I spent Labor Day Weekend 2020 in Wyoming, exploring Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park with my mom! While it was originally planned as a solo trip, my mama decided to join me just a few days before and booked a last minute flight and I’m so glad to have had the chance to spend time with her. I can’t remember the last vacation we took just the two of us – it has been years! Lodging in the parks is limited in the best of times, but with the pandemic many of the hotels and campgrounds were closed. I was lucky enough to get a reservation for a few of the nights at a centrally located campground in Yellowstone, but planned to find a free dispersed camping site the first night. We drove about 1,000 miles, walked over 35 miles, and had a great trip. Read on for my must-sees and maybe some lessons learned.
Labor Day Weekend basically signals the end of the peak tourist season in Yellowstone and the weather can vary wildly as is evident by the highs, lows, and snow we experienced while we were there. In general, it was sunny and warm during the day (75 degrees F) and chilly and clear at night (down to around 35-40 degrees F), however on our last day we did get caught in the cold front that dropped snow across Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado! We were driving over the Beartooth Pass when the ice and snow started, which made for a bit of a long and stressful journey, but we made it. Below you’ll find our itinerary, and then some recommendations if you have more or less time.
Day One: Arrive in Billings, MT and drive all the way south to Grand Tetons National Park
Day Two: Explore Grand Tetons National Park, visit Mormon Row, hike Jenny Lake, drive back to Yellowstone and set up camp for the weekend
Day Three: Old Faithful, geyser basin, western Yellowstone (not to be confused with West Yellowstone)
Day Four: Horseback riding, Hayden Valley, and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, plus a bonus road trip to Idaho
Day Five: Lamar Valley, Beartooth Highway, drive back to Billings for the night
Day Six: Depart for home!
My mom and I both flew into Billings, MT on Thursday – I got in around 10:30 in the morning and my mom arrived a few hours later. I was able to pick up the rental car, run to the grocery store, Cabela’s and REI (bear spray shortage…), and also pick up our rental camping gear. I rented several items from Arrive Outdoors and highly recommend! It was so easy and everything I received was high quality and in great shape. I will be making a new post about everything I packed, rented, and what I wish I’d brought… After I picked up my mom from the airport, we started the 282 mile/6 hour drive to Grand Teton National Park.
We drove south to Cody, then entered Yellowstone’s east entrance. Unfortunately, this is where we had our first bear encounter…and it was a very sad one. What must have been sheer minutes before we drove around a corner, an RV had struck a black bear cub and it was still in the road when we drove past. NOT exactly how I wanted to be welcomed to Yellowstone. It would prove to be the first of only two bear sightings during our trip, the second one less sad but no less disappointing.
For weeks, I had been reading about what time the campgrounds filled each day and just knew we would not arrive in time to get one on Thursday evening, and I was right. We drove straight through Yellowstone and checked each campground in Grand Tetons National Park on our drive, but every one was full. When we reached Jenny Lake it was already getting dark, so we went to Plan B: find a dispersed camping site where we could park for the night and sleep in our car. I had saved a few options in advance thinking we may be looking for a place after day, and luckily we found it easily and were able to find a site and set up our sleeping bags in the back of the rental RAV4 without any issues. If I go missing, it’s probably because I posted this photo of my mom and I immediately after we woke up.
Once morning arrived we decided that we maybe weren’t in an official site but there definitely were not any “no camping” signs so I think we were fine. And, I mean, watching the sunrise over Spread Creek was incredible! We packed up (using that term loosely…) and headed out for our first real view of the Tetons in the daylight and I could not believe how stunning it was. I just kept telling my mom that they looked fake, like a backdrop! We drove over to Mormon Row to visit the John Moulton pink house and the famous T.A. Moulton Barn. We enjoyed walking through the settlement and reading about the history.
