Table of Contents

Yellowstone Road Trip

Itinerary for a 3 week round trip from Denver

Our three week circular Yellowstone Road Trip began and ended in Denver and covered a grand total of 3131 miles by road and 100 miles on foot.  Three weeks was just about the right amount of time to explore some of the Wild West USA’s greatest national parks – Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone – at a fairly leisurely pace.   We crossed six State borders on our journey: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota.

Yellowstone Road Trip from Denver

Best time to visit Yellowstone

We visited in late August/early September.  The weather was glorious and the parks were not too crowded.  Visiting Yellowstone in the Summer is definitely best avoided – it is way too hot.  

All the National Parks quieten down significantly after Labour Day at the end of August, so then is a good time to go, as long as you don’t leave it so long that the snow arrives – it is a small window, RMNP is definitely the busiest park (people per square mile), so I would leave that as late into the season as possible.

The parks close up later in September in preparation for deep snowfall that engulfs the area for the whole of the long Winter in Yellowstone.  There are a couple of lodges that open in Winter though and if you are brave enough to cope with the snowfall and cold, it could be a wonderful trip.  You would still see much of the wildlife that makes the national parks exciting places to visit and the thermal springs would look all the more spectacular emerging through the snow I imagine.  There probably wouldn’t be anything like so many people around either, so if “do different” is your style of holiday, then it is worth thinking about visiting in the Winter time.

Yellowstone Road Trip from Denver

Top Ten “Must-Dos”

  1. Watch Old Faithful do her thing
  2. Tick Mount Rushmore off your bucket list
  3. Drive the jaw dropping Beartooth Highway
  4. Take your best shot at Artist’s Point, Grand Canyon
  5. Visit the Battle of the Little Bighorn battlefield site.
  6. Have your photo taken under the Jackson Elk Antler Arch
  7. Sing “Rocky Mountain High, Colorado” as you enter the RNMP
  8. Soak up the atmosphere at Devil’s Monument
  9. Explore the Badlands and marvel at how people actually lived there
  10. Stroll around the beautiful Botanic Gardens at Denver
Lakeside Lodge Yellowstone Lake Lodge Cabin
Yellowstone Lake Lodge Cabin
Wildwood Inn RMNP Bedroom
Wildwood Inn RMNP Bedroom
Yellowstone Chico Hot Springs Hotel
Chico Hot Springs Hotel

Checklist

National Parks

Useful Website to help you plan your perfect trip to Yellowstone:

Old Faithful Morning Glory Pool Yellowstone NP
Morning Glory Pool Yellowstone NP
The Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park

Flora and Fauna

This is just a checklist of what I actually saw – to inspire you to go – but there is potentially so much more to see here!  

Posts about flora and fauna – one of my special areas of interest – are highlighted with the Tag “Flora and Fauna” which you can search for using the tag cloud on the sidebar.

Rapid City America
Bison roaming free

Fauna

Flora

  • Desert Rockcress
  • Prickly Pears
  • Yucca
  • Pinyon Pines
  • Utah Juniper
Colorado National Monument Perfect picnic spot in the Heart of the World
Desert Rockcress

Foodie Firsts

Tasting new things is part of the real thrill of travel for me.  I use the tag “Foodie Firsts” to highlight these and make it easy for you to search for them and try them out for yourself.”Foodie Firsts” to discover more about the Wild West’s Foodie scene.

Dinosaur National Monument Artisan Cheese Menu
Artisan Cheese Menu - Bin 707 - Grand Junction
The Cheesecake Factory Denver
The Cheesecake Factory Denver

Yellowstone - What I'm Packing

Don’t Leave Home Without:

ETSA Visa waiver

Hat/scarf/gloves – early mornings and late evening can be cold here, even in Summer

Sun hat/sunscreen

Pepper spray – you might not be able to take it on the aircraft, so it might be something you need to buy – or rent – when you are there.

Mosquito repellent – I got badly bitten in Grand Teton NP.

A more complete list of what I packed is on this post:  

I also bought a couple of head torches, because I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that a must do thing was a canoe trip at sunrise to the middle of a lake in Grand Teton where you should see moose around the lake as the sun comes up.   It sounds magical – and I didn’t want to be prevented from doing it by  lack of a head torch!

