After a significantly longer stay in Spokane than anticipated we headed east, bound for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We visited both in 2015 during our first fulltime RV year as we circled the country, but major mechanical issues with our bus and the lack of a tow vehicle (yes, we spent most of our first year with just the bus) significantly hindered our enjoyment of the parks, especially Yellowstone. In 2017, our last western RV tour, we skipped Wyoming in favor of other, more northern explorations (Glacier and North Cascades National Parks) before continuing on to the Dakotas.
Though that initial visit half a decade back had been stressful and limited, what we did see we enjoyed, especially in Grand Tetons. We vowed to return, knowing both of these national parks had so much more to offer than our all too brief and troubled visit had allowed. So in the fall of 2021, with our vehicles in working order, we plunged ahead. From Spokane it is 500 miles to Yellowstone, a solid two days of travel for us in the RV, where 250 miles is usually the most we prefer to drive in a day. Given the leisure of a few extra days we might have broken the trip into three easy legs, but since we had fallen behind our admittedly arbitrary travel schedule, we pushed a bit harder than normal.
We made a one night stop over at a very nice little park in Montana. Though no military or Passport America options where available in our targeted stopover area, we found Bernie and Sharon’s Riverfront RV Park (and yes, that is the official name) an easy couple of miles off I-90 in lightly wooded rolling grass hills near a river. We had a large grassy space with full hook ups for $32 after a 10% veteran discount. The neighbors were nice, the park management very casual, and the general ambience quite nice for our short stay.
The next day we pushed on to the parks, entering Yellowstone from the west and driving nearly 60 miles through the park enroute to our campground. Yellowstone is positioned just north of Grand Tetons, so we planned to enjoy it first, but the availability and price of RV parks is much better in the latter. Given their proximity, camping at the north end of Grand Tetons puts you almost as close to the Yellowstone attractions as being in the park itself.
Colter Bay Campground, a spot we had stayed in 2015, fits that description, and we secured three days in one of their dry camping loops. This park is not to be confused with Colter Bay Village, the much more expensive, less available, resort style concessionaire managed property nearby. That is not to say the campground is cheap; we paid $42 a night for a basic site with no services, but given the popularity of the area, we were thankful to have it.
Each day we made the 30-mile drive from Colter Bay to Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, passing into the park via the southern entrance. Even this drive, miles from any of the well-known sites, is spectacular, with much of it directly parallel to the Snake River and associated gorges. It has a good number of sightseer pull outs, and unlike the frequently crowded ones on the main park roads, you are much more likely to have them to yourself.
The aforementioned Yellowstone Grand Loop Road is a 142-mile route that will take you to most of the well-known attractions. While one can certainly drive the whole thing in five or six hours, there are far too many things to see in one day. We selected two sections for our time there; the southwest and southeast quadrants, each of which took us a full day of exploration. The southwest section will take you to the Old Faithful and the other well-known geyser basins, while the southeast section runs along Yellowstone Lake and River with some fantastic waterfalls.
For our first full day we predictably selected the southwest quadrant. We stopped along the Snake River in a couple of places, but mostly headed straight for Old Faithful, which is conveniently one of the first spots you encounter driving clockwise along the loop road from the southern entrance. The size of the tourism infrastructure dedicated to just this geyser basin area is not to be underestimated. With over 4 million visitors to the park each year, the majority of whom will stop for this particular attraction, the park management has constructed an entire village, along with huge parking areas (think multiple Walmarts) to accommodate everyone.
Don’t plan on just pulling over after checking the schedule of eruptions; you need to plan an hour or two just for this sight. Other than the parking, walking, and crowds, Old Faithful’s schedule varies by about half an hour, with the interval largely dependent on the strength of the previous eruption. We were rather fortunate, arriving with plenty of time to find parking, stretch our legs, make our way to the viewing area, and select a decent spot to watch along with several hundred other tourists. The payoff is worth it.
