwaters Lodge and Cabins at Flagg Ranch. It’s close to the northern edge of Teton, not too far from the Southern entrance to Yellowstone. It’s a great location as it’s central to both parks and you could easily stay here for a longer period and do day trips out every day.
The cabins themselves are very basic; they are basically 4 walls and a bunk bed with 2 double beds and mattresses. We had to take our own bedding (a logistical challenge when flying, but assisted greatly by suitcase compression bags), and there is no food or drink (except water) allowed in the cabin due to the bear risk. The camper’s cabin suited us as we had a fire-pit to play with and stars to gaze at, but there are standard hotel rooms in the lodge if that’s more your thing. We like the outdoors!
The next day was one of those perfect travel days. We headed down to Colter Bay Marina to rent a motorboat on Jackson Lake. We had to wait about an hour to get a boat (we were there on the busiest week of the year though), but it was unquestionably worth the wait. It was absurdly beautiful. Once we were out of the marina the lake was quiet and we seldom saw other boaters. Gliding along the water with those majestic mountains as a backdrop was incredible.
We picnicked on the boat, dealt with the quandary of what to do with a 3 year old who has to go potty whilst out on the lake (thank goodness for tupperware!), and let the kids take turns ‘driving’ the boat. It was a perfect way to spend a couple of hours.
After we returned the boat, we headed on down to Colter Bay Swim Beach. It’s a pebble beach right on the lake and as the name suggests, you can swim there. Zoe and I took a dip, though Steve and Luke couldn’t be persuaded (their loss!). We dried off in the late afternoon sunshine and Steve and I sat and watched the kids playing on the beach as the sun started to set over the lake.
With the waning warmth, an inevitability of the departing sun, we headed up to Leek’s Marina & Pizzeria and enjoyed good value, tasty pizza in a relaxed, informal setting with a fantastic view of the sunset. Steve and I were then able to round off our evening with a fire and some stargazing back at the cabin while the kids slept off the day’s exploits. Every time I think back on that day, my heart is filled with warmth. It was one of those great travel days where everything just goes right.
We started the next day with the intention of doing the short 1.2 mile there and back hike to Huckleberry Hot Springs. The start of the trail was not at all far from Headwaters Lodge and we were excited to go wildlife spotting on the trail and have a dip in the hot springs. However, our plans were foiled.
Although the hike is supposed to be an easy one, we weren’t counting on having to cross a fast flowing creek. It would have been much too dangerous for a 2 and a 3 year old to have crossed themselves and with the fast moving water, my husband and I did not want to risk carrying them. So that cut that hike short and we headed back to the start of the trail. We’ve since learned that the hot springs have been closed to bathing due to the high levels of pathogens found in the waters, so only check this out if you aren’t interested in going in.
From the trailhead to Huckleberry Hot Springs, we headed into Yellowstone; a major bucket list item ticked as we passed through the entrance! The planned morning hike being cut short meant that we had time to add in a stop to West Thumb Geyser Basin. We picnicked in the busy picnic area and walked the short loop around the hydrothermal pools, right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. The walk was easy for the kids and enjoyable for us all, despite being very busy (the downside of visiting during eclipse week).
Next stop was Old Faithful. True to its name, we were lucky enough to see it erupt not long after we arrived. Again, being eclipse week, it was extremely busy. We opted not to stay and explore the trails as the kids were already tired and there were just too many people around for it to be enjoyable. We stayed for an ice cream and a treat from the gift shop before we set off on the road again to our final destination, Cooke City, to the north of Yellowstone.
I had decided on Cooke City not for the hotel or city itself but for its proximity to the Lamar Valley. The valley is often nicknamed America’s Serengeti for the large amount of wildlife in the area. The drive from Old Faithful was a long one and though much of it was beautiful, after a long day, our enthusiasm for the drive was starting to wain. That was until we hit the Lamar Valley at the perfect time of day; just before dusk. What a way to renew our enthusiasm!
The valley was absolutely beautiful in the glow of the late afternoon sun. Not only that, but dusk is also one of the best times of day for wildlife spotting. We were not disappointed. There were bison in abundance, and we were treated to several up-close displays as herds of them wandered alongside the car and across the road in front of us. We never expected to be able to observe them so closely and it was an amazing thing to be able to experience. We also spotted a few elk and we suspect we saw an eagle, though the bears and moose evaded us. The kids missed it all as they slept in the back, which was a shame, but unsurprising after the busy day.