Yellowstone - What I'm Reading

Lonely Planet Guidebook Yellowstone & Grand Teton

Yellowstone has Teeth – A Memoir of living in Yellowstone by Marjane Ambler

Death in Yellowstone:  Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittesley

The Spirit of Indian Women – edited by Judith Fitzgerald and Michael Oren Fitzgerald

Letters from Yellowstone

Wilderness and the American Mind

Read reviews on my post “Yellowstone – What I’m Reading”

Tips for Future Travellers

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing.  These are my top tips to help you plan your own perfect trip to the Wild West.

  1. The National Park annual pass is great value at $80. Buy one as soon as you arrive to get the best value from it.
  2. Time your visit to Mount Rushmore at sunset if you want to see the lighting ceremony and experience the full patriotic fervour of this site.
  3. Flagg Ranch might have made a good stop – pitched between South Yellowstone and North Grand Teton, you could go either way, depending on your mood.  Gardiner is a good place for the north end of Yellowstone and Red Rocks is potentially a good alternative to Billings en route.

Read my full Yellowstone Road Trip from Denver:

Hilton Double Tree Denver Shuttle Bus

Safe arrival in Denver – another adventure begins

Denver airport covers an area of 53 miles. It is the largest airport in the States apparently – massive! The free shuttle bus took us to the Hilton Double Tree in half an hour, driving through wide open prairie country – This was a surprise – I had expected it to be all built up? The hotel is 5 miles from Downtown Denver, so we haven’t actually had a glimpse of the Mile High City yet.

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Clock Tower Denver

Denver In 1 Day

Denver in 1 Day – How best to tackle it?!  We started by renting a car. This wasn’t our original plan, but the heat was high as early as 7am this morning, so the amount of ground we wanted to cover would have been exhausting without some wheels. Taxis downtown are about $20 anyway, so the car hire covers its costs quite quickly. It was easy as there was an Avis desk in the hotel lobby.

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Mount Rushmore

On the road again … Mount Rushmore

We have a long drive ahead of us today from Denver to Rapid City where we will be able to tick the Must Do Mount Rushmore off our bucket list.

I would have liked to spend another day in Denver. There is a lot to see here. the Money Museum would have been interesting, but it was shut on a Sunday. There is a big Arts Museum and lots of History Museums too.

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Rapid City America

Rapid City South Dakota – Spelunking, Bison and Patriotic Fervour

Staying in Rapid City South Dakota gives you the chance to explore two National Parks and Mount Rushmore.  We set off early this morning headed for Wind Cave for a spot of spelunking. It was a long and winding road through the prairie to get there. The cave is situated where plains meet mountain, so we had lovely views of the Black Hills of South Dakota covered in ponderosa pine and also the vast sweeping expanse of prairie. The landscape is soft and undulating – all colours of pale green and gold – like a rich tapestry you could reach out and touch – only you couldn’t because there is just so much of it!

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Badlands - Boiling Heat in Badlands National Park

Buckle up for the Badlands …

We headed off on the Interstate 90 towards the Badlands National Park with Lucinda Williams (“too rock to be country, too country to be rock!) belting out Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The road took us through Wall, on the edge of the Park. from a long way away, roadsigns for Wall Drug started popping up every c5 miles or so. We were driving too fast to photograph them – “Frosted Mug Beer”, “Badlands Maps”, “Homemade Pie”, “Breakfast Roll, Donuts, Fudge and Pie” – all available at Wall Drug. It seems like you can get just about everything at Wall Drug, I was beginning to wonder if there was anything you couldn’t get?  “Be Yourself” at Wall Drug – you can even get therapy?! OK – the temptation was just too much – we just HAD to pull off at Wall Drug.

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Battle of the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

Battle of the Little Bighorn – a Clash of Cultures

Today, we leave Rapid City and continue our journey to Yellowstone.  We chose to include the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn on our trip and were glad we did.  The road there also passes through Devil’s Monument, sop it turned out to be a very full day, which is always a good thing I my book!

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Country Inn and Suites by Carlson Billings Waffle Maker

Accommodation Review:  Country Inn and Suites by Carlson, Billings

The Country Inn & Suites by Carlson was easy to find in Billings and the room was massive and comfortable. You can see from the photos that there was a rather oddly placed hot tub right in the middle of the bedroom. It had full length mirrors and a plant in the corner of it and a basket of folded towels at the side – I am searching for an adjective here – and a few (pejorative) come to mind – but I am going to plump for ….. AWESOME! the power shower was excellent too.

