— Idaho Falls: 6-Day Winter Yellowstone and Grand Tetons Loop —

Bison in Lamar Valley

Bison in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley

Red fox in the snow

Red fox hanging out near a fish cleaning station in Grand Teton National Park

Trees in hot spring in winter

Trees in Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs in winter

Yellowstone in winter

The view from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone in January

Frozen mist covered tree

The mist off Yellowstone's hot springs create interesting frozen features on the surrounding trees

Blue-colored water

This Yellowstone hot spring may look inviting in winter, but the heat would kill you

Geyser steam through the trees

Yellowstone geyser steam engulfing the surrounding trees

Shrouded in steam

Tim shrouded in steam on a boardwalk in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin in winter

A herd of elk on the move

Herd of elk in front of the Gallatin Mountain Range

A herd of elk on the move somewhere along Route 287 in Montana.

A herd of elk on the move just outside Yellowstone National Park

An even larger herd of elk

An even larger herd of elk just outside Yellowstone National Park—sometimes it pays to take a back road

snow-covered bison snout

How the heck bison can forage enough in the winter to survive I'll never understand

Moose in front of Tetons

Moose in front of the dramatic Tetons

moose

Drive around outside Jackson, Wyoming on random roads in winter—you'll probably find a moose

Eagle perched in tree

Bald eagle perched in tree

3 Elk in the morning cold

Three elk in the morning cold at the National Elk Refuge just outside Jackson, Wyoming

Trumpeter swans coming in for a landing

Trumpeter swans coming in for a landing outside Jackson, Wyoming

Horse drawn wagon ride to elk

Take a horse-drawn sled ride through the National Elk Refuge to see elk up close

Elk closeup

An elk up close in the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, Wyoming

Snowcats

You'll need to take one of these snowcats or rent a snowmobile to get to the Old Faithful Lodge in wintertime

The "Boiling River"

Soak in the "Boiling River" in winter just a few miles inside Yellowstone from the north entrance near Gardiner, Montana

Coyote

Wintertime increases the likelihood of seeing predators like coyotes eating their prey

Idaho Falls 7-Day Yellowstone and Tetons trip map

Loop Overview:

950 miles, 6 days, 17 hours driving                                 Best Time to Go: mid-Dec to mid-Mar

Day 1:  Arrive in Idaho Falls, drive 4 hours 45 minutes to the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, take a dip in the "Boiling River", walk around the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs, and stay in Gardiner, Wyoming or at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge

Day 2: Take a snowcoach or snowmobile into Old Faithful, walk around the boardwalks of Upper Geyser Basin, spend the night at Old Faithful Lodge.

Day 3: Take a snowcoach or snowmobile back to Mammoth Hot Springs, spend the night in Gardiner, Wyoming or at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge

Day 4: Drive through Lamar Valley to see lots of wildlife, then drive to Rexburg, Idaho on back roads and hopefully see a giant herd of elk thousands large.

Day 5: Drive to Grand Teton National Park, take a sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge, see the National Museum of Wildlife Art, eat and shop in Jackson, Wyoming.

Day 6: Drive back to Idaho Falls and catch a flight home.

— Travel Details by Day —

Day 1:

Arrive in Idaho Falls, drive 4 hours 45 minutes to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

Drive 3 miles into Yellowstone and stop to take a dip in the "Boiling River" located about 3 miles inside the park from the north entrance of Yellowstone.  There's a hot spring that feeds into the river and you can soak where the hot and cold waters meet.  Just don't get directly into the hot spring—it's too hot to survive.

Lodging:  We'd recommend staying in a hotel in Gardiner, Wyoming if you can.  We've stayed at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge, but staying there is kinda like being in a dorm—there are shared bathrooms down the hall.  Plus, there's something wrong with the furnace in the building resulting in not being able to control the temperature at all—we had to leave a window open all night long even when it was single digit temperatures outside and our room was still too hot.  Note:  The lodge is getting renovated in 2019.  Hopefully they'll resolve the furnace issue.

There are also cabins at Mammoth Hot Springs that are reservable through the Mammoth Hot Springs lodge.

Camping: Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is the only campground open year-round.  It does not take reservations—this really isn't a problem in winter.