With the volume of both the traffic and the wildlife, the journey to Cooke City was inevitably slow. We got there shortly after 8pm, not having eaten dinner despite it already being past the kids bedtime. Our hotel for the night was the Soda Butte Lodge, an unpretentious affair, though not one I’d be in a rush to recommend. We ate in the restaurant which offered simple, kid friendly bar food. The food was fine and the waitress was very pleasant. The repeatedly blocking toilet in the room was not. But thankfully, it was a one night stay and we were on our way again first thing next morning.
The next morning we grabbed picnic supplies from the gas station next door before tracing our steps back into the park. Heading back through the Lamar Valley the next day really opened our eyes to how lucky we had been to have seen it the evening before. We stopped at intervals and spotted some elk and a few distant bison, but the wildlife was much more sparse than it had been the previous evening.
With a quick toilet and picnic break at Tower Fall, we carried on to Artist Point. It’s an extremely accessible spot and being perched on the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, it offers superb views of Yellowstone’s Lower Falls. After the obligatory jostling with the crowds to get a good photo spot, we set out on our hike to Point Sublime.
The there and back trail to Point Sublime offers a much quieter experience than Artist Point and affords incredible views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as the trails weaves through the woods along its rim; at times unnervingly close to the edge, especially if you have littles. Due to the little legs walking with us (namely Zoe as Luke was lucky enough to enjoy the view from the baby carrier on my back), we didn’t make it all the way to Point Sublime, but we estimated that we completed about ¾ of the 2.7 mile there and back trail. We weren’t disappointed at not having completing it though; as one passer by quipped with us, it really was pretty sublime all the way along. I would thoroughly recommend this walk if you are visiting Yellowstone. It was stunning.
Our final night in Yellowstone was spent at Under Canvas, just outside the Western Entrance. It was a glamping set up with showers and flush toilets. We opted for the safari tent which was really nice and spacious, with a king bed, lots of layers of thick bedding and a wood burning stove to keep us warm. We also paid extra for 2 camp cots for the kids which they both enjoyed (aside from in the middle of the night when Luke managed to wriggle to the bottom of his sleeping bag and woke up scared and confused in a right old pickle!).
The staff were super friendly and welcoming and we were invited to enjoy free hot chocolates and s’mores round the campfire. The kids also enjoyed the variety of games that they had on offer, especially the bean bag toss. All in all, the accommodations were nice and it was a fun experience. But ultimately, for the budget conscious like me, I’m not convinced that the hefty $240+ a night price tag was worth it (it’s even more if, like us, you need camp cots for the kids). We had a great time, but I wouldn’t go back purely because of the cost. It’s an awful lot of money just to stay in a tent.
The next day was eclipse day! It was the first solar eclipse to come to America in 38 years and we were excited! We had originally planned to drive back down to Grand Teton National Park, but in the days leading up to the event we had seen first hand how busy it was in the park and we were fearful that we would just end up stuck in traffic somewhere, or lumped in amongst a big crowd. So we instead opted to just take a punt at driving out to the west of Grand Teton and see what we could find close to the line of totality.
We set out at 6am to avoid the traffic. Armed with free coffee courtesy of Under Canvas, we headed down Highway 20, towards the line of totality. Traffic was clearly busier than usual for the time of day, but was moving consistently. We took Route 33 and tried random smaller roads to the south. We spotted people atop the Menan Buttes, west of Rexburg and headed in that direction.
After quite some driving around, we couldn’t find the route to get up there, but we did find a pretty decent grassy spot at the edge of the road nearby. Knowing that time was getting on, we parked up and got our picnic blanket out and waited. Upon checking our location on the phone, it also transpired that we had chosen our spot pretty darn well- we were smack bang on the center line of totality, affording us 2 minutes 17 seconds of totality. We were pretty pleased considering we had set out that morning with only a general idea of where we wanted to end up.
We only had to wait about 45 minutes before the eclipse began and about 2 hours for totality. It was nice to chat to a chap from Boston who had parked up with his family nearby. His genuine childlike enthusiasm at the rare experience was really quite heartwarming. Eventually totality crept in on us, darkness coated the landscape and there were sunsets in every direction. As adults, it is characteristic of us too often say we are excited about something, but it’s a rare event that actually evokes that genuine, childlike emotion. But there I was on the edge of a road in rural Idaho, with sunsets in every direction, and I was genuinely excited. Speaking with the gentleman from Boston, I had marvelled at his enthusiasm, little expecting that when the moment came, my own would be on par with his.