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Billings

Bye Bye Billings – A 1 Night Stand

Billings was our choice for a “one night stand” – only because it was about as far as we could drive towards Yellowstone without stopping really.  We walked up the top end of Main Street to buy a few bits and pieces we needed. The hotel was located right next to a liquor store with a friendly notice “No Soliciting” – and there was an all pervading smell of frying. We reached the CVS Driv Thru Pharmacy and asked the shop assistant if we should walk down the rest of MaIin Street to downtown Billngs? People drive, they don’t walk. go if you like – but “I’ve lived here all my life – it’s not real fun”. thanks – We’ll take a rain check on that!

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Beartooth Highway Beartooth Highway Summit

Beartooth Highway – Jaw Dropping!

We left Billings behind us and continued to head West towards the Beartooth Highway. This 68 mile stretch of road runs right into Yellowstone Park. We passed through Red Rocks on the way, which is a lovely little place. This would have been a better overnight stop than Billings I think, although we had travelled about as far as we could go yesterday, so another hour would have maybe been too much.

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Yellowstone Chico Hot Springs Hotel

Accommodation Review:  Chico Hot Springs Hotel

We finally arrived at Chico Hot Springs hotel just in time for dinner. This is an old historic lodge our room is tiny and three floors up with no lift – a bit exhausting hauling the bags up all those creaky stairs. Dinner was fabulous. The food on the trip so far hasn’t been anything to write home about really – standard American menus. Last night was different though – Beef Wellington for two carved at the table. We washed it down with a bottle of The Crusher Merlot – a Californian Merlot which tasted.absolutely wonderful despite it’s less than romantic name! No room for dessert, sadly.
Overall, this was a great place to stay and I would definitely recommend it.

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Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone NP

Mammoth Hot Springs and Steam

We drove into Yellowstone today and stopped at a cool saddle shop in Gardiner on the way to buy a belt for my camera. This was a shop for REAL men … Saddles, gun holsters, cowboy hats, after shave and razors. You could buy an off the left saddle for $2,500 – or have one custom made at the back of the shop for $3,500. We visited Mammoth Hot Springs first off.  

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Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Artist's Point Yellowstone National Park

Bear Encounter – Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River

This morning, we headed out for Canyon Village. It took 2 and a quarter hours to get there from our hotel – our concept of distance has completely changed. We have to do that trip back the other way at the end of the day too, of course – but there is no alternative of you want to see all this place has to offer.

We decided to do an 8 mile trail along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River . It took us about 3 hours to complete this – and it was absolutely spectacular. I will let the pictures do the talking here, but this was without doubt the highlight of the trip so far. Artist’s Point is definitely a “must do”.

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Norris Geyser Basin Porcelain Basin Yellowstone NP

Norris Geyser Basin – Let’s go for a Hike – Across a Boiling Cauldron?

Today, we visited the Norris Geyser Basin. We stopped off at the Museum of the Park Ranger first. We learned that most of the Bears in the Park are in the higher territory where there is an abundance of worms – that made me feel a bit safer. We also learned that bison can run at 50 miles per hour – so now, I am scared again as there are far more bison here than bears! The bus one like to come to the Norris area in the Winter apparently, because the hot water melts the snow and they can forage more easily – although they can forage though up to 15 inches of snow, apparently. The museum is worth a trip. it tells you all about how the Park Ranger service grew from what was originally a military unit based at the park. Their mission is to interpret (help visitors to appreciate) and protect. In my second life, I think I might come back as a Park Ranger, though they say the most difficult bit of the job is to keep cheerful and smiling doing the same job day after day. They are without exception always friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable – I wish we had them in National Parks back home.

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West Thumb Basin Abyss Pool - Yellowstone National Park

West Thumb Basin – Thumbs Up and Jingle Bells

This morning, we visited West Thumb Geyser Basin. This was a quieter area than Norris and there some interesting things to see there.  