After that, we headed over to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and geared up for our 7.7 mile hike around the lake. We decided to forgo the ferry across and hike the full loop, although if you are hiking up Cascade Canyon you may want to spend the $18 on a roundtrip ticket and cut off that extra 2.5 miles each way. We thought the lake loop would be a good distance and difficult for the both of us and we were right – it was tiring but beautiful and so worth it. The views were spectacular and we were able to see a bull moose taking a dip in Moose Lake, which felt very fortuitous. We ate lunch on the trail and finished up around 3 p.m. Once we got back to the car and cooled off, knowing that all public showers were closed in Yellowstone, we decided to stop at one of the campgrounds in Grand Tetons to use their pay showers. Best $6 of the trip spent 🙂
Freshly showered and with clean clothes, we began the two hour drive to Bridge Bay Campground where I was lucky enough to find a reservation for the next three nights a couple of weeks before we left. On the drive, Mom pointed out what looked like smoke off in the distance. I knew there was a fire inside the Grand Loop of Yellowstone but hadn’t heard much more about it – well the warm weather and dry conditions made it spike just before Labor Day Weekend. The Lone Star Fire was gaining in size and quickly!
Shortly before exiting Grand Tetons National Park, we came upon several cars and a park ranger on the side of the road, asked what was up, and heard to my delight that a grizzly bear had been sighted!! I have never hopped out of the car so quickly. I ran across scraggly brush and grass with like 30 other tourists (keeping our distance from each other, because you know, COVID-19) only to find that it had already gone around a corner. I saw a brief glimpse of it crossing a gravel road about 300 yards away, but that was my second and final bear sighting of the trip, again…disappointing! This was the first time I felt immediately dumb for not bringing a pair of binoculars, it wouldn’t be the last time of the weekend, though. We got back on the road, checked in to our site, set up camp, fixed some quick nachos for dinner, and promptly went to bed!
We leisurely got up, got ready, and packed the car for a full day out and about. We drove to Old Faithful and only had about 25 minutes to kill before it erupted, so we found a spot on a bench and lounged in the morning sun. There is a large sign where the park lists the estimated eruption times for the major geysers. Don’t worry if you get there with plenty of time, there are many trails and paths to explore around the area. Old Faithful itself was a little underwhelming, but I am glad to have seen it – I probably wouldn’t return, though. We walked some of the boardwalks over the hot springs around Old Faithful, which I found much more interesting and beautiful!
Next Up (after some gift shop wandering…), we drove up to the Fairy Falls trailhead parking lot and ate a quick lunch in the back of the car watching the Firehole River stream past. After we finished eating, we decided to hike down to Fairy Falls via the Overlook, about 5.5 miles of easy terrain. In my opinion, this was a simple hike with big rewards. It was pretty easy, even the climb to the overlook was only a couple hundred feet of elevation gain and you were greeted by a gorgeous view of Grand Prismatic Spring from the top. We headed back down and continued to Fairy Falls, which I found delightful but Mom said she wasn’t impressed…but this is coming from the woman who spent 4 weeks this summer traipsing around the US via RV, visiting 16 national parks and countless waterfalls, so take that with a grain of salt. On the way back to the car, we found several indicators that there were bears in the area (scat, scratchings) but never actually saw one – BUMMER!
When we returned to the car, we noticed traffic was extremely backed up in both directions and was moving very slow. We planned to return to camp and turned south to go past Old Faithful. This is where maybe I should note that the section of the Grand Loop immediately north of our campground (Fishing Bridge to Canyon) was closed and had been for a few weeks due to a biohazard spill, making it extremely difficult (and time consuming) to drive anywhere from our “centrally located” campground – we basically had to drive south and make a full loop to make it anywhere. Well, while in traffic we asked what the back up was (hoping for a Bison jam or something else exciting) only to hear that the fire had spread and they’d closed the road south of Old Faithful! I was momentarily dumbstruck…we were stranded. The closest route back to our camp was over 250 miles and it was already 6pm and we had been hiking and were tired and hungry and I may have been a bit dramatic. I was so glad to have my mom with me because otherwise I probably would have started crying. But, we decided that we would head north and go out to West Yellowstone, hope for a hotel room (although, based on the line of cars that didn’t seem likely) and make the trek south and around if we had to.
It took us about 4 hours to go the 21 miles from the Fairy Falls parking lot to the Madison Junction and during that time I increasingly got more stressed out, tired, and cranky. Hera bless my mother because she was so upbeat and kept me from losing my mind. We didn’t even see any animals on this trek! FOUR HOURS and we saw ONE bison. One. It was so boring. We also saw smoke again, and it was awesome (in a not great way) to see how much more expansive it had grown in 24 hours. Granted we were much closer – but how crazy is this??
By the time we finally reached the Madison junction where I planned to turn west and leave the park, fully expecting our night drive to just be getting started, there were park rangers directing traffic (my guess is that the 4-way stop was a major cause of the initial backup). Then…I saw it…or, I thought I saw it…
A ranger holding a handwritten sign that said “something something something OPEN.”
I don’t know a lot about the park, but I KNEW at that moment that the road on the east side of the loop had been reopened. I freaked out and my mom had no clue what was going on. I sort of pulled into the intersection and asked another park ranger if the road was open from Canyon to Fishing Bridge and he said yes. For some reason it’s like I didn’t believe him and sort of yelled, “YOU MEAN WE CAN GET TO BRIDGE BAY CAMPGROUND?!” He was a good sport, he laughed and said, “yes.”
So we turned right and my mood IMMEDIATELY did a 180. I cannot describe to you how happy I was in that moment…I am NOT a night person and the thought of driving another 5 hours in the dark through Idaho was not on my itinerary. It took us just over an hour to get back to camp and it was the fastest hour ever; I was so relieved. We even passed a few bison herds and a group of about 15 elk! More wildlife than we’d seen the last two days combined. Although, neither of us had the energy to cook dinner so we just had a ham sandwich and some chips and called it a day.
Sunday morning dawned clear and lovely. We had planned to go for a horseback ride this morning, but with the road closures we weren’t sure we’d make it. Weirdly, the fire forcing the Fishing Bridge to Canyon road to open was actually a blessing for us because it made the trip to the stables a quick 30 minute drive through Hayden Valley. We arrived around 8:30 a.m. for our two hour canyon ride and after introductions, instructions, and an overview we took off! Mom and I neither one had ridden a horse in years but it felt great to be back in the saddle and the weather was perfect for it.
Following our ride, we drove the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, stopping and hiking a few short trails down to view points. By this point, it was early afternoon and I had a crazy idea…I had never been to Idaho, so asked mom if she wanted to go for a drive over the state line and of course she was game. So we drove back out through West Yellowstone and on to the pass the border of Idaho, stopping at several places along the way to view bison, catch glimpses of waterfalls, and just take in the gorgeous scenery. We took advantage of having cell phone service and checked in with my dad and Jess, browsed social media, and (albeit reluctantly) checked email. Then we drove back to camp and sat around the campfire for a few hours before going to bed.
Dad had told us to “watch the weather” on Monday because a cold front was coming through and expected to snow a bit across Montana and Wyoming, however with the lack of service we couldn’t necessarily check it or get updates, so we proceeded with our original plan which was to get up early and pack up camp before heading north through Lamar Valley in hopes of spotting some more wildlife. Well, jokes on us because we ended up “watching the weather” from the inside of our car as it swirled around us.
We headed out early and spent a few hours driving through Lamar Valley, stopping to see bison, taking a few detours down side roads to see a petrified tree and unsuccessfully view a wolfpack take down an elk, although the people with scopes and binoculars said it was amazing! Cue me feeling like an idiot, again, for not bringing binoculars.
By the time we reached the northeast entrance of Yellowstone, we had a choice to make: go back the way we came and go out the north entrance, through Gardiner and Livingston our way back to Billings (what we deemed the “safe” and also boring option) or continue and take the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge (a 68-mile scenic pass through the Beartooth Mountains that includes switchbacks and peaks at nearly 11,000 feet). We decided to continue through the mountains…and about an hour later as we climbed in elevation and the snow and ice started to pelt our car I seriously questioned that move. The drive started off simple enough, we passed some cows on the road (it’s an open range area!) and a few cowboys with their hard-working doggos. However, the farther up we drove the more the visibility decreased until eventually it was snowing and I could maybe only see 10-20 feet in front of our car. I had to take Mom’s word for it that there were spectacular views beyond the clouds and sleet because I couldn’t see anything – not that I would have taken my eyes off the road! It took us maybe an hour or so to cross the peak, moving very slowly, and then start down the other side. Each time we passed a car going the other direction (which was maybe only 5 or 6 in total) I thought “well if that mini-van can make it up here, I can make it down.” We finally made it to Red Lodge and it was blowing snow everywhere and was actually quite lovely! I don’t have any photos of the crazy weather, because you know, stressful driving, but take my word for it – I was glad to be on flat earth again. We continued on and checked into our hotel in Billings for a final rest in an actual bed! I slept like a rock…
While not really part of our itinerary, my travel day home was long and exhausting and I’ve gotta vent. The flight from Billings to Dallas on Monday night (not my flight) was delayed 10+ hours and then cancelled due to mechanical issues so all of those people were rescheduled onto my flight scheduled to depart at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, but then it was the same plan with the same issues! So my flight was delayed a few hours and there were people yelling at the gate agent, it was a rough morning. In a weird turn of events, I had been upgraded to first class on Monday night (prior to the other flight’s cancellation) and then when we were delayed I missed my connection so I just used the app to reschedule myself on the only other direct from Dallas to Indy that day (ugh, not until 7 p.m.) and since I was first class on the morning flight it automatically showed me first class options for my second rescheduling and I was able to upgrade again! My second flight ended up being delayed, too, so I spent over 7.5 hours at DFW on Tuesday. I walked the entire airport end to end, had a leisurely afternoon meal of tex-mex and margarita, AND took a nap…so boring. All in all, I’d rather fly economy and be home in the expected 5 hours than fly first class and have it take 13 hours. I was very glad to be home with the fur nuggets and Jess – and I slept in until the last possible minute before waking up to get to work!