Once the eclipse was over, we were headed for Lava Hot Springs where we would spend the last 2 nights of our trip. We joined the hoards on the Interstate 15 heading south towards Idaho Falls. Oftentimes, in the days of social media, you hear all about the fun people are having, see the amazing photos of the places they been and generally get to see all the good stuff. Well, I’m going to tell you about the other side of it!
When we joined the Interstate, traffic was heavy but moving. Somewhere ahead in our direction there was an accident and traffic ground to a halt. Traffic jams can be frustrating at the best of times, but when you have a 2 and a 3 year old, it can be so much worse! It’s not the boredom; for their age they are remarkably good in the car. It’s the needing the toilet when there isn’t anywhere to go. Luke was suffering really badly with stomach pains to the point where he was in tears of pain due to a constipation related issue; something unfortunately he is prone to after multiple days of eating out at restaurants.
On the other side of the car, Zoe desperately needed a wee but there was nowhere she could go. While the traffic was stationary on the freeway, we got her out of her carseat and put her in one of Luke’s diapers and told her she could go in that. But for a 3 year old who is proud to use the big girl toilet, this was equally upsetting and we had genuine, prolonged tears from her also. We got off the freeway and into Idaho Falls as quickly as we could; an unplanned but necessary stop after an hour and a half’s stressful journey that ordinarily should have taken about 30 minutes.
After a quick trip to Walmart to pick up some laxatives for Luke and sort Zoe’s toilet needs out, there was a happier occurrence. The first night of the trip, Zoe had left one of her soft toys, ‘Becky Bunny’, at the Motel 6. Becky Bunny had been a gift from Baldy Man and Mooma (Nan and Grandad to the uninitiated) and was named after Becky Falls in Dartmoor, England, where we had had a family outing together. It was quite a special outing in my mind too as it was the last of its kind. Only days afterwards, Mooma became severely ill and although she ultimately survived, she could no longer join us on excursions without the use of a mobility scooter. Those memories are probably more than I should be investing in a silly stuffed bunny, but I was eager to get her back for Zoe if possible.
We popped back over to the hotel on the off chance they had found her, and were thrilled to find her there waiting for us. One happy Zoe! That reset our moods back to a positive note and we headed over to Idaho Falls Zoo to kill time while we waited for the traffic to sort itself out.
The zoo itself was pretty decent for a small town zoo. It was really cheap to get in and had impressive exhibits such as lions, tigers and bears. The petting zoo was a particular favorite for the kids who enjoyed feeding and brushing the goats (which surprised us as Zoe is normally very hands off with that kind of thing). We spent a couple of hours there before grabbing a quick bite for dinner and re-starting our journey to our next destination, Lava Hot Springs.
However… our day of travel angst was not over yet! Far from it. If this paragraph were a social media post, #travelFail would be the only appropriate hashtag. We set out from Idaho Falls at around 7pm and programmed Lava Hot Springs in to the GPS on our phone. Seeing it taking us on a rather long-winded route, we assumed that the traffic had yet to clear up. We shrugged it off and were on our way.
We headed south-east out of Idaho Falls on pretty, rural roads with no traffic. After we had been going for about an hour, the paved road stopped and turned into a dirt road. Worried about our rental car, but having already driven so far to get to this point, we reassured ourselves that it must only be a short stretch. Just a few hundred yards that they hadn’t finished working on yet. It would get good again after that; GPS surely wouldn’t send us on a crazy, unpaved route.
So on we went. For 21 miles. 21 miles of hearing the unnerving sound of gravel and dirt flicking up at our rental car. 21 miles of poor visibility on small, unlit, extremely dusty roads which were pitch black after the admittedly beautiful sunset. At some point during the 21 miles, our cussing at the GPS ceased. We realised, to our embarrassment, that the fault was ours. Navigating to the zoo earlier in the day, we had wanted to ensure that we steered clear of the chaos on the freeway and had set the GPS to avoid highways. And then we had forgotten to switch that setting off. Google Maps, will you ever forgive us for the things we said?!
We’ll never know how bad the traffic was on the freeway, but I like to tell myself it was still not good, and our crazy dirt track route wasn’t so bad. Besides, it’s these details from our trips that make them memorable and raise a smile afterwards. It’s important to be able to frame things in a positive way, and most importantly, to be able to laugh at yourself!