Food: There's food in Gardiner, Wyoming and at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge.  If you're planning to eat at the restaurant at the lodge, be sure to make a reservation in advance.  Or eat at a really weird time.  It fills up.

Day 2:

You need to make reservations in advance for all snowcoaches, snowmobiles, and winter lodging.  They typically get filled up early, so this trip takes some serious planning.  This is not a last-minute type of trip.  Some snowcoach/snowmobile services offer package deals that include hotels outside the park for the night before and after your tour.

Get up early and catch an early morning snowcoach or snowmobile ride into Old Faithful.  This is a really long, slow ride—maybe 4 hours if I remember right—because the National Park Service really limits the speed they're allowed to go.  The drivers will point out and stop whenever they see some wildlife.  On one of these trips we saw wolves, bison, trumpeter swans, coyotes, and a bald eagle catching and eating a fish.

The coach will also stop at a couple predetermined spots along the way so you can stretch your legs.  One is a geyser and one is a snack bar where you can purchase snacks, drinks, and get a hot dog or hamburger.

After you get checked into the lodge, go for a walk around the boardwalks of Upper Geyser Basin being amazed.  Old Faithful, of course, is the most famous.  It erupts roughly every 90 minutes.  You can see its eruption history here.

Take a snowcoach or snowmobile back to Mammoth Hot Springs, spend the night in Gardiner, Wyoming or at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge

Lodging: Spend the night at Old Faithful Snow Lodge or cabins.  There isn't any other choice.

Camping: N/A unless you go backcountry camping which requires a permit and some serious winter gear

Food: Snack bar and lodge restaurants are the only options.

Day 3:

You need to make reservations in advance for all snowcoaches, snowmobiles, and winter lodging.  They typically get filled up early, so this trip takes some serious planning.  This is not a last-minute type of trip. Some snowcoach/snowmobile services offer package deals that include hotels outside the park for the night before and after your tour.

Get up early and rent some skis or snowshoes and go explore some of the trails (and more geysers) farther from the lodge.

Then catch an afternoon snowcoach or snowmobile ride back to your car at Mammoth Hot Springs lodge or cabins.  Once again, this is a long, slow ride but there will be fewer stops on the way back.  The drivers will still point out wildlife, but they'll be a bit more intent to get back on time.

If you have any daylight, go explore more of the surrounding areas in Yellowstone.

Lodging: Spend the night at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge and cabins or outside the park in Gardiner, Wyoming.

Camping: Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is the only campground open year-round.

Food: There's food in Gardiner and at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge.  Make reservations in advance to eat at the Lodge though.

Day 4:

Get up and take a drive through Yellowstone's famous Lamar Valley.  It crosses the northern width of the park and is the only road open to normal vehicle traffic throughout the winter.

Lamar Valley is the bast place to see wildlife in Yellowstone—you should see lots of bison, elk, and coyotes.  If you're lucky you'll even get to see wolves.  We even once got to watch a coyote eating an elk just a couple hundred feet from a parking area.

Once you've had your fill of wildlife, drive back to Gardiner, Wyoming and have some lunch.  Then head to Rexburg, Idaho on Route 287. (Don't take I-15 unless weather is bad.) We saw a herd of elk along 287 that had thousands of elk in it.  Yes, thousands.  They come out of the mountains and down into the valleys in the winter which means you get to see more of them in the winter than you ever will in the summer.

Lodging:  Stay in Rexburg, Idaho.  It's a college town so there's some good food and hotels.

Camping: There's camping available nearby in Caribou Targhee National Forest, but it all appears to be closed during the winter.

Food & Drink: Stop for lunch in Ennis, Montana.  This small fly fishing town has several restaurants, a brewery, and even a distillery.  Then eat dinner in the college town of Rexburg, Idaho.

Day 5:

Drive about 2 and a half hours to Jackson, Wyoming.  Then take a unique horse-drawn sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge.  The elk only come down from the mountains to the meadows of the refuge in the winter.  Even so, they've gotten used to the sleighs, so you can get to see elk up close.  Get your tickets and make a reservation in advance here.  Or you can just show up last minute at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center on Route 191. (I believe there are more time slots available in person than online.)