There were a number of interesting sights here, but the best were:

​Abyss Pool – one of the deeper hot springs descending to 53 feet and varies from turquoise blue to emerald green and various shades of brown …

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Bear Lake Lake Haiwaya Yellowstone NP

Bear Lake – Let’s Take a Walk

Today, we took our longest hike of the trip – a 10 mile loop from Bear Lake past Alberta Falls to the Loch Valley, past Lake Haiwaya and back down to Bear Lake at the end. Bear Lake is at 9,475 feet elevation and the Loch adds another 990 feet – it was rough walking in places – a lot of up and not much down until the last couple of miles.

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Old Faithful Yellowstone NP

Old Faithful – “O Come All Ye Faithful”

Old Faithful erupts pretty reliably every hour to hour and a half – hence the name – so we decided to take a pew and just wait it out – in case we missed it later on. We got a front row pew – they were all empty because OF had obviously only just done it’s thing. We waited for 45 minutes – chatting happily to a couple from Florida and a Dutch couple – always interesting to talk to other people and share travel experiences etc, It really helped to pass the time. The suspense mounted – the crowd grew and was soon three people deep all around OF … Eventually, OF began to hiss a bit and bubble and steam and then – yes – reliably enough (a bit later than predicted – but – hey, this is a natural phenomena. – so who’s counting? she blew … and yes, the sheer power and height of it was amazing.

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Grand Teton National Park - Willow Flats

On the Trail to Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Signal Mountain Lodge much sooner than we had expected – I think we must got the distances a bit wrong somewhere in the planning. It only took a couple of hours from Yellowstone Lake. This meant we had plenty of time to call in at Colter Visitor Centre and plan the rest of our trip.

The scenery on the drive into the Grand Teton National Park was absolutely stunning a provided a welcome change in colour from Yellowstone. Mount Moran dominates the landscape on the drive in – the turnout at Willow Flats gave us a beautful view of it nestled into the lake and tucked in with sagebrush and fall leaf colour. Absolutely stunning.

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Snake River and Taggart Lake Grand Teton National Park

Snake River and Taggart Lake – All I Need is the Air that I Breathe …

We made an early start on our fist full day in Grand Teton National Park to join a float trip down the Snake River organised through Signal Mountain Lodge. Mountain and lake scenery does it for me every time. I would very much like to come here in Spring (I.e. last week June/1st week July) to see the alpine flowers in bloom. Now though, we have the beautiful fall colours of the cottonwood and aspen trees. It is such a short season here – soon (2 weeks max,) – the trees will be reduced to twigs again and the snow will come – up to 300 inches in Jackson usually and 700 inches in the mountains.

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Cascade Canyon Grand Teton Range reflected in Jackson Lake

Cascade Canyon – Autumn Gold

We took a long day hike into Cascade Canyon today. Even with the boat ride across Jenny Lake, it is still a 10 mile hike. We were rewarded with fine views of the changing Autumn foliage. 

Personally, I didn’t find the view from Inspiration Point particularly inspirational – after the very strenuous hike through thin air, I was really hoping for something more – but I did have a sense of achievement for accomplishing the hike this far and enthusiasm to press on to the Forks – the majority of people get no further than Inspiration Point, but the trails flattens out after this, so why not press on?

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Elk Antler Arch Jackson

Rock Springs via Jackson – Aiming for the Armpit

We got talking to a couple of local guys in the Deadman’s Bar last night – well actually, they’d started the conversation by asking us how we were enjoying our visit to the colonies. We laughed at this and the conversation went on for an hour or more by which time we had sorted out American politics, English politics, beer, whisky, resource management and – well we ran out of time for world peace. They asked us where we were headed next and when we said Rock Springs , they told us this was the armpit of Wyoming, in their opinion. Great – so we are aiming for the armpit then!

We headed off towards Jackson and stopped off at the National Museum of Wildlife Art on the way. This was a fantastic museum – really worth the stop, I would go so far as to say that if you have time to visit only one museum in this area, this should be your choice.

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Homewood Suites Hilton Rock Springs

Accommodation Review:  Homewood Suites Hilton Rock Springs

The Homewood Suites Hilton Rock Springs is a reasonable base  for this portion of the trip.  The hotel was comfortable and the room was spacious – but without much character.  There is a Chinese restaurant nearby which is OK.  Jackson would maybe have been a better place to stay – but it is really difficult to balance reasonable driving distances with the best place to stay on a long road trip like this.  The compromise was reasonable here, overall.