After a 3 hour journey through dark, rural Idaho, we finally arrived at our AirB&B in the heart of Lava Hot Springs at 10pm. Thankfully, it was self check in with a lock box, so our tardy arrival didn’t matter to anyone. Inevitably, the kids had a late night second wind as soon as we arrived. The novelty of inflating their air beds aided in persuading them that it was time to sleep and not jump around like loonies. We had all gotten up that morning at 5:15am, and after a long and memorable day of traveling and activities, it was time for bed for all of us.
We chose Lava Hot Springs for a couple of reasons. After the madness with the volume of people around for the eclipse, we wanted to be somewhere away from the National Parks, preferably in the direction of the airport. I started out using Google Maps, zooming in to an area to find towns and then googling them to see what they are like. This may not be the most efficient way of finding places to visit, but it’s one of my favourite methods when it comes to trip planning. As soon as I started reading about Lava Hot Springs, I knew it would be perfect.
Lava Hot Springs is a small town of less than 500 people, but with plenty to offer visitors. It has a selection of naturally heated, untreated hot pools to soak in, as well as an indoor/outdoor swimming complex/aquatic center. In addition, you can also bring or rent tubes and go tubing down the local river. It’s a fun place for water activities! This appealed to me as after a trip with a lot of driving, this was somewhere we could go and not need the car at all. It was also something I knew that the kids would really love, which was important to me after what had essentially been quite an adult orientated road trip. For this reason, we stayed for 2 nights here in order to fully make the most of our stay.
Our first stop here was to the hot pools. We purchased the wristbands that afforded us entry to both the hot pools and the aquatic center, which were decent value for in and out privileges at both attractions. I’m a fan of hot pools, so they’ll always get a big thumbs up from me, so unsurprisingly we really enjoyed it here. There were a number of pools, ranging in temperature. I could look up the actual temperatures, but instead I’ll just tell you that they ranged from rather pleasant to insania. Needless to say, the rather pleasant pool was the most popular and busiest, but it was big enough for it not to feel overcrowded.
Next we walked over to the aquatic center, just a short 10 minute walk away. On our way down there we watched the tubers on the river. It looked fun! But not for us with a 2 and a 3 year old. The aquatic center was great too. There was a large outdoor swimming pool with water slides and a high 3 level diving platform. I didn’t realise until I went to use the diving platform (at the behest of my beloved children) that you need to sign a waiver and be issued with a wristband before use. So be sure to do this when you first come into the complex if you plan to use them.
In addition to the outdoor area, there is also an indoor kids aquatic center and an olympic sized swimming pool. Zoe absolutely loved the kids area, but Luke didn’t like the huge bucket intermittently dumping large volumes of water down, so we ended up splitting up for a good chunk of time to allow the kids to play in different areas. We also had lunch here sitting outside on the grassy area. The food from the concession stand was poor quality and overpriced so I’d recommend bringing a picnic with you instead. All in the all, the kids had an absolute blast and it was a fun but tiring day.
We rounded the day off with dinner at the Wagon Wheel Lounge. The service was friendly, the portions were huge and the food was tasty, but not fancy. After filling up on food, we returned to the hot pools one final time before heading back to our AirB&B to get the kids to bed. It was a lovely way to end the trip.
The next day we made the easy drive back down to Salt Lake City to the airport. We ran the car through a car wash to allow us to inspect for damage from our 21 miles of dirt road (thankfully there was none) and also forgot to fill up with petrol before returning the car, resulting in a last minute dash back out of the airport to the filling station to avoid the extortionate cost of fuel that car rental companies inflict on you.
And just like that, our trip was over. It had been a whirlwind week and certainly one I won’t forget in a hurry. As with any trip, there is so much more we could have done if we’d had more time. In particular, there were way more hikes and geothermal areas we could have explored in Yellowstone. I would really liked to have taken a dip in the Boiling River Swimming Area in Yellowstone, and I’d also liked to have driven the Bear Tooth Highway into the park. These will all be on my list if we return to the parks again, along with rafting on Snake River, providing the kids are old enough.
Although there is plenty more we could have done, I am not at all unhappy with what we accomplished. We made plenty of memories this trip and if we are lucky enough to return, we have plenty more we can look forward to.
To summarise, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are amazing. You should go!