Our adventures in Yellowstone and the Tetons from 2020 were part of our scouting mission to find places to revisit and spend more time hiking. So if you want to read about our itinerary to see the main attractions in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, click here.
This year, our goal was to focus on wildlife photography, and check out some hikes in the areas. Unfortunately, bad weather and smoke impacted part of our plans, but we still had a really fun trip.
Part 1: Wildlife Photography and Hiking in Lamar Valley
We attended a wedding in Eastern Wyoming before making our way to the parks, so we decided to make our way through the Big Horn National Forest (definitely recommend coming back here to hike) and enter the park through the Northeast Gate.
Surprisingly to us, Highway 212 is absolutely beautiful and has quite a few free campsites. This area is by far the fastest way into Lamar Valley, especially if you are trying to get there early in the morning.
Once we had camp setup, we had about an hour and a half before nighttime, so we swung into Lamar to see what animals were out. At that point of the evening, there were wolves and pups in the distance practicing their hunting skills. You'll know there are wolves (or another rare animal) when you see giant groups of people with spotting scopes on the side of the road.
The best times to see animals are usually early morning, and late evening. So the following day we made sure to be inside of Yellowstone by 6am.
Sure enough, the same spots with the wolves from the night before had wolves once again. Not too far from them was a grizzly minding its own business as it walked along a hillside.
These aren't the only animals in Lamar Valley, but they are much more rare to see. You will definitely see bison, some elk, and even some pronghorns.
Slough Creek Trail
As we were following random roads in Lamar Valley trying to find different animals, we found the Slough Creek Trailhead. Talking with some people who just finished hiking in the area, they said a momma black bear with cubs was nearby. So we decided to hike and see if we could take photos of them back in the meadows.
The Slough Creek Trail has a lot of options for hiking, whether you want to go the full 20 miles out and back, or only go part of the way. The first meadow is about 3.4 miles roundtrip, which is where we were thinking we could find the bears.
The trail itself is an old wagon trail, so it is actually a pretty wide trail. This works out very well if you have random bison walking towards you and you need to give them space.
The first meadow seems like it could be a mini Lamar Valley without all the people. I think it could be an excellent place to see wildlife first thing in the morning, which means you would have to get in there really early.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is one of my favorite popular sections of Yellowstone that I think is a must-do when you are in the park. The problem is, it gets really busy there, so you have to time it well. If you go early in the morning, then parking should be better but the steam mixing with cold air can make it difficult to see around the area.
We have had good luck midday and in the evening, and somehow both times have gotten front row parking. But they often shut down the parking area because it is full, which means you are parking on the road and hiking in.
There are a couple miles worth of trails that take you through thermal areas. You'll see a nice mix of geysers and springs. Give yourself a couple hours to see everything!
Artist Paint Pots
Sarah is a huge fan of the mud and paint pots. She loves the molten mud as it is bubbling from the earth.
Not far from the Norris Geyser Basin you'll find the Artist Paint Pots. The parking area is tiny and it gets busy, but it is worth the quick stop. The full loop is around 1 mile in length. There are a couple different paint pots for you to see!
Photos From Part 1
Part 2: Fairy Falls, Grand Prismatic, and Tetons
Hiking to Fairy Falls
We wanted to hike to Fairy Falls on our first trip to Yellowstone, but there just wasn't enough time to fit everything in. This time we made sure to make it a priority!
The trail is overall pretty flat with only about 170' of elevation gain total. The hike is also about 4.8 miles roundtrip. For the majority of people this would be a pretty accessible hike to do in Yellowstone!
We went right after a rain storm so it helped to make Fairy Falls stand out more. There were also lots of wildflowers close by the falls as well.
Fairy Falls itself is about 200' tall, and you can walk right up to the base of it.
Grand Prismatic Overlook
Grand Prismatic is an extremely popular destination in Yellowstone National Park. If you don't get there early, traffic and parking is an absolute nightmare.
Since we did the Fairy Falls hike, there is an overlook along the trail that gives you a different perspective of Grand Prismatic. It is further away than you would be on the normal boardwalk, but you can see the coloring and the entire size of Grand Prismatic much easier from here!
West Thumb Geyser Basin Geyser Basin
As you continue your trek south towards the Tetons, the last road junction to follow the loop around Yellowstone is home to the West Geyser Basin.
This basin is really neat. There are a mix of beautiful springs, mud pots, and inactive geysers for you to see. Some are located directly under the water of Yellowstone Lake as well. What was really fascinating is the previous year some of the geysers were completely visible, and this year they were fully submerged under water.
Sometimes you will get lucky and there will be deer or elk hanging out near the springs as well. It is definitely worth the quick stop to do the 1 mile loop around the basin!
The Shores of Jackson Lake
We were shocked as we were entering Grand Teton National Park from the north end! Jackson Lake the previous year was absolutely full of water, which we assumed was how it normally is. This year, the water was receded a few hundred feet from where it was the previous year.
It sounds like it had been a dry winter and they didn't have the normal snowpack, which is probably why the water levels were so low.
Photos From Part 2
Part 3: Hiking to Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes
Early Morning Wildlife Photography
In the Tetons if you want the best chances at seeing wildlife, the early mornings and evenings is your best bet. Once the temperatures rise, many of the animals, like moose, hide for the day.
There are a few places in the park where we have had great success with animals in the past. So first thing in the morning those are our go-to sections to try and see moose and pelicans.
Unfortunately for some reason we got skunked on our first morning. The smoke could have been a major factor in why the animals were harder to find.
Surprise and Amphitheater Lake Parking
The problem with going to places like Grand Teton National Park is that every day you have some big decisions to make: do you wake up early to find wildlife, or wake up early to get good parking for hiking??
Unfortunately you can't have both, and you have to chose one or the other. We knew that we potentially sacrificed being able to park at the trailheads by looking for animals, but that was the risk we were willing to take.
I tell you what though, I've seen some crazy parking situations but nothing like at the Surprise and Amphitheater Lake parking. Not only are people terrible at parking, but the parking goes for miles and miles!
Somehow we did find a parking spot about 1 mile away though!
Hiking to Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes
Hiking to the lakes is about 10 miles roundtrip, plus whatever length you need to add for your parking spot. For us this came out to be around 12 miles roundtrip. Also add in about 3000' of elevation gain to a max height around 9700', this is definitely a butt kicker!
You start off heading into the woods with minimal elevation gain. This can be a decent spot for spotting wildlife at certain times of the day, but with our luck we missed the bears by about a minute. Then you start to go up in elevation with a steady incline.
As you get closer to the lakes, the trees start to change and the area becomes really majestic looking.
The lakes have a beautiful rich glacial blue coloring to them, and are extremely cold. There are trails alongside them as well so you can continue your journey and explore the area if you want!
Wildlife After Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes
It seems like our luck with wildlife changed after reaching the lakes. All of a sudden on the way down we encountered marmots, mountain chickens, deer and fawns, bears, and elk. The entire way back to the car was full of wildlife entertainment.
This was just the beginning of our luck with the wildlife and was our warmup for Part 4.
Photos From Part 3
Part 4: Moose, Otters, Leaving the Tetons for Sun Valley
Doing the Same Thing Expecting Different Results
Since we had the epic wildlife failure the previous morning, we decided to do the exact same spots hoping for different results. Some would call us insane. I, however, would say we were smart for doing so.
The river location we usually visit not only had pelicans this time in the distance, but 4 otters came and played within a few feet of us! It was really hard to take photos and video them but they sure were fun to watch.
We tried our secret moose spot (my favorite animal) with once again no luck. So since I was bound and determined not to go home unless I saw moose, we went over to Moose Road.
Sure enough, we saw babies and momma moose all over the place. But I still have not gotten the epic bull moose photo I am wanting to get so badly.
Heading Out Before the Thunderstorms
We saw on the radar that there were some huge thunderstorms heading towards the Tetons, so since we were tent camping we opted to get the heck out of dodge and head towards Sun Valley.
We made the right decision because apparently the storms had golf ball sized hail and people we met that were camping at the same place we were said it was a miserable experience.
On our way, we decided to swing into Grand Targhee resort and see what that area looks like. I really want to go check it out in the winter because the slopes look awesome!
Crazy Storms Along Our Drive
While driving, we definitely experienced some of the storms that were headed towards the Tetons. In one section, the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 30 seconds and was raining so hard we had to pull over. The sky was dark and lightning was everywhere.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
We had been driving in the middle of nowhere for hours and hours through the desert, then all of a sudden the area became this really unique rocky landscape. Turns out, there is a National Monument there called Craters of the Moon.
It literally does look like you are on the moon, we had to drive through. It looks so out of place compared to the rest of the area, and apparently there are some caves in one section of the park.
This area was formed from lava flows, and there are a few theories where the lava came from. The most likely one is from an event called the Great Rift. It is theorized the area grew 618 square miles from that event.
Exploring Sun Valley Ski Resort and Getting Caught in Lightning
Have you ever been trapped in a little tiny ski shack during a lightning storm? No, neither had be before this trip.
We took the gondola up to the middle of Sun Valley, and all of a sudden storms started rolling in. Because of lightning strikes happening nearby, the resort had to shut down the lifts and start evacuating people off the mountain in cars.
We were up there with our friend who is wheelchair-bound, so escaping in a car is not an easy feat. We let all the other guests escape first because we were pretty okay with dealing with a storm.
Well, lightning struck nearby so the staff pushed us into the ski shack so we could all be in a grounded spot. About 5 minutes being in there, another strike hit one of the gondola towers a few hundred feet from us.
I have never heard such a loud noise in my life, and never seen anything so bright. It was amazing and also slightly terrifying how powerful lightning is.
We ended up staying in the shack for about 2 hours before we got the all-clear to be shuttled down. We could see fresh wildfires from all the lightning strikes in the hills all around us.
Ending in Hot Springs
As we typically like to do on trips, we like to soak in hot springs at the end. The Sawtooths have a ton of hot springs and while we were waiting out the storm, the lifties were telling us about some good ones nearby.
We didn't think about how the heavy rains in the last 2 hours would impact the hot springs though. The rivers all increased significantly and the springs were all flooded out. So basically we found the heat sources and sat on them to stay warm while cold water circled all around us.
All in all, this wasn't the roadtrip we expected but it was surely an adventure to remember. We still had a blast and cannot wait to go back to Yellowstone and the Tetons again in the future!