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Dinosaur National Monumen Allosauraus Jammadseni

Dinosaur Log Jam – Dinosaur National Monument – Utah

We turned off at Vernal and visited the Dinosaur National Monument. We walked the fossil trail which is a short hike through desert country. There were fossils to see all along the trail, but it is hard to identify them if you are not exavtly sure what you are looking for. We walked the trail with a family whose son was convinced he could see bones everywhere. His Dad was less convinced – “your’e asking the guy who can’t even find the ketchup in the fridge to find a fossil?!” The indicative white arrows had been largely rubbed off, so that made things significantly more challenging. We definitely found one exhibit though – see photo! 

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Grand Junction funky street sculpture

A Walk down Main Street Grand Junction

Grand Junction is such an interesting town to visit – I am really glad we stopped here and we could easily have spent another day. It has lots of individual shops selling all manner of things from antiques to art and everything in between. There is a big foodie bias – lots of breweries and wineries and shops selling artisan cheeses – one stocked 54 varieties of extra virgin olive oil.

Main Street is lined with sculptures – public art – but with a quirky, fun bias rather than anything high brow.

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Colorado National Monument The Coke Ovens

Hiking in the Heart of The World – Colorado National Monument

We visited Colorado National Monument this morning. We had planned to spend just a couple of hours there, but ended up spending the whole day it was so interesting. John Otto was the man who fell in love with the place when he visited it in 1907 and dedicated the best part of his life to building trails there and getting it designated as a National,Park, which he achieved in 1911. He worked as the park’s caretaker then for $1 a day, so dedicated was he to the site.

John Ottos’s Dream:  “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they felt like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay … – and promote this place, because it should be a National Park.”

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Wildwood Inn RMNP

Accommodation Review: Wildwood Inn RMNP

Self catering at the Wildwood Inn RMNP made a pleasant change at this late stage of our trip.  Shopping in the supermarket was interesting too.  The accommodation is a drive away from the nearest shop though.  It was too cold to use the outside jacuzzi and it didn’t look too inviting anyway.  Bears raided the bins at night – which could have been better managed.  The accommodation was very spacious and comfortable though.  The Wi-Fi signal was very weak/slow.

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RMNP All Fired Up - Rocky Mountain National Park

Cub Lake/Fern Falls – RMNP – All Fired Up!

With a full day to spend in RMNP, we hiked to Cub Lake today and decided to go beyond to Fern Falls – an 8 mile round trip in all. The foliage is a more fiery orange/red here, although it is a late fall this year. 

Our hike was accompanied by the loud bugling of elk all along the trail. This is rut season and you can hear it going on all around you. I thought it would be confined to sunrise/sunset – but the cries rang out around the tranquil vallies all day. During the fall, bull elk become aggressive as this is the breeding rut. They gather harems of up to 60 females around them and fiercely defend them using their antlers as weapons as they lock in combat with other bulls for breeding rights to the cow elk. I failed miserably to capture the sound of a bugling elk all day.  

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The Cheesecake Factory Denver

Last Chance Saloon – Hitting the Sweet Spot in Denver

We had a couple of hours drive to reach Denver again after checking out of our Estes Park lodgings. I was left wanting more from Denver on our first visit, so it was easy plan the few hours we had left to us today.

I had three objectives in mind: See Grand Union Station, visit the enticing looking Cheesecake Factory and take a photo of the mile high city skyline… Grand Union Station – tick! Art deco style – never fails to please.

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Yellowstone What I'm Reading The souvenir I did buy

Yellowstone Road Trip – Final Reflections/Tips for Future Travellers

We travelled a total of 3,131 miles on our Yellowstone road trip by road and about 100 miles on foot. That is a lot of ground. We could have cut the trip short by missing out the Wild West bit around Rapid City/Mount Rushmore, but we would have missed out on quite a bit of the flavour of the place then and I wouldn’t want to have done that. The National Park annual pass turned out to be great value at $80. All the National Parks quieten down significantly after Labour Day at the end of August, so then is a good time to go, as long as you don’t leave it so long that the snow arrives – it is a small window, RMNP is definitely the busiest park (people per square mile), so I would leave that as late into the season as possible.

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