After exploring the touristy village around Old Faithful, we continued along the loop road to the other spectacular geysers, hot springs, and mudpot areas. There are a staggering number of them. While many have viewing areas, some are barely acknowledged with but a small marker. The road in this section runs along streams and rivers with hot springs running off into cold water or boiling up directly into them.
In addition to Old Faithful, the southwest quadrant of the Grand Loop Road includes other popular sites, including Black Sand and Biscuit Basins, Fountain Geyser and Paintpot, and the astounding Grand Prismatic Spring. I’m sure it’s possible to tire of seeing them, but we did not. The variety is amazing, even the same hot spring seen from different viewpoints can provide great variation.
Along one area you might find a vast shallow lake with intense rust and earthy tones from iron oxide deposits. Cross round to the other side, and you might be rewarded with the otherworldly appearance of glass lake, steam rising across its breadth, with the entire visit reflected in its surface.
Yet in the same basin, along the same path, you can also find crystal clear deep pools with striking blue hues. The three major geyser basins (Upper, Midway, and Lower) in this southwest quadrant are filled with such sights, too many for me to describe, but well worth your time should you ever get to visit Yellowstone. There is so much to see in this park, but if you only have a day or two, make this area a priority.
For our second full day we again made the drive to the southern entrance and loop road, but this time turned right, or counterclockwise, to explore the southeast area long Yellowstone’s largest lake and associated river. Along this section you can find many more examples of hydrothermal activity, but with different appearances than most of those found in the main geyser basins, many along the edge of the lake, others creating enormous, sulfur rich mudpots.
It’s not that we had our fill of hot springs, but what we were really looking for in this section was waterfalls and wildlife. It did not disappoint. We took the side road to Artist Point with views of the large Yellowstone Lower Falls. This point allows you to drive a few hundred yards of the main viewing area, with the option of several hikes of varying length and difficulty to see other viewpoints or the upper falls.
As for wildlife, we passed a few small groups of Yellowstone’s ubiquitous bison, though none close enough for good photography with our cell phone cameras. We had far better luck with elk, coming across a bull and his mate grazing beside the road during our return trip. He was pretty calm, allowing for a few nice pictures, until another car got too close to his lady, riling him up enough to trot aggressively towards them with a few warning snorts too boot. What a fantastic way to end our day.
Our three nights at Colter Bay complete and with no openings available to extend we made a one night reservation at Gros Venture Campground at the southern end of Grand Teton National Park. I had considered trying for one of the first come boondocking sites along the road between the parks, but given how few spots were listed, we elected not to take a blind chance on them. Unfortunately, upon arriving at and trying to check in at Gros Venture, we realized I had confused my dates, and we were not due to arrive until the next day.
The helpful staff recommended a boondocking area just outside the park on national forest land. It was an adventure in and of itself just trying to find the place, requiring a couple of stops to consult online sources, but we found the Shadow Mountain area several miles down some dirt roads, just as promised. We talked to a couple of other campers, sort of unofficial hosts, and settled into a fantatic, and free, site with excellent views and friendly neighbors.
We took the opportunity to do some off-road driving, putting Loki in four wheel mode and headed up Shadow Mountain’s occasionally challenging trails, discovering geocaches, great vistas, and beautiful flora along the way. We did get lost, but only after we came back down the mountain a few miles from where we anticipated. It was all good, and if we come back to Grand Teton, we will seriously consider boondocking here again.
The next day we made the 30-minute drive back to Gros Venture for our last night in the area. Once checked into our site (like at Colter Bay, dry camping for $42 a night) we headed into Jackson Hole for a beer, a meal, and other general touristy behavior. We dined at Roadhouse Brewing Company, and it was quite good: excellent food, beer, and ambiance all around.
So that is our big Wyoming Post: 6 days, 550 miles, 2 national parks, 4 campsites, and a couple of happy RVers. Next up: Idaho.