Read my post here to learn about what I packed and what I rented for this trip!
A NOTE ON COVID-19
Eventually I’ll write a post on traveling during COVID-19 and all of my tips, observations, etc., but I wanted to drop in here to update on this specific trip. For the most part, everyone was wearing a mask and distancing at the National Parks. It’s pretty easy – there’s lots of space! Masks were required in all indoor spaces and any place where you couldn’t social distance from other groups, and they were enforcing that pretty strictly which felt good. Most restaurants and shops had capacity limits and had employees at the door to make sure those were adhered to, too. Airports continue to amaze me – everyone wearing a mask and staying far away from me! Haha. For this specific trip, I flew Delta out and American back. Delta in general felt better, they continue to block seats between parties and overall felt clean. American Airlines is not blocking seats and while the plane felt cleaner than a lot I have been on in my lifetime, it just didn’t seem as sanitized. And that was in first class, I’m sure I would feel less great about it if I had been in main cabin/economy.
- Fuel up your car every time you can – you never know when you’ll get caught in traffic or a bison jam!
- Pack food – seriously, you will more frequently be away from places to buy snacks than you’re close to them.
- Have a plan but be flexible – aha! List out your must-sees, check out what is around those areas and just keep a list. It would be a bummer to have some extra time but not have any idea of what else is around.
- Download the national parks (there are specific ones for each park) apps and download all offline content since you won’t have cell service. You will at least have access to all the maps and general information.
- Take binoculars – don’t make my mistake, just take them.
- Book lodging in advance – like, wayyy in advance!
- If you think you’re going to go to any more than 2 National Parks within 12 months buy the parks pass! Three parks and you have your money’s worth.
I wanted to just share a general overview of how much this 6 day trip cost me. Even with camping and not really eating out, this was not a “cheap” vacation but I also don’t think it is cost prohibitive with some creativity and a little pre-planning.
- Flights (there are not many nearby airports, to if you have time, driving could be an option) – I used a voucher for one flight and booked a one-way on another airline. My one-way was $120. I didn’t have to pay for my checked bag because of my frequent flier status, but count on $60 round trip if you have to pay to check a bag. My mom’s flight was $450, but to be fair she booked it 48 hours before leaving so it isn’t really an accurate representation of how much they cost.
- Lodging (camping, hotel) – first night was free, $90 for 3 nights camping in Yellowstone at a primitive site (no water or electricity), I used points to book the final night at a Marriott in Billings, MT .
- Food – spent about $150 on groceries for the week for both my mom and I, we probably spent another $50 at various gas stations and shops on snacks and drinks throughout the trip.
- Horseback riding – $80/person for a two hour ride.
- Gas – our rental car had good fuel mileage so we probably spent less than $100 total on gas.
- Rental car – $375 for a intermediate SUV for 6 days and unlimited mileage. I booked it through Delta, but it was an Enterprise rental.
- We both had a National Parks Pass, so we didn’t have to pay to enter either park. Without one, it is $35 per car per park.
Total for two people for six days without flights: $825