Then head north on Route 191 and explore Grand Teton National Park.  Not much of the park is open in the winter, but do go everywhere that is.  The snow-covered mountains are stunning and it's really fascinating to see the huge Jackson Lake frozen over and all the ice fishermen on it.  If you're lucky, you'll spot a red fox hanging out in the woods near the official fish cleaning station.

We also highly recommend that you randomly drive around on some of the lesser used paved roads north and east of Jackson.  Generally, if you do this you'll come across a moose, or two, or three.  They really are everywhere in the winter.  Sometimes you'll even see them in town, so be on lookout.

If you've got the time, stop at the National Museum of Wildlife Art on your way back to Jackson. Then eat, drink, and shop at some of the wonderful local businesses around the in Jackson.  And don't forget to get the requisite photo of you and the giant arches made up of antlers!

Lodging: There's lots to choose from in Jackson, Wyoming.

Camping: All the National Park campgrounds are closed for the winter, but you can get a permit for backcountry camping.  We're not aware of anything else open in the winter—even the KOA campgrounds are closed.

Food: There's lots great choices for dinner in Jackson, Wyoming—from burgers to fine dining.

Day 6:

Drive almost 3 hours back to Idaho Falls and catch a flight home.

Lodging: N/A since you're heading home

Camping: N/A since you're heading home

Food: Eat breakfast in Jackson and grab a quick lunch before you get to the airport.  Unfortunately, airport food is probably all you're getting the rest of today.

Heather's Trip Tips:

1) Check in advance to make sure there aren't any road closures or impending storms.
 
2) The most likely place to see a red fox in the Grand Tetons park in winter is near any fish cleaning stations along the lakes used by ice fishing fools.
 
3) Moose are all over the place inside and just outside of Jackson, Wyoming. Basically just keep driving around on random roads outside town and you should see one or two.
 
4) You can easily shorten this trip if you have limited time—from Idaho Falls, go to the western entrance of Yellowstone (West Yellowstone, Montana) rather than the northern entrance.  Just take a day trip snowcoach tour into Yellowstone from there and then head to Grand Tetons and Jackson, Wyoming to see everything there.  This will cut off a bunch of driving, you won't get to see Lamar Valley nor the Mammoth Hot Spring travertine terraces, but you'll get to see most everything else.

Tim Says:

 

 

Don't leave the Tetons until you see a moose—who cares if you miss your flight—this is more important!

 

— Recommended Trip Variations —

Add Skiing

Stay a few extra days and go downhill skiing in Wyoming at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Snow King Resort (close to town & night skiing available), or Grand Targhee (on the western side of Tetons).  

 

Another option would be to partake in the awesome backcountry skiing in the area.  To know where to go or to get some new skills, contact one of the following guide services.  They've got lots of backcountry packages and programs to make this part of your trip unforgettable:
An alternate plan would be to fly in and out of Salt Lake City instead of Idaho Falls and squeeze in a little skiing around the Salt Lake City, Park City, and/or Ogden areas.  The ski resorts in the area are:

Add Fossils

If you fly into SLC instead of Idaho Falls, you can add lots of fossil viewing to your trip.  Just take the scenic route south from Jackson to Kemmerer, WY and check out Fossil Butte National Monument which is part of the Green River Formation of fossils.  Basically, if you've seen fish fossils for sale in a rock shop or tourist shop anywhere in the country, they're from here.  The visitor center is small, but jam packed with some of the most amazing fossils you'll find anywhere!

 

Then head back to Utah.  About 1/2 hour south of Salt Lake City in Lehi, Utah is the Museum of Ancient Life.  Then near downtown Salt Lake City is a new, pretty great Natural History Museum of Utah.  If you've still got more time and energy, head to Ogden, Utah to see Eccles Dinosaur Park then hang out on Ogden's historic 25th street.

 

Note:  From late May to end of September you can actually pay to go fish fossil hunting just outside Kemmerer, Wyoming.  We did a 4-hour session and found dozens of fossilized fish and fossilized fish poop.  (Yes, we're unapologetic dorks!)

Add Guided Adventures

If you want a physical challenge and love being outside, try a guided snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing, hiking, alpine, snow camping, or ice climbing excursion.  The following businesses are licensed by the Grand Teton National Park Service to provide tours and services in the park during the